A hot osprey shift!!!

The car windows are already open as I turn onto the track, the air under the woodland canopy is cool and fresh compared to the open above the road and valley bottom pastures. The undergrowth has continued to grow in my absence and now brambles flick my wing mirrors as I trundle slowly down the lane. There are few other sounds coming into the car above the crackle of tyres over stones and fallen twigs. The birds are quiet except for an occasional whistle or chirp in amongst the leaves and bracken.

As I break cover, the dazzling light of the mid-summer sun strikes down harshly on the ground. The blue above highlights electric tones in the oaks leaves but the detail in the view is cast out by the mix of dark shadows and unfiltered glare. The heat of the day is continuing to build, both forced down from the cloudless sky and rebounding back up from the hardening ground. Weeks of heat have been stored in the tarmac road, stone walls and bare soil, and each successive day brings no respite. The grass is losing its spring green and lustre, stems are drying out and becoming crisp beneath my footsteps.  

There is still life here, however; there are butterflies flittering over the meadowlands and the young blue and great tits are feeding on the grain left out for them under the trees. Above the river, families of swallows and house martins feed on the abundance of insects rising up from the water, and a small group of swifts scream over head. The river itself is low, the lack of rain has drained its strength. The blooming of weed within the water is now starting to fill from bank to bank, giving respite to the shoals of small fish struggling with the shrinking depth and are increasing danger from the kingfisher’s vision.

The three chicks high up in the tall fir tree have grown beyond recognition since my last visit, now well feathered and wings starting to develop in strength. In the heat and strong sun there is little protection for them but their mother stands above , providing what meagre shadow she can.

I had only a short four hour shift today but it was long enough to enjoy the quietness of the valley. Perhaps a short shift was a good thing as the protection caravan was as hot as a sauna (although lacking the steam). With no clouds to speak of, the site could have been unbearable without the shade of the trees and a increasingly keen breeze. I’m not used to this, the words ‘osprey shift’ and ‘hot’ don’t normally go together for me; today must have been the hottest shift I’ve ever had.

The heat didn’t stop Aran from continuing his fatherly work and provided four fish in the day including a brown trout, two tench and a sea bass. The two tench are unusual compared to the sea fish he normally goes for but perhaps the hot and fry weather has made them more accessible.

It’s another few weeks until my next shift and the chicks may not be far off flying by then. They seem to grow so quickly and go from fresh hatchlings to fledglings in the bat of an eye. However, there’s still plenty of summer to go until they make their first long flights to Africa – if the weather stays like this we will have had an outstanding season.

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A last task of spring?

With only 11 days to go until the summer solstice my visit yesterday to my Breeding Bird Survey gird square really seemed to mark the change from spring to summer. The weather was warm and dry, the landscape in its prime and the birds plentiful in the fields, trees, hedgerows and woodlands. The early freshness of spring has now worn off the countryside with deeper greens setting in but there are new flowers coming out replacing those earlier blooms.

I’m really lucky to have this particular grid square. It is a mixture of fields and woodlands on and just below the hills of the Cheshire sandstone ridge with the start point for the survey being in the village of Bulkeley and the route crossing over the Nantwich to Wrexham road and passing the Bickerton Poacher. These hills are my favourite part of the county so when I was offered the square five years I go, I didn’t hesitate to accept it.

Over the course of the two visits this year, I recorded 39 species, the second highest number recorded over the 18 years since 1998 that the square has been surveyed (it wasn’t surveyed in 2000, 2001 and 2013). Since I took over the square in 2014, I’ve seen an average of 37 species compared to 26 before. In total, 63 species have been recorded over the years and I’ve added 14 of those. This year I added garden warbler and hobby to the list.

Wandering around the countryside surveying the bird life is a lovely way to spend a morning but it’s made even more lovely by the countryside itself, and I even have a favourite little spot. Towards the end of the first of the two one kilometre transects is a small meadow and yesterday it was looking beautiful with the grassland flowers really starting to show well.

I do have one more survey to do, at my Cheshire Wildlife Trust survey site, but that will have to wait until the last weekend of the month – I just hope the weather allows me to complete it.

May is spring’s promise

After a long series of a bright, clear and sunny days, I arrive in the valley under low cloud and while it’s still warm, mugginess has moved in. The strength of the sun has transformed the scenery over the last few weeks with most trees now fully out in leaf but still with the fresh bright green of spring. The bracken and ferns are starting to unfurl their fronds under the cover of the old oak tree wood, beginning to shade out the fading blue bell carpet.

Away from the trees, buttercups have spread out amongst the grass, now growing fast, spurred on by the strong sun. At the edge of the drying ditches the yellow irises have suddenly bloomed while the white of the hawthorn blossom stands out from the hedge lines around the fields. 

Lambs in the riverside meadows are weaning but still run to their mothers to suckle, roughly butting her skywards from beneath with some running off to escape their over demanding offspring. In amongst the sheep, white butterflies haphazardly fly over the fields, pausing on the flowers before heading onto the next. 

The birds are subdued by the warmth of the day and a little quieter with many now on nests. There remain many calling in the woods and fields; siskin, chaffinch, blue tit, blackbird, thrush, chiffchaff and willow warbler. The wagtails strut amongst the stands of rush and a pheasant breaks from a hidden spot in the undergrowth. A cuckoo calls in the distance but perhaps now less powerfully and with long breaks in its monotonous routine. Swallows have returned and skim low over the fields after the insects emerging under the sun.

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The river is low, perhaps as low as I’ve seen it. The summer-like weather of the last few weeks has  reduced its flow and the level has dropped, revealing some of the rocks at the ford. The plants in the water are growing as fast as those on the land and with less space than they had, they are spreading low across the bed. Small shoals of fish dart from cover to cover, hiding from the keen eyes of the kingfisher. 

As my stay progresses the sun breaks out from behind the cloud and the heat begins to build across the fields, river and woodland. The haze remains but the brightness almost hurts my eyes. The wind has been there all the while and now it masks the strength of the rays coming down from above. I move back under cover and the cool offered by the big oak trees by the gate.

In the nest standing high above the meadowland, the waiting is coming to an end. The first of the three large speckled eggs has hatched and new life has arrived in the security of the bowl. Perhaps it will only be three more days until all of the chicks will have broken out. The parents are starting their tireless summer; the male bringing the fish and the female passing small piece by small piece to the chicks.

May is the fulfilment of spring’s promise, the dream of those long dark winter days and nights. I really have come to love the spring; for some reason I always used to prefer the autumn but my tastes have changed and I long for days like today. Of all the months, May must be the finest with spring in its prime and all the migrant birds having arrived back. To me, it is now the point when the transformation from winter to summer is complete, where the trees are all out in leaf and it’s almost possible to forget what they looked like when bare of green. It’s also the point when there’s still so much more to come; the heights of the summer are on their way and the new life has yet to be at its greatest. 

The osprey season is also well on its way with the first of the egg hatched and the other two not far behind. It’s been a fairly serene season so far this year; yes they were a little delayed in their return but they have settled in well. They do have all their hard work yet to come and the next three months will challenge them as usual but so far so good.

Today was a quiet one at Protection, both ospreys spending most of the day at the nest with only one fishing foray later in the afternoon. The greatest activity came with several dog fights with the local crows, both ospreys taking turns to chase them off talon-first.

Settling down for a night shift

Standing on the bridge, the day comes to a close, with the last of the light seeping away behind the hills. The water passing beneath me barely makes a sound, only the occasional ripple over rocks and a fishing coming to the surface for a fly caught in the tension. Almost mirror-like, the river is undisturbed by any breeze, the air lies still and the sounds carry true across the meadows

A crescent moon hasn’t far to run before it dips behind the horizon but the stars begin to take its place, picking out diamonds across the deep blue of the night-encroaching sky. The clearness above that earlier brought warmth now lets that heat flow away, leaving a chill to fall onto the land as mist slowly rises amongst the stone walls and stands of rush.

The barks of farm dogs echo across the valley bottom and lambs bleat to ewes in the growing dark. The last of the evening chorus falls silent leaving only the owls calling in the dark and the occasional trill of the grasshopper warbler. A huge burbling moth bumbles past like a flying clockwork toy while I watch out for bats passing over the water and under the bridge.

As I return to the caravan, the cool of the outdoors is met by the last remnants of the warmth from the sun still trapped inside. Pulling the door closed, the day is finally left behind, the light gone until dawn brings the new morning at the end of an eight-hour shift. I sit down on the bench and the screen on the desk casts a glow across the room. Out there in the dark, but shown brightly in front of me, is a nest high up in the tree above the rocky island in the meadows, an osprey female sat brooding over three speckled eggs. Also out there in the dark could be hands eager to place fingers around the contents of the nest.

Having watched over the nest for quite a few years now and having witnessed very little unwanted interference, it’s easy to forget that there are still some people out there who could wish it harm. Within the past fortnight a man from Plymouth was found guilty of disturbing a number rare birds nests, including ospreys, and taking three osprey eggs from Scotland. In addition to doing protection shifts at Glaslyn, I also do shifts protecting a peregrine nest in Cheshire and there were three attempts to interfere with the nest last year. Whilst very much rarer than it used to be, it’s sad that there are still people who would rather harm wildlife for their own gratification rather than leaving it alone and getting enjoyment by simply observing from a distance.

I do wonder if Mrs G is starting to feel her age a bit as during my two night shifts this year she has spent more time asleep than I remember her having been during shifts in previous years. I always used to think how tired she must be even before the eggs hatch as she always seemed to be awake and fidgeting about in the nest throughout each night. Having said that, she’s not the only one who seems to find it increasingly difficult to keep their eyes open in the evenings.

The highlight of my shift was the sky; almost cloudless, it gave me an opportunity to try a bit of star photography…

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My busy time of year

I haven’t stopped today and had to force myself not to go for a run. I got up at 4:45am to go out to do a peregrine nest protection shift followed by the first of two Breeding Bird Survey visits to my grid square on the Cheshire Sandstone Ridge. I then came home and cut my grass and mowed my hair (that didn’t take long) and I did the ironing and polished my shoes while watching the Grand Prix (I don’t watch them very often these days). I then wrote two blog posts (including this one) and researched and booked two hotels for the two nights before my week in the Orkneys in June. I finished the day off with a cycle out into the sticks.

After doing a night shift at the Glaslyn Ospreys Protection Site on Friday and then driving around North Wales on Saturday, I thought I would take it easy after the shift and survey this morning but I just couldn’t help myself.

The survey this morning was a good one with 30 species recorded including a passing hobby; a new species recorded within the grid square and not a bird I see very often. It flew at tree height and then swooped low over the fields and lifted over a treeline and disappeared from view; the seraph shape of its wings was unmistakable.

I think I need to go to work tomorrow for a rest!

Stirring from a night shift

The beginnings of first light starting to seep in through the drawn curtains come into my consciousness, stirring me from the last few hours tucked into the warmth of a sleeping bag. Imperceptibly, the night has been fading on the TV screen too, until the light from outside brings a realisation that dawn is on its way. Slipping out from the warm comfort and putting my feet into my shoes, I stand, stretch and put on my cold and damp jacket. I open the door and the cold air meets my face with a harshness against drowsy skin. It’s unexpectedly cold as I step from the shelter of the caravan; the clear overnight skies have lowered the temperature to levels almost down to a frost. Thick dew wets my jeans as I wander down through the long grass to the little bridge over the river.

Standing on the bridge, the cold clings to me even more, the water below seems to take some of my heat away as it flows past. Smoke-like mists rise from the river’s surface and wash over the neighbouring fields before fading to nothing on what little wind there is. As the light grows further, the scene begins to turn from monotone to spring colour. The clouds are hardly moving across the sky and breaks show through to the pastel blue beyond. Across the sides of the valley, greens are beginning to wash across the woodlands; single trees in ten breaking out into leaf but the others beginning to split their buds.

The birds started their dawn well before I ventured out; the wren is calling loudly from deep within a bush, the song thrush repeating it lyrics from a far off tree, the blue and great tits twittering from across the wall and a cuckoo calling its name from the hillside woods. A blackbird sings above them all, its powerful song coming from the top of the riverbank tree. There is one bird, however, that does not join the dawn chorus; having stirred little overnight, the female sits snuggly on top of three speckled eggs high up in the large nest overlooking the wet meadows. Not far from her, the male sits on the perch waiting for the day to begin and time for a first fishing trip once the sun has risen. The ospreys mark the start of the new day quietly, continuing their vigil, waiting for new life to come to their nest.

This was my first night shift of the new osprey season and a quiet one it was. I don’t think I have seen such little movement on the osprey nest during a shift. For much of the night, she had her head tucked in under her feathers between her wings and I only noticed her once leave the nest for a brief wing stretch. It’s not too surprising though as it was a particularly chilly night for the end of April; I was glad for my thermals!

I didn’t spend the whole night in my sleeping bag I have to add. When I arrived on site for my shift at 10:00pm, the last of the light was slowly fading away and I walked down to the river to see if I could locate any bats with my detector. The moon was incredibly bright and I didn’t need a torch when the clouds cleared; it seemed almost like it was still daylight. It didn’t take long for my detector to do its job and I had a few passes of Daubenton’s flying beneath me and under the bridge. 

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During the course of the night, I periodically went for a wander with a high powered torch, listening and looking for any sign of unwanted activity around the nest. The only sounds I had were those of the night; occasional calls of tawny owls and a grasshopper warbler joined in when the moon was out. There was one call I have no idea what it was. At first I thought it was the harsh hissing of a barn owl but it had a burbling pattern to it and came too frequently and for a sustained period of time.

I’ve got a another night shift in three weeks’ time but it will still be a couple more weeks until the first egg hatches.

The Thin Green Line

Sitting in the Protection caravan with drops falling heavy on the roof and streams running down the windows, it’s easy to feel cocooned and shut in away from the unwelcoming outdoors. It’s not warm inside though, spring has yet to make itself felt too much here and the thin walls let the cold creep in barely hindered. An occasional passing steam train rumbles through, shaking the little home on its wheels and disturbing the peace, both inside and out. There’s little to do but sit and wait for time to creep on and the rain and its bearing clouds to pass.

There are now a few more signs in the valley that the season is starting to gather pace, with the chorus of birds stronger than it was. Now there’s a constant calling, yet to be exuberant, but more intense than it was across the meadows and through the woods. The tumbling chaffinch, tunefully repeating song thrush, pipiting pipit, forceful wren, melancholic blackbird, whisping dunnock, drumming woodpecker; they are all joining in now to the expanding orchestra. There are visible signs too, much of the land still looks to be in its winter malaise but here and there, a few pointers to returning life are starting to appear. The bramble and hawthorn are breaking their leaf buds bringing vibrant, bright green flashes to surrounding dark greens, browns and coppers. The primrose leaves are growing out from the undergrowth, the riverbed plants are coming to life but brightest of all, though, is the gorse, with the stunning yellow standing out above the rest.

When the rain finally ceases, I leave behind the shelter and wander down to the bridge over the river. No otter footprints this time and it is running low despite the recent heaving rains. Leaning back on the railings I observe the nearby copse around the craggy outcrop in the middle the wet meadows. There are now two figures perched on branch reaching out from the giant nest. A relief has swept through a group of watchers as first one, then the other, returned to their summer home.

Last week there was some concern that the female osprey wouldn’t be returning this year but just 24 hours after my shift she landed on nest, completing her biannual epic journey between Africa and Wales. She was late back according to her usual timekeeping but given the recent weather, Beasts for the East and all that, it’s not too surprising. It wasn’t until later in the week that her mate for the last three years safely returned to the nest. No one was quite sure it was him as their behaviour was a little different to their first meetings in the last two years. However, they seem to be getting on more than fine and collecting nesting material; in fact they were getting on very well at least five times during my shift.  

It was an interesting shift, watching the newly arrived pair settling into their nest again and making improvements. They made several visits to the neighbouring fields to collect twigs and grass to bolster the nest. On one such trip, the female came within 100 metres of me, slowly drifted down and plucked some grass from the ground. I managed to get a photo but unfortunately it’s a bit blurred.

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I had a visit from the local Police during my stay, just popping in to say hello and see how things were progressing. Despite the great pressures the Police are under across a whole range of their duties, it’s great to see them continuing to take an active interest in this project, and wildlife crime in general. It’s sometimes forgotten amongst the dramas unfolding on our computer screens that the first priority of the Glaslyn Wildlife team is the protection of the nest and birds, and, hopefully, the eggs and chicks they will nurture. There are people, either in the area and further afield, who may wish the nest harm and there are others who could cause harm unintentionally; we’re here with the support of the Police and others to ensure that harm doesn’t happen.

Here in the Glaslyn Valley, across the UK, and beyond, there is a ‘Thin Green Line’ of professionals and volunteers trying to protect the environment and wildlife, without whom our world would be in an even poorer state than it already is. This may be one nest, but it’s a precious one in helping to re-establish a thriving osprey population across Wales.

Easter day survey

A breeding bird survey seemed like the great way to start off Easter Day. I went to my Cheshire Wildlife Trust survey site for the second time this spring and walked from one end to the other recording the birds in each separate area. The Bagmere reserve has a mixture of (very) wet pasture, woodland and fen, providing quite a variety of habitats for different birds.

The weather was just about perfect, with clear, sunny skies, no rain and a very light wind. However, the temperature was in single figures and I can’t quite believe that I still had to go out wearing thermals to do a survey in April! The birdlife also showed signs of the cold weather with the calls and songs still subdued. The only possible spring migrants were chiffchaffs but these could be wintering birds. In the distance, off the reserve, several curlews made their haunting, wild calls; they should be moving up to the  moors but at present will be kept at lower levels by the recent snows.

Again, the willow tits were absent, which is a shame but I’ll just have to see if they appear, along with all the migrants, when I do the last two spring surveys in May and June.

At the end of the survey, I stopped and stood overlooking the fen in the sunshine, listening to a sky lark sing high up in the air above the reserve – just about a perfect 10 minutes of spring.

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A battle between winter and spring

Turning onto the wooded track, through the narrow gateway, there are no signs that spring is here; it’s as if this corner of the land has been kept dormant when others areas are starting to come back to life. I left behind sights of bursting flowers, of greening grass and of sprouting leaves; here, there is only silence, except for the crunching of windblown twigs under my wheels. The birds still seem to be in survival mode against the harsh winter, no sound coming from them as I pass alongside the moss covered stone walls and rusting bracken beneath the entanglements of the oak tree woodland. Beyond the trees, there is still more silence, across the wet meadows and the low flowing river. The dampness is hanging in the air, drops covering the windscreen and then my clothes as I leave my car behind. The breeze still has an icy edge, adding to the feeling that winter is still dominant over the land in this valley bottom.

The distant mountain tops have a covering of snow but the slopes beneath are left bare of ice but also bare of green; the greys and browns of the colder months remain unbroken by any bright, fresh growth of the new season. There are only the occasional signs that changes are finally coming; a pair of buzzards circle distantly on stronger winds, plummeting and rising again in their rollercoaster display. The woodpeckers are also making themselves heard, yaffling and drumming amongst the trees. Besides these few, there seems to be nothing to point to the burst of energy that spring will bring – it’s late and it’s not the only thing that is.

As the day moves on, the clouds begin to break, the dark grey punctuated by white and occasional blue. The sun bursts through, striking the land with light and warmth but these are soon whisked away by the strengthening wind, not yet at its peak. With some brightness come stirrings from the woods and more sound spills down the hillsides and across the fields. A blackbird calls tentatively and dunnocks sing thinly along the top of the wall. A chaffinch chirps in amongst the gorse and a meadow pipit calls as it flits between the stands of long grass. The snow starts to fade from the nearer mountains, all but disappearing as the sun raises the land above freezing. It is only Snowdon, mostly hidden in cloud, than remains beneath its white blanket.

All too soon the day starts to ebb and as the light begins to fall, a song thrush serenades from a high branch and the cloud closes in once more.

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Still in silence, there, across the meadows and river, sits an empty nest, ready for the returning pair of ospreys. The long term tenant would usually be back by now, she’s been back before this date for the past 13 years and is now at least a week or ten days late. She’s not the youngest of birds, she’s at least 16, if not 17, so getting past her prime, perhaps. Her younger partner for the last three years, isn’t late, he’s been arriving in mid to late April since he’s been the male at this nest. However, hopes are perhaps fading that we will see the female again, although it must be said that only one ‘known’ osprey has so far been seen in Wales this year, so there is still hope.

Even if she doesn’t return, hope should not be dimmed, however, as this would be just one certainty of life showing true. The nest remains, and there are other ospreys who will be interested in claiming this spot as their own. Over the years there has been an increasing level of intrusions on the nest and surrounding area by ospreys prospecting for an opportunity. It only takes one of the females to land and claim it. What matters is not that one osprey has not or may not return but that more and more ospreys altogether successfully head south at the end of our summer, have somewhere safe and food-rich to over-winter and then make the hazardous return journey to breed in our lands again.

Setting off from home this morning, the dawn came with a damp, grey murk hanging over the flat Cheshire fields and the early morning light had all but been extinguished as I crossed into Wales. Climbing slowly into the hills, the damp turned into light rain and further on into sleet. Breaking out past Bala and up through the higher hills (it’s always Bala where the weather gets worse), the sleet turned into heavy snow and the temperature dipped below zero. Up past the lake the road started to be covered and as the forest opened into fields again there were just two tyre tracks in each direction. Upwards still and the cars were down to a crawl and the tracks all but disappeared. It was only as I dropped down into the Dolgellau road that the snow stopped and the tarmac came back. As I got to Portmadog, it was as if the snow had never been.

I posted this piece seven hours into my eight hour shift and there had been no sign of an osprey – no sign at all – this will have been my first ever osprey shift without seeing an osprey. I’ve got another shift next week – here’s hoping for an osprey, familiar or not.

I spent the chilly day in the protection caravan or wandering to the bridge and back. It was very quiet altogether with very little going on. However, I did find otter prints down on the banks of the river. They are seen quite regularly at the Visitor Centre and occasionally at Protection but finding the prints is the closest to a sighting I’ve had here so far – maybe I’ll have better luck in the Isle of Harris in a couple of weeks’ time.

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It’s been long winter and it still doesn’t seem to have given up in its fight with spring – I just long for some proper and prolonged spring weather – it’s April tomorrow after all!

A proper spring day – at last!!!

I’ve spent today on a task with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers (CNCV) at a forest school near Barthomley. We spent a few hours coppicing, dead-hedging, making stakes and clearing nettles. The stand out for the day really was the weather, however, a really lovely spring day. The sun came out, giving real warmth, clouds were lighter and fluffier than they have been for a long time, and the birds were in full song. The plants were also really starting to show spring growth with some trees breaking into leaf and the wild garlic and bluebells growing on the woodland floor.

The afternoon was so nice, I actually sat in my deckchair in the back garden when I got home – if only my cold had gone away, it would have been a perfect day!