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!

Why volunteer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Flying into high summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A waiting game…

Sat in the shelter of the caravan, the rain beats down heavily on the roof. The drops from the overshadowing trees drum the loudest as the wind cascades them off the soaked leaves. The bolt hole rocks as the breeze picks up and the gloom deepens with ever darker clouds moving quickly across the view out of the plastic windows.

Above the noise of the downpour, other sounds break through; the sheep out in the wet meadows, a cuckoo in the distance and a chaffinch on top of the drystone wall. The river is rising, fed by the water running off the hills and mountains, the peak of its flow yet to come and it height uncertain. The screen shows a miserable sight; an osprey sat in a large, slowly swaying nest, protecting two speckled eggs from the shower, rain running off its soggy feathers; a picture of dejection.

The slackening of the rain and then its halting, brings some relief and hope that a flood won’t come. Despite the rain and breeze, it’s not cold; what occasional light shines from between the clouds warms though the windows. As the weather begins to clear, there’s more activity, with swallows and house martins darting across the fields and a woodpecker constantly moving from nest tree to feeders and back again, some eggs have already hatched.

Back inside the caravan, watch is kept, notes are scribbled, a sandwich is eaten, time is marked, the waiting goes on…

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Slowly but surely the time for the osprey eggs to hatch is getting closer but there are still many hours of sitting and waiting in the protection caravan or out in the forward hide before there is a first sight of this year’s chicks. There are still many night hours to come, in the dark watching for movement of a egg collector in the shadows. There are even more daylight hours to come, sitting inside away from the rain, or walking in the growing warmth of sunnier periods. All hours, however, are spent surrounded by nature, its sights, sounds and scents.

I was given two unusually close views of Aran today; first he landed in a tree on the caravan side of the river, a perch much nearer to the caravan than I have ever seen before, and then he flew past even closer with some nesting material a minute or so later.

Apart from the close views, it was a quiet shift today, just as I like them. There was no drama of intruding ospreys or other unwanted visitors, just a day spent in the valley looking at the spring views and listening to nature all around. As my hours came to an end, I wandered down to the bridge over the swollen and faster-moving river; my favourite spot not quite as comfortable as I like it with the strong breeze still present despite the passing of the rain.


It will be five weeks until I have another shift and hopefully much will have happened in the Glaslyn Valley in the meantime; all being well, there will be a couple of new ospreys in the nest when I return.

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An osprey intrusion into spring primetime

Looking from the darkened shelter, out across the drying wet meadows, there is clear, striking blue above reflected by the softer blue haze beneath the trees. The branches are no longer bare, with an electric green wash having transformed the wooded valley and hillsides. A robin sings softly from the gorse with flowers now fading and a bee bumbles past in search of fresh blooms. The sheep are out on the low clipped grass amongst the taller and thicker stands of dark rush; the lambs quietly graze at the fresh shoots while the ewes lie lazily in the warming sun. A pied wagtail wanders it erratic way along the ditchside while dangly-legged flies hover above. A crow wafts past as the furthest views take on a liquid state in the growing shimmer of the midday heat.

The spring sounds are all around; not the eruption of the dawn chorus but business of the progressing season at the height of the day. Swallows chat quickly as they chase low across the meadowland floor and a blackbird makes a quick passage between bushes in flight from the searching hawk. Through the edge of trees a willow warbler descends its notes and the chaffinch tumbles its song, both supported by a broader orchestra of avian musicians. Percussion is played by the drumming woodpecker while the distant cuckoo calls out through the wood in the wind. A song thrush adds a tunefulness to the setting whilst its mistle cousin rattles on its flight from stand to stand. Above the hill tops ravens cronk their conversational tones and then float down towards the valley and past on the strengthening breeze.

In the distance, contrails mark out the sky as jets head west towards the sea and ocean beyond. A buzzard pair begin to climb on the up rushing thermals, crying out as they make turn after turn, they suddenly stoop together, grappling and parting, to rise back up again.

The buzzards are joined in their effortless ascent by another pair of wings making use of the lift. It stands out larger than the pair and makes shorter, higher pitched cries as it gains height. Further calls come from the small copse out across the fields; calls of protective alarm and maternal concern. Up in the high nest is a clutch speckled eggs, under the gaze of the rising winged intruder, now gliding up towards the sun and disappearing into the dazzling brightness.

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I’m not the most emotional of osprey observers but even I let out a few gasps last night watching the antics of Blue 2R on the video stream. I was sure she had stood on an egg while clumsily marching around the nest, open-taloned and occasionally aggressive. When I woke this morning, I had to check the live feed before setting out on my way to my favourite wooded valley. Fortunately things seemed to have calmed down somewhat but Blue 2R was still around when I turned up. Soon after I sat myself down in the forward hide, she lifted up from the nest and ascended high up into the sky and eventually disappearing into the glare of the sun. Aran soon returned with a fish and it was hungrily taken by Mrs G – peace restored but for how long?

I spent the first half of my shift out in the hide; oddly over the past five springs I have spent very little time out there but today I made up for it. Under a near cloudless sky, I sat in silence, listening and watching the scenes of spring unfold in front of me, all in surround sound and the most vivid of colours. This little spot has almost no intrusion from manmade sounds with the exception of the occasional car and passing plane, so it’s a perfect spot to really sink yourself into the sights and sounds of springtime.

I love this time of year, when the colours are at their freshest and the wildlife is most active. The green of the trees is indescribably bright and intense, the freshly emerged leaves yet to be dulled by the sun and weather. The bluebells on route were just as bright and the track to protection is painted more blue than I can remember from previous years.

It wasn’t perfect weather though (I’m so hard to please) as the easterly breeze brought a coolness to the day that deceived the views under the strong sun and clear sky. I should however just be grateful that I didn’t have to write another post of how my journey here started off dry and ended up drenched. If my shift next week is as lovely as this one was, I’ll be very happy!

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A sunny start to osprey season

Spring is in full swing as I head out for my first osprey protection shift of the year but as I make may way across the border, the season seems to go into reverse. Into the hills, a familiar story begins to play out, with the cloud growing and blocking out the early brightness, my car beeps as the temperature falls below five degrees. It is not only rain that starts to fall from the sky but sleet, snowflakes thrown in to make my hopes for a nice day fade.

Up onto the top of the moors, hope no longer seems lost as the first few breaks in the gloom start to form and the sun shows its strength as the moisture on the road begins to lift. Steam rises from the tarmac and the car parts the mist which gathers in the hollows. Patches of fog hang over the fields and forestry blocks, drifting across my path on an increasing breeze. As I reach the crest before dropping down into the valleys, the scene opens up below and in the distance is the sea, shimmering blue beneath the strong glare of the newly emerged sun.

Turning through the gateway, the brightness is unexpected, the clouds diminishing as each moment passes. Driving through the wooded valley, the leafless branches of the enclosing trees cast shadows; I’m driving along a zebra-patterned track.

Leaving the trees behind, emerging out into the flat wet meadowland, little of the cloud remains. The sun falls strongly onto the land but the wind has a sharp chilling edge and the mountains tops have a new coat of white, showing winter, not spring. Here the season is less progressed, the permanent residents may have been singing for a while but the summer migrants are few in numbers and weak in their calls, yet to make this place their own. Those that have arrived seem unsettled, one in particular; she stands alone in the nest at the top of the fir tree copse looking out into the distance, patiently waiting for another to return.

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Writing is a bit of a struggle, the flu that has knocked me for over a fortnight still drags on my energy, both physical and creative. Others don’t seem to have such trouble; buzzards, four or five at a time, were performing their aerobatics, rising into the sky only to stoop into a rapid dive before racing back up high again. At one point in the day, they got too close to the nest and they were chased by the newly arrived female osprey, protecting her claim while waiting for her new partner from last year to make an appearance.

There were plenty of other birds present in the Glaslyn Valley today but few signs of other new arrivals. The great tits, chaffinches, meadow pipits, pied wagtails and robins were all busy going about their days feeding and calling loudly from tree, bush, wall and post. As well as the buzzards, other raptors were about, with a red kite sailing past and a large sparrowhawk staring fiercely at me from a low branch. The corvids were in evidence too with carrion crows and jackdaws feeding in the fields and an occasional raven ‘cronk’ could be heard from the hillsides. The summer migrants though were thinly spread, no hirundines yet and the slightest of hesitant calls from a willow warbler came from a nearby wood.

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The landscape seems a bit further behind here too with only the willows showing leaves so far although there are buds coming on other trees. The gorse is showing its bright yellow flowers but the grass has yet to turn a more vivid shade of green.

Maybe this osprey breeding season will be as melodramatic as the last, with the female having returned but the new male from last year still yet to appear. There’s plenty of time for him to come back though as it wasn’t until the end of last April that we first saw the handsome new partner for ‘Mrs G’. During the day, both before and during my shift, there were several ‘intrusions’ by other ospreys including by Blue 24, one of the usual suspects who has an eye on the Glaslyn nest. No doubt much will happen before my next shift in May.

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I finished my shift in my favourite spot, sat on the bridge in the sun, listening to a robin and song thrush and watching a peregrine circling high above the woodland – perfect!

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!)

Sunshine, Ospreys and Test Match Special

I pull back the curtains and the day welcomes me with rain drops on the window and puddles on the ground; of course it’s raining, I’ve got an osprey shift! However, the rain has been and gone, and looking up, there’s blue. Leaving home and driving through the Cheshire fields, I can see what has gone, rain falling further east. Ahead is more clear sky and my shades go on as I cross the border. It may be sunny but there still a chill in the early morning air and the heating soon warms the car. Despite my expectations, breaks remain in the clouds and the sun goes in and out on my way. I choose the moor top route again but stop part way to look down on the stone bridge over the mountain river.

Passing through the gateway and over the cattle grid, my windows are already open and the woodland is full of bird song. The chiffchaff, willow warbler, robin and wren welcome me while the breeze helps to bring the scents of the damp-covered land into the car. The debris on the track cracks and snaps as I drive under the dappled sunlight. The roadside bluebells are now past their best but the summer flowers are starting to show; the first foxgloves are bursting up their stems. Leaving my car, a cuckoo calls from the hillside trees and buzzards are feeding on the recently ploughed field. The swallows skim low over grass and a redstart chatters in a lane-side tree.

Out in the open, the ground is now dry, made more so by the warm sun and cooling wind. In shelter it is almost summer-like; away from cover, when a cloud rolls over, it’s almost cold and could be the first days of spring. Hope still stands in the nest across the meadows, both birds are up in the tree-top bowl as I arrive. The two eggs have some time to remain intact until they start to be chipped at from inside.

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The early part of my shift made it almost easy to forget the soap opera-like drama of the past few weeks. Two ospreys quietly marking time while incubating a clutch of eggs in that well established nest and territory; they looked quite content in the sunshine. The peace and quiet wasn’t to last long as there were two intrusions in the first two hours. A third osprey was in the area and made concerted attempts to land on the nest. The male gave chase on both occasions and was gone for quite some time, trying to drive off the incomer. When the male returned in the company of the intruder, the female successfully drove it off and then had a brief skirmish with the local crows. Later on, when the male had gone fishing, the intruder returned but only made one dive at the nest before heading off east.

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This was the penultimate day of the meteorological spring and with the sun out it felt almost summer-like but the stiff breeze made it seem much earlier in the year when cloud cover returned. The trees also don’t quite seem to be in tune with the time of year with not all fully out in leaf. Maybe there’s a theme here in the Glaslyn Valley this year with the ospreys being behind the usual schedule too.

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I don’t often have an excuse to sit listening to Test Match Special for most of a day. For once, the internet worked well on my laptop so I had a shift accompanied by Geoffrey, Aggers & co. (with the backing of a constantly calling cuckoo). It wasn’t a great start to the day with the New Zealand tail wagging but after they were all out for 350, England had a good opening partnership – only for this to start falling apart when I was on the way home!

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That was my last shift for a while but hopefully usual osprey service has been resumed. Maybe, just maybe, there might be four ospreys in the nest next time I make my way west and down through that wooded valley.

A Glaslyn Nightshift – Volunteering at its Best!

Leaving the house, after a brighter day, the weather knows I’m on my way to Glaslyn; the drizzle starts to fall as I close the door behind me. I join the end of the slow moving traffic, families heading into Wales for the long weekend, bikes on racks and caravans towed behind. Passing through villages and making turns, the cars move aside one by one, until I’m alone on the narrow twisting route down into the valley. As I descend, the clouds begin to break and the last rays from the sun pick up highlights on the mountainsides.

Turning onto the track, I do the usual and lower my windows, no rain dripping in this time. The woodland path is dotted with fallen blossom and the undergrowth is beginning to encroach; the vibrant green still prominent despite the failing light. The last sounds of the day float into the car but the night is coming upon the valley as I break out into the open meadowscape. It’s not a bird that flits in front of the car as I reach the gates but a single bat, out early in the growing gloom. As I open the door and stand in the fresh air, a dampness clings to me, the rain of the past few days has left behind humidity from which mist is rising and enveloping the hillsides. Across the fields, over the river and behind the bund, the nest overlooking the small copse has a single new hope, an egg being incubated; a last chance of the year?

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After the windy and rainy night shift of two weeks ago, it was with excitement that I arrived at protection yesterday. I was welcomed by bats flying around the field by the caravan, some just skimming above my head, and the sounds of owls in the woodland. I’ve done quite a few night shifts over the past four springs but this was the first without either rain or the old generator that used to power the camera systems. Without those two annoyances, the night was peaceful and all the more vivid for it. The bats were stunning, different sizes circling and darting through the trees and over the fields. The owls screeched and hooted at each other, both barn owl and tawny. A distant fox called and the occasional trilling of a grasshopper warbler could be heard as I made my way over to the forward hide.

The hide, just a bit nearer to the nest than the protection caravan, gives an unobstructed view across the field towards the tree. The last of the evening light was just failing as we set up in the hide, the mist starting to settle at the bottom of the valley as well as clinging to the hillsides and a silence descending on the scene. The moon made fleeting appearances and the stars begin to flicker in breaks between the clouds. After a couple of hours, I returned to the caravan to monitor the cameras while Gwyn remained in the hide.

Since my last shift another egg has been laid, the sixth so far, but there’s a difference this time as it is being actively incubated, unlike the previous ones. When I arrived for my shift, the female was nestled down for the night atop the egg, looking more comfortable than the last time I saw her at the end of a rain-sodden shift. She seemed restless throughout the night but all in all it was quite uneventful during the darker hours.

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As the light began to rise, at around four o’clock, I made my way back through the field, over the bridge and along the bund, to the forward hide. Rejoining Gwyn, we listened to the dawn chorus and waited for the first rays of sunlight to touch the dew-washed land. The birds laid on a great opening to the day with song thrushes, blackbirds and redstarts providing the backing track to a cuckoo calling across the meadows. As the day grew in its strength the signs of the night still remained until just before the sun broke from behind the mountains of Snowdonia; tawny owls still hooting in the woods and the occasional bat remaining out to catch a late meal. A cronking raven passed overhead making a first flight of the day and a lesser spotted woodpecker made its undulating flight past the hide, narrowly missing a low flying buzzard.

The day began for the ospreys as the male returned from his overnight roost but it was only when we returned to the protection caravan that we noticed the reason for the female’s nocturnal restlessness; a second egg now in the nest – a further hope raised for success this year.

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