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!

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!

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.

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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

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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…

From Spring into Winter and (Almost) Back Again

There’s mist over the land as I head out on a welcome journey not done since the height of last summer (if there was a ‘height’). The roads are quiet and I make good time as the hazy sun brightens the countryside around. There are signs of spring along my route; daffodils and snowdrops at the roadside and the hawthorn hedges starting to burst new leaves. There’s also new life in the fields with the first of the lambs out in the low-lying pastures; the grass just starting to turning a richer green.

As the border is crossed and the road rises into the hills, the initial optimism for another rich early-season day falls away as the clouds draw over the longed-for sun and darkness covers the route ahead. It’s soon that I’m passing the reservoir and the first drops of fine rain need to be cleared from my windscreen but the high moorland route still beckons and I increase the pace once turned at the junction. The gloom is even deeper up here and my journey is slowed, lowland mist now upland fog. As I descend into the enclosed valleys, hopes are dashed that dropping out of the cloud will bring a halt to the fine but blanketing rain. There are no signs of brightness across the damp pastureland that divides the mountains and the sea; water lying in the fields are sure signs that these are familiar conditions.

After a break in my journey I eventually make my way down the track in the secluded wooded valley. In the trees and out in the damp water-logged pastureland, spring still seems to be a distant thought, the signs of the new season present in the lowlands yet to appear here. Whilst the birdsong has more strength, it is subdued by the weather and there seems little to sing for with water clinging to every tree, rock and blade of grass.

There may be few signs of spring in the valley but it is on its way and so is a wave of avian visitors, sweeping slowly northwards from warmer lands. Amongst them, hopefully, will be two pairs of wings, returning to an old nest high up in the fir tree copse out in the centre of the damp fields. With them are the hopes of a growing band of followers, hopes of a return of an old favourite and her new partner, and hopes of slightly less drama than last year.

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There is something very familiar about the text above, not just the journey but the weather pattern too. I made the same first trip to the Glaslyn Valley this time last year with signs of spring at home but the weather then enclosing as I made my way towards Snowdonia. The only difference this time was that on my return journey the bad weather had spread into the lowlands too.

The trip was made for the training day for the volunteers with Bywyd Gwyllt Glaslyn Wildlife; this is the community group that took over the Glaslyn Osprey Project from the RSPB in 2014. This will be fifth season that I’ve volunteered at the ‘Protection Site’ where the osprey nest is monitored to stop thieves stealing the eggs. Volunteers also help to prevent disturbance of the birds by walkers on the public footpath that passes close to the nest.

2015 was an osprey rollercoaster by previous standards. There had been the same pair of birds using Glaslyn nest for over a decade but last year the male failed to return and the female was left waiting at the nest. Over the following weeks there was a succession of males trying to mate with her but it was the third that finally settled down with her and managed to raise two healthy chicks which migrated south at the end of the summer.

Last year saw great strides forward by the group including a new visitor centre and video streaming from nest cameras going live on the internet towards the end of the season. Hopefully, the cameras will be live on the website soon and this year the whole breeding season can be watched from the comfort of my own sofa (or desk at work for that matter!).

Live streaming is expensive to run, particularly from such a remote location and it costs thousands of pounds each year and the equipment will need replacing from time to time. Therefore, an appeal has been launched to raise funds to pay for this year’s live streaming and to contribute towards replacement equipment when it is needed in due course. The details of the appeal can be found here.

That trip really marked the start of my spring of conservation volunteering which will also include bird surveys, practical land management tasks and maybe some other nest protection work, but sitting in the quiet of the Protection Site ‘spy cave’ watching over the ospreys really is a highlight – can’t wait for my next trip down that wooded track.

Mid-winter? The lowest ebb?

It’s been a strange winter so far; well, it’s hardly winter is it? Surely 2015 was just one long autumn with occasional bright day to give hope which was cruelly ripped away again by the now predictable misery of cloud, wind and rain.

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With the first signs of spring appearing over Christmas (I saw flowering brambles and hawthorn coming out in leaf), it seems strange that we haven’t even got to the point in the seasons when the northern hemisphere should be at its lowest ebb. The end of January and early February should be the coldest period of the year but up until very recently the signs have been that the usual lowest ebb might not even happen this time around.

Yesterday morning as I left home, well before even the slightest rumour of light appeared on the horizon, a robin was singing from a nearby hedge and as I left my car at the station a song thrush called out from the darkness. I previously wrote a post about the first time last year that I had heard the birds starting to sing as I left home – the date of that post was well over a month later than the first time I heard the initial notes of the dawn chorus this year.

I’m sure my body clock is still waiting for last summer to happen and I think without a bit of proper winter weather it might go completely out sync with the world.

Maybe the weather over the past year and particularly the recent warm few weeks has been exactly that…weather. Alternatively, it could be that El Niño is having an effect, causing our temperature and rain records to be broken. However, it could also be that global warming is starting to take hold, to some extent, and the exceptionally early blooming of flowers and bursting of leaf buds is something we may need to get used to – we certainly will if predictions come to pass.

If global warming means the weather over the past 12 months is a sign of things to come, I might just have to move to somewhere that still has proper seasons.

I thought that the time birds started singing at dawn was more linked to light levels that weather but perhaps the higher temperatures have kickstarted their territorial behaviour early. But what wider effects will changing climate have on flora and fauna? I’m no expert but there are some obvious implications – habitat loss, changing levels of food availability and shifting of migration patterns.

Take just one species – ospreys (okay, they don’t really do the dawn chorus but humour me!) – what could global warming do to them? They have two habitats to rely on, at either end of their migration. Will rising temperatures mean that their food source changes? Will fish stocks deplete or current species move out and new ones move in? We can only wait and see…and hope.

In just a couple of months the ospreys will begin their journeys north from their wintering grounds. In North Wales there is a group of dedicated volunteers who will once again spend days and nights protecting a nest from egg collectors and showing the public views of the birds from a visitor centre. Their hard work is undertaken in the hope that their efforts will help establish a larger and sustainable population of these birds not just in Wales but across the UK.

However, in the long term, if equal efforts aren’t made by everyone, to reduce their environmental impacts and help to restore what has already been lost, it could be that the work of these volunteers, and thousands like them working elsewhere, is permanently undone by climate change; the work of the few undone by the many.

The biggest threat is the indifference of the many leaving the fight to the few; this is not a fight that the few can win, it can only succeed if fought by the many. Without that effort, it could be that missing the lowest ebb of the seasons this winter is just one of a growing number of signs that the life our environment as a whole will irrecoverably ebb away.

(P.S. In writing this, I am, of course, a hypocrite; I do enjoy those two-hour drives each way for a protection shift!)

Perfect weather for misery but there’s a glimmer of hope…

As I head out it seems that the brief summer-like weather of a over a fortnight ago has gone for good and it’s already raining heavily before I cross the border into Wales. The wind is getting stronger too but I only notice from inside the warm cocoon of my car when the caravan in front gets buffeted sideways as we break out from behind the shelter of a hill. The fresh greens of the trees and fields are subdued by the thick cloud cover but there is a flash of bright colour as I pass a carpet bluebells beneath a roadside wood. Climbing into the mountains the temperature falls, getting closer and closer to freezing. The heavy rain starts to be dotted with white flakes and I decide to continue on the main road rather than taking the moor-top route.

The weather worsens further as I get closer to the Glaslyn but as I turn onto the wooded track I still open my windows to let the sounds of the valley in (and the rain!). It’s hard to hear the usual chorus above the rattling of drops on the roof and splashing of tyres through the puddles. A thrush and robin are there but everything else is drowned out. The track is getting darker by the day, shaded by the greening canopy, made more so by the monotone clouds. I’m used to being guided by a wren or blackbird as I progress but today it’s a sheep, stuck on the wrong side of the wall and now herded by a big black metal sheepdog.

The wet meadows are now sodden as I reach the open air away from the trees. Across the river and over the bund, the round home at the top of the fir tree now has two bedraggled occupants. They stand there, backs to the wind and the worst of the rain, looking miserable and dejected. However, at last, despite the weather, maybe there is new hope in the nest and possibly this won’t be a barren year after all.

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As I arrived today, up in the nest was a new young male keeping the Glaslyn female company. He’s been around for a few days and has been attentive to her, bringing fish. They mated at least three times in the first hour of my shift; well, attempted to at least – he fell off on one occasion. He’s a fine looking lad, rather like the previous Glaslyn male (11/98) and, in my opinion, the best looking of her suiters so far this year – maybe she’s just picky and the others weren’t her type. He’s an unringed male, so no one knows where he’s from but perhaps he’s a Scot as the larger numbers of ospreys up there means that a smaller proportion are ringed.

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A fourth egg of the spring was laid yesterday but there was no sign of it when I arrived this morning. The new male disappeared for a couple of hours and then half-way through my shift he brought back a sea trout and she immediately snatched it from him and started hungrily devouring it. However, she did stop for a mid-fish snooze and he twice tried to mate with her while she was still eating. He made a right mess of the first attempt but on the second occasion either he had got the hang of it or he seemed to think it normal just to sit on her back for a while. In total, they mated at least nine times during the eight hours of my shift, which is hopefully a good sign.

I learnt my lesson of last week, when I froze for most of the day in the protection caravan (spy cave). Today I brought warmer clothes and a sleeping bag, and also popped into Port’ for a cooked breakfast before I started my shift – the sausage bap last week obviously didn’t do the job.

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I was looking forward to a quick wander in the woods this week to see if the bluebells had come out further and to take some shots but the heavy rain put paid to that idea. Instead, I stayed curled up in the caravan for the day, longing for the rain to stop, clouds to part, wind to drop and for that summer weather to come back. During a lull in the rain, I had a short wander around the site and soon noticed a good sign of just how cold it was with a fresh blanket of snow on the upper slopes of the surrounding mountains.

Maybe, just maybe, next week the good weather will have returned and eggs will be being incubated in the nest – but I’ll happily settle for the latter!