A return to Norfolk in January

At the end of last month (I’m getting behind with my blog writing!), we had a long weekend on the north Norfolk coast, staying in the lovely village of Blakeney. This is the second year in a row that I have taken a long January weekend in this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – it’s the perfect place to spend an early-year few days outdoors surrounded by nature.

Blakeney itself is a stunning little harbour village, about three kilometres from the sea up the River Glaven. The village is typical of this part of Norfolk with it’s few streets lined by flint-faced cottages. Our retreat for the weekend was a cottage in the old granary on the river front with great views across the wide and open salt marshes.

The two and a half days were spent walking along beaches, across the marshes and around some of the best nature reserves I know. This time of year on the north Norfolk coast is full of winter bird life with their sounds an almost constant accompaniment to any time spent outdoors. The richness of the wildlife is revealed by the figures; in just those short days in the area, we saw 80 different species and some huge flocks of wintering geese and ducks. 

Over the weekend we went to the coast at Holkham, had two visits to RSPB Titchwell, walked from Blakeney to Cley and back again, walked around the Norfolk Wildlife Trust site at Cley and made a dusk visit to the steep pebble beach at Weybourne. Through each of these places we saw a great amount of wildlife; from the large flocks of wildfowl and waders, the geese being my favourite, to the smaller birds gathered together to forage in the dunes and fields. The best sights were of hundreds of scoter off the coast at Holkham, the pink-footed geese in the fields alongside the main road, the flock of snow buntings behind the Holkham dunes, the mixed flock of curlew and ruff near to Cley, the dusk gathering of marsh harriers at Titchwell, and the hares running down and across a darkened back road.  

The place is so rich in life that I yearn for a winter day wandering the area and I’m never in doubt that I will return many times again.

RSPB Leighton Moss

Yesterday we headed up to north Lancashire for an afternoon at the RSPB’s Leighton Moss reserve. After what has seemed like a never ending streak of gloomy days (or have I just spent too long in the office, far from natural light), it was a relief to be outside on a fabulously sunny day, even if there was a distinct chill in the air.

The reserve, nestled on a floodplain between the low hills of the Arnside & Silverdale AONB, is a patchwork of large lakes and reedbeds close to the shores of Morecambe Bay. The network of trails and hides puts you right in the middle of the reserve, giving great chances to see a whole range of wildlife from many different vantage points. Since my last visit, a new tower has been installed, giving visitors a view across the whole reserve.

Being a wetland reserve in winter, the lakes were the home to a large number of water birds with a good variety of ducks, geese and egrets. The tree-lined edges to the reserve were also good for woodland species with a good range of tits in particular seen during our five hours.

The day ended with a dusk spectacular with a murmuration of tens of thousands of starlings swirling above the reserve. We started to think it wouldn’t happen as the darkness descended and no birds had been seen. However, what began with a single bird, then a group of five, eventually became great rivers of starlings passing over our heads as they came in from spending the day foraging inland. Before they made their funnelling plummet to their nocturnal roosts, there was a mass of life swirling and waving over the reedbeds. It was just a pity the main body of the murmuration was a good few hundred metres away, but I still managed to get a bit of video…

Ramsey Island: Missing the silence

Sitting on the doorstep of the Bungalow, the silence washes over me. Not a total silence but an absence of manmade sound. Nature is here, all around, and the calls of the birds fill the landscape, from the sheep-clipped pastures to the hazy sky. It is so quiet at this spot, that I hear a swallow’s wingbeats as it urgently flies past gathering food in preparation for its long journey south. Behind me, above the rocky hillside, comes the harsh bullet-ricochet cry of a chough, eventually it descends past down to the drystone wall and further to forage in the grass. 

The busy meadow pipits scurry amongst the other chough, feeding around the tussocks while family groups of linnet chatter on their way above them. Two crows harshly call to each other from opposing sides of a field while an autumn robins sings a soft melody from a wall-top perch. A raven on the wing cronks and croaks as floats its way towards the peak and a gull yelps in amongst a flock gliding above the bay. Deep below from amongst the rocks and boulders, the cries of seal pups rises up the cliff face and spreads out across the island, with their mothers bickering as the tide rises around them. 

In the distance, the rolling breakers rumble into the shallow-sloping beach as my focus is sharply brought closer as bee bumbles past my eyes, after the last flowers of the slowly fading summer. The peace is abruptly broken by the sudden burst of rabbits boxing in front of the narrow field gate and now I notice the only human sounds; the passing of a high-level airliner to the new world and a conversation drifting across the still waters from the mainland.

The bright September sun is burning off the cloud and reddening my skin. The landscape of the St Davis’s Peninsula laid out in front of me has the first hints of autumn. The heathland heather is losing its purple haze, the patchwork of fields have been stripped of their crops and are now dotted with bales, and the banks of bracken are starting to rust as their stands dry and slowly topple.

I could sit in the spot forever but time has come and I need to make steps down to the harbour and return to the human cacophony of the outside world.

Last weekend I popped back to the island for just one more night, to take part in the annual Ramsey Island 3 Peaks Race. It was my first ever competitive run and I came third of the normal people who only did three peaks. I did for a moment, not far from the end, consider joining the nutters and doing another lap but my body decided against it.

After a late night to follow, in the morning while Alys, who took over from me as long term volunteer, and the three shorter termers left the Bungalow to start their day’s work, I stayed behind to sit and contemplate on the Bungalow doorstep.

Sitting there for half an hour, I immersed myself in the surroundings; my favourite view laid out in front of me and almost only natural sounds around me, save for a plane or two. My home life isn’t exactly noisy but it’s impossible to get away from manmade sounds and my worklife, in the centre of Manchester, is by comparison surrounded by a loud medley of urban intrusions into my hearing.

Oddly, maybe, I find absolute silence slightly unnerving, especially when accompanied by the pitch blackness of a remote night-time hour. I sleep with a window open at home and the distant hiss of road noise is in some ways comforting. 

However, sitting on that doorstep for those few minutes, I came to the realisation of one of the things I miss the most about the island; that silence from manmade sounds.

Ramsey Island 2019 – Week 8

This week has been the most action-packed so far and there has been some stunningly bright and lovely weather.

The week saw the end of a range of surveys including my shearwater response survey and possibly the end of the chough watches although there are still one or two nest sites where we still don’t quite know what has been happening. For the past few weeks there has been an ongoing survey of the auks (razorbills, guillemots and puffins) around the island itself and the offshore Bishops and Clerks. Most of the work has been done from the land by Greg (the Site Manager) and Lisa (the Warden) but this week several of us were able to help when the survey went nautical! There are a number of locations where the breeding sites of the auks can’t be seen from the land so Thousand Island Adventures kindly lends us Ocean Ranger, a skipper and crew, to take us to the hidden spots. I had two trips out, the first at the end of one day which took us to the Bishops and Clerks, and the second early in the morning taking us to the cliffs of Ramsey and the islands immediately to the south. The latter trip was particularly nice given the lovely weather but we did end up getting a bit wet when a large wave his us side on. It has to be said, doing bird surveys by jet boat is much more exciting than my usual sedate wanderings around my own survey sites at home.

I was also given an additional treat this week with another trip on Ocean Ranger when I tagged along on a sailing out to Grassholm. This island is seven miles off the coast of Ramsey and part of the same RSPB reserve. It is home to 36,000 breeding pairs of northern gannets and is the fourth largest gannetary in UK waters. It took a while to get out there but the sights, sounds and smells of the 11 hectare island need to be experienced to be believed. It was unfortunately a very dull day so my photos are quite limited but I wouldn’t have missed it – hopefully not the only trip out I will have.

I also did my penultimate guided walk this week, ably assisted by Alys, the other long-term volunteer on the island this year. She arrived on Sunday and will be carrying on and taking over from me when I leave at the end of July and she will stay until September. I really enjoyed the walk again and the great weather and visible wildlife helped make for a great even.

The week finished with a some unusual visitors to the island when a group of singers turned up for a couple of hours on Saturday. The Hay Shantymen are doing a short tour in the St David’s area and came across to give us a few songs. They are raising money for both he RSPB and the RNLI. I have to admit that shanty music isn’t normally my thing and I was quite sceptical but one of the songs in particular  (Leave her, Johnny) was quite moving – particularly as it won’t be too long until I leave Ramsey. I even got a bit of video…

What I really like about this video is that there are house martins flying around the singers as they come in and out of their nests under the eaves of the farmhouse.

Ramsey Island 2019 – My First Week

After arriving a day late due to the weather, my first week on the island was a little short and certainly went quickly. However, as I’ve come to expect, each day has been different and never dull. 

Unusually for me, I’ve been finding it difficult to get out of bed – in my other life I get up at 5:30 each morning . We don’t have to leave the Bungalow until about 9:15 and it doesn’t take long to get ready but I’d like to get up earlier than 7:30 – that’s a full two hours later than usual for me. However, a significant reason for my reluctance to leave my snug and warm bed is that it has been freeeeeezing each morning and it’s not an immediately enticing thought to leave my bed behind. The temptation of making a nice bowl of porridge (or gruel) has each morning eventually got me out of my pit. Food has been a constant in my mind for most of the week, whether it be trying to make lunch more exciting, increasing my evening repertoire (as of today now including a decent pizza!) or just settling down at the end of the night with a slice (or two) of my fruit cake and a wee dram.

The weather has been quite variable. We have only had visitor boats on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday due to strong winds and as I write this, on Saturday evening, the winds are strong again and blowing straight into the end of the Bungalow where my room is, making it even more of an icebox. Despite the wind, today has been gloriously sunny and in shelter it has been quite warm under the strong sun and I may have caught a bit of it. This has been the case for a few of the days; when the cloud clears it could almost be summer.

I didn’t feel that my stay had really got going until I did my first introductory talk. A primary role for all volunteers on the island is to help with the visitors, assisting them on and off the boat, Gower Ranger, as she arrives at 10am and 12pm and takes the remaining visitors off at 4pm. Volunteers also run the small shop in the farmhouse selling drinks and snacks at each boat arrival and for a longer period prior to the 4pm departure. A key part of my role over the three months will be doing the introductory talks when each boat arrives. The visitors are shown into the boat shed and they get a 15 minute talk about the island, where they can walk and what they can see. I love doing them and it’s a great opportunity to promote the work of the RSPB and enthuse about the island in general and the nature it supports.

In addition to the visitor tasks, John, the other volunteer, and I have been doing a range of monitoring and practical work. Our first tasks were to do watches at eight of the nine chough nests around the island. We spent up to an hour at each, noting down the activity to see if a pair is actively using the nest – three of my four definitely appear to be being used, while the fourth was a little inconclusive. We will repeat these watches over the coming weeks and I’ll do other bird survey work to support monitoring of breeding bird populations.

The practical work was varied and fun, including:

  • My first practical use of the quad bike after my course a few weeks ago
  • Altering some path signs and reinstalling them
  • Setting some more marker stones along the visitor path 
  • Repairing the chicken shed and run (they deserved it as they lay great eggs!)
  • Tidying up around the farms buildings and cutting kindling for the Bungalow stove
  • Tidying up the back of the Bungalow and installing a new compost bin
  • Trying, and failing, to take a gate apart to salvage the wood
  • Cutting back some gorse above one of the bays

After our work for the day is finished, at about 4:30ish, the evenings are our own. I’ve been running a few times so far; I have never run anywhere as spectacular as the Island and it sure beats pounding the streets at home or going to the gym! I’ve also been out for evening walks, photographing the wildlife, and have sat in the sea-watching hide looking for the passing wildlife.

One evening, however, our work started again at 10pm as John and I headed out to the eastern side of the island of help the wardens, Greg and Lisa, to catch and ring Manx Shearwaters. We spent a couple of hours using large pond cleaning nets to catch the birds as they landed on the ground. We gathered them up carefully, trying to avoid being bitten and scratched too much, and put them into cloth bags, handing them to Greg to ring. We ringed 20 birds over the course of the evening and had a number of re-captures of previously ringed birds – quite a successful night’s work. Hopefully more of these evening tasks to come!

The Manx Shearwaters are highlight of a volunteer’s stay on the Island, even if they aren’t involved in ringing them. A night on Ramsey at this time of year is accompanied by the weird chuckling-gurgling calls of the ‘Manxies’ and I love going to bed listening to them come in to their breeding burrows all around the Bungalow – I’m fortunate that I have so many more nights to come on the Island to listen out for them.

Taking a break from one life to live another

I’ve barely been able to contain my excitement for the past seven months. I’m just about to do something that I’ve wanted to do for many years and something that is well up towards the top of my bucket list; in fact it probably sits in the number one position these days.

Looking back at my working life and my career, I can say, very honestly, that I am where I set out to be. Sometime during the middle years of secondary school, while in my form teacher’s classroom, I picked up a copy of the Local Plan; I was fascinated – odd, I know. Possibly coming from a liking for maps, a natural tendency for order, a bit of creativity and an interest in geography, planning seemed like the ideal profession for me. 

My GCSEs seemed to fit well and my A-Levels were perfect, so I went on to study for a degree, and then a post-grad, in Town Planning (with a focus on transport). I then had a lucky break and got a job after only my first ever interview with a smallish consulting engineers, working as a Transport Planner. Over the course of the last 20 years, I’ve learned, grown and developed in the profession and now I’m an Associate Director in a large, multi-national consultancy. If I had seen where I am now from the eyes of that teenager holding that Local Plan, I think I would have been very happy.

However, what time has for so long led me to forget is that I had another dream job in mind way before I picked up that Local Plan. From my early childhood I’ve had an interest in wildlife and nature, despite a family tendency for all things trains and engineering, and that interest has burned long and deep in me. There was a key moment in my primary school years that sparked my interest further. If I remember correctly, on the way to catch a ferry from Newcastle, my parents, my brother and I stopped to meet my Mum’s cousin Steve at a nature reserve where he was warden. He showed us around and, as a nine year old, the experience was a defining moment in what would become a lifelong interest.

Over time however the interest slipped more into my subconscious and when I joined the world of work, it was well hidden behind all things that normally interest someone in their early 20s. As time moved on, work became more important and most other things became secondary and poorly prioritised. By my early thirties, my work/life balance was pretty bad and my love of wildlife and nature a mere cooling ember.

This all changed when, ten years ago, I finally decided to take a proper holiday and booked a wildlife trip to Sweden. It was the spark that re-ignited the flame and it has slowly but strongly grown ever since. Things still weren’t quite in balance between work and home, and it finally came to a head in the summer of 2011, when I decided to take a break from work and spend a year exploring my newly fanned interests. I spent a large part of that year volunteering for conservation organisations, both locally and at various locations around the UK. The experience that stood out the most from that year was the two weeks I spent with the RSPB on Ramsey Island off the Pembrokeshire Coast.

Every year since, I have gone back to the Island for more fortnights volunteering, and sometimes, if I’ve been well behaved, I’ve had have the odd additional week too. I adore being there and it would be a huge loss in my life if I couldn’t go back again. It’s usually one of the saddest days of the year when I leave and I think about place almost every day (triggered by the two paintings I have in my house). I always long to return and I usually make the booking to go back as soon as I get home from a stay.

So, imagine my reaction when I was there in September last year and Greg, the Site Manager, offered me the chance to stay for three whole months!!! Well, I couldn’t refuse. So, after seven months of containing my excitement, I’m taking May, June and July off work and heading down to South Wales to spend 13 weeks on the loveliest of islands doing something my childhood self could have dreamt of. I’m sure this stay will be the same as my usual shorter stays; it won’t be a holiday, I will actually be living a different life for a few weeks,

I have to say that my company and colleagues have been both extremely understanding and helpful in enabling me to do this – many wouldn’t have been so. It’s a sign of a brilliant company and great colleagues that staff can take time out and give the other half of their lives some real focus – thank you WSP!!!


A first trip of the year

On the 2nd January I had my first trip out of the year and visited the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s Martin Mere Reserve. I’ve been visiting the reserve for many years and usually make a trip in the autumn to see the large flicks of pink-footed geese that pass through on the way to their main wintering grounds in north Norfolk. However, largely due to the amount of weekend working I did over the autumn, I missed that chance and this was the first time I’ve been for well over a year.

The weather was cold but very bright and a big change from the recent mild but gloomy stuff we’ve been having and it made the visit all the better for it. There was plenty of wildlife on show as I walked between the various hides from one end of the reserve to the other. I saw over 40 different species; perhaps not the most comprehensive list for the site and I’m sure I would have seen more had I stuck around longer. However, the best sights of the day were a barn owl hunting in daylight and three distant marsh harriers.

Of particular note was the relatively low number of whooper swans. It might just have been the particular day but there were only around 800 present when at this time of year previously I might have seen double that figure. I also learnt that the number of Pink-footed geese that passed through in the autumn was lower than usual. I suspect this may simply be down to the mild weather we have had over the autumn and winter so far and the birds are staying further north. However, there is a bread in me that there is more to this.

Towards the end of the day, I made a quick visit to RSPB Hesketh Outmarsh to see if there was much about. Whilst is was quiet I did get a nice sunset…

Seals pups – born into a harsh world

It has to be said that the pupping beaches of Ramsey Island aren’t places of peace and quiet where the seals live in harmony with each other. They are actually places of sex and violence, right in full view of the pups (and often the visitors too!).

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The pups arrive in a blood-stained gush straight onto the stony beaches, gasping for breath and open to the often harsh weather conditions and surging tides. They struggle towards their mothers to get their first feed of rich milk, using their weak flippers to push themselves across the hard ground. Some of the pups find themselves in amongst bolder fields while others right on the water’s edge; either blocked in by rocks or at risk of being washed away by a surging wave.

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The gulls take a keen interest in the spectacle, waiting for the afterbirth to appear, a fine meal for them, which they sometimes tug at whilst it’s still attached to the female, eliciting an irritated response. They also look out for those pups struggling into life, those too weak to survive or taken away by the sea only later to be deposited lifeless high up on the strand line. This is a time of plenty for the gulls especially when the weather turns for the worse.

Storms take their toll on the seal pups, last year was particularly hard, but even a short-lived storm in late September this year took a number from the largest beach on the Island. With a  westerly wind, the waves rolled in to Aber Mawr bay, crashing up the shingle beach and against the base of the cliffs, leaving little room for the pups to resist the sea.

It’s not only the angry seas that the pups have to look out for. The adults are a risk to them too. The females are intolerant of others, whether they be adults or pups. Much of the sound coming up the cliffs from the beaches below is from quarrelling females arguing over space and proximity to each other’s pups. The aggression increases with the arrival of the males, it’s not only pupping season but the time for mating too. The males make claims for territories on the beaches and will fight each other to keep control of their patch and to mate with the females within it. I thought that grey seals had relatively tame fights compared to the elephant seals I’ve seen in the Falklands but I saw two really going for it at Aber Mawr with plenty of blood flowing from gashes on their necks.

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The females give as good as they get too, warding off unwanted advanced from males with growling and biting, with fights breaking out at times. Even when they are in the process of mating, there’s plenty of aggression between the pairs.

However, there are times of relative quiet, with the females nursing their pups and others, whether large or small, relaxing on the shore, basking, stretched out in the sun. The only sounds being the water breaking on the beach, the gulls calling from the wing and a pup calling out towards the sea waiting for its mother to return from feeding.

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Pupping time for Grey Seals on Ramsey Island

September on Ramsey Island is right in the middle of grey seal pupping season. I have to say that, despite views to the contrary, my real wildlife interests are in mammals rather than birds, so a couple of weeks on the Island at this time of year gives me an opportunity to take a look at some of the UK’s biggest.

Ramsey is the largest pupping location in south-west Britain and around 500 to 700 born on its beaches each year between August and November. Walking around the island, the calls of the adults and pups can be heard coming up from the shoreline in most places and I could even hear them whilst I was lying in bed this morning.

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My time on Ramsey this year hasn’t just been spent looking at them for fun, I have also been helping with the ongoing monitoring work that the RSPB do. I have been helping out with two sets of work. The first involves taking photographs of the adults; the images are then uploaded onto a database which has pattern recognition software and can identify individual seals. This enables the seals to be tracked between different locations on Ramsey and much further afield.

The second monitoring task has been surveying the pupping beaches every three days. The surveys involve counting all pups, all females on the beaches, females in the water, all males and any dead pups (old or recent). The pups are also categorised according to a set of aged-related parameters:

  • Class I – new born – very loose baggy skin, wet/red umbilicus – 14kg
  • Class II – 6 to 10 days old – starting to fill out but still an obvious neck, no loose skin folds on the body
  • Class III – 11 to 15 days old – Outline rounded to barrel shaped, no wrinkles, no neck
  • Class IV – 16 to 20 days old – Patches of white natal fur moulted to reveal first-year pelage underneath
  • Class V – 21 days + – Fully moulted, independent and weaned – 45kg

It’s quite amazing just how fast the pups grow and that in just three weeks they are weaned and independent. Growing at an average rate of 1.5kg a day on the rich milk of their mothers, they soon turn from yellowy-white wrinkly bags of wet fur, through to miniatures of their parents.

Aber Mawr, just south of the Bungalow where the volunteers stay, is the largest bay on the Island and also the largest pupping beach. The first count I did there revealed 91 pups but a few days later, following a storm, there had been a drop of nine. Compared to some of the storms last year, however, the pups got off quite lightly. Storm Orphelia, in October 2017, washed away many pups with the count across the Island dropping from 120 to 31. We’ll have to wait and see what further storms come their way this year.

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More to come on the seals…