Today 4 septuagenarians, one carrying a 10 ft ladder, picked their way along a precipitate and thickly wooded hillside in the foothills of the Cambrian mountains. While others waved flags (today was the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee) we looked for bird nest boxes put up at the end of winter and now hidden in the deep foliage of the Welsh rainforest. Bill and I were trying to help ring this year’s chicks.
A right of passage — to get a number before they leave the nest — for us to monitor what is going on and to make sure we are doing the best we can to help the local birdlife! Most of out boxes only went up this year so expectations were not high as Jan and Jon of the local Habitat Protection Group inspected the 12 boxes which were designed primarily to boost our population of pied flycatchers.
Two of the boxes revealed pied flycatchers, one with a record brood of 9 chicks. The total of 16 chicks in the first year exceeded our wildest dreams.
12 boxes yielded 48 chicks of which 24 were blue tits, 16 pied flycatchers and 8 great tits.
Thanks to the Habitat Protection Group for sharing their time, knowledge, expertise and for their patience and for giving us such a memorable jubilee.
County of wide skies, windmills and huge oak trees.
Long shadows, full stomachs and an evening stroll to disturb a barn owl — flying, ghostly white on silent wings, low across the field. You can’t photograph ghosts and anyway he caught us by surprise!
We’d gone out to find this little owl that Bill had seen before — we scoured all its usual roosts but it was nowhere to be seen this year.
Neither could we photograph the bittern that occasionally flew up out of the reed bed at Minsmere to have a go at the low flying marsh harrier in a spectacular display of territorial aggression. Its great thick, flexible brown and yellow flecked neck bending back to stab at the flapping bird of prey. Here is the harrier recovering from the shock.
He is not holding up a grade for artistic merit (which was an A) but sitting on a marsh label so that other watchers in the hide can say ‘BITTERN — flying left to right above D’ and I can still miss it. Here is something else I had difficulty in seeing clearly although he was definitely there, flitting about in the reeds: bearded reedling… not a tit!
Wild horses would not drag Bill from the reserve but the promise of a glossy ibis was too much and we ventured out towards the dome of Sizewell B on yet another wild-ibis-hunt but we did see this fine wild polish konik stallion who looked as if he belonged on an ancient cave painting — look at the thickness of its neck. Not really wild but hardy and not picky when they graze and they don’t mind having wet feet — they were purchased to graze this marshland reserve and tick another conservation box.
On to Dunwich Heath for an ice cream and despite the high wind a wonderful view of a Dartford warbler, which came up and looked at us with its head on one side
Above is a female Dartford warbler photographed in Spain — they are very difficult to catch with a camera, rare and fast and well camouflaged — the male we saw was much more purple — the colour of dry heather, with a grey head like this one, brilliant red eyes and the same bemused expression.
On our way to Cornwall we stopped off at Stonehenge — free for National Trust members so we thought we ought to get our money’s worth! Both of us had last visited more than half a century ago and were sure we would hate the modernisations.
You park miles away and take a shuttle bus — very quick and restful — especially as you can see all the walkers striding out on the horizon — forging their way across Salisbury Plain to the ancient monument.
Bill was slightly appeased for the loss of birding time by the receptionist at the monument:
But what is this — marching to meet us?
Is it a goose? ‘It’s a wild turkey’, an American lad informs me. Oh no it isn’t — it’s only one of the rarest bird in Britain!
Recently re-introduced to a secret location on Salisbury Plain nearly 200 years after the last British bird was shot in 1832. This one has been named Gertrude by Stonehenge staff and has been making personal appearances since 2016. Nobody had told us so we were surprised and delighted, no one more than Bill who travelled to Hungary in 2019 to see their bustards who were very shy and only to be viewed though high powered lenses!
And the 4-5 thousand year monument… Since we last visited you can no longer touch the stones and some of the stones have been re-erected giving a better idea of how it might once have been. The circulation of visitors has been changed so that you can get the full visual impact without people getting in your way.
Our friends from the Species Habitat Protection Group have turned their attention to the sad lack of properly constituted tree holes in our woodland — a flaw underlined in our recent ecology survey.
They are particularly keen to promote the habitat of pied flycatchers which already nest in our deficient holes — the oak trees are just too young (unlike the humans involved) — not gnarly and creviced enough!
We have it on authority that the pied flycatchers are due back from Africa tomorrow so, as always on our land, there was an imperative! Jan, Jon and Roger arrived this morning with 12 new nest boxes and got them up in the nick of time.
Ready for the arrival of our little avian orcas.
On their behalf I’d like to thank Jan, Jon and Roger and we look forward to more of these beautiful little birds nesting here in future.
From the Cambrian Mountains looking across the Dyfi valley at the peaks of Snowdon peeping above the early morning mist — we get an early start to our winter bird watching with a brilliant bright day in January and a visit to Ynes Hir RSPB reserve on the estuary.
Still crisp –1/2 an hour later!
As the sun creeps under the mist — not much about but we are not complaining as we have already had a glimpse of a lesser spotted woodpecker and as we look out over the salt marshes with our backs to the woodland we still hear its drumming. There are the usual culprits by the river bank –a single little egret and a bunch of herring gull and scattered canada geese. But what have we here?
The beauty of nature watching is that there is always something new — even in mid-winter.
Another day the Hafren forest is quiet but the massive trees give an aura of magic as the light from some subtle thinning illuminates the mossy floor.
In the Hafren Forest, Mid-Wales there is the high pitched seeping of the tiny flitting goldcrests which is suddenly underscored by a lower pitched pipping — initially a long way off but growing ever closer, up in the canopy — could it be a flock of feeding crossbills?
Here they are — difficult to photograph against the winter light. Chattering to each other as they wrestle with the largest fir cones to extract the seeds with their tin-opener beaks. The male breasts glowing orangey/pink, while the females are green.
Walking back by the side of the river there is a dipper.
Driving down the Severn to Llanidloes to pick up our bread there is a bird feeder, overhanging the road, it is festooned with siskin, small green stripey birds, hanging like grapes.
Most recently we ventured up, out of the sheltered valley, onto the exposed hilltop, not far away but a different world.
It was bleak but beautiful up there overlooking the mountain tarns. There were fieldfare feeding on the close cropped pasture and teal, coot and goldeneye on the lake with 7 goosander, saw-bill fishing ducks. Hovering on the wind above was a huge buzzard, circled by a red kite. At a lower level a kestrel winged its way between two telegraph poles.
The trouble with Nature is that it runs away with you!
You give her, Nature that is, a small area of hillside to play with and, before you know it, she has barricaded herself in with thorny thickets and hidden earthworks, molehills under layers of slippery bracken and ankle breaking, knee jarring pitfalls made by rabbits and badgers. (Did I tell you I’ve just had a new knee.) The whole area is now dense undergrowth, criss-crossed by looping, flailing brambles and willow whips.
Ah, you say, that’s nice — good for diversity!
But is it — it’s not as simple as that!
So concerned were we that we called in an expert — Super-eco-man, a conservation hero —
He’ll know what to do.
And he did — we slithered and scrambled up and down our precipitous banks as he introduced us to species of which we had been oblivious. Pleased to meet you! He showed us how to distinguish between our six common ferns, and to start to make sense of some of our mosses, not easy as they mainly have Latin names, now recorded in my roughly dried notebook — it will be fun giving them proper English names — shaggy christmas tree moss and less shaggy christmas tree moss.
Most importantly he showed us what we might lose. In our emerging woodland, already we are losing the avenues of open ground for butterflies and moths, insects and bats. The paths that remain are steep sided — like canyons through the trees without the gently sloping edges needed by butterflies and pollinating insects — there is a lot to do.
The overgrowth of bracken is alternately shading and insulating the great anthills on the sunny bank so that our ancient neighbours, the huge colonies of yellow meadow ants cannot so efficiently control their temperature as they have done for thousands of years.
Our carefully placed owl box overlooks dwindling areas of decent hunting ground for barn owls as the vole habitat is being eroded by blackthorn — probably the reason they haven’t used it of late.
Our mature oaks, it turns out, are only 100 years old, adolescent almost, not nearly gnarled and hollow enough to provide adequate nesting for all the bats, like the ones currently breeding in the bathroom ceiling and the pied and spotted flycatchers that come looking for nest sites every spring. Our new barn will need a large well insulated roof space to deal with the housing shortage! A new owl box is planned for the old barn and a safety rail for the swallows and martins as the roof purlins are too steep — the nests tend to fall off.
Seems I’ll have to start production again. Did you know that spotted flycatchers like to nest near buildings.
Now I’ve got to go and plan the new pond, we know exactly where to put it and its adjacent compost heap and en-suite woodpile. Our lizards need somewhere to bask with an air raid shelter, we’ve got just the rocks we need.
Seriously we found the exercise very helpful, now we realize that managing an area for wildlife is not a passive exercise. Those who think that any form of re-wilding threatens the rural lifestyle had better think again — even though we might only be cutting some of our hedges every other year (to get more berries) we will be generating lots of other activity.
We’ve been asking ourselves increasingly what we can do for wildlife.
Yesterday a neighbour caught me interfering with the bank of withering meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense) outside the Presbyterian Chapel. Public spirited, he came to investigate — my sins had found me out. No, no, he reassured me… Helping ones self to seed is acceptable foraging — recycling and green.
Armed with this intelligence later in the day I foraged a few red berries of Cotoneaster horizontalis from Ynes hir — all in a good cause. As I passed I remembered the deafening buzz of honey bees that emanated from the Cotoneaster that climbed over our shed in London and where my elder daughter, then about 5, opened her first Bumble Bee Hospital. It was she who made me read the books of Dave Goulson, evangelical champion of bees and the planet generally.
We have been thinking about pollinators, insects, food chains, berries and burrs and, of course, birds.
As far as providing for the birds is concerned, we seem to be doing quite well in the berry department, especially this year.
A very good year for Rowan, and plenty of blackberry and elderberry, though the birds have already made great inroads into the latter.
We have copious sloes on the blackthorn, haws on the whitethorn, hips on the dog rose that rambles in the hedges and sticky honeysuckle fruits on the woodbine and the birds are already harvesting the large crop of tiny apples — they are welcome. Not so to the few damsons — I need those for my gin.
The ivy is coming into bloom to produce lots of berries for the winter.
According to Mr Goulson we could do with a firethorn (Pyracantha — not strictly native) which I have always thought more appropriate for a suburban garden though Bill tells me one once saved his life when it enveloped him in its bouncy, interiorly-sprung prickles when he fell from a ladder!
Less alien might be a wayfarer tree and I know where there is one with lots of berries — at Rutland water — must go and find my balaclava!
The Isle of May is in the North Sea, 5 miles from the mainland of Scotland, off the East coast in the mouth of the Firth of Forth, we visit it in May and the ocean is like a mill pond.
As we head off up the footpath to the side of the island favoured by the seabirds, because of the high cliffs, a cloud of kittiwake announce themselves — lots of birds say their name but none as clearly or as often as the kittiwake! There are two species of Kittiwake in the world — the black-legged and the red-legged. They are thus easily spotted and identified and are enchanting little gulls.
There were more than 3000 breeding pairs on the Island at a recent count but they do not restrict themselves to off-shore Islands — we saw them on cliffs in Dunbar.
There are about 200,000 seabirds on May which is less than a mile long and 1/3 mile wide, and we have come to see some of the ones that we do not see on the mainland, up close, and to appreciate the scale of the seabird colony.
The puffins, there are about 40,000 pairs, nest on the grassy tops and that is where the rabbits come in. They dig the holes that the puffins populate.
Puffins looking out to sea, waiting for their mates to return from sea with their bills loaded with sand eels.
They are very alert — their young pufflings are very vulnerable until they can fly and swim. Airborne predators can reach the island like this Greater Black Backed Gull.
The next layer down in this colony are the auks — the Razorbills (about 3000 breeding pairs) near the tops of the rocky cliffs and the Guillemots (23,000 breeding pairs), lower down nearer the sea.
On the sea, bobbing along in twos and threes are Eider drakes like these fine fellows, we stepped over a number of their mates incubating eggs in rocky crevices along the foot path.
As we leave, the boat circumnavigates this magic isle so that we can see the dramatic sea cliffs from below and we can really appreciate the safety they afford to the hundreds of thousands of nesting birds. Nobody climbs them to collect eggs any more. But, no longer manned, the lighthouse and the foghorns still protects shipping in the Forth as they has since 1635!
Mull is one of the nearer Inner Hebrides islands off the west coast of Scotland and must have had a long, lonely winter with travel restricted and it’s normal waves of challenging weather piling in from the North Atlantic. As we had travelled northward, although already mid-May, there was snow on the tops of the hills from the Lake District onwards.
To reach its weather scoured hillsides we took the ferry — sadly confined to our vehicles — we could only look up at the sky but the skies in Mull say everything!
So we attempted a long held ambition of mine to visit Iona, a smaller island off the southern most tip of Mull, famed for its spiritual intensity (and corn crakes –double whammy!)
The area on Iona covered by iris beds where the crakes used to hide and make the tourists jump with their strange calls seemed, to our birders, much reduced from their previous visits — there seemed to be very many sheep and the sward everywhere we looked had been grazed to within an millimetre of its life during the long winter. Doubly disappointed we did not stay long.