A final osprey shift of the season

IMG_9963

I slowdown as I turn through the narrow gateway and over the cattle grid. The trees draw in as the car trundles slowly down the track with the undergrowth clipping the wing mirrors and bumper. There are no sounds of calling birds, just the crackle of twigs beneath the tyres. The tarmac of the track is starting to split, with grass and moss forming a ridge down the centre where few tyres pass. There’s dampness on the surface from overnight rain; finally some relief to the long running drought has brought a new freshness to the woodland and fields. The leaves and shoots have been washed clean of the long resting dust and the bright sun picks out the rejuvenated greens.

Across the meadows, the grass has returned with vigour and lushness with the cattle and sheep feeding restlessly as they try to make the most of the new growth. The early morning cloud parts and the strong sun breaks through casting a dazzling shimmer across the land made more sparkling by the light shining back off the new lustre of the grass.

Getting out of the car, I walk down to the bank and the river too has been given a new flush of life. The levels have risen over the past two weeks which has given volume to the weeds, now waving in the steady flow like wind-blown wheat. As I walk onto the bridge, a kingfisher diverts off its flight path and rises higher and around me, returning to the river as it passes around the back of a waterside tree.

While the life is more subdued than it was at the height of the spring, life still has depth here. There are bands of small birds feeding on the nuts and seed left out for them and the insects are making the most of the remaining flowers. There are countless white butterflies busying themselves amongst the undergrowth and open fields. Over the water, dragons and damsels flitter their way across the surface and under the bridge.

Across the river, over the bund and through the field, the copse of tall fir trees stands silent as I take my first look; the huge nest is empty. It is only after a while that a great pair of wings comes into land in the centre of the bowl and a crying is blown towards me on the steady breeze. Then, as a fish is brought in, nearly the whole family return, all three fledglings demanding food and their father providing it, watched on by their mother from a nearby tree top.   

Well, that’s my osprey shifts over for another year…and what an osprey season it has been. The late arrivals of the birds from Africa kept everyone waiting for a while but that aside there have been no major dramas (so far). There are now three very healthy looking chicks, fledged and free, having been fed relentlessly since they hatched. 

The weather has been like nothing I have ever experienced over the seven breeding seasons I have volunteered here and maybe the lower water levels have helped make fishing easier this year. The return of rains, I’m sure, is welcomed by most but especially the wildlife. The parched lands of my previous shift have given way to the more usual green woodlands and meadows. The wildlife will need more of the wet stuff if they are to be prepared for the autumn and winter to come.

I spent the day moving between the caravan and the bridge, enjoying the sun and the shade (and the cricket – the wonders of 4G!). It was a quiet shift with the nest largely empty and only returning to life with the arrival of a fresh fish. At times, there was more crow action than osprey, with two of the cheeky corvids launching a raid on the nest and stealing fish while the ospreys weren’t at home.

After seven years of osprey protection shifts, maybe this will have been my last. Over that time I’ve done nearly 60 shifts and seen 18 chicks fledge, and even had some make their first returns. I’ve had night shifts in the freezing early spring (going to bed afterwards fully clothed and still cold) and day shifts in the heat of a long summer drought where it’s been almost unbearable in the caravan…and, obviously, there’s been lots of rain, the Glaslyn Valley wouldn’t be the same without it! 

If 2018 is my last year volunteering, well, it will have been a vintage one, ended at my favourite spot; sat with my legs dangling off the bridge watching the water run beneath me and looking up to keep an eye on the activities around the nest.

IMG_9973

Why we protect nests…

The brightness doesn’t look set to remain as I turn onto the quiet Sunday morning roads. The clouds are building in compliance with the forecast, spreading beneath the blue sky, pushed on by the strengthening breeze. In the countryside spring is still battling to win through; after a week of four season confusion, there’s still no sign of the much longed for warmth. The trees and hedges are doing their bit, leaves breaking out and blossom starting to form but the sense that summer may not be far away is dulled and diminished. Turning from main road to country lane, there are signs that work in the fields is bringing forward the time for growth; fields ploughed, muck spread and seeds drilled. The pastures are also starting to build their crop; grass growing stronger and brighter, helped by the rain and occasional sun. The short drive doesn’t give me much time to ponder the scenes I pass but time enough to observe more of the constant changing patterns in the countryside. There’s also time to start considering the purpose of my journey and it’s continued need…

5R0A7535

This morning I was out in the countryside again but this time to do my second shift protecting a nesting pair of peregrine falcons.

As I arrived it was thankfully less chilly than my first shift and there is now a heater to keep the volunteers warm. I also arrived later in the day as I wasn’t on the dawn shift, which would have meant getting up well before 5:00am and the need for even more layers. All was quiet as I took over the watch, with the male stood above the nest and the female, unseen, incubating the eggs below. There was soon activity however, as both falcons took to the air to drive off a buzzard that came far too close to the nest for their comfort. I later saw the buzzard doing its rollercoaster display but much further away from the nest.

This is the first year I’ve volunteered with the peregrine team, after a number of seasons doing shifts protecting the osprey nest at Glaslyn. I’m still volunteering at Glaslyn but thought I would help out somewhere closer to home.

The Glaslyn osprey nest has thankfully so far managed to avoid the fate of many other raptor nests; being raided for its eggs. After so long with no successful attempt to harm the nest, it’s easy to think that the threat isn’t there and doing a Glaslyn protection shift is simply a bit of fun and an opportunity to spend some time close to nature. Any sense of complacency that may have started to creep in has quickly been knocked out of me by volunteering at the peregrine site.

It’s only three weeks since my first shift at the beginning of the ‘protection season’ but already there have been a number of incidents at the peregrine site involving people more than likely trying to take the eggs or destroy the nest. I’ve also learnt of at least one other clutch of peregrine eggs in the area that has already been taken.

Having got used to the relative safety of the Glaslyn nest, it’s quite shocking to know that other nests are under what appears to be constant threat of attack. Raiding raptor nests seems like something from the past; it’s ridiculous that in our ‘modern’ world there are still people who think it is their right to harm wildlife for their own benefit. Whether it be for sporting gratification or protecting sporting interests, satisfying a need to collect rare objects or purely for financial gain through serving a demand for wildlife trade, there are still many people who will act with ill intent towards raptors and their nests.

This shows quite starkly that at Glaslyn we can’t lower our guard and that there are those out there who may wish harm to the nest. Whilst I wouldn’t want to scale the Glaslyn nest tree myself, there are some who would and could. Compared to Glaslyn, the peregrine nest is in a no less awkward, inaccessible or dangerous location to attack yet people appear to regularly try to get to it. Furthermore, whilst the peregrine nest may be targeted by a wide range of interests (egg collectors, falconers, pigeon-racers, etc), the range of interests that threaten the osprey nest isn’t much narrower.

As long as there are people who will prey on raptor nests, there need to be others who are willing to spend time trying to ensure they don’t succeed. Just because no one has successfully targeted the Glaslyn nest to date doesn’t mean there are aren’t people willing to take significant risks to get at it. I’m no longer open to even the slightest sense of complacency.

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.

IMG_5749
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.

Summer in the Glaslyn Valley

As I drive down the track once more, the sun is already high and its light makes dappled patterns through the old oak trees. The breeze brings a shimmering to the shadowed world beneath the canopy, with the leaves dancing in its wake. I have my windows open, letting in the sounds of the valley and I’m serenaded by bird song from the wrens and willow warblers. The harsh light across the fields is visible before I break out into the open. The sky is a deep blue with the few clouds shadowing the tops of the surrounding hills and mountains. Summer has truly taken over from the spring now and the flowers are starting to finish their show. The irises have faded and the foxgloves are coming to their final flowers but the bramble blossom is more plentiful and there is even greater promise of autumn fruits. The day is warm and there are hours more for the real heat to grow but the breeze will be welcome high up in that fir tree.

Image

The three chicks have grown up over the last fortnight and they are now looking more like their parents. They try to shelter from the sun under the female’s shadow but there is really only room for one, two at most. The eldest is starting to stand up to its full height with some first tentative flaps of its wings; it will be only a matter of weeks before they are all taking their first flights. It’s amazing to think that in just a few short months, these chicks will have changed from hatchlings to intercontinental flyers – it does show how remarkable nature can be.

The valley really is full of life. From the birds in the woodland and over the open fields, to the butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies searching the meadows, hedgerows and water, and the fish in the river, darting from cover to cover. Whilst the focus may be on the young ospreys, the volunteers at the protection site are surrounded by new life; there are parties of young swallows, blue tits, great tits, long-tailed tits, redstarts and wrens, flitting, rambling and racing around the area.

Image

I spent the day divided between the caravan, the bridge and a sunny spot between the two. I even sat on the river bank for a time, dangling my feet in the cool water; a spot from where I got a different perspective on the scene and I was surrounded by flying life. The swallows were collecting mud from the riverbanks and were dropping low over the river, scooping up mouthfuls of the water. A moth (well I need to look up exactly what it was) hovered by my side, about a foot above the river, then dropped to dip its abdomen into the water before returning to its hover; it repeated this process several times and then flew off out of sight.

A walker with a dog went through on the footpath today. I gave him the usual warning but he was intent on going through. He stuck to the footpath and although both adults left the next, it was difficult to tell whether they were worried by him or were simply continuing their daily battles with their crow neighbours.

So much for only ever being there in the cold, rain and wind – that’s now two shifts in a row at Glaslyn with lovely weather. This will be my last visit for a few weeks but hopefully I’ll see the chicks again before they make their way south.

While I was away…

The wooded way is now in the shadow of a vibrant green cloak; the oak trees are out in full leaf. The damp track still has a scattering of the fallen leaves of last autumn but their replacements have brought a richness to the valley, yet to fade to their deep green of summer. A blackbird rushes off in front as I drive down through the woodland; the bluebells are now past their finest and the bracken is starting to take ascendency across the floor. There are a few rain drops in the air but it is not cold and the sun makes a fleeting appearance as I break cover across the wet pastureland. The clouds above make promises of downpours to come and it may be another day in the caravan or forward hide, sheltering away from the worst. While the bluebell bloom may be subsiding, there are other flowers here, with the fox glove and iris taking to the stage. The ospreys are still where I left them but there are now five, not two. The parents are stood alert by their sides as the three growing chicks rest in the cradling bowl of the nest. They have already grown so much; I’ve missed their early days and weeks but with more visits, I hope to see them thrive, from gawkiness into splendour.

There have been significant changes down at the osprey protection site since my last shift back in April. The biggest change of all being that the three eggs have turned into chicks, and they are starting to lose their down and show early signs of producing feathers. There are obvious differences in size between them and the largest seems to take precedence at feeding time but the smallest, and downiest (if that’s a real word) gives as good as it gets during the sibling squabbles.

Image

There has also been some construction work down at the protection site. The old frame that held the solar panels (powering the camera and equipment) has gone and been replaced by a larger and more sturdy structure, with space for additional panels. The ospreys have also been doing some building work but not necessarily to our benefit – with constant adding to the nest, there’s now a stick, upright, obstructing the view of the chicks. Hopefully, the ever tinkering parents will move it soon.

Something that hasn’t changed is the weather, at least not for my visits anyway. There have been some nice spells since my last visit, but as usual, my shift featured heavy rain – please, please, please, can I have nice, warm weather for my next shift?

Also unchanged from my previous visits were the never-ending battles with the local crows, with the female frequently leaving the nest to chase them off, and this time one crow dive-bombing the nest while she was away chasing others.

Towards the end of my stint, the male brought in another fish; the third since the start of my shift at 10:00am. For the first time, I saw the female and male feeding the chicks together. When I say both, I mean she was and he was trying to. The chicks seemed to ignore him, even when he was trying to press food into their mouths and they would turn away and face the female. Eventually, after some persistence, and eating the fish himself, he managed to get one of the chicks to take food from him and seemed to finally get the hang of it. He’s an old hand at this fathering lark, having been breeding in the Glaslyn Valley since 2004; I’d have thought he’d have worked it out by now!

Image

Osprey images courtesy of Bywyd Gwyllt Glaslyn Wildlife – thank you!

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.

Image

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.

Image

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!

Image

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.

Image

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!!!

Cyclist trouble in the Glaslyn Valley…

Back down the winding track through the old woodland, the rainfall rivers across the way have now dried, as has the protection site. While last week, the river was threatening to break its banks, this week it has a mellow calmness about its movement and it has dropped well below the field level. High up in the tree now sits a complete clutch of three precious speckled eggs.  It’s not all peace and quiet though – there’s a fair bit if mutual antagonism between the ospreys and their carrion crow neighbours with the ospreys giving chase or being mobbed over the course of each day.

Image

On Saturday I retuned to the Glaslyn osprey protection site near Porthmadog in North Wales for another eight hour shift. This time I had company in the form of Jack, one of my fellow volunteers from my local conservation volunteering group. To break up the shift, Jack and I took it in turns to go for a walk in the woodland near to the site. It’s a lovely spot in amongst the old moss-covered oaks and the small craggy hills. Spring bird song was all around and no road noise to disturb the peace; in fact it was almost silent when we arrived at the site. The bluebells are starting to come through, a little later than at home, and the trees are just starting to burst their leaf buds.

It’s not just the ospreys that keep our interest while on shift; the valley is full of life. The birds are the most obvious with 38 different species seen or heard by me on my three visits so far this year but there are mammals too.  The bank voles scuttle on the drystone wall beside the caravan and often a weasel isn’t far behind. There are badgers in the vicinity of the protection site and a lucky few get a glimpse of otters in the river – but not me so far!

In my 30-odd shifts over this and the previous two springs, I have never had an incident to deal with but this changed on Saturday.  Part way into the shift, a cyclist came through the gate by the caravan and proceeded past and towards the bridge over the river.  I spoke to him and made him aware that while the footpath wasn’t closed,  there were nesting ospreys in the area and that if he continued across the bridge and into the field he risked disturbing them.  I told him that if he did indeed disturb them, he would be breaking the law (Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981) and if this was a serious disturbance I would call the Police.  This didn’t seem to bother him and he dismissed my warning with some mutterings about cycling on footpaths and off he went.  He said he would push his bike around the edge of the field but got back on to his bike and rode straight across once over the river.  When he approached the vicinity of the nest tree, the female flew off, circled above and then appeared to dive towards him before they both disappeared from sight.  However, the male stayed firmly on the nest, keeping the eggs warm and the female soon returned.

No harm was done in the end but it just shows how little care some people have for wildlife when their presence risks inconveniencing them.

 

A Day with the Ospreys

Trundling down a woodland track, past the stone cottage and old barn, I splash through rainfall streams crossing the path. Winding round the rocky hillside, a wren flits across the way in the darkness under the enclosing trees. Emerging from cover, the landscape opens up from the old moss-covered oaks into wide damp pastureland bounded by water channels and stone walls. Across the river and the sheep fields, sits a tumbledown building, long past its best and beyond use. In the quietness of its surroundings, silence broken only by the low bleating of sheep and the occasional steam train whistle, it stands alone. Within a neighbouring copse, high up in a fir tree, watched over by Snowdon, is a large, jumbled collection of branches, twigs and turf – a cradle for a precious clutch of Welsh osprey eggs.

ImageThe nest isn’t only watched over by the mountain; it also stays observed by a dedicated group of volunteers putting in hours and days to ensure that no one disturbs the birds or steals their eggs. The rarity of these eggs is what makes them so valuable to collectors. A display of Welsh osprey eggs would enhance any collection, but this would not require the theft of one clutch but two. For whatever reason, egg thieves must have five eggs to display, and at up to three eggs a clutch, it takes two nests to fulfil this requirement. However, the value of these eggs is even greater to those who give their time to protect them and there is a growing band of people willing to put up with rain, cold and discomfort to prevent any attempts to take the clutch.

On Saturday morning I got up at 6:30am to travel to the Glaslyn Osprey protection site near Porthmadog, north Wales. It takes just over two hours to get there from home driving via a choice of scenic roads across the hills and moors or via the fast coast route. My first shift of the year started at 10:00am and as I settled down for a long eight-hour guard duty, tinkering with the new camera equipment, the female started to shuffle on the nest. As she stood up and stepped to one side, there beneath her was the first white and speckled egg of the year, her thirtieth and hopefully one of three to come. As the first to see the egg, I let Elfyn, the organiser of volunteers, know what I had seen, and within a few minutes the news was out. Quite a start to the shift!

Image

With the rain coming down from the start, the caravan with the monitoring equipment (Osprey Protection Spy Cave) seemed the best place to stay but eventually I went out to the forward hide, where the volunteers get closer to the nest and have a chance of better views. The hide gives a clear sight of the nest and tree and any one approaching them would be seen easily, even at night.

The quietness and natural beauty of the valley is one of the bonuses of volunteering there. While the rain, wind and cold can make it an uncomfortable existence for a few hours, we are rewarded with views across Snowdonia and the sights and sounds of wildlife, both birds and mammals.

After my shift I checked-in at a local hotel and then decided to really get into the Osprey way of living and try some water from the Glaslyn Valley and Porthmadog fish for my tea (pictured below!)

 7  8

 

The ospreys return for another year!

After spending the winter in sub-saharan Africa, the Glaslyn osprey pair have returned to their nest site.  For the last two years I have helped the RSPB to protect the nest during breeding season, reducing the chance of disturbance from walkers and stopping collectors getting their pathetic mitts on the eggs.

Bywyd Gwyllt Glaslyn Wildlife, a Community Interest Company run by volunteers, has taken over the operation of both the protection and visitor sites and I have put my name down to do some more shifts over a few weekends, once the eggs have been laid.

http://www.glaslynwildlife.co.uk

I can’t wait to get back to the osprey protection spy cave!