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!

Autumn: Season of migration and mellow thoughtfulness

I wrote this post sitting with my feet up in front of a warming woodburning stove enveloped in a hoody hygga made more nordic by being in a Swedish summerhouse in the middle of the patchwork forest, lake and meadow landscape of Vastmanland. I was there visiting family but I think I would love the place even if they weren’t there – for me the area has a natural magic that has long left most parts of my homeland back in the UK.

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On a couple of days I was there I went for a slow and leisurely cycle around the low rolling scenery, crossing the county border into Dalarna (or ‘The Dales’ in English). At home I can’t go more than a few days without having to head out cycling into the surrounding countryside; if I lived there, I wouldn’t be surprised if I only lasted a few hours before the yearnings for a pedal became too strong to overcome. The landscape of forests broken up by clearings, meadows and small fields, and dissected by rivers and lakes, lack the intensive farming of the lands further south in the country and seem to follow a slower pattern of rural life. The scenes I passed on two wheels are dotted by the deep-red barns, many now well past their best, but also well-kept and equally red farmsteads. These are the typical landscapes of rural central Sweden.

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It’s not just the views that lift the soul, the wildlife amongst the forests and fields is rich and abundant. Out on my cycles here, I had views I could only wish for when cycling the country lanes of Cheshire. I was overflown by a green woodpecker, and pedalled past a crane standing alone in a meadow. I spooked some skittish roe deer which went leaping off through the long grass as I approached and a very orange and fluffy fox came trotting down the road towards me, bounding into the roadside forest when he finally noticed my approach. All manner of small birds flitted across my path as I rode on, and the sheer quantity of fungi at the roadside was incredible (and edible). In the fields, were the last of the summer flowers and in the woods there are the final few blueberries and lingonberries still hanging low on the slowly changing floor, from green to copper to red.

I didn’t actually need to leave the summerhouse, however, to see wildlife I’d be very surprised to see in my garden at home or actually the majority of gardens in the UK for that matter. It’s not unusual to have the feeders and surrounding trees visited by a whole range of birds including treecreepers, bullfinches, siskins, great spotted woodpeckers, hawfinches and most lovely of all, crested tits. The lawns of the summerhouse are also visited by fieldfares, slow worms, adders and roe deer. A short walk away is a lake with a breeding pair of whooper swans with two large cygnets and, if I’m lucky, I can get a glimpse of beaver making watery tracks across the surface, starting their nighttime engineering works.

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On my pedallings I had time not just to look at my surroundings but also plenty of time to think and compare what is here in the Swedish countryside and what we have at home.

Visiting mainland Europe with Brexit very much in the news, I felt a little bit more of an outsider than I did. However, maybe there can be some good to come out of Brexit, maybe it gives us a chance to take a fresh look at conservation. Maybe we can become a nation of ambitious environmentalism, not just preserving what we have and stemming decline but enhancing and rebuilding our lost nature. Maybe there is a chance to build a future where cycling through the countryside in the UK can be as rich as it is in Scandinavia.

Where do we start on such a path? Well, in my concerned amateur thinking, it has to be farming and farm subsidies. Farming, to my knowledge, has the greatest impact on the landscape and wildlife of our countryside. The changes brought about in farming over the millennia that humans have been growing crops and keeping livestock, have transformed our landscapes beyond recognition from what they were when man first arrived to our islands. There isn’t an acre of land that hasn’t been affected by man and the negative affects seem only to be increasing. Despite the efforts of environmental organisations and their supporters and volunteers, the quality of our rural environment has continued to degrade. It is truly frightening to acknowledge that some of the greatest impacts have occurred over the last couple of decades; a time when environmental concern was already well-established. The increasing intensification of farming, with greater use of land, chemicals, fuel and water has pushed out and poisoned all manner of wildlife and their supporting habitats. Against this tide of industrial food production have been a much smaller band of environmental groups trying to reduce the harmful effects.

Maybe now is the time to reflect on the outcome of all this effort by environmental groups in reducing this harm. Despite some notable successes, cleaner rivers and some species reintroductions, for example, we are still losing wildlife and habitats, and we are nowhere near returning to the quality of environment we had even a generation ago. So perhaps there is a new approach to go alongside a new beginning for the UK outside of the EU.

One approach could be to plan the environment of our country on a landscape wide basis, not just concentrating on individual farms or nature reserves but much wider areas. I suggest the following for consideration; that we plan the countryside, in large areas, according to one of three designations:

  • Intensive Agriculture Areas – where the most productive land is prioritised for agriculture and support for environmental schemes is reduced except for measures that affect the environment outside of these areas (e.g. watercourse management) – this essentially would require the withdrawal of the land from environmental schemes and removal of subsidies. Such areas could include the Fens of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk for example.
  • Environmentally Enhanced Areas – where farming is marginally viable with subsidies and greater environmental harm is being done trying to intensify production in these areas. Subsidies would be increased to improve the environmental quality of these areas and enable them to act as buffer zones between the Intensive Agriculture Areas noted above and the Rewilding Areas described below. These areas would be focussed for agriculture, supporting existing rural economies, but working alongside improved environmental standards.
  • Rewilding Areas – where farming is not viable, even with substantial subsidy, agriculture on a commercial basis would be withdrawn and the land left to be reclaimed by nature. This could include the removal of manmade enclosures and invasive species and the supplementing of native flora and fauna to aid regeneration. This approach may result in the reduced economic viability of some rural communities and, in addition to environmental expenditure to support rewilding, there may need to be budgets to support the redevelopment of communities.

The above is just a germ of an idea but one I want to develop further. However, it strikes me that I know one area quite well that may suit such an approach; the Glaslyn Valley. The headwaters of the Glaslyn are up in the heights of Snowdonia where farming, like most upland areas is unviable without significant subsidy, this could be a potential area for rewilding. The floodplain of the Glaslyn would seem appropriate for an Environmentally Enhanced Area, somewhere that agriculture could remain viable with continued support but unlikely to be intensified further without significant additional harm to the environment.

In the title of this post I highlighted autumn as a season of migration, as well as the above mellow thoughtfulness. Well, the start of the autumn migration was more than evident in Sweden; evident in the movement of birds but also evident in the birds that will soon be appearing in the UK. A couple of times I saw large flocks of common cranes gathering in anticipation of the movement south, not to come to the UK but perhaps further south still. I also saw good sized groups of what we in the UK call winter thrushes but are the summer thrushes of Scandinavia; I saw flocks of redwings and fieldfares starting to gather at the end of their breeding seasons, in readiness for the vast movement across the North Sea to the British Isles. Of course, some species have already gone; I’m used to seeing orpreys far more often in Sweden than in the UK but this time I drew a blank. Like the Glaslyn pair and their chicks, their Scandinavian relatives have started their long and arduous journey south, travelling all the way to central Africa to wait out the northern hemisphere winter.

In some ways, this brings to an end another year of the osprey in the Glaslyn Valley, but the year as a whole still has months to go and the winter visitors will soon be returning to the Valley; the curlew and harriers from the moorland tops and the thrushes, geese and whooper swans from far off lands.

A final osprey shift

We’re still at the height of summer in the Glaslyn Valley and the picture hasn’t changed much over the last few weeks. The shades are getting a little darker and perhaps plants and leaves, now past their great surge in growth, are starting to look a little worn in places. However, there is still some bright colour out there, with flowers still blooming in the meadows and hedgerows. Up on the moorland tops, the heather is out in bright purple swathes and rosebay willowherb still stands tall along the roadsides.

The birds are quieter now, not the great chorus of earlier in the year but there is still plenty of life being lived. Down in the valley today, the sparrows provided a constant background chirping to my day, joined by the more occasional chaffinch and blue tit. A family of ravens chatted loudly as they flew over and the swallows were darting around in a large group over the river. My shift today had an extra reward with a kingfisher zooming past along the river bank and I could here it on and off throughout the day.

There are signs, however, that we are now in the latter half, or maybe even third, of the summer. The blackberries are starting to fill out, it looks promising for a good crop this year, some of the bracken is beginning to turn and the swifts are departing; one purposefully moved on through the valley as I sat watching from the bridge. The crops are being gathered in the fields, perhaps a little later this year, and the sun doesn’t feel quite a strong as it was in the height of June.

The nest at the top of the tall fir tree out across those wet meadows is a little emptier and quieter than it has been of late. With the three chicks having fledged and their confidence in the air growing, they are spending less time in their natal home and they only seem to appear when there’s a meal in the offing. Throughout the day, there was usually at least one chick in the nest, with three of deliveries of fish from their father. Their mother only made one appearance during my eight-hour shift, mantling when two osprey intruders flew close to the nest and eventually she tired of their presence and chased them off. For once, while I was on a shift, the ospreys flew straight over my head – that’s not happened since my first ever visit to protection back in the early spring of 2012!

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With the end of my final Glaslyn shift comes a close to my busiest time of year. Between late winter and the middle of summer my weekends seem to be filled by all things outdoors and nature-related. From daylong shifts in North Wales or a few hours in the Cheshire countryside protecting the nests of birds of prey, through doing bird surveys at three different sites through March, April, May and June, to the two weeks I spent on Ramsey Island in May and the usual fortnightly tasks with my local group (CNCV). Over 20 weeks or so, it feels my free time has just about all been taken up by conservation volunteering. With so much to do over those 20 weeks, the spring and summer seem to go so fast and perhaps it is actually a good time now to slow down for a bit. I can’t do so for long, however, in only a few weeks’ time I’ll be off to Sweden and then back and straight to a bonus week on Ramsey Island – more volunteering!

The protection site really is a little, rural idil. While the rest of the Snowdonia National Park is in peak season, with visitors sightseeing, hiking, cycling, driving and eating ice creams, all around its many square miles, down a narrow little wooded track, lies a spot that could be a million miles from the bustle of the honeypots. There’s barely any sign of other human life at times when sat by the river; very little road noise and no buildings close enough to overlook. Protection is a little forgotten backwater, where wildlife is exactly that, wild life, and little hindered by the interference of man. This spot isn’t a natural landscape, of course, it has all been touched by our hands; in fact the site used to be much closer to the sea before the wall at Porthmadog was built. But, this small corner seems less touched by man than it’s surroundings and it’s a gem of a spot for those lucky enough to spend some time amongst its trees and meadows.

As I usually do on the nicer days at protection, I finished my shift sat on the little footbridge over the river, feet dangling, watching the water run past, the weeds beneath waving in the current. Getting into my car and driving back up the narrow wooded track, to start my journey home, I said my goodbyes to the valley for another year, and perhaps longer this time, leaving behind the wildlife to continue its passage through the seasons and the colourful painting of the valley to change back to a pencil sketch once more.

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Launching into the year’s highest ebb

We arrive at the peak of the year with the colours still changing on the picture of the Glaslyn Valley. Those deeper, solid shades of high summer are now fixed in the trees and on the grassy plains but there are bright highlights among the different tints of green. This is a time of pinks and purples with the foxgloves dropping the last of their blooms, the rosebay willowherb spreading in great swathes along the roadsides, the prickly thistles standing in the field borders and the vast carpets of heather bringing colour to the hillsides and moorland tops.

This season has been one of contrasts, from the blazing sun under the cloudless blue to the cool, grey covered by the enveloping gloom. We have gone from a dry spring into a downpour-ridden summer with heat followed by chill followed by heat followed by chill. A bright, still and warm morning, turned into a cloud-dotted noon to an afternoon made heavy by a gathering storm. As the dark, brooding masses rolled in from the coast, rumbles of thunder were accompanied the flashes of lightning and walls of rain brought in on strengthening winds. The anger of the heavens skirted around me with only a few drops landing overhead but in the distance, the hills and fields were getting another deluge.

The young of the Glaslyn are growing fast; the badger cubs, now half the size of their parents, are out in the daytime searching for food after the rains have softened the ground. The fox cubs are feeding themselves but still go out on foraging trips with their parents, learning new skills but still finding enough time to play. The otter family is also travelling widely within their mother’s territory using different holts as the river rises and falls with the coming and going of the rains. The young bats are now flying on their own, leaving the protection of the old barn in the warm evenings to catch the midges swarming above the Glaslyn waters. Above the valley floor, high up on the moorlands, the curlew chicks are learning to fly and the young hen harriers are taking to the air but not yet as skilled as their skydancing parents. The young of some of the winter visitors are also flying and independent, the fieldfares and redwings are on to their second broods leaving the earlier chicks to fend for themselves in amongst the Scandinavian forests; it will be many more weeks yet before the whooper swans are on the wing for the first time.

The bird life in the valley is still growing with the last fledglings flitting around the woodlands and drystone walls. Family groups of swallows are chasing around above the fields and skimming low over the river and a young woodpecker calls alarm from behind the branch of an oak tree. There are two jays squabbling as they fly between copses and high above them all is a buzzard calling out as it circles on a short-lived thermal. Along the river, a pair of swans feed on the weed below, reaching deep into the water, risen again by the recent rainfall. Small shoals of fish race from shadow to shadow under threat of the kingfisher sitting, watching, prone on the overhanging branch.

The day brings the final long awaited moment in the nest at the top the fir tree. The last of three chicks, after days of exercising and short hoverings above its home, launches itself into the unknown for the first time. After seeing its two brothers fly over the previous few days, it is the turn of the youngest to put faith in its wings. A short, unsteady and alarming first flight lasts only a minute and ends with a collapse back into the nest – relief for the chick and its watchers.

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As I turned up at protection today Z8 was flapping his wings like nobody’s business and he looked like he might make his first flight at any moment. I didn’t have long to wait but it was with disappointment that I saw him fly only as far as from the nest to the perch, where he stayed for a good long while. Eventually, while my attention was on my report writing and not the TV screen, he made his leap of faith into the air. He flew around the nest, flapping wildly and very ungainly until he eventually landed safely in the comforting bowl of the nest. His brothers had made their own first flights over the past week and with all three now able to leave the nest it brings another mark of success for ospreys in the Glaslyn Valley – three more ospreys fledged from this most significant of nests.

The last two weeks of July and the first two of August, in which we are now, really do mark the high point of the seasons, the country at its highest ebb and a mirror of the lowest ebb at the end of January/beginning of February. This is the warmest time of the year (albeit not in the Valley today!), with the plant life at its fullest. Yes, this moment might not have the burst of energy of spring’s cacophony of new life but it marks the peak of the northern hemisphere’s powers and from where we can look down on the rest of the seasons. With nature’s most intense breeding period coming to an end and the young of the year starting to flourish on their own, it is time for the adults to rest, recover and rebuild their strength for the autumn and winter to come. That being said, the osprey parents still have some fishing to do, to ensure their offspring are ready to make their first journeys south when the autumn does come.

Direct from the Glaslyn Valley

The layers of paint on the picture of the seasons are adding deeper tones as the year moves on again. Gone is the vibrancy of the first flushes of spring, replaced by the more solid shades of summer. With cloudless skies there can still be uplifting blues above and striking greens below but the contrasts under the bright sun burn out some colours and send others under darkened shadows. When the clouds come over, there is less to lift the spirits and as the rain rattles on the roof again, there is another day of summer lost to the weather. We have just passed the solstice but the height of the season has yet to come, there’s still time for long, warm, lazy days and humid, airless nights but sitting under the gloom of dark clouds, they seem a distant hope.

Far away from the Glaslyn, the winter visitors are rearing their young on the lake shores of Iceland and in the forests of Scandinavia. The whooper swans are protecting their still small cygnets from the attentions of arctic foxes; there’s many more weeks to go until they can take flight. The fieldfares and redwings now have chicks out of their nests, dotted about the forests and clearings, and perhaps there’s time for another brood before instinct turns thoughts to southward passage. Back above the Glaslyn valley on the moorland plateau, the curlew chicks are feeding themselves and wandering further while the hen harrier young are showing feathers and starting to outgrow their heather-bounded hideaway.

The badger cubs are now weaned and spend the time in day beds above the ground before heading out to forage with the group, going further from their oak tree home each night. The fox cubs are weaned too and they play around the outside of the earth in the old rabbit warren while the vixen goes off to find them more solid food to eat. The otter is travelling further with her young now that the water has receded, searching out her other holts and avoiding the dog otter patrolling his territory. At the back of the old barn, the young bats are growing fast but still need to suckle from their mothers, it won’t be long, though, until they take their first tentative flights.

The birds are subdued along with the colours of the summer scenery. The numbers of small fledglings seem to be reducing as they disperse into the wider countryside and become prey for the sparrowhawk. The adults are less visible too; the dawn chorus is slowing ebbing away as the breeding season drops in intensity and the moult begins. There are some birds still making themselves heard, with the meadow pipits calling above the wet fields and the swallows chatting as they sweep low over their heads. The chaffinches chirp in the trees along with the great tits, and the buzzard cries as it circles above on the occasional thermal. A jay harshly calls out as it swoops across the woodland clearing and the woodpecker taps on a dead tree standing on the edge of the slowly flowing stream, now becoming full of weed, moving in the water like rippling barley.

The growth of new life isn’t over yet, though; at the top of the fir tree are three chicks with newly grown feathers and it won’t be long until they are as big as their parents. The conveyor belt of fish is still going strong while the chicks spend the days preening and starting to stretch and test their wings.

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It was an eventful start to my shift with the ringers on site, climbing the tree to the nest-filled summit and carefully putting the blue rings on the three chicks. The weather was just about perfect for it too, with good temperatures, but not too warm, and a light wind with no rain. As the ringers left there were four adult ospreys circling above the nest, a rare sight in Wales.

After a short wander in the lovely morning sun, I spent most of my shift writing reports for work; not my favourite way to pass my time at Protection but if I have to write reports, I’d rather do it here! The chicks spent their time mostly hunkered down in the nest, perhaps relaxing after their early morning surprise, with a bit of preening and occasional wing flap. Their mother made a few journeys to the fields to bring in more nesting material and Aran brought in a couple of fish which Mrs G feed to the chicks (I didn’t see what the first one was but the second was definitely a mullet). By the time I had tired of report writing, the clouds had closed in once more and light rain was starting to fall on a strengthening breeze. At one stage, Mrs G seemed to be trying to shelter the chicks from the rain but they are now far too big for her to provide much relief from the weather.

 

We’re well into the summer now and the countryside is changing into a more subdued pattern of life and colour. The short heatwave seems a long time ago now and I’m wondering whether we might have a disappointing year for summer weather – the past couple of weeks have certainly been anything but summer-like. However, there’s still the whole of July and August to come and there are some more shifts to do before the chicks fledge and protection closes down for another year.

I think this is the first time I’ve actually uploaded a blog post direct from the Protection site – 4G seemed to have arrived in the valley since my last shift!

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A typical summer day at Glaslyn!

The pencil-sketch foundation to the painting of the seasons has now long been covered by layers of watercolour, although those layers are in danger of being swept away by the unseasonal weather. Summer is here although no one would know looking outside. The strong wind is putting force behind the rain as it comes down for a seemingly endless day. The saturated ground can hold no more water and the rain is running straight off the meadows into the swelling river, rising by the minute. As the day wears on those meadows start to shrink as the water begins to breach the high banks and spill out over the low, sheep-clipped grass. The bridge across the small Glaslyn tributary began the day high above the waterline but as time moves on, the flow comes up to meet it and starts to wash at the underside of its grey-painted steel joists.

But summer it is; the seasons have moved on at pace since my last visit. The trees are out in full leaf, their various shades of green giving a mottling to the hillsides. The rain-bringing cloud hangs low over the valley, no mountains to be seen and even the lower hilltops are out of sight. Under the woodland cover the first blooms have faded and dried but the bracken and ferns have grown strong and the fox gloves bring a shock of lightning pink to the sides of the narrow track. The brambles are reaching out their clawing branches, now white topped with flowers, promising a good crop of blackberries for the autumn. Out in the open, the grass and rush have grown strong, now topped with ripening seeds; in their midst stands of irises, yellow-crowned, have reached their peak, fighting to stay upright against the wind.

Our winter visitors are now settled in their summer breeding grounds. The whooper swans have their grey downy young fresh from the nest on Icelandic valley floors and the fieldfares and redwings are feeding their chicks in amongst the pine woodlands of Scandinavia. Closer to the Glaslyn, high up on the moorland plateau, the curlew is leading out her young in the long grass while the male hen harrier is passing fresh prey to the female to feed to the chicks hidden away below a large stand of heather.

Down in the valley, the mammal youngsters are continuing to grow. The badger and fox cubs adventure further away from their homes under the oak tree and old rabbit warren, and the otter family has moved from the natal halt to another further up river, away from the rising water. The bats now have young, but they have yet to leave the darkness of the old barn.

There are fledglings all around, feeding on the seed and nuts left out for them – coal tits, chaffinches and house sparrows – a large mixed flock bursts from the ground as a squirrel approaches along the moss-topped drystone wall. A young woodpecker shouts alarm at it from the tree above but the squirrel continues on its way. A family of crows wanders around the fields, an occasional squabble between siblings and there’s a fleeting glimpse of a solitary swallow as it skims over their heads. In a distant tree, a song thrush still sings its spring song, a jewel of sound amongst the tapping of rain, rushing of the breeze and scratching of the branches on the rooftop.

Replacing three speckled eggs are three growing chicks, high up in the nest at the top of the stand of pines. Growing fast on meals of flounder, mullet and trout, they are beginning to gain strength and sit more purposefully upright while they are fed piece by piece by their parents as the rain finally relents.

I was hunkered down in the protection site caravan for most of my shift; there’s not a lot of fun in wandering around in the drenching rain. When I arrived, the river was already high after the overnight rain but with the downpours continuing on and off all day, the water levels continued to rise throughout my shift. Below are photos taken at the start of my shift and seven hours later – the water noticeably higher in the second. I couldn’t get to the bridge at the end of my stay as the water was above my wellies and fingers of water had reached all the way from the river, along the path and past the protection site caravan, lapping at the bottom of its steps – the water was then washing over the top of the bridge.

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I often seem to get bad weather when I do a shift but in June, I would normally expect to get something better than I did today – it seemed more like an autumnal October day. However, I can’t complain, I had the nice, dry shelter of a caravan while the ospreys were exposed to the full force of the weather; well at least the parents were. With the rain lasting most of the day, it was a very quiet shift, only one fish delivered and fed to the chicks. The chicks spent the vast majority of my shift nestled together under the protective wings of their mother; she was taking brunt of the elements for them. Despite the rain and wind, it wasn’t cold and it was just nice to be back in the valley, to see how the life had moved on so much in the five weeks since my last visit.

The year seems to be passing so quickly – but at least we still have most of summer yet to come!