A typical summer day at Glaslyn!

The pencil-sketch foundation to the painting of the seasons has now long been covered by layers of watercolour, although those layers are in danger of being swept away by the unseasonal weather. Summer is here although no one would know looking outside. The strong wind is putting force behind the rain as it comes down for a seemingly endless day. The saturated ground can hold no more water and the rain is running straight off the meadows into the swelling river, rising by the minute. As the day wears on those meadows start to shrink as the water begins to breach the high banks and spill out over the low, sheep-clipped grass. The bridge across the small Glaslyn tributary began the day high above the waterline but as time moves on, the flow comes up to meet it and starts to wash at the underside of its grey-painted steel joists.

But summer it is; the seasons have moved on at pace since my last visit. The trees are out in full leaf, their various shades of green giving a mottling to the hillsides. The rain-bringing cloud hangs low over the valley, no mountains to be seen and even the lower hilltops are out of sight. Under the woodland cover the first blooms have faded and dried but the bracken and ferns have grown strong and the fox gloves bring a shock of lightning pink to the sides of the narrow track. The brambles are reaching out their clawing branches, now white topped with flowers, promising a good crop of blackberries for the autumn. Out in the open, the grass and rush have grown strong, now topped with ripening seeds; in their midst stands of irises, yellow-crowned, have reached their peak, fighting to stay upright against the wind.

Our winter visitors are now settled in their summer breeding grounds. The whooper swans have their grey downy young fresh from the nest on Icelandic valley floors and the fieldfares and redwings are feeding their chicks in amongst the pine woodlands of Scandinavia. Closer to the Glaslyn, high up on the moorland plateau, the curlew is leading out her young in the long grass while the male hen harrier is passing fresh prey to the female to feed to the chicks hidden away below a large stand of heather.

Down in the valley, the mammal youngsters are continuing to grow. The badger and fox cubs adventure further away from their homes under the oak tree and old rabbit warren, and the otter family has moved from the natal halt to another further up river, away from the rising water. The bats now have young, but they have yet to leave the darkness of the old barn.

There are fledglings all around, feeding on the seed and nuts left out for them – coal tits, chaffinches and house sparrows – a large mixed flock bursts from the ground as a squirrel approaches along the moss-topped drystone wall. A young woodpecker shouts alarm at it from the tree above but the squirrel continues on its way. A family of crows wanders around the fields, an occasional squabble between siblings and there’s a fleeting glimpse of a solitary swallow as it skims over their heads. In a distant tree, a song thrush still sings its spring song, a jewel of sound amongst the tapping of rain, rushing of the breeze and scratching of the branches on the rooftop.

Replacing three speckled eggs are three growing chicks, high up in the nest at the top of the stand of pines. Growing fast on meals of flounder, mullet and trout, they are beginning to gain strength and sit more purposefully upright while they are fed piece by piece by their parents as the rain finally relents.

I was hunkered down in the protection site caravan for most of my shift; there’s not a lot of fun in wandering around in the drenching rain. When I arrived, the river was already high after the overnight rain but with the downpours continuing on and off all day, the water levels continued to rise throughout my shift. Below are photos taken at the start of my shift and seven hours later – the water noticeably higher in the second. I couldn’t get to the bridge at the end of my stay as the water was above my wellies and fingers of water had reached all the way from the river, along the path and past the protection site caravan, lapping at the bottom of its steps – the water was then washing over the top of the bridge.

IMG_3996IMG_4021

I often seem to get bad weather when I do a shift but in June, I would normally expect to get something better than I did today – it seemed more like an autumnal October day. However, I can’t complain, I had the nice, dry shelter of a caravan while the ospreys were exposed to the full force of the weather; well at least the parents were. With the rain lasting most of the day, it was a very quiet shift, only one fish delivered and fed to the chicks. The chicks spent the vast majority of my shift nestled together under the protective wings of their mother; she was taking brunt of the elements for them. Despite the rain and wind, it wasn’t cold and it was just nice to be back in the valley, to see how the life had moved on so much in the five weeks since my last visit.

The year seems to be passing so quickly – but at least we still have most of summer yet to come!

Why volunteer?

The next layer of watercolour is being painted across the slowly disappearing pencil sketch, as the earliest of spring’s signs fade and the next flourishes begin to take form over the canvas of the Glaslyn Valley.  Perhaps today, however, isn’t one of the days when too many flourishes appear; the spring seems to be taking a breather under the dark cloud lying heavily over the landscape.  There’s a strong and chilling easterly wind which seems to be keeping the heads of the wildlife down and under shelter.  The vividness of the season is washed out by the greyness of the light and the eruptive sounds of spring are held back by the breeze.  The hill and mountain sides are masked under a veil of mist and haze with an occasional spot or two fine rain, taking more warmth away from the air.

The whooper swans have returned to their still snow-locked breeding grounds on their north Atlantic island, arriving while winter has still to loosen its grip. The fieldfares and redwings regain their strength feeding on the lawns of Scandinavian summer houses amongst the pines and lakes; even there the days can switch from warm summer-like mornings to afternoons of sleet, the land still not out of reach the slowly retreating fingers of winter.  Back above the Glaslyn, on the moor tops, the birds are starting to settle into their nests wth both the curlew and hen harrier on eggs.

In the shelter of the woodland, there is now a riot of colour as the bluebells are in their prime, covering the floor with delicate blooms.  Other flowers, however, have been and gone; only the standing leaves remain of the daffodils and the bright yellow of the gorse is starting to fade and dry.  The last few trees remain without leaves while many are still to be in their full flush. More is to come, however, with the bramble in leaf but yet to flower and the irises and foxgloves are starting to grow tall on the wet verges.  Down on the river bank, with the water now well below its winter flood, there’s a sprinkling of cuckoo flowers giving a backdrop to a paddling mute swan.

The young badger and fox cubs are becoming more confident by the day, taking greater steps away from their underground homes, and the otter pups have had their first dip into the river.  The bank voles are starting to appear more frequently on top of the drystone wall, feeding on seed left out for the birds, and the bats are out in the evenings, hopefully taking a few midges from outside the caravan.

More summer visitors are arriving from the south with the swallows now flitting across the meadows at the end of the journey I saw the beginning of only a few weeks ago.  Someone saw a swift nearby but I’ve yet to see my favourite bird and the house martins are in the area but also unseen by me.  Finally, a cuckoo breaks the gloom’s spell, a true herald of spring and now an occasional patch of blue comes out from behind the grey clouds.

Having found mates and laid eggs, the birds are now in the long wait for hatching and then the energy of spring really will come to its peak. Endless cries for food will spark parents into a frenzy of gathering and providing.  High up in the wind buffeted copse, three eggs now lie beneath the warming breast of an osprey but it will be weeks until the first cracks appear in their shells.

IMG_2469

It was a very quiet shift today, not a lot to mention at all; there wasn’t even a fish delivery to write about.  Aran was around the Glaslyn nest for most of the day but did disappear at one point and visit the ‘other woman’ at the Post Croesor nest but returned quite quickly and shared the incubation duties with Mrs G.  This really is the calm before the storm; once the eggs hatch, Aran won’t have much time for hanging around.

It’s an unusual thing to do, sit alone in a cold caravan or shed for hours on end making sure that no one interferes with the eggs of a wild bird, but people do it and many do other similar things.

Volunteering may seem to some like a selfless act but I think it’s just as much about the volunteer as it is about the cause.  We wouldn’t do it if there wasn’t something in it for us – well, my volunteering certainly isn’t selfless.

I volunteer for a whole range of reasons and, yes, supporting causes I care about is right at the top of the list and I wouldn’t volunteer if I didn’t feel I was personally making a difference (and sometimes I do have doubts).  However, another major reason I volunteer is because I feel it makes me more three-dimensional. It gives me something more interesting to talk about than what’s happened on Eastenders, who won the game last night or what I bought at the weekend. It also stops me being solely defined by my work and I love the fact that my volunteering is so utterly different to my job. I enjoy my work, and I like working in a big city. However, days surrounded by managed air amongst the glass and concrete lead to yearnings for the fresh air and greenness of the countryside.  Just working and making little of my weekends makes me miserable, and as I have a lot of spare time with which do whatever I wish, there could be a lot of time to be miserable.

Through doing a range of things I wouldn’t ordinarily do, or at least wouldn’t have done in the past, volunteering also expands my mind, increasing my knowledge and understanding, and leads to even more interests.  It’s just difficult to decide what to look into next.

Through volunteering you can have opportunities to go to places and do things that most people can’t – I don’t know many people in my day-to-day life who get to stay on a stunningly-lovely, almost deserted island for two weeks each year for free— and you get a whole raft of experiences to talk and write about.  You also get to meet fascinating and like-minded people, with whom to share those experiences; the only problem being they always seem to have done many more interesting things than me – I must try harder!

Volunteering can change you – even a meat-eating, car-loving, shaved-headed person like me can turn more veggie, beardy and earth-loving given enough influences from the right people. I’m certainly not the same person I was when I first began volunteering nearly six years ago – for a start, back then I wouldn’t have dreamt of posting soppy creative writing on the internet for the world to see!

Overall, however, I see the volunteering I do as a privilege; not everyone can or is able to do it and the experiences have made memories that I will never forget.

IMG_2474

It will be a month or more until I return to Glaslyn (I have two weeks on a stunningly-lovely, nearly deserted island before then) and hopefully there will be chicks in the nests when I do.

 

A sparkling spring day in the Glaslyn Valley

The world has been brought back to life from its long dormant months and rich watercolours of spring are being applied to the once monochrome pencil sketch of the winter valley. The land has burst from its lull and the flush of the new season is washing across the woodlands and fields. Under a clear blue sky the fresh colours are given greater vibrancy as they emerge from the once grey drawn hillsides and valley floor. The scene is wide and open for all to see with the mountains now standing proud, uncovered from their cloak of cloud and mist. The once clawing dampness has been lifted as the warmth is brought back to the land by an ever strengthening sun; but views are deceptive, away from shelter a growing northerly whips away the hope of a perfect day.

Tree by tree and branch by branch the leaves are bringing the wooded hillsides to life. This is not a sudden burst of colour but starts with a series of uneven brushstrokes, slowly picking out new vibrant shades, which gather pace and eventually smother the land in green. Beneath the gradually enclosing woodland canopy, the ground is growing up to meet the sky as the grasses gain strength and the ferns and brackens unfurl their stands. Over the growing richness of the carpeted floor other colours emerge with the bluebells joined by white wood-sorrel and the yellows of the primroses and celandines.

The early new life of the mammals has continued to thrive with the badger cubs making their first forays out from the safety of their set beneath the oak tree. In the old rabbit warren, the fox cubs are also emerging from their den and the riverside holt of the otter has welcomed new kits. In the warmer evenings there are the first stirrings at the back of the abandoned barn as the bats take to the wing to feed in the insect-filled air.

The last of the winter visitors have moved north for their chance to breed in longer hours of light. The whooper swans are making their way up the coasts until leaving land far behind and embarking on their strenuous journey across the wide open ocean to the land of ice and fire. The winter thrushes now turn to spring breeders in their other homes across the water in the Nordic lands and the opening year mass spectacle of starlings is over until the nights draw in again. The lowland visitors no longer bide their time and have returned to their upland breeding grounds with the curlew making its evocative calls over the moorlands and the hen harriers sky dancing in the air above.

Whilst the sights of the winter visitors fade into memory after another season’s close, the influx from the south marks the next season’s opening. The arriving waves of avian life join the residents in bringing new energy to the landscape. In amongst the greening woodland branches the willow warbler, chaff chaff and redstart are all claiming their territories after their long journeys north. They join the others, the great tit, mistle thrush, blackbird and blue tit, all calling out their claims. The first swallows skim low across the damp pastureland as the meadow pipits wander between the clumps of thick rush below. The wrens sing piercingly from their hidden stands and the chaffinches chirp in amongst the riverside undergrowth while the wagtails make their bouncing flight from fencepost to gatepost. The insect life is growing too with the bees moving between the great masses of yellow coconut-scented gorse blossom and the dragonflies busily hunt above the slow moving stream. High above the woods and damp meadowlands the buzzards are calling to one another and the heron floats lazily past, skimming over the treetops and dropping down to the water’s edge.

A first white brown-speckled egg of the year lies deep in the bowl of the large nest at the top of the fir tree across the pastureland and a pair of ospreys have once more started their long watch while they wait for the arrival of new chicks to the Glaslyn.

My first protection shift of the year was very unusual in that it was accompanied by bright, clear blue skies and a strong sun. Anyone who has read my blog posts before will know that I’m often ‘blessed’ with plentiful rain during most of my protection shifts, particularly at the early stages of the season. The weather wasn’t perfect, however, as the warmth of the day was reduced markedly by a strong northerly wind but in shelter, away from the wind, it was lovely.

IMG_2314

The early part of the shift was fairly quiet. There was an intruding osprey as I arrived at 10am but little else happened for the rest of the morning and early afternoon. After spending that time out in the forward hide, I returned to the caravan (and its live TV screens) at around 2pm. I’m no expert in osprey body language but when I started watching the screens, I thought the female osprey, ‘Mrs G’, looked a bit uncomfortable and rather than lying in the nest cup was slightly crouching over it. Over the space of a few minutes she shuffled around quite a lot and kept looking towards her rear. She then stood up and the camera, controlled from the viewing site, zoomed in beneath her to reveal not one but two eggs. Not only was I fortunate with the weather today and I had an egg delivery too!

Despite the chilly wind, I ended my shift in my favourite spot, sat on the bridge, dangling my legs over the stream below, watching the water pass beneath – lovely.

A stunning spring morning

I woke very early this morning, not much later than my usual weekday time. With clear skies and no wind, I took the opportunity to do the second of my two March breeding bird surveys for Cheshire Wildlife Trust. This time at their Blakenhall Moss reserve.

Heading out it was a cold and frosty start but with no wind, it was quite comfortable outside and the spring sun soon warmed me up, hitting my dark waterproofs with strengthening rays.  


The reserve is out in the Cheshire countryside near to Wybunbury but isn’t open to the public. I’m very lucky to be allowed to spend a little bit of time there.  However, it isn’t all fun…the site is getting more difficult to get around due to the bramble cover in places and the higher water levels, brought back up to help restore the Moss. I won’t let a bit a water or a few scratches put me off though and after an hour or so I had completed my walk around the site and recorded a good number of species. 


There were two new species recorded for the site, meadow pipit and shelduck, and it was also good to record pairs of marsh tit and lapwing. Despite the lovely springlike weather, there were still some winter migrant species about with a good sized flock of teal still about and a small group of field fare passing purposely overhead.  In total, in recorded 31 species and the two new ones brought the long term reserve list to 64.


For me, this was a perfect early spring morning – bright blue skies, warming sun, a slight frost on the ground, and spent wandering around the countryside listening to and watching wildlife.

Starting a busy spring

Spring and early summer is without doubt the busiest part of my year. I fill weekends with bird surveys, raptor nest protection shifts, some practical environmental tasks, cycling and walking, and my evenings have more cycling thrown in too. With the warmer weather arriving, I also take more holidays during these months, either volunteering or travelling to new places.

My busy spring really kicked off this weekend. On Saturday I attended a Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) training course run by the British Trust for Ornithology. I was meant to go to it last year but the worst bout of flu I ever had put paid to that plan. I’ve been doing the BTO version of the BBS since 2014 and have a lovely grid square out near the Cheshire Sandstone Ridge. Despite now having some experience of the survey, I thought it would be worth having some formal training, if only to check that I was doing everything correctly…and it appears that have been, which is a relief.

IMG_1785

This morning, I was up early and out to Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s (CWT) Bagmere reserve to undertake the first of four BBS visits. The methodology for CWT’s BBS is different to the BTO’s and collects more detail including recording the behaviour of the bird species noted. When I arrived at the site I almost came straight home again as the wind had picked up and the rain was starting to fall. However, after waiting a little while the rain went away and after walking down to the reserve I could confirm that the site was somewhat sheltered from the breeze and it wouldn’t interfere with the survey by masking bird sounds.

The survey recorded a good number of species and the bird activity is really starting to pick up with the chiffchaffs being a great sign of the new season having arrived. There are still plenty of species to return to the site and there were also winter visitors still in the area with a flock of fieldfares passing overhead. There was also a new species for the site; I flushed a noisy oystercatcher as I walked across the first field into the reserve. However, there was disappointment as again I didn’t record willow tit; a species which has suffered from significant declines nationally and I have noted with decreasing frequency at Bagmere.


Next weekend I hope to make the first BBS visit to my other CWT site, Blakenhall Moss, but this is all dependent on the weather. I will also have another of the fortnightly Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers task on the Sunday, heading out to a site at Oakmere to do a habitat improvement task. The following weekend I’m off on holiday (more posts about this soon) and when I return, over the following weekends will be my first peregrine and osprey nest protection shifts.

I’m going to be busy, but I can’t wait!

CNCV: The first practical task of the year

It seems ages since I was last out with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers (CNCV); in fact, it was the Christmas task when I last attended a task.  Today, I was out with them at Wybunbury Moss, clearing trees from a wet pasture and burning the resulting brash. We also set about removing a fence that split the pasture in half.

img_1581

This task also signalled the end of the winter season for CNCV as it was the last time we could have a fire before the bird breeding season starts.  This is a sad day as far as I’m concerned – having a fire is one of life’s great pleasures!

img_1589

There were signs that Storm Doris had been passed as there were a number of trees felled trees dotted around the nature reserve.  It was still quite blustery and the cycle out to the task this morning was tougher than usual but the journey back when much quicker with the wind behind me!

Just before I left, there was a large mixed flock of starlings, redwings and fieldfares making a racket in nearby trees.  Perhaps winter hasn’t finished with us just yet.

Waiting for Spring

5r0a53281

The dormant winter valley is a faint pencil sketch waiting for the watercolour of spring. The land is almost silent, with mist hanging low across the wet meadows and in the hillside woods. The dampness clings to the rocks and trees, and water lies in seasonal ponds across the pastures. The colour has been washed out of last year’s growth, bracken bleached into faint rustiness and dropped leaves turning black as they mulch on the ground. Even the grass has lost its vibrancy from the summer flush and the memories of spring flowers have long faded. The heavy, enveloping cloud cover gives a sense of pressure being applied from above and the higher hills and mountains disappear under the cloak of grey.

The visible wild life of the valley is at a low ebb but life isn’t missing; it’s just holding on, waiting for the tide of the seasons to turn. The winter visitors remain; the swans are in their family groups feeding out in the pastures, the fieldfares and redwings are starting to come back together to move on northwards and the starlings put on the greatest winter spectacle, foraging parties merging into swirling masses as the day gives up its last light. Down from the moortops, the curlew call their spiritful cries as they glide across the fields and the harriers float above the reedbeds waiting for a moment to strike. They all bide their time, waiting out the colder months in the relative shelter of the valley.

Out of sight there are the earliest stirrings of new life. In the darkness of the set under the old oak tree, the badger sow has given birth to one of the first litters of the year. The vixen waits in the old rabbit warren she has prepared and it won’t be long until her cubs also arrive. The female otter is feeding up in readiness for her new family too and spends time taking fresh bedding to her riverside holt. But away in the darkness of the old abandoned barn, a bat colony still sleeps away the coldest months with little more than a stirring on the occasional warmer day.

Those warmer days seem a long way off now as the wind gains strength and brings a rush through the woodland and over the fields. The cold creeps in through any gaps in clothing and sinks deep into muscles and bone; the dampness in the breeze puts an extra edge into winter’s bite. Many of the resident birds are sheltering from the weather leaving the few hardier souls to bring subdued sounds to the valley. The ravens cronk to each other as they prepare their nest high up on the rocky mountainside and the crows shout across the fields as they chase their neighbours.

Spring is on its way, however, even if it seems achingly slow to arrive. There is a wave of avian life starting to make its way up from wintering grounds in the lands far away. On the warm coasts and hot forests of Africa, birds large and small are preparing to start the long and arduous journey having spent the northern winter in the southern summer. They will bring a rush of energy to the valley; their songs welcoming the dawn and their vitality flourishing into new life as eggs are laid and incubated, chicks are nurtured and fledglings take to the wing. Along with the new growth brought by the strengthening sun to the woodlands, hillsides and pasture, they will bring watercolour to this monotone pencil sketch.

5r0a5325

Last weekend, slightly earlier than usual, was the annual training day for the volunteers at the Bywyd Gwyllt Glaslyn Wildlife viewing and protection sites. As usual there was a morning of talks and instruction, updates on plans and a general celebration of the wildlife of the Glaslyn Valley. Whilst there was much talk of the ospreys, old and young, the importance and breadth of the other wildlife of the valley was a point well made. The list of other species recorded by volunteers at both the viewing and protection sites is extensive and impressive – the valley really has a lot to offer those with an interest in nature.

The ospreys on which so much focus is placed will be starting their journeys north and in just few weeks’ time, towards the latter end of March, they will be expected to return to that nest at the top of the fir tree on the rocky island in the sea of wet sheep pastures. No one knows whether the established couple will both return this year and it is simply down nature; this year’s osprey spectacle isn’t far from beginning…

The Subdued Life of Winter

It’s a month now since the shortest day and slowly, almost unseen, the nights are drawing out and the mornings, at a slower pace, are getting lighter. However, we are yet to reach what should be the coldest part of the year; the two weeks that span the change of month from January to February. It’s below freezing as I write this on a dull Sunday morning, with a light snow shower laying a few flakes on frozen surfaces.

fullsizerender

I was out at Bagmere yesterday morning; Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s small reserve between Sandbach and Congleton. As I have been for the last few years, I was again wandering around the site doing a survey of the birds I could see and hear. As I walked across the wet and frozen ground, there was a hush over the land, just the background rumble of distant roads and the occasional airliner passing overhead. It was as if nature was hiding, the dormant life just a whisper on the cutting breeze passing between then willows and rustling the rushes and brambles. The birds were there but few in number and subdued in movement and song.

As I walked around the reserve, first across the damp and muddy, marshy grassland and then into the old and new woodland, only a few different species were present. There were the usual wrens hiding down in dense clumps of grass and robins occasionally singing from a low branch. There was a small mixed flock of tits moving through; long-tails, blues and greats. There was an occasional overflight of crows, jackdaws and black-headed gulls. A great-spotted woodpecker alarmed from a high vantage point and at the far end of the woodland a pair of treecreepers made their soft calls as they jerkily moved amongst the trunks and branches. However, again, there were no willow tits on the reserve, a disappointment but not unexpected. The highlight, instead, was a water rail calling from one of the ditches, hidden in the long grass.

The subdued life on the reserve yesterday can be contrasted with how Bagmere will be in only a few short months. When I return to do the breeding bird surveys at the site, in March, April, May and June, the grassland and woodland will be alive with the vivid and raucous spring chorus. Those same birds, and those that will have arrived from their wintering grounds in Africa, will be in their prime and life will be at its fullest.