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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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!

Waiting for Spring

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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.

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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…