A mix of winter and spring at the equinox

After a bit of work this morning, I headed out to make the most of the nice weather and went to one of the local birdwatching spots.  Sandwich Flashes are a series of lakes and wetlands between Crewe and Sandwich, formed by subsidence caused by the solution of underlying salt deposits.  I occasionally pay a visit if I have a spare hour or two on an unplanned Saturday or Sunday and can usually get a good bird list of 40 or more species, depending on the time of year.  It’s usually a focus of more seasoned birdwatchers, birders and twitchers but it’s also good for less persistent observers of birds like me.

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Despite the unexpectedly fine weather with a warm sun out of the cool breeze, the birdlife was as much of winter than of spring.  The waterbirds, such as wigeon and teal, that have stayed over the colder months have yet all to leave and the winter thrushes (redwings and fieldfares, are still about in goof numbers (and I’ve seen good flocks elsewhere too).

However, the calls of the breeding residents are growing stronger and pairing behaviour is becoming more obvious – the roving tit flocks have now broken up and the long-tailed tits are moving around in twos; no longer in the merry bands that pass swiftly and noisily by.  The hedgerows are also showing signs of new life with the hawthorns breaking out into leaf.

The most spring-like of all signs I noticed today were the very tentative and quiet first calls of a chiffchaff; not the full call of the height of spring but a sure sign that the new season is here.

A Nose for snow

I spent a few hours today at Tegg’s Nose Country Park taking advantage of the snow to try out my new camera…

With the mild winter we’ve had, I didn’t expect to get any snow photos and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.  It was slightly strange driving from early spring at home into winter in the hills and I took other photos looking from the hills towards a green Cheshire Plain. However, the birds up there also seem to be in a spring-likee mood with plenty of singing in the woods and valleys.

There are rumours that the weather is to remain cold all the way into April so there might be more chances to take a shot worthy of my next Christmas card!

From brash to ash

Another day spent at Wybunbury Moss with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers burning brash left behind by Natural England’s tree clearance activities.

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It was a lovely spring-like day with blue sky and white fluffy clouds.  The woodland was full of bird song, not quite at it’s full strength but certainly starting to build.

A day in the (very chilly) sun

I was out with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers today to continue with our tasks at Wybunbury Moss National Nature Reserve.  We spent the day burning brash that was left over from the tree clearance work Natural England have been undertaking.

It was lovely, bright weather but the chill didn’t leave all day when out of the sun and the breeze added a wintry edge that reminded us that spring could still be some way off.  In fact, it was so cold that there was still ice on the open water when we finished at around 3:00pm.  However, the fire kept us warm and it was put to good use towards the end with some marshmallow toasting (nom, nom).

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Before we left the Moss for the day, I went for a walk around the centre of the site.  It’s not often I can do this as the main area of the Moss is out-of-bounds to the public – it’s dangerous place to be.  One of the most eye-catching parts of the Moss is where there are standing dead trees; they drown as they grow heavier and their roots break into lake beneath the peat floating layer of peat – the weather made this photo opportunity impossible to let go.

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An uplifting break in the weather

It seems a long time since I was out in the sunshine, so this morning when I woke to a blue sky, I went to Bagmere to do the final Winter Bird Survey for site this season.  After all the miserable weather and the dark mornings and evenings, a bit of sun can really lift the spirits.

Whilst the sun was shining, the wind was close to being too strong to allow me to do the survey.  However, when I got down into the shallow bowl in which Bagmere sits, it was sheltered from the worst of the wind and I could more than easily hear all the birds in the surrounding area.

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There wasn’t a great deal of bird activity and I didn’t get a particularly great list of species.  Unfortunately, willow tits were again missing from my records; after seeing them at Bagmere last time out there, I hoped I’d get them again.  Some nest boxes were put up for them last year and hopefully these will encourage them to breed.  The breeding bird surveys at Bagmere and Blakenhall Moss (both Cheshire Wildlife Trust reserves) start again next month, so I’ll soon see!

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Not long after returning home, the clouds came across and it started to pour with rain and hail – usual service had resumed!

Mid-winter? The lowest ebb?

It’s been a strange winter so far; well, it’s hardly winter is it? Surely 2015 was just one long autumn with occasional bright day to give hope which was cruelly ripped away again by the now predictable misery of cloud, wind and rain.

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With the first signs of spring appearing over Christmas (I saw flowering brambles and hawthorn coming out in leaf), it seems strange that we haven’t even got to the point in the seasons when the northern hemisphere should be at its lowest ebb. The end of January and early February should be the coldest period of the year but up until very recently the signs have been that the usual lowest ebb might not even happen this time around.

Yesterday morning as I left home, well before even the slightest rumour of light appeared on the horizon, a robin was singing from a nearby hedge and as I left my car at the station a song thrush called out from the darkness. I previously wrote a post about the first time last year that I had heard the birds starting to sing as I left home – the date of that post was well over a month later than the first time I heard the initial notes of the dawn chorus this year.

I’m sure my body clock is still waiting for last summer to happen and I think without a bit of proper winter weather it might go completely out sync with the world.

Maybe the weather over the past year and particularly the recent warm few weeks has been exactly that…weather. Alternatively, it could be that El Niño is having an effect, causing our temperature and rain records to be broken. However, it could also be that global warming is starting to take hold, to some extent, and the exceptionally early blooming of flowers and bursting of leaf buds is something we may need to get used to – we certainly will if predictions come to pass.

If global warming means the weather over the past 12 months is a sign of things to come, I might just have to move to somewhere that still has proper seasons.

I thought that the time birds started singing at dawn was more linked to light levels that weather but perhaps the higher temperatures have kickstarted their territorial behaviour early. But what wider effects will changing climate have on flora and fauna? I’m no expert but there are some obvious implications – habitat loss, changing levels of food availability and shifting of migration patterns.

Take just one species – ospreys (okay, they don’t really do the dawn chorus but humour me!) – what could global warming do to them? They have two habitats to rely on, at either end of their migration. Will rising temperatures mean that their food source changes? Will fish stocks deplete or current species move out and new ones move in? We can only wait and see…and hope.

In just a couple of months the ospreys will begin their journeys north from their wintering grounds. In North Wales there is a group of dedicated volunteers who will once again spend days and nights protecting a nest from egg collectors and showing the public views of the birds from a visitor centre. Their hard work is undertaken in the hope that their efforts will help establish a larger and sustainable population of these birds not just in Wales but across the UK.

However, in the long term, if equal efforts aren’t made by everyone, to reduce their environmental impacts and help to restore what has already been lost, it could be that the work of these volunteers, and thousands like them working elsewhere, is permanently undone by climate change; the work of the few undone by the many.

The biggest threat is the indifference of the many leaving the fight to the few; this is not a fight that the few can win, it can only succeed if fought by the many. Without that effort, it could be that missing the lowest ebb of the seasons this winter is just one of a growing number of signs that the life our environment as a whole will irrecoverably ebb away.

(P.S. In writing this, I am, of course, a hypocrite; I do enjoy those two-hour drives each way for a protection shift!)