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.

IMG_4861 (2)

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.

5R0A2249-1

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.

5R0A1999

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!

5R0A1653 (1)

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.

IMG_8490

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.

IMG_4341

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.

IMG_4192

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!

IMG_4186

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.

IMG_3996IMG_4021

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!

Why volunteer?

The next layer of watercolour is being painted across the slowly disappearing pencil sketch, as the earliest of spring’s signs fade and the next flourishes begin to take form over the canvas of the Glaslyn Valley.  Perhaps today, however, isn’t one of the days when too many flourishes appear; the spring seems to be taking a breather under the dark cloud lying heavily over the landscape.  There’s a strong and chilling easterly wind which seems to be keeping the heads of the wildlife down and under shelter.  The vividness of the season is washed out by the greyness of the light and the eruptive sounds of spring are held back by the breeze.  The hill and mountain sides are masked under a veil of mist and haze with an occasional spot or two fine rain, taking more warmth away from the air.

The whooper swans have returned to their still snow-locked breeding grounds on their north Atlantic island, arriving while winter has still to loosen its grip. The fieldfares and redwings regain their strength feeding on the lawns of Scandinavian summer houses amongst the pines and lakes; even there the days can switch from warm summer-like mornings to afternoons of sleet, the land still not out of reach the slowly retreating fingers of winter.  Back above the Glaslyn, on the moor tops, the birds are starting to settle into their nests wth both the curlew and hen harrier on eggs.

In the shelter of the woodland, there is now a riot of colour as the bluebells are in their prime, covering the floor with delicate blooms.  Other flowers, however, have been and gone; only the standing leaves remain of the daffodils and the bright yellow of the gorse is starting to fade and dry.  The last few trees remain without leaves while many are still to be in their full flush. More is to come, however, with the bramble in leaf but yet to flower and the irises and foxgloves are starting to grow tall on the wet verges.  Down on the river bank, with the water now well below its winter flood, there’s a sprinkling of cuckoo flowers giving a backdrop to a paddling mute swan.

The young badger and fox cubs are becoming more confident by the day, taking greater steps away from their underground homes, and the otter pups have had their first dip into the river.  The bank voles are starting to appear more frequently on top of the drystone wall, feeding on seed left out for the birds, and the bats are out in the evenings, hopefully taking a few midges from outside the caravan.

More summer visitors are arriving from the south with the swallows now flitting across the meadows at the end of the journey I saw the beginning of only a few weeks ago.  Someone saw a swift nearby but I’ve yet to see my favourite bird and the house martins are in the area but also unseen by me.  Finally, a cuckoo breaks the gloom’s spell, a true herald of spring and now an occasional patch of blue comes out from behind the grey clouds.

Having found mates and laid eggs, the birds are now in the long wait for hatching and then the energy of spring really will come to its peak. Endless cries for food will spark parents into a frenzy of gathering and providing.  High up in the wind buffeted copse, three eggs now lie beneath the warming breast of an osprey but it will be weeks until the first cracks appear in their shells.

IMG_2469

It was a very quiet shift today, not a lot to mention at all; there wasn’t even a fish delivery to write about.  Aran was around the Glaslyn nest for most of the day but did disappear at one point and visit the ‘other woman’ at the Post Croesor nest but returned quite quickly and shared the incubation duties with Mrs G.  This really is the calm before the storm; once the eggs hatch, Aran won’t have much time for hanging around.

It’s an unusual thing to do, sit alone in a cold caravan or shed for hours on end making sure that no one interferes with the eggs of a wild bird, but people do it and many do other similar things.

Volunteering may seem to some like a selfless act but I think it’s just as much about the volunteer as it is about the cause.  We wouldn’t do it if there wasn’t something in it for us – well, my volunteering certainly isn’t selfless.

I volunteer for a whole range of reasons and, yes, supporting causes I care about is right at the top of the list and I wouldn’t volunteer if I didn’t feel I was personally making a difference (and sometimes I do have doubts).  However, another major reason I volunteer is because I feel it makes me more three-dimensional. It gives me something more interesting to talk about than what’s happened on Eastenders, who won the game last night or what I bought at the weekend. It also stops me being solely defined by my work and I love the fact that my volunteering is so utterly different to my job. I enjoy my work, and I like working in a big city. However, days surrounded by managed air amongst the glass and concrete lead to yearnings for the fresh air and greenness of the countryside.  Just working and making little of my weekends makes me miserable, and as I have a lot of spare time with which do whatever I wish, there could be a lot of time to be miserable.

Through doing a range of things I wouldn’t ordinarily do, or at least wouldn’t have done in the past, volunteering also expands my mind, increasing my knowledge and understanding, and leads to even more interests.  It’s just difficult to decide what to look into next.

Through volunteering you can have opportunities to go to places and do things that most people can’t – I don’t know many people in my day-to-day life who get to stay on a stunningly-lovely, almost deserted island for two weeks each year for free— and you get a whole raft of experiences to talk and write about.  You also get to meet fascinating and like-minded people, with whom to share those experiences; the only problem being they always seem to have done many more interesting things than me – I must try harder!

Volunteering can change you – even a meat-eating, car-loving, shaved-headed person like me can turn more veggie, beardy and earth-loving given enough influences from the right people. I’m certainly not the same person I was when I first began volunteering nearly six years ago – for a start, back then I wouldn’t have dreamt of posting soppy creative writing on the internet for the world to see!

Overall, however, I see the volunteering I do as a privilege; not everyone can or is able to do it and the experiences have made memories that I will never forget.

IMG_2474

It will be a month or more until I return to Glaslyn (I have two weeks on a stunningly-lovely, nearly deserted island before then) and hopefully there will be chicks in the nests when I do.

 

A sparkling spring day in the Glaslyn Valley

The world has been brought back to life from its long dormant months and rich watercolours of spring are being applied to the once monochrome pencil sketch of the winter valley. The land has burst from its lull and the flush of the new season is washing across the woodlands and fields. Under a clear blue sky the fresh colours are given greater vibrancy as they emerge from the once grey drawn hillsides and valley floor. The scene is wide and open for all to see with the mountains now standing proud, uncovered from their cloak of cloud and mist. The once clawing dampness has been lifted as the warmth is brought back to the land by an ever strengthening sun; but views are deceptive, away from shelter a growing northerly whips away the hope of a perfect day.

Tree by tree and branch by branch the leaves are bringing the wooded hillsides to life. This is not a sudden burst of colour but starts with a series of uneven brushstrokes, slowly picking out new vibrant shades, which gather pace and eventually smother the land in green. Beneath the gradually enclosing woodland canopy, the ground is growing up to meet the sky as the grasses gain strength and the ferns and brackens unfurl their stands. Over the growing richness of the carpeted floor other colours emerge with the bluebells joined by white wood-sorrel and the yellows of the primroses and celandines.

The early new life of the mammals has continued to thrive with the badger cubs making their first forays out from the safety of their set beneath the oak tree. In the old rabbit warren, the fox cubs are also emerging from their den and the riverside holt of the otter has welcomed new kits. In the warmer evenings there are the first stirrings at the back of the abandoned barn as the bats take to the wing to feed in the insect-filled air.

The last of the winter visitors have moved north for their chance to breed in longer hours of light. The whooper swans are making their way up the coasts until leaving land far behind and embarking on their strenuous journey across the wide open ocean to the land of ice and fire. The winter thrushes now turn to spring breeders in their other homes across the water in the Nordic lands and the opening year mass spectacle of starlings is over until the nights draw in again. The lowland visitors no longer bide their time and have returned to their upland breeding grounds with the curlew making its evocative calls over the moorlands and the hen harriers sky dancing in the air above.

Whilst the sights of the winter visitors fade into memory after another season’s close, the influx from the south marks the next season’s opening. The arriving waves of avian life join the residents in bringing new energy to the landscape. In amongst the greening woodland branches the willow warbler, chaff chaff and redstart are all claiming their territories after their long journeys north. They join the others, the great tit, mistle thrush, blackbird and blue tit, all calling out their claims. The first swallows skim low across the damp pastureland as the meadow pipits wander between the clumps of thick rush below. The wrens sing piercingly from their hidden stands and the chaffinches chirp in amongst the riverside undergrowth while the wagtails make their bouncing flight from fencepost to gatepost. The insect life is growing too with the bees moving between the great masses of yellow coconut-scented gorse blossom and the dragonflies busily hunt above the slow moving stream. High above the woods and damp meadowlands the buzzards are calling to one another and the heron floats lazily past, skimming over the treetops and dropping down to the water’s edge.

A first white brown-speckled egg of the year lies deep in the bowl of the large nest at the top of the fir tree across the pastureland and a pair of ospreys have once more started their long watch while they wait for the arrival of new chicks to the Glaslyn.

My first protection shift of the year was very unusual in that it was accompanied by bright, clear blue skies and a strong sun. Anyone who has read my blog posts before will know that I’m often ‘blessed’ with plentiful rain during most of my protection shifts, particularly at the early stages of the season. The weather wasn’t perfect, however, as the warmth of the day was reduced markedly by a strong northerly wind but in shelter, away from the wind, it was lovely.

IMG_2314

The early part of the shift was fairly quiet. There was an intruding osprey as I arrived at 10am but little else happened for the rest of the morning and early afternoon. After spending that time out in the forward hide, I returned to the caravan (and its live TV screens) at around 2pm. I’m no expert in osprey body language but when I started watching the screens, I thought the female osprey, ‘Mrs G’, looked a bit uncomfortable and rather than lying in the nest cup was slightly crouching over it. Over the space of a few minutes she shuffled around quite a lot and kept looking towards her rear. She then stood up and the camera, controlled from the viewing site, zoomed in beneath her to reveal not one but two eggs. Not only was I fortunate with the weather today and I had an egg delivery too!

Despite the chilly wind, I ended my shift in my favourite spot, sat on the bridge, dangling my legs over the stream below, watching the water pass beneath – lovely.

Waiting for Spring

5r0a53281

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.

5r0a5325

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…

Flying into high summer

Shorts seemed to be the order of the day as I left home but I became more uncertain about that decision as my journey wore on. All the signs of the season at its height were there; all apart from the sunshine of the previous few days. Even in the early morning, holiday-makers were on their way west into Wales; caravans being towed, people carriers packed to their limits and all manner of sporting kit piled onto roofs or hanging off bootlids. The hedge-bordered roads were slower than usual, giving more time to take in the scenes. The lambs have grown almost as big as the ewes, getting fat on the lush deep-green grass given strength by the heavy rain showers and strong sun. In other meadows, the farmers were cutting hay into long lines ready to be gathered into bales and stored away for the winter. The roadside flowers are less plentiful than on previous journeys but there are flushes of rosebay willow herb, the occasional foxglove still blooming, and brambles showing that there may be a good blackberry crop to come.

Turning onto the track, heading down to protection, the space for vehicles has become even more confined with bracken and bramble ever further encroaching into the way. In some places the farmer has cut the verges but in others the car flicks the vegetation as it passes. All sounds of spring have gone and there is silence on the way towards the meadows. Parking the car, it’s a muddy walk, the cows having made a mess of the gap between the fields and the rains having made it worse. As I approach the site, there are small birds aplenty on the abundance of feeders, blue and great tits, nuthatches and chaffinches, accompanied by a couple of great spotted woodpeckers.

Inside the caravan there is anticipation and excitement as the long wait for the second chick to fledge is coming to an end. As I step in W8 lifts from the nest and a bird is seen circling around the trees beneath but it’s W7 confusing things and W8 was only momentarily airborne and still within the confines of the nest – the wait goes on into the hours of my shift.

5R0A4296

It was a busy and tense shift compared to the last few and as a last shift of the year, one to provide memories to take away. The will-he-won’t-he? question remained unanswered until almost the very end of my time. W7 having fledged two days previously, W8 was expected to make his maiden flight away from the nest at any time. After confusion when I first arrived, he ‘helicoptered’ above the nest a few times and transitioned between nest and perch and back again but seemed very hesitant to make the big step and leap away from his natal home.

There were intrusions into the parent-protected airspace around the nest with up to three intruders at one time, and the parents giving chase and entering into dog-fights, stooping and rising to ward off the unwelcome visitors.

As I was about to give up hope, there was a cheer from the forward hide. My attention had been taken off the live stream and I had been watching a crowd of house martins circling and landing on a nearby tree but I rushed back into the caravan to see an empty nest. Grabbing my camera, I had a distant view of a madly flapping W8 flying around the tree and coming into land back in the nest, almost on top of his sister.

5R0A4540

My last shift of the year ended on a high and as a drove back up the wooded track for the last time, windows open to take in the last of the valley air for another osprey season, there were two successfully fledged chicks sat in that high up nest. It will only be a matter of weeks until they make the journey south – but hopefully to be seen again in two or three years’ time.

5R0A4477

Time Moves On

A subdued atmosphere hangs in the trees as I head down the track today, the sounds of spring have fallen away and the only noises are the thwack of bracken against the wing mirrors and the crack and crunch of twigs under my tyres. There’s a coolness in the breeze coming through the open window and a muffled light, stifled by the thick woodland cover and held back by the patchwork of passing clouds. Out onto the open valley floor, between stone walls and damp meadows, the air becomes warmer but quicker, the breeze increased to windy gusts, chilling in the gloom. The seasons have moved on here, spring prime gone and summer just beginning. The plants have grown to their full height but faded from their bright freshness to darker, fixed tones and early flowers are a distant memory, even some later blooms are starting to fall. The fruits of the dawn chorus are out in the open, young finches, tits and thrushes feed, chase and squabble in the trees and bushes, all under the eye of a waiting hawk. I get a first sight of the other young in the valley, high above the fields in the tall copse. My last visit was spent in wait for eggs to first crack but so much time has passed since then; the chicks are almost in full feather and beginning to flex their wings. It won’t be long until those wings are lifted into the summer air.

5R0A3223

It was a quiet shift today with the chicks resting in the cup of the nest for most of it, with a bit of preening and wing flexing; there was more snuggling than arguing. They are also starting to stand properly on straightened legs, bringing them to their full height, although not yet up to their parents size. Mrs G was either sat on the perch or on the nest much of the time or occasionally chasing crows, and I didn’t see Aran until early afternoon when he returned with a trout. It all got a bit panicky for them mid-afternoon when the farmer came into the field by the nest with his dog to check on the sheep. Both adults took to the air and flew around for a while but she returned to the nest after a short time and he disappeared into the distance; the chicks seemed oblivious. He returned later with what looked like a whole sea trout (could easily be wrong as my fish ID skills are pretty poor). It got quite windy towards the end of my shift; I thought the caravan was going to lift off it’s wheels at one stage!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

During my shift I had a strong feeling of time moving on; the seasons, the year, the years, and the subdued atmosphere I sensed on my arrival seeped into my thinking. The five weeks since my last shift has brought changes to the valley; the plants have grown, flowers bloomed and fallen, and birds fledged. I’ve missed the early stages of the osprey chicks’ growth since hatching and they don’t seem far from the size of their parents.

I had a sense that the year is moving past at speed. It doesn’t seem long since the Glaslyn training event in the dark days of late winter, spring has been and gone, and summer is already upon us (although no one has told the weather apparently!); it won’t be long until osprey parents and fledglings start their journeys south. The busiest period of my, now usual, conservation year is coming to an end with bird surveys finished, my two weeks on Ramsey Island gone and not many osprey shifts left.

I also had a sense of greater scale of time moving on. I have a significant birthday to mark soon, one I’m not altogether comfortable with but one to mark all the same. It’s strikes me that there’s only so much time in life to make a difference – whether that time be the hours in the week, the weekends in the year, or the years in a life. It’s easy to let time pass unmarked and let life drift and that risks missing chances to make an impact and a difference. It got me thinking about conservation and what contribution I make. I’ve already had my ‘midlife crisis’ moment, an early one if that’s what it was; it was now nearly five years ago when I started 12 months away from work and began my stop/start journey through conservation – including a month, altogether, with Mrs G and 11/98.

In the decades of my life so far, so much of nature has already been lost. What the new generation is beginning with, the environment, the plants, birds, insects and animals, is so diminished from what my generation started with and that in turn was much diminished from previous generations. There is a risk that the new generation may use what they inherit as the benchmark norm, to see that as what nature should be like, as others have done so before. Those benchmarks are lowering with every new generation and mine only has so much more time to lift it back up to a higher point from which our successors can take it on.

What has been lost over that time was put into sharp focus by the State of Nature report in 2013 – a copy of this sobering document can be found here. The report highlighted many frightening trends including that a group of 155 species it had data for, some of the most threatened in the UK, had declined by 77% over the last 40 years with little sign of recovery and that the UK has lost 44 million breeding birds since the late 1960s.

However, over the last five years, I’ve been involved with a range of conservation organisations and projects, some large and some small, some well established and some just starting out. Whilst what we have now is much diminished, these organisations give hope and there are good signs amongst all the bad. When I came into the world, there were barely any ospreys in the whole of the UK and none at all in Wales. Over time this has changed and not only are they thriving in Scotland, there are now growing pockets of populations in England as well as in Wales. The work of the volunteers at Glaslyn and many others like them, have helped to reverse the decline of this species and bring the growth in numbers – there just needs to be many more people making efforts to bring success to other parts of nature.

5R0A3502

Time moves on…no one knows yet what impact recent decisions will have on conservation, with potentially so much to do, what time will be given in government to the environment and nature? What will happen to the existing legislation and policies? With these challenges, of politics, governance and available time, is the chance for this generation to repair the damage of the past slipping away?

There may be opportunities as well as problems but that’s the exciting thing about time, it keeps moving on…and not always in the direction we hope or expect.

5R0A3569