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!)

Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers: Wybunbury Moss

I spent today with CNCV working for Natural England at Wybunbury Moss National Nature Reserve.  Whilst I often go for a walk on the footpaths and permissive path around the outside of the Moss, today was a rare opportunity to spend time out on the Moss itself.

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Natural England employed us to thin the woodland cover on the edge of the Moss, taking out birch trees and using the large logs to build a fire platform.  Natural England has been much of the woodland thinning itself, so our task in two weeks time will be spent trying to burn as much of the brash as the fire will take.  Our next outing will also be our Christmas task – everyone chips in with some festive food and we use the fire to heat it, while keeping ourselves warm too.

Whilst today’s task wasn’t particularly cold to begin with, the driving rain in the morning soaked us and by mid-afternoon everyone was starting to feel the chill – an early finish was certainly welcome!

Working on the Moss itself is a real privilege as there is no public access to  the site due to the dangerous nature of the ground. Under as little as a metre of moss and peat, lies a lake which is up to 12 metres deep – walking across the Moss, the surface moves and ripples.  If it wasn’t for the odd house or two visible from then centre of the Moss, you could easily think you were standing in the middle of a wilderness area – it’s quite a special place.

Washed-up Starfish

A couple of weeks ago I had a weekend away in Lincolnshire and on one of the days I went for a walk at Gibraltar Point, one of the local Wildlife Trust reserves.  While I was there, walking along the beach, I came across hundreds, perhaps thousands, of washed-up starfish.  It was a sad sight on what was otherwise a beautiful walk along the sands.  It was a typical autumnal day with a keen wind and dark clouds threatening to deliver their load at any moment, the rain held off for a while but eventually soaked me.  Despite getting very wet, it was a lovely way to spend an afternoon.

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When I got home at the end of the weekend, I looked up what could have caused the mass washing-up of the starfish and came across a newspaper article from nearly three years ago – another similar incident not far north up the coast.  I was worried that this might have been caused by man but it appears it was probably just the result of bad weather.

Isle of Skye – Uniquely Skye

With very strong winds today and with my walking boots still soaking wet, I decided against another coastal walk and headed north to retrace some of my steps (or tyre marks) from Sunday and visited some of the places I’d missed in the Trotternish area.

There were three places that stood out:

I spent a while at Faerie Glen, near Uig – it’s a very strange area of odd geological formations all coated in a blanket of rich green grass with clumps of woodland – there were even some bright red toadstools at the base of one of the hills – possibly nibbled on by fairies.

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I visited Macurdie’s Exhibition, near Bornesketaig.  It’s hard to describe exactly what it is and it’s best left for people to find out for themselves.  All I’ll say is that it’s probably a work of both insanity and comedy genius and well worth a visit!

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IMG_7434 IMG_7435IMG_7441My final stop of the day was the Old Man of Storr, another incredible geological formation that stands out in the landscape and can be seen for miles around.  It’s a steep, breathtaking (literally), walk from the car park in quiet weather but with strong winds added, it was quite a challenge on the lower slopes of the hill.  However, I managed to jog up the final sections once the felled forest area had been left behind.  I also ran and bounced much of the way down but had to put a brake on my fun when the strong winds picked up again.

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All three of these places are unique and together help to give Skye a character all of its own.

Autumn Wanderings

After ‘finding’ a local walk in the spring, one that is just two minutes from my front door but took 15 years to uncover, I haven’t done it for the past few months.  At the weekend, when I had a spare hour, I had a quiet wander around the route.  The walk goes out through some typical Cheshire dairy cow pastures; large fields of grass surrounded by high hawthorn hedges.  Halfway around, the route drops down into a wooded valley with a small brook at its bottom; this is a local open space known as Joey The Swan.

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There’s nothing particularly special about the walk but it’s just nice to have a bit of countryside on my doorstep.  I didn’t think it would be particularly good for wildlife either but I’ve managed to record 37 species of bird over the course of half a dozen or so walks as well as rabbits and signs of badgers, there are foxes out there too, as well as a few cows!

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Later that afternoon, I went on one of my more frequent walking routes – around Wybunbury Moss National Nature Reserve.  A 45 minute walk, this starts in the village church yard and then out along the backs of the houses on the main street before heading down into the bowl in which the Moss sits.  There’s a footpath all the way around the outside nature reserve as well as a permissive path that goes through the woodland immediately next to the Moss itself (the Moss is out of bounds to the public).

The view as I wandered around the path was full of autumn with the trees reaching their most colourful before the leaves all drop.  There were also the sounds and smells of the season as the leaves that had already fallen rustled beneath my feet and the aroma of cider seemed to last long after I left behind the windfalls below a solitary apple tree.

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As I wandered around, I added one more bird species to the list of 63 I had already got for the walk – there was the unmistakable sound of a water rail coming from just inside the trees on the edge of the Moss.  Well, it was either a water rail or a squealing piglet but I know which is more likely.

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Autumn Drive to Work

This morning I set out on one of my more-than-weekly work-related drives to Lincoln.  It’s actually quite a nice drive and usually reasonably quiet for most of the way; getting up at 5:30am does have some benefits.  There’s a lot of dual carriageway cruising on the route but there’s also some quieter cross-country single carriageways too, crossing the wolds between the M1 and A46.  This morning, however, was particularly nice.

I’m still getting used to the darker mornings and leaving home before the sun has risen – they seem to have suddenly crept up on me this year.  As I turned onto the bypass not far from home, the first shades of dawn were coming from the horizon and the thin sliver of a moon was still making its way across the remaining night.  Heading on, a few small clouds, standing out in the wide, open and clear sky, were starting to be pink-toned and a greater brightness started with a glow emerging from the behind the silhouetted trees and buildings.  Turning out and away from the last urban sprawl passed through, the shallow valleys spread out either side of the road.

At first, there were just thin wisps floating above the road, made to slowly dance by the passing traffic. They gradually gathered more substance, body and form. As the valleys grew more shallow, they became filled at their depths with a fine mist hanging lightly over the hedges and pastures. Driving onwards, the mist became a fog over the land, occasionally deepening into thick cloud through which the newly risen sun began to show its presence.

Continuing on my way, the journey was mist-filled and punctuated by sudden thick fog that was just as quickly left behind with clear views ahead.  The sun started as a deep electric orange, sometimes shrouded by the mists but became stronger, bursting out from behind the land-tied clouds. As I crossed the motorway and headed down into a village, a perfect vision came into view; a brightening sun, softened by mist, rising above steam clouds rising from a power station into a clear and deep blue sky above.

I searched for ages along my route for a place to stop and take an image of the misty dawn but was thwarted by high hedges and a lack of lay-bys and gateways.  Unfortunately the photo below is the best I could do – not very misty!

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Mustn’t Grumble – a bit of sunshine in the Glaslyn Valley

I wake after another sticky night with a slightly cooler draft coming in through the windows. Opening the curtains reveals that rain has been and gone but the clouds look to hold more. Setting out from home, there is dampness in the air but no large drops and the road has already dried. As I cross the low and flat Cheshire Plain, the clouds begin to part and I, and my hopes for a continued hot spell, rise after I cross the border once more into Wales. Passing along the narrow valley roads, through a scene approaching high summer, the seasons have progressed since my last journey in these parts. The trees are now a darker shade of green, gone is the first bright flush of spring. The fields are looking drier and the long grass has recently been cropped for hay. There is colour, however, with foxgloves continuing their grand displays, although coming towards their end, and the elders are still out, their white blossom perhaps the last from the trees.

I take the moor-top route for a bit of fun but travel at a more sedate pace to avoid the wandering sheep. Dropping into the valleys, the clouds have once more gathered and the hill and mountain tops are now shrouded. As I approach the cross-roads and turn onto that wooded track, the drizzle starts to fall and my hopes for a warm, or hot, shift seem dashed. Opening my windows, the track is quieter than usual and my lights come on as I pass into the dark beneath the leaf-laden branches. The track is narrowed even more by the undergrowth, with my wing mirrors flicking young branches and bracken as I progress. The spring sounds have fallen almost silent with only a few chirps coming from the wood but the birds are still there; a startled blackbird flies off in front and a wren hops to the side.

Emerging from the gloom beneath the canopy, the clouds seem to have darkened further and the drizzle turns to wind-blown rain. Leaving my car I put my jacket on, glad I’d brought it and wondering whether shorts were such a great idea. However, it’s not cold, almost muggy in fact in the shelter of the caravan. Over the ivy-covered drystone wall, across the river, past the gorse-topped bund and over the low, damp pasture, the small copse still has two large birds sat in the nest at the top of the fir trees. Nothing seems to have changed since my last view of them but as the female stands she reveals not two eggs but two chicks. An odd-looking pair they are, one larger than the other, but already much grown from their hatching and more in control of their once bobbling heads. A flat fish is fed to them, the larger one getting more than its fair share, but once filled, it takes less from its mother and the smaller chick has its turn. Comfortably fed, the female moves over them again and protects her brood from the wind and now lessening rain.

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It’s been quite a few weeks since my last shift at protection and the hopes of the osprey watchers have been answered with the hatching of two healthy chicks. There was a time this spring when this seemed an unlikely event, being the sixth and seventh eggs to be laid in a season-long drama, and one of which spent some hours out of the nest cup, only to be nudged back in by the first-time father-to-be.

It was a quiet start to the shift with the female on the nest and either feeding the chicks a flounder (in several stints) or brooding them in the intervening periods. The male was present when I arrived but disappeared just after 11:00am and returned at 2:25pm with another fish (a trout, I think). He then went off again and returned with yet another catch at 3:54pm. This new male seems to have got the hang of his job!

While the male was away, the female started to mantle and looking upwards but I couldn’t see what was concerning her. There has been another female osprey in the area recently but I couldn’t see anything else around.

During the afternoon, the larger of the two chicks started to move around the nest and whilst it didn’t get too close to the edge, there were moments when I really did hope it would turn around and head back to the bowl in the middle.

I gradually saw a few more birds during the day with swallows skimming low over the meadows, young blue and great tits using the feeders outside the protection caravan, a raven passing overhead, meadow pipits still displaying, a pied wagtail feeding on flies, a red kite gliding over the tree tops and a family of mute swans resting at the river’s edge.

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At around 2:00pm, the strong wind blew away the clouds and, finally, I had some summer sunshine on an osprey shift – the first proper warmth during a shift this year. I took full advantage and went down to the river and sat on the bridge in the sun, dangling my legs over the side (remembering to tie my shoe laces first!). The sun didn’t last too long as the cloud soon came back, being driven onwards by the pesky wind and afternoon turned back to dullness.

I’ve got another shift in four weeks time and no doubt the chicks will have grown a lot by then and will be looking a bit more like their parents.

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