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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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Waiting for Spring

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The dormant winter valley is a faint pencil sketch waiting for the watercolour of spring. The land is almost silent, with mist hanging low across the wet meadows and in the hillside woods. The dampness clings to the rocks and trees, and water lies in seasonal ponds across the pastures. The colour has been washed out of last year’s growth, bracken bleached into faint rustiness and dropped leaves turning black as they mulch on the ground. Even the grass has lost its vibrancy from the summer flush and the memories of spring flowers have long faded. The heavy, enveloping cloud cover gives a sense of pressure being applied from above and the higher hills and mountains disappear under the cloak of grey.

The visible wild life of the valley is at a low ebb but life isn’t missing; it’s just holding on, waiting for the tide of the seasons to turn. The winter visitors remain; the swans are in their family groups feeding out in the pastures, the fieldfares and redwings are starting to come back together to move on northwards and the starlings put on the greatest winter spectacle, foraging parties merging into swirling masses as the day gives up its last light. Down from the moortops, the curlew call their spiritful cries as they glide across the fields and the harriers float above the reedbeds waiting for a moment to strike. They all bide their time, waiting out the colder months in the relative shelter of the valley.

Out of sight there are the earliest stirrings of new life. In the darkness of the set under the old oak tree, the badger sow has given birth to one of the first litters of the year. The vixen waits in the old rabbit warren she has prepared and it won’t be long until her cubs also arrive. The female otter is feeding up in readiness for her new family too and spends time taking fresh bedding to her riverside holt. But away in the darkness of the old abandoned barn, a bat colony still sleeps away the coldest months with little more than a stirring on the occasional warmer day.

Those warmer days seem a long way off now as the wind gains strength and brings a rush through the woodland and over the fields. The cold creeps in through any gaps in clothing and sinks deep into muscles and bone; the dampness in the breeze puts an extra edge into winter’s bite. Many of the resident birds are sheltering from the weather leaving the few hardier souls to bring subdued sounds to the valley. The ravens cronk to each other as they prepare their nest high up on the rocky mountainside and the crows shout across the fields as they chase their neighbours.

Spring is on its way, however, even if it seems achingly slow to arrive. There is a wave of avian life starting to make its way up from wintering grounds in the lands far away. On the warm coasts and hot forests of Africa, birds large and small are preparing to start the long and arduous journey having spent the northern winter in the southern summer. They will bring a rush of energy to the valley; their songs welcoming the dawn and their vitality flourishing into new life as eggs are laid and incubated, chicks are nurtured and fledglings take to the wing. Along with the new growth brought by the strengthening sun to the woodlands, hillsides and pasture, they will bring watercolour to this monotone pencil sketch.

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Last weekend, slightly earlier than usual, was the annual training day for the volunteers at the Bywyd Gwyllt Glaslyn Wildlife viewing and protection sites. As usual there was a morning of talks and instruction, updates on plans and a general celebration of the wildlife of the Glaslyn Valley. Whilst there was much talk of the ospreys, old and young, the importance and breadth of the other wildlife of the valley was a point well made. The list of other species recorded by volunteers at both the viewing and protection sites is extensive and impressive – the valley really has a lot to offer those with an interest in nature.

The ospreys on which so much focus is placed will be starting their journeys north and in just few weeks’ time, towards the latter end of March, they will be expected to return to that nest at the top of the fir tree on the rocky island in the sea of wet sheep pastures. No one knows whether the established couple will both return this year and it is simply down nature; this year’s osprey spectacle isn’t far from beginning…