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!

An Era’s End and Two False Starts

Just like two weeks ago, I wake on a day more dull and grey than the previous few, the weekday summer turned into weekend winter. The rain falls lightly as I head out, the roads turning more wet by the minute. Despite the chilly dampness of the early morning, spring is in full flow and even as I head across the border into Wales and up into the hills, the signs show no doubt that the season is here. However, the weather turns for the worse as I head onwards and higher, the clouds close in further, enveloping the road; surely I’ve just driven out of April and into December?

Dropping down into the Glaslyn Valley, below the cloud base, spring reappears, even if it is trapped beneath a dark, brooding grey cloak. As I turn onto that wooded track, I’m met by fresh, renewing life, the past two weeks have given time for a transformation. The landscape has a growing richness as if a giant has thinly draped sheets of green tissue paper over the hills and fields. The trees all around are breaking out into leaf, the grass has a new richness and the bracken is starting to unfurl. Under the canopy, the bluebells are breaking out their blooms and even the irises and foxgloves have begun their growth. In through the car windows comes a woodland chorus of song, now given greater dimensions by the arrival of the summer migrants. The wrens, robins, great tits and song thrushes have now been joined by the chiffchaffs and redstarts, with the willow warblers giving more voice than most. Out into the open amongst the wet meadows, the wind has an edge, adding a bit of extra sharpness to the chill in the air. This may be a day to stay in the ‘warmth’ and shelter of the caravan. However, I leave the door open, away from the wind, to allow the sounds of the valley to flow inside.

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My blog post after my last protection shift wondered whether my next visit would see a male at the nest or any ospreys at all. Well, when I arrived, the nest would have been totally empty had it not been for the broken eggshell lying discarded to one side. There was no sign of the Glaslyn female or male nor of either of her two recent suitors. Over the past two weeks, it has become clear that the male osprey (11/98) who has been paired with the female since 2004 will not be returning this year. His fate is very unlikely ever to be known and all manner of things could have stopped him from returning. Despite the sadness that he has not returned, there has been some hope for successful breeding this season with two males showing keen interest in the female.

The first to make concerted effort to pair with the Glaslyn female was CU2, born in Dumfries in 2012. He arrived at the nest on the 15th April and over the course of a couple of days tried to mate with the her, however, on the 17th another osprey appeared at the nest. This second male was Blue 80, a Glaslyn-born chick from 2012 and the son of the Glaslyn female – a fledgling from the first brood I helped to protect! He immediately took ‘possession’ of the nest and on 20th, after mating with Blue 80 several times, the female laid her first egg of the year. By the following day, the egg had been lost in the nest and CU2 was back with the female and Blue 80 nowhere to be seen. On 25th (yesterday), a second egg was laid but unfortunately was soon broken, while at the time of posting, CU2 hasn’t been seen since 24th.

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The female arrived at the nest at 12:40 this afternoon with a flounder in her talons. For a moment she appeared to have lost it as she was chased off her perch by the local crows but she soon returned, and still with her fish.

There has been a lot of discussion about the possible pairing of the Glaslyn female with her son and whilst is does seem odd to us humans, it is perfectly natural in ospreys – here’s a link to a great piece written on the subject by Emyr at the Dyfi Osprey Project.

During the day, other birds kept me entertained too and not least the ravens and crows around the protection site. There seemed to be ongoing antagonism between the two species throughout my shift with the ravens frequently floating past, cronking loudly, and pursued by a band of angry crows. I also watched the newly-returned swallows as they made their jinking flights over the fields, their passes getting gradually lower as the rain forced the insects towards the ground.

In the afternoon, as the wind picked up and the rain became heavier, I closed the caravan door and tried to keep warm – it became decidedly cold inside. The weather we have had this week lulled me into thinking I didn’t need to dress warmly for a shift; next time I’ll take my woolly hat and sleeping bag!

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With the female still alone when I finished my shift today, it looks like she may be starting her lonely vigil once again. This time I will only have to wait a week for another stint down at protection and to see whether she will continue to have to wait for a new partner.

That’s one, now where’s the other?

Today the Glaslyn female osprey returned to her nest after spending the northern winter in West Africa – now we just have to wait for her other half to turn up (hopefully).

So much effort has been put in by the volunteers at the Bywyd Gwyllt Glaslyn Wildlife community interest company to get both the protection and visitor sites ready for their arrival.  Yet, there is no certainty at all, each year, that they will make it all the way back to North Wales.

So, it’s so far so good…and fingers crossed!

Was I dreaming or did I just spend a day in a sunny Glaslyn Valley?

As I get out of my car at the end of the wooded track, a hush has descended across the open valley. The air is warm and still and the murk of the low grey cloud lies heavy over the land. The quietness of the place gives it an atmosphere, like I’ve invaded the private world of the wildlife and plants. There would be silence if it was not for the birds; the dawn chorus appears to have lasted well into the mid-morning and there’s a whole avian choir singing in all 360 degrees. There is young life in abundance with great tit and robin fledglings, all calling to be fed, and the wrens shout alarm as they wait to enter their nest, beaks full of insects. The real herald of spring is here too; the cuckoo calling first at distance and then close by. The signs of the season have been clear in the valley for weeks but this is now spring in its prime. High up in the fir tree, the chicks have grown so much in just one week; they still have growing to do but they have already come so far.

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The valley scene has not changed dramatically since my last shift but the plants are continuing to surge upwards; the bracken is becoming more dominant, the irises more plentiful and the flowers of the foxgloves are opening further up the stems. As the blossom of the gorse has died away, the bramble is starting to come into flower; hopefully to provide another bumper blackberry crop this autumn.

As the morning moved on, the wind picked up and blew the clouds away to reveal a bright blue sky and warm summer sun. In fact, today is the last day of spring (meteorologically speaking) and it has been a fine one. Yes the weather forecast yesterday said it had been one of the dullest on record but the Glaslyn Valley has been in its splendour – what will the summer bring?

The birds really were on top form today and I recorded 31 species over the course of my eight hour shift. The redstarts, wrens, willow warblers and chaffinches dominated with their calls but others made their presence known. The osprey battles with the crows are still ongoing and the buzzards have been close by too. The pied wagtails nesting just up the track have been taking insects from the drystone wall and a mistle thrush has been calling angrily around the site.

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I did a long dreamt of thing today; I sat in the warm sun at the protection site – It may seem like a little thing to most. I think this little corner of north Wales is a hidden and quiet oasis and I love to spend time there but over the course of the past three springs (and over 30 shifts – many at night, to be fair!), I have yet to have this pleasure.  I’m sure the sun shines on the valley quite a lot but my shifts seem to coincide with rains and storms; so today was a bit of luxury.

Before I packed up for the day and made the long, but enjoyable and scenic, drive home, I went down to the river…

Standing on the bridge, staring down into the river, the water crowfoot and rich grasses wave in the current, like breeze blown stands of wheat.  A bee passes close by, humming as it bumps from flower to flower. The strong sun, not far off its yearly peak, brings a tingling warmth to my face, only slightly cooled by the passing breeze. The trickling water runs beneath the concrete slab and the mirror-like surface is only lightly stirred by the air flowing above. The crisp blue sky is reflected back towards the clouds but the crystal clearness grows as the river nears the arches. Above, a wren calls from a stand on the gorse and bramble covered stone wall, while below, shoals of small fish dart from cover to cover, momentarily wavering in the faster flowing water.  A redstart continues its chattering from the tree top, joined by the willow warbler and the blackbird, early for its dusk vigil.  The scent of tanning skin and drying grass mingle in the fresh air drifting in from the coast. The low bleating of the ewes and lambs go almost unnoticed, unlike the cuckoo announcing its subversive intentions.  I stir from my stance above the water and, begrudgingly wander back to my car.

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A quiet day with the ospreys

That winding track down through the hillside woodland grows more stunning with every Springtime visit. There is a freshness to the scene; the season of emergence and renewal bringing new life to the old trees. The leaves on the gnarled and moss-blanketed oaks are slowly coming out and the grass is turning a more vibrant shade of green each day. The birds are still singing for their territories but the voices change each time I arrive. This day has a backing of willow warblers and redstarts with an occasional cry of a buzzard circling above the rock studded valley sides. Out from under the canopy and into the open wet pastures, a cool breeze still cuts across the land, dismissing the stone wall barriers and taking the heat away from the Sun’s growing strength. There in the tall fir tree, they still sit patiently waiting for the first cracks to appear in the eggs and the small, ever-hungry mouths to appear. It’s time to rest, as the coming weeks will offer little.

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Before my shift started, I took a brief wander amongst the trees, as the bluebells are now emerging and there’s a soft carpet of blue and green under the growing shade of the wooded canopy. There is a dell amongst the oaks and crags in the crown of the small hill behind the site; I could have spent the whole day sat up there but I had to relieve the previous tenant of the osprey protection spy cave and start my watch.

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The title to this post may say ‘quiet’, but the diesel generator was on for much of the shift due to the lack of Sun. The equipment in the caravan is powered by solar panels but if the battery reserves fall too low, the generator is switched on. Whilst it does take the edge off the tranquility, it’s a lot quieter than the old generator that we used to have during night shifts – I’m sure even the Ospreys used to cover their ears!

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It was an uneventful shift – just how we like them – the ospreys quietly waiting. The sun and rain took it in turns, alternating between warm and dry, and wet and chilly. The only disturbance came from the crows, more chasing and mobbing, the ospreys getting impatient and irritated by their presence so close to the nest.

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At about 4 o’clock, the female started calling to the male; almost certainly telling him to get on with his job and fetch her a Saturday evening takeaway. Eventually he took the hint and hopped off down to ‘Port’ to see what he could wrap his talons around. After about an hour he returned, but to the naked eye he didn’t appear to have anything with him – no carrier bag, nothing wrapped in newspaper, no foil cartons, no nothing! However, after a little while, he popped down onto the nest and presented the female with the tail end of a very small fish. She grabbed it, hopped onto the nearby perch and wolfed it down in a couple of minutes – didn’t seem to care about the fish bones! I think he might be up early in the morning to get her breakfast – by the look of that meal, she’ll be hungry – and probably not in the best of moods! She has one of the most scary stares of any female I’ve seen; in fact, second only to my 6-year-old niece!

It’ll be a while until my next shift but by the time I return there should be chicks! Can’t wait!!!