Time Moves On

A subdued atmosphere hangs in the trees as I head down the track today, the sounds of spring have fallen away and the only noises are the thwack of bracken against the wing mirrors and the crack and crunch of twigs under my tyres. There’s a coolness in the breeze coming through the open window and a muffled light, stifled by the thick woodland cover and held back by the patchwork of passing clouds. Out onto the open valley floor, between stone walls and damp meadows, the air becomes warmer but quicker, the breeze increased to windy gusts, chilling in the gloom. The seasons have moved on here, spring prime gone and summer just beginning. The plants have grown to their full height but faded from their bright freshness to darker, fixed tones and early flowers are a distant memory, even some later blooms are starting to fall. The fruits of the dawn chorus are out in the open, young finches, tits and thrushes feed, chase and squabble in the trees and bushes, all under the eye of a waiting hawk. I get a first sight of the other young in the valley, high above the fields in the tall copse. My last visit was spent in wait for eggs to first crack but so much time has passed since then; the chicks are almost in full feather and beginning to flex their wings. It won’t be long until those wings are lifted into the summer air.

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It was a quiet shift today with the chicks resting in the cup of the nest for most of it, with a bit of preening and wing flexing; there was more snuggling than arguing. They are also starting to stand properly on straightened legs, bringing them to their full height, although not yet up to their parents size. Mrs G was either sat on the perch or on the nest much of the time or occasionally chasing crows, and I didn’t see Aran until early afternoon when he returned with a trout. It all got a bit panicky for them mid-afternoon when the farmer came into the field by the nest with his dog to check on the sheep. Both adults took to the air and flew around for a while but she returned to the nest after a short time and he disappeared into the distance; the chicks seemed oblivious. He returned later with what looked like a whole sea trout (could easily be wrong as my fish ID skills are pretty poor). It got quite windy towards the end of my shift; I thought the caravan was going to lift off it’s wheels at one stage!

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During my shift I had a strong feeling of time moving on; the seasons, the year, the years, and the subdued atmosphere I sensed on my arrival seeped into my thinking. The five weeks since my last shift has brought changes to the valley; the plants have grown, flowers bloomed and fallen, and birds fledged. I’ve missed the early stages of the osprey chicks’ growth since hatching and they don’t seem far from the size of their parents.

I had a sense that the year is moving past at speed. It doesn’t seem long since the Glaslyn training event in the dark days of late winter, spring has been and gone, and summer is already upon us (although no one has told the weather apparently!); it won’t be long until osprey parents and fledglings start their journeys south. The busiest period of my, now usual, conservation year is coming to an end with bird surveys finished, my two weeks on Ramsey Island gone and not many osprey shifts left.

I also had a sense of greater scale of time moving on. I have a significant birthday to mark soon, one I’m not altogether comfortable with but one to mark all the same. It’s strikes me that there’s only so much time in life to make a difference – whether that time be the hours in the week, the weekends in the year, or the years in a life. It’s easy to let time pass unmarked and let life drift and that risks missing chances to make an impact and a difference. It got me thinking about conservation and what contribution I make. I’ve already had my ‘midlife crisis’ moment, an early one if that’s what it was; it was now nearly five years ago when I started 12 months away from work and began my stop/start journey through conservation – including a month, altogether, with Mrs G and 11/98.

In the decades of my life so far, so much of nature has already been lost. What the new generation is beginning with, the environment, the plants, birds, insects and animals, is so diminished from what my generation started with and that in turn was much diminished from previous generations. There is a risk that the new generation may use what they inherit as the benchmark norm, to see that as what nature should be like, as others have done so before. Those benchmarks are lowering with every new generation and mine only has so much more time to lift it back up to a higher point from which our successors can take it on.

What has been lost over that time was put into sharp focus by the State of Nature report in 2013 – a copy of this sobering document can be found here. The report highlighted many frightening trends including that a group of 155 species it had data for, some of the most threatened in the UK, had declined by 77% over the last 40 years with little sign of recovery and that the UK has lost 44 million breeding birds since the late 1960s.

However, over the last five years, I’ve been involved with a range of conservation organisations and projects, some large and some small, some well established and some just starting out. Whilst what we have now is much diminished, these organisations give hope and there are good signs amongst all the bad. When I came into the world, there were barely any ospreys in the whole of the UK and none at all in Wales. Over time this has changed and not only are they thriving in Scotland, there are now growing pockets of populations in England as well as in Wales. The work of the volunteers at Glaslyn and many others like them, have helped to reverse the decline of this species and bring the growth in numbers – there just needs to be many more people making efforts to bring success to other parts of nature.

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Time moves on…no one knows yet what impact recent decisions will have on conservation, with potentially so much to do, what time will be given in government to the environment and nature? What will happen to the existing legislation and policies? With these challenges, of politics, governance and available time, is the chance for this generation to repair the damage of the past slipping away?

There may be opportunities as well as problems but that’s the exciting thing about time, it keeps moving on…and not always in the direction we hope or expect.

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An early morning chough watch…

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After a traverse across the clifftop, I sit high above the sea, lying back against the slope. The sun is long-risen and already strong on this mid-June morning, warming through the light cloud veil. My perch is cushioned by soft grass-covered earth and sheltered from the keen and cooling breeze by grey boulders, mottled by lichens of white, green and yellow. At my feet, the last of the pink topped thrift blooms jiggle in the wind like little candy floss-topped straws.

The distant views provide a backdrop to my vigil, both back to the mainland and out over the water. To my right, haze covers the distant Pembrokeshire hills, standing above the patchwork of fields hidden by the island’s curves. To my left, a two-masted sailor passes the outlying islets, with a freighter on a different heading in the further distance. The lighthouse is bright out on its rocky stand, lit by the sun gleaming on the white tower and shining back from the glass-enclosed summit. The blue hazy sky reflects beneath in the sea, a swell rolling into the land and hitting the cliff buttresses with white-topped waves. Standing strong against the elements, the tall rock faces tower above the surging and spilling water as it hits and covers the shoreline

It is a peaceful but not silent spot. The pounding of the sea provides a powerful constant base to the passing sounds of the birds. Gulls cry out from above and below, hanging on the rushing air or standing in wait. The coming and going of the razorbills and guillemots, from their busy and crowded perches, is accompanied by their revving moped calls. The ravens loiter on the cliff sides, an occasional cronk or caw highlighting their presence. The linnets chirp as they pass and the pippits pippit away from point to point. Only the fulmar are silent as they float past on their stiff, straight-winged glides.

After a wait, the chough pair appear from over my shoulder heading towards the nest, hidden behind a large carbuncled face, staring out to sea. Their joyous bouncing flight is accompanied by their cries, replying to each other with wall ricocheting bullets. As they approach their hollow, they harass a crow, standing too near for their comfort; they dive-bomb in a looping flight, returning time after time until their focus moves away, tired of their tormenting. They drop into their nest, now full of growing chicks ready to fledge, but not today; the wait goes on.

Monitoring Manxies

One of my main tasks in my first week on Ramsey Island has been helping with the Manx Shearwater survey. ‘Manxies’ are long-distance travelling seabirds which return to breed to the coasts on the western side of the British Isles each year, after spending the Northern Hemisphere winter off the eastern seaboard of South America.

These burrow-nesting birds were severely affected by rats on Ramsey but the eradication of the rodents 15 years ago has enabled the number of Manxies to slowly recover. The last survey in 2012 found 3,835 nesting pairs, and in 2016 it is hoped that numbers will have increased significantly.

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Following a survey of suitable nesting burrows earlier in the year (before the growth of bracken across the island made it much more difficult), the main survey involves the playing recordings of male and female Manxie calls down the burrows to check if any are ‘home’. My small role in the surveys was to help find the burrows into which the calls were then played. With the surveys now complete, the Island’s wardens now need to work out exactly how many Manxies are now breeding here.

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It’s not just when undertaking the surveys that the sound of Manxies can be heard across the Island. One of the most memorable aspects of a stay on Ramsey is listening to the giggling and gurgling calls of the birds as they fly into their burrows near the volunteers’ Bungalow home. The birds only come to land at night, so the calls are an erie accompaniment to many a night’s sleep.

In addition to the natural burrows that the Manxies use for nesting, the wardens have installed a number of artificial nests and another task was to check whether these were occupied. While doing this, the wardens take the opportunity to ring individuals as part of their research and I was lucky enough to be there on one occasion during this stay – and even got to handle one!

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One evening Manxie activity is to go out to the western side of the island at dusk to see the thousand upon thousand of these birds flying southwards, skimming just above the surface of the sea, to the much bigger colonies on the nearby islands of Skomer and Skokholm.

This link to the RSPB website provides a bit more information on Manx Shearwaters including a recording of their calls.

The first few days back on Ramsey Island

I’ve been on Ramsey Island, the RSPB’s reserve off the coast of Pembrokeshire, since Saturday but due to my stupidity have been without the internet until now. I was planning to blog each day but will have to start with a post about the first few days of my two-week stay.

The weather has been a bit mixed so far with the conditions only good enough for boats twice since I’ve been here. Yesterday, following two boatless days, we had a bumper load of visitors with an almost capacity crowd of 78. I did my first introductory talk of the year to a full boat shed, which didn’t go too badly and I even got a business card from a wildlife tour leader suggesting I should do a bit of tour leading myself!

On my first full day, the sheep shearers came across in the late afternoon to de-fleece the 96 Welsh Mountain ewes. I was a bit more actively involved this year, particularly in the first task which was to split the ewes from their lambs. The lambs were born over a few weeks from mid-April and have grown a lot since, so the task of dividing them from the ewes wasn’t without some of effort.

The shearers again amazed me with how quick they could get a fleece off a sheep with about one and a half minutes being  the standard. The closely-cropped ewes were soon reunited with their youngsters in the farmyard, all making a racket until they found each other.

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I’ve also helped with manx shearwater surveys and did a house martin survey at the farmhouse (despite what others have said, I was definitely not asleep!).  We also went out on Gower Ranger yesterday (the boat that links the island to the mainland) to do a kittiwake and fulmar survey of the cliffs that could not be seen from the island – a great way to do a survey!

The weather forecast indicates that boats may not come across for the next couple of days, so it will be quiet around the island again but I’m sure there will be plenty to get on with.  There will also be more time to look at the scenery and wildlife which are as good as ever.

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House Martin Nest Study 2016

My favourite summer migrants have returned – the swallows, house martins, sand martins and swifts. I’m fortunate that three of these species (not sand martins) breed in the area where I live and I can usually see them flying in the sky above my house. I’m even more fortunate that there’s usually a house martin nest on under my eaves; I say usually but in fact there has been at least one nest for the past 15 summers than I have lived here. I thought the unbroken record was going to come to an end last summer when the house martins failed to return around their usual time. There was no sign of them for most of the spring and summer until I retuned home from work in late August to find droppings on the driveway beneath the nest, which was still up there from the previous year. That seemed very late for a first brood particularly compared to the usual May or June in previous year.

The chicks fledged in late September and it wasn’t clear if this was by accident or design. I worked from home one day and in the afternoon there seemed to be lots of comings and goings from the nest. It was only when I left the house later on that I noticed the nest on the driveway and the fledgelings flying up to the point when it used to cling to the eaves. The next day they were all gone and I didn’t see any more house martins around my home again last year.

Over the years I have sporadically kept a record of when the house martins first arrived back at the nest and most records show it was around mid to late April. When the month changed into May, I started to suspect there would be another late return this year. However, when I was cooking my evening meal yesterday I had a spare moment and popped my head out of the kitchen and popped my head round the corner of my house and looked upwards. Up at the apex of the eaves was the ring of mud, all that remained of the nest, but there was something else up there too. At first it looked like a bit of black plastic blown up there by the wind but after I shaded by eyes from the evening sun, the shape was clearly a house martin and there was another flying around just above the roof.

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House martins are ‘amber listed’ in the Birds of Conservation Concern listings and numbers have been in rapid decline.  I’m sure that when first moved into my house, another pair nested under next door’s eaves and there were other nests in the area.  Now there is mine and very few others.  However, the pattern of decline isn’t uniform.  Ramsey Island for example (the RSPB reserve where I volunteer for a couple of weeks each year), didn’t have any house martins before a first nest in 2014 and it had eight nests last year (extra emergency artificial nests had to be shipped across!). Something is certainly happening to house martins but fortunately it’s been noticed and hopefully before it’s too late to reverse the overall declines.

Last year I took part in the British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO) House Martin Nest Survey. I was given an Ordnance Survey grid square, luckily for me the one immediately nest to the one in which I live, and I made several visits to record the number of nests on buildings and the amount of activity. This year there’s another house martin survey for the BTO. The House Martin Nest Study 2016 requires surveyors to choose a nest/nests and record the activity over the course of the spring and summer. The survey can be done with varying levels of detail and I hope to do as much monitoring as I can, doing daily records of activity whenever possible (holidays allowing). Now that house martins have returned to my home, I’m going to have a very convenient nest to monitor!

The chortling house martin chicks wafting in through my landing window on warm summer evenings as I lie in bed really is one of my favourite things about the season and I’m hopeful that it won’t be long until I hear those sounds once again. By doing the survey this year, I hope that I can make a small contribution to helping to ensure this will always be a sound of summer.

A conclusion to survey season

Last weekend I did my last bird survey of the breeding season, having had a busy few months of recording since the beginning of March. This year I’ve been doing surveys at two nature reserves for Cheshire Wildlife Trust, I’ve completed a Breeding Bird Survey for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) in a grid square near Bulkeley, I’ve taken part in the BTO’s House Martin Survey and I did a bit of surveying for the RSPB when I stayed on Ramsey Island.

The surveys for Cheshire Wildlife Trust, at its Bagmere and Blakenhall Moss reserves, were done once a month during March, April, May and June, and this year the overall bird lists for the sites increased further. Over the course of the four visits to Bagmere, 39 species were recorded and this was two less than last year. However, I also made a note of species when I spent a day there with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers and that visit brought the total up to 45. It was disappointing not to record willow tits at Bagmere this year, a red-listed species, particularly as some nest boxes have now been put up for them; I haven’t seen them at the site since December last year. However, it was good to hear water rail on each visit and to add some new species including garden warbler and grasshopper warbler. This year I didn’t record any confirmed breeding species at Bagmere but I did record 19 probables and 12 possibles.

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At Blakenhall, the transformation from woodland to wetland continues to increase the species seen at the reserve. Up until a couple of years ago there would have only been woodland species but now there is a range of both wintering and breeding wildfowl. In total, 47 species were recorded, up from 35 last year and there were five species confirmed as breeding including blue tit, great tit, Canada goose, greylag goose and treecreeper. In addition, 12 probables and 22 possibles were recorded. There were some new species at Blakenhall too including grasshopper warbler, spotted flycatcher, swallow, shoveler, tufted duck and little owl.

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I’ve now completed two years’ of Winter Bird Surveys and Breeding Bird Surveys at Bagmere and Blakenhall, and these have set a baseline for the sites as they were the first surveys of birds done by the Wildlife Trust at the reserves. I’ve now recorded a total of 53 species at Bagmere and 59 at Blakenhall.

The House Martin Survey is being undertaken for one year only, to help to assess the state of the house martin population in the UK. My second visit to my allocated grid square added another nest to the one recorded during the previous visit in June. However, it was only the first one that appeared to being used, with adult birds visiting to feed chicks. Fortunately, there are more house martins in the area, with colonies just outside my grid square. It was also nice to see a good dozen or more floating around in the evening sky last night when I was at a BBQ only a couple of hundred metres from the boundary of my square.

My hopes were raised that the old house martin nest on the side of my house might still be used this year as I saw birds making fleeting visits over a couple of days and I found droppings beneath the nest when I came back from my two weeks on Ramsey Island. However, those hopes have gone as the birds’ interest didn’t last long and it’s now too late for a pair to breed in the nest. Maybe next year!

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I really enjoy doing the bird surveys, not only because I’m doing something practical to support conservation efforts, but also because it’s lovely to spend a couple of early hours on spring mornings wandering around nature reserves. However, I have to say that the bird survey I helped with on my first day on Ramsey Island was the most fun and memorable of the year. The seabird survey by jet boat in warm summer sunshine was spectacular and a world away from the freezing cold March morning at Bagmere when I crunched my way around the hushed, snow coated reserve with my fingers, toes and nose being nipped by the frost.

White-winged Black Tern

Last week while working in Lincolnshire I stayed overnight near Boston.  With a spare evening, I decided to take a look around RSPB Frampton Marsh, which is just south of the town.

While there I saw a nice range of wildlife including some I don’t see very often including spoonbills, avocets and little egrets. However, there was one bird that really caught my eye.  I’m not a twitcher, or even a birder, more a general nature enthusiast, but I have to say I was quite excited to see a rarity while wandering around the nature reserve.

A white-winged black tern was flying back and forth over the wetlands enabling those there to get a good view of it. According to the Collins Bird Guide, there are around 40 records of these lovely birds in the UK each year, so I was pretty lucky to see it and even get (a pretty rubbish) photo of it.  It’s a stunning looking bird in its summer plumage with its black body, and white and grey wings.

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