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!

A new bird survey site

Having given up one of my two bird surveys sites I’ve been doing for Cheshire Wildlife Trust (due to the difficulty of accessing the site), I felt the need to find another location to survey. So, I offered my limited skills to one of my local volunteering colleagues who has a smallholding not far from where I live.

This morning I set out just after 7:00am and spent half an hour or so monitoring the birds along a 500m transect from the house to the far end of the plot. The smallholding is largely open pastureland with hedges and a few large trees but with a plantation in one corner.

The birds were all typical of the Cheshire landscape in spring except for the large mixed flock of winter thrushes, perhaps delayed in their migration north by the recent cold weather. There was also a passing of around 200 gulls as I started off.

The nicest record was a buzzard sat in one of the trees along a hedgerow – it’s nest can be seen from the window of the farmhouse kitchen window – lovely.

I’ll be going back again in May/June to do a follow up survey and hopefully there’ll be a few new species on the list.

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!

Great early spring day

I was up early today and out of the house an hour after dawn to do the first of four breeding bird surveys at Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Bagmere reserve. I’ve been doing the surveys at the site for a few years now and it’s always nice to get started with them – one of the first tasks in my spring and summer of conservation volunteering.

The morning was chilly at first but the temperatures started to rise quickly and with a watery sun adding to the relative warmth, spring appeared to have sprung as I made my way into the reserve. The spring was also evident in the birds, even before I started the survey. There were some displaying lapwings looping over a nearby stubble field and there were plenty of birds singing the dawn chorus in the surrounding woods.

Into the reserve and there were a good number of birds to record with many of the usual species flitting or flying around the meadows, woods and fen. Of particular interest were a couple of water rail, a nice mixed flock of siskins and redpolls, some singing reed buntings and a few snipe flushed from the wet ground.

The scene was set at Bagmere for the spring migrants to arrive, making the intensity of the dawn chorus even greater and bringing even more vibrancy to the reserve.

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After the survey, I went to volunteer with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers at Wybunbury Moss and spent the morning and early afternoon clearing and burning trees from the woodland edge. This work will help other migrant birds by providing better breeding conditions in the thick cover than will grow in the space left behind.

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Not finished for the day, I then went out on my bike for 20 miles, peddling around the Cheshire countryside on the last light of what felt like the first proper weekend of spring – it can only get better from here (hopefully!).

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A quick trip to the Big Smoke

I’m not a big one for city breaks or doing touristy things with the crowds but yesterday I popped down to London for the day to do a few things I’ve been wanting to for ages. First I went to the Imperial War Museum, then on to HMS Belfast, a trip on a boat down the Thames between Tower Bridge and Westminster, and then a long walk back to Euston, via Parliament Square, Horse Guards and Covent Garden.

The Imperial War Museum was the main reason I went down to London and I must say that the World War One exhibition is excellent and Holocaust exhibition something everyone should see.

Just a few photos from the day…

 

Finished with winter

Looking at the weather forecast for the next few days, winter hasn’t finished with me but I’ve certainly finished with it! With only two days of February left, that means only two days left of meteorological winter, I can’t wait for spring to take over.

My last task of the season was on Saturday when I did a final winter bird survey at Bagmere Fen, the Cheshire Wildlife Trust site I monitor. Unusually for recent weekends, Saturday (and Sunday for that matter) was picture perfect – bright, clear blue skies, with a light frost firming up the soft ground beneath. The survey only takes around an hour but its a lovely way to spend a bit of a morning, wandering through a nature reserve looking for the sights and sounds of wildlife.

The survey brought no surprises but winter was much in evidence in the species I saw, with fieldfares and redwings moving through, visitors from Scandinavia for the colder months, and a few groups of starling. I have heard that there’s sometimes a starling mumuration at the site but I’ve yet to see it despite a handful of dusk visits to a nearby watchpoint.

There was disappointment as I haven’t recorded willow tit at the site again, in either of the winter visits I’ve made over the last few months. It’s a key species for the site but I only seem to record it once a year or so over the course of my six annual visits. This is quite a contrast to my recent visit to south-east Poland where these birds and their marsh tit cousins were some of the most frequently seen species.

Well, just two more days of official winter and my busy spring will begin. I’ve got more surveys at Bagmere to do plus another lot out on the Cheshire sandstone ridge, osprey and peregrine nest protection shifts, plus some trips out into nature around and about.

…but I must also remember to push through on my resolutions to do more photography and mountain biking…I’m just hoping the winter weather gives way to springlike conditions soon! Now I must go and find my snow shovel!