A final osprey shift of the season

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I slowdown as I turn through the narrow gateway and over the cattle grid. The trees draw in as the car trundles slowly down the track with the undergrowth clipping the wing mirrors and bumper. There are no sounds of calling birds, just the crackle of twigs beneath the tyres. The tarmac of the track is starting to split, with grass and moss forming a ridge down the centre where few tyres pass. There’s dampness on the surface from overnight rain; finally some relief to the long running drought has brought a new freshness to the woodland and fields. The leaves and shoots have been washed clean of the long resting dust and the bright sun picks out the rejuvenated greens.

Across the meadows, the grass has returned with vigour and lushness with the cattle and sheep feeding restlessly as they try to make the most of the new growth. The early morning cloud parts and the strong sun breaks through casting a dazzling shimmer across the land made more sparkling by the light shining back off the new lustre of the grass.

Getting out of the car, I walk down to the bank and the river too has been given a new flush of life. The levels have risen over the past two weeks which has given volume to the weeds, now waving in the steady flow like wind-blown wheat. As I walk onto the bridge, a kingfisher diverts off its flight path and rises higher and around me, returning to the river as it passes around the back of a waterside tree.

While the life is more subdued than it was at the height of the spring, life still has depth here. There are bands of small birds feeding on the nuts and seed left out for them and the insects are making the most of the remaining flowers. There are countless white butterflies busying themselves amongst the undergrowth and open fields. Over the water, dragons and damsels flitter their way across the surface and under the bridge.

Across the river, over the bund and through the field, the copse of tall fir trees stands silent as I take my first look; the huge nest is empty. It is only after a while that a great pair of wings comes into land in the centre of the bowl and a crying is blown towards me on the steady breeze. Then, as a fish is brought in, nearly the whole family return, all three fledglings demanding food and their father providing it, watched on by their mother from a nearby tree top.   

Well, that’s my osprey shifts over for another year…and what an osprey season it has been. The late arrivals of the birds from Africa kept everyone waiting for a while but that aside there have been no major dramas (so far). There are now three very healthy looking chicks, fledged and free, having been fed relentlessly since they hatched. 

The weather has been like nothing I have ever experienced over the seven breeding seasons I have volunteered here and maybe the lower water levels have helped make fishing easier this year. The return of rains, I’m sure, is welcomed by most but especially the wildlife. The parched lands of my previous shift have given way to the more usual green woodlands and meadows. The wildlife will need more of the wet stuff if they are to be prepared for the autumn and winter to come.

I spent the day moving between the caravan and the bridge, enjoying the sun and the shade (and the cricket – the wonders of 4G!). It was a quiet shift with the nest largely empty and only returning to life with the arrival of a fresh fish. At times, there was more crow action than osprey, with two of the cheeky corvids launching a raid on the nest and stealing fish while the ospreys weren’t at home.

After seven years of osprey protection shifts, maybe this will have been my last. Over that time I’ve done nearly 60 shifts and seen 18 chicks fledge, and even had some make their first returns. I’ve had night shifts in the freezing early spring (going to bed afterwards fully clothed and still cold) and day shifts in the heat of a long summer drought where it’s been almost unbearable in the caravan…and, obviously, there’s been lots of rain, the Glaslyn Valley wouldn’t be the same without it! 

If 2018 is my last year volunteering, well, it will have been a vintage one, ended at my favourite spot; sat with my legs dangling off the bridge watching the water run beneath me and looking up to keep an eye on the activities around the nest.

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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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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.

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!

Sun rising on a new osprey season

As the sun rises at the end of a long winter, a last flourish of the colder months takes away the tentative heat from the first light. Showers of crystal blown on a sharp, cutting breeze coat every surface with ice. The landscape lies dormant under a frost, snow reaching down the hill sides into the sheltered valley. At its base the river runs dark and deep with meltwater swelling its reach and the cloud cover shadowing the bed from sight. Only the hardy ones venture out from shelter into the unwelcoming day, or those without a place to hide from the harshest of dawns.

This should be a time of birth and rebirth but all is on hold as the weather sends a reminder of who is really in charge in the valley. No spring is the same as the last and this year, it’s late arriving, hopes given by a bright day or two have been dashed by a beast and its smaller sibling. They have kept the life along the Glaslyn in place when many should be moving on. The whooper swans are still in the meadows, the fieldfares and redwings are gathered to travel north but kept from journey’s start by the easterlies and northerlies. The starlings, too, are still in their winter groups, gathering in great swirling masses, evading fate as the last flight comes at the end of the frozen day.

There is a single early arrival from the south, on time but possibly out of time. It flies low over the river surface searching for what insects remain from previous milder days. As its energy wanes the search becomes slower and less focussed. The cold and wind eventually force it onto a low branch to wait out a final snow shower of the day as the light fades to darkness matching the water below.

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It’s easy to take things for granted, to see the familiar as ordinary, to miss the detail and only focus on the obvious. I’ve been struggling to find a new ‘angle’ for my Glaslyn posts – trying to find a new way to tell the story I’ve told in my blogs for three years now. However, each spring is different, this spring especially so, thus far. I’ve decided to stop trying to find an angle at all and just write about what I see.

Last Saturday was the opening of ‘Osprey Season’ with the annual get together of volunteers prior to the visitor centre opening and the first protection shifts starting. I couldn’t quite believe that this will year be my seventh volunteering in the Glaslyn Valley, most of the time spent at the protection site, both day and night. This spring I’ve got my name down for a couple of night shifts, which I can’t wait to do. They’re very special; spending the night in the valley surrounded by nature, bats flying around and badgers and foxes foraging in the fields. On a calm bright morning, standing on the bridge listening to the dawn chorus takes some beating.

The paragraph about the early arrival is actually a reference to a sand martin seen on the Wirral last Sunday. When it arrived from the south, it had been whirring around the ponds and lakes but as the cold got a grip and the insects became more scarce, its flight became slower and its wing beats fainter. I haven’t heard what has happened to it but the fading of the Mini Beast may not have come soon enough.

Just less than a couple of weeks until my first shift!