Saturday, 31 December 2011

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Crows

I’ve come to love the call of Carrion Crows. Even though they rarely visit the garden, I hear them every day, often from inside the comfort of our cottage. Maybe their wild sounds remind me of bitterly cold winter days in North American woods, where the evocative call of crows seems to define the space and is usually the only sound, but perhaps it’s something more basic. My childhood was spent on remote northern hill; I can’t honestly say I remember crows, but they must have been imprinted deep into my mind.

I live surrounded by them; Jackdaws, Magpies, Rooks and Carrion Crows are part of my everyday life and a Jay often pops into the garden. I usually hear the odd Raven overhead each day and I need only go down to the cliffs to find Choughs. But crows are at their best on winter evenings, when great noisy flocks of Rooks and Jackdaws gather over our village in pre-roosting gatherings to perform spectacular aerial displays. They eventually drift away in the same general direction just as it gets dark. I don’t know exactly where they finally roost, they may end up together, but I’ve always assumed that the Rooks go one way and the Jackdaws another.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Winter Solstice

Dusk on the winter solstice is when darkness finally looses its battle with light. I quite like the shortest day, it brings hope of a new beginning and I know that in a couple of weeks, signs of spring will start to appear. Even though it’s cold, I already notice the first tiny shoots of snowdrops breaking through in the hedgerows. They won’t flower for at least a month yet, but just seeing them is enough to lift the spirit. In a sheltered corner of the garden, a clump of bluebells is already an inch or so high. They’re not real, just hyacinths planted out and reverting to their original form.

I like to see what time it gets dark on the shortest day. It’s just after 4 o’clock and as the light fades, there’s an eerie glow to the garden lighting up the goldfinches on the ground under the feeders. Gradually the light dims, the wind drops and all becomes still; the birds disappear and little moves. A robin sneaks in for a last morsel and a blackbird crosses the murk to roost in the hedge at the bottom of the garden. I peer through the window looking for life and catch sight of a coal tit nipping in to take a sunflower seed. At 4.15 it’s all over and by 4.30 I can just about make out the feeders. Darkness falls by 4.45 and my welcome light clicks on to illuminate the willow tree, but reminds me that I should think again about this needless use of carbon.

It’s amazing how the evenings appear to lengthen after the turn of the year. Each day is longer by about two minutes, but I always feel that there’s a speeding up of lighter nights in late January. Best of all is when the sun shines and prolongs these tediously short winter days.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Wildlife Carols

A little light snow begins to fall as my train nears London, not much, but enough to change the landscape. A leaden-grey sky merges with dead-looking trees, a few with white-covered branches. Some fields between Reading and Paddington have a little dusting, making Canada geese glow in the reflected light. Straight furrows are painted white and exotic looking male Pheasants seem unperturbed by the rushing alien monster only yards away. In the city the snow vanishes, but the bitter cold chills to the bone. It was better to be on the train.

From King’s Cross on the East Coast line, like magic the whiteness reappears, but now its frost. Welwyn Garden City speaks of Sir John Betjeman; the rhythm of the train reminds me of his nostalgic lines, his wicked smile and his wonderful statue at St Pancras Station. We plough on past flat, damp, green fields, where the white stuff has not visited. There’s little evidence of wildlife save for crows and hundreds of Woodpigeons and Starlings lining the monotonous telephone wires. A few nervous-looking deer venture out from the shelter of an occasional wood to raid winter crops. I know there’s other life out there, but we’re moving too fast. A hovering Kestrel is gone in the blink of an eye and silver birches, with dark brunet branches become all the rage. Winter willows and poplars punctuate the hedge-free landscape of over-improved fields; it’s so different from the diversity of Wales.

I arrive in time for the annual Christmas carol service for the Wildlife Trusts in a mediaeval sandstone village church. The second reading is ‘Christmas’ by John Betjeman; it brings a great lump to my throat and fills my whole being with pride.

The holly in the windy hedge

And round the Manor House the yew

Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,

The altar, font and arch and pew,

So that the villagers can say

'The church looks nice' on Christmas Day

Friday, 16 December 2011

Kings of the Cliffs

It’s not long now to the shortest day and Ravens are already stirring on the cliffs. They mate for life and nest early. I know they’re thinking about it; croaking males repeatedly flip over in flight showing off flying skills and keeping more or less to the same stretch of cliff. Soon sticks will be carried in to refurbish last season’s nests and before the winter’s end they’ll probably have eggs.

I can go to several spots on the coast confident that I’ll find them. Nesting sites are possibly centuries old and never seem to vary. Each pair is known by its location and in strong wind, I walk west along the cliff path to look at my local pair. Prevailing westerly winds and heavy rains have flattened the bracken and few small birds stir. I dip down to the warmer rocky shore. The tide rules life down here and in winter I can always guarantee to find Rock Pipits eking out a living from the flotsam and splash zone.

The Ravens are busy, their wild croaks never far away. As I near the nesting ledge, I find them sitting peacefully on the grassy slope above the substantial remains of this year’s nest. Only when this close do I appreciate the difference in size with the diminutive Jackdaws. A pair of Choughs flies east, glinting in the feeble sunlight, they too dwarfed by the bulky Ravens. Man is the only enemy of Ravens and here on the remote cliffs they’re kings of all they survey.

Monday, 12 December 2011

The Script of Stones

Even though it's nearly mid December and there’s a cold wind blowing from the north, it’s sheltered in my secret place overlooking Hunts Bay. I sit, high up, back to the cliffs overlooking the Bay, the raging sea below dotted with pools of light shooting through ever changing clouds. Only the locals know this little shelf and I’ve never been disturbed here. It’s the place where the poet Vernon Watkins would sit and write with his friend and colleague Dylan Thomas. Vernon lived in a house on the cliff; his son still lives there.

There’s a small stone plaque set into the face of the cliff bearing a couple of Vernon’s most famous lines:

I have been taught the script of stones

and I know the tongue of the waves

These magical words define the mood of this beautiful place and give the Bay a very special feel.

The view from here is spectacular. Lundy Island drifts in and out of view behind distant clouds. Limestone outcrops protrude from thick gorse, some still yellow, but a great headland dominates the shore, where Oystercatchers and Grey Herons search for crabs in the mat of seaweed and myriads of rock pools. At this time of year wildlife is scarce, but a pair of glorious Stonechats and a Robin more than make up for the winter browns of the dying bracken.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Simple Beauty

It’s getting colder now and there’s a promise of frost tonight, the first this winter. A clear blue sky and a northwesterly wind always produces wonderfully bright clean light and even though the countryside looks bare and is closing down for the winter, there’s simple beauty everywhere. On old stonewalls, amongst slowly withering Toadflax, the sun lights up vibrant green holly with berries, some still to ripen; they’ll be ready in time for the Redwings and Fieldfares that usually arrive late in these more temperate western parts.

Above, in mostly bare trees, nests that I missed in the spring stand out. Only a few leaves hang on and it’s the turn of greys and browns to paint the beauty of the trees. There’s simple colour everywhere; the deep rusts and bright yellows of the last autumn leaves, to the magic grey barks of beach and birch. I can’t decide which is more beautiful, the infinite shades of summer greens or the intricate geometry of winter branches.

Shaded by the bank of a small steam, a lonely Red Campion, a last remnant of summer’s glory hangs on, but like everything else will soon succumb to winter.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

18th Century Farms

I decided to take the mountain road from Abergavenny to Hay. This is old countryside, stuck in an 18th century time warp. I stop at a favourite corner and could be looking at a vignette from a musty old book. An unkempt farm with broken down outbuildings and old wooden fences nestles under the foothills of Offa’s Dyke. Even though a stiff breeze blows over the bluff a mile or so ahead, smoke rises vertically from the farmhouse chimney pot. I wonder what the inside is like; maybe they don’t have electricity. Serious rain falls in these parts and steaming Welsh Black cattle, caked in mud, walk slowly through the damp fields. There’s a timeless feel to the place and I think of my mentor Gilbert White again and imagine that Selborne felt like this centuries ago.

I drive on slowly through the narrow lanes. A well-dressed country lady in jodhpurs rounds the bend leading a pair of perfectly groomed horses and disappears into an immaculate farmyard. The yuppies are here and I realize that this romantic 18th century world will vanish soon. I go back to take a picture of the old farm, but think twice about it; it’s the feel of the place I want to bottle and I can’t capture this in a photograph. Each time I take this road I vow to return and look for more old farms, but of course I never do. Maybe this one is the last one and the rest have all been improved by city dwellers from the east.

There are no more romantic farms up the hill towards Hay Bluff. The tops are rugged with buzzards and ravens playing in the wind. From the summit I can see for miles. The magical Brecon Beacons stretch out to the west and behind me is rolling English countryside. The incomers will find it hard to change this.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Purple Sandpipers

Drawing back the curtains this morning reveales a hint of frost on the lawn. There may be rain later, so I hurry over breakfast to give myself ample time for my promised visit to Sedger’s Bank and Purple Sandpipers. Low water exposes an extensive flat, rocky pavement at the western end of Port Eynon Bay and I need to get to the water’s edge to find them. On the way out, the sandy beach is always interesting; I pass a couple of Grey Plovers, a small flock of Ring Plovers, Sanderlings, Oystercatchers, a Grey Heron, Little Egrets and many gulls, but it’s the Turnstones I’m looking for; that’s where the Purple Sandpipers will be.

It’s wild here; the sound of Curlews, Oystercatchers and Herring Gulls mixes with the wind and crashing waves; there are no human influences. I realise again how fortunate I am to live in this place. There’s solitude too and as rain-bearing clouds begin to move in from the west, I hope that the ever-changing weather will hold long enough. Offshore, Shags dive through the surf and Cormorants slip from the surface, perhaps in search of the same fish. Wintering flocks of Great-crested Grebes are here throughout the winter and I find at least ten riding out the waves.

Turnstones are less confiding than Purple Sandpipers and once a flock is put up it’s easy to separate the two. In flight Purple Sandpipers lack gaudy white wing patterns and are easy to pick out, but against the rocks they can be overlooked. They usually hang out at the very edge of the sea and so getting to them needs effort. I count more than twenty, but there are likely to be more and as usual some of them are very tame indeed.

Turning for home as the sun tries to break through the watery clouds, I catch sight of a diver offshore. It’s too far out to identify precisely; Great Northern, Red-throated, or Black-throated, it doesn’t really matter and knowing would make little difference to the enjoyment of my morning.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

A Thin Black Line

There’s a place we sit to have lunch down by the salt marsh. It overlooks a small creek running out to the estuary and we’re often the only people there. Tides go in and out quickly here and there is almost always exposed mud on both sides of the creek. We park the car on a downward facing boat-slip overlooking the water and stay put. Brightly coloured fishing boats lean sideways, bottomed out in the shallow water and a warm glow from the west creates a tranquil mood. We’re only 20 or so yards from the water and the wildlife will tolerates us provided we stay put in the comfort of the car.

There are always Black-headed Gulls here; they come close, especially when there’s the slightest suggestion of opening the car windows. Redshanks, Curlews and the odd Lapwing search for morsels in the mud and Little Egrets wade elegantly in the stream, sometimes darting to catch a fish. Left and right the ducks are more timid; Teal, Mallard and far-off Widgeon never come close.

On the far bank, Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls, some preening others sleeping, shine brilliantly in the sunlight. A few Common Gulls arrive, but don’t stay for long. Far out, Shelducks are just visible feeding in the deep sward of spartina grass that covers the salt marsh. On the distant estuary proper, thousands of Oystercatchers are spread out, feeding on the vast cockle beds, but from here paint just a thin black line on the horizon.

There are small birds here too; Pied Wagtails, Meadow Pipits, Starlings always and, sometimes like today, small groups of Linnets.

There are wild ponies living on these salt marshes; they too come close, but only when the weather turns against them.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Thrushes

Mistle Thrushes are singing. As autumn comes to an end they often sing, perhaps staking out territories for next spring. Most however travel around in small flocks and this is the best time of the year to see them. These large thrushes, with distinctive silver under wings search out berries in hedgerows and have a distinctive upwards swoop when alighting in a tree. Blackbirds stopped singing in July, but on warm autumn days they too can sometimes be heard singing softly for short periods in the early morning. They're in the garden now, quietly striping the cotoneaster of its berries.

Even though it's late November, there’s been no frost and the temperature is unseasonably warm. It's been a bumper year for berries and when the weather finally turns cold, there'll be plenty to feed the all five species of winter thrushes. Song thrushes are nowhere to be seen at present, but will start to appear along with Redwings and Fieldfares after the first frosts and when winter arrives in the east.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Silvery Shore

It’s just after a high neap tide in the middle of the day; the water is receding over a wet shore, leaving tiny puddles from the ripples of the gentle waves. There’s a hazy sun and the light is silvery grey. A warm southerly onshore breeze carries the calls of Oystercatchers towards me over the hissing sea. Sanderlings, Dunlin and Turnstones arrive, eager to feed on the newly exposed mud. At first, I hear only the distinctive rattles of the Turnstones, but gradually pick up soft calls of Dunlin; the Sanderlings are silent. Alone on this stretch of the beach, I’m able to walk slowly to the water’s edge and get very close to the busy flock. Even without binoculars, I make out the exquisite plumages of these delicate creatures, this year’s young showing buff edges to their beautifully patterned feathers. I see the perfect camouflage of these little waders with the shore, as they sometimes seem to melt into the wet silvery pools. They stay for four or five minutes and without warning are off to work another patch a little way along of the beach. In what seems like no time at all there’s a great expanse of mud, the birds have gone and the sound of the silvery sea is a distant memory.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Red

Chris mentioned the other day that there’s lots of red in the countryside at the moment. Unlike North America, we don’t get the intense riots of reds in the autumn leaves, but if we look close they are there. Hidden on a pile of fallen leaves I can see so many shades of colour ranging from bright yellows through browns to deep, rich red. But it’s the berries that are really red and it’s been a very good year. Hedgerows are laden with millions of hawthorn berries, rose hips are everywhere and in churchyards, yews have produced a good crop. If we get another hard winter like the last two, there’ll be plenty of food for the redwings, which have already arrived in Chris's garden.

This unseasonably mild November has meant that red admirals are still on the wing. Two rest in full sun on what’s left of a poor blackberry crop, the intense red on their wings a blaze of colour, contrasting with white and jet black.

Paler, but no less beautiful, the breast of a robin makes me looks closer. I see more orange than red. Great-spotted woodpeckers are at the garden feeders every day now and then there are the goldfinches with their amazing red faces. On the beach, Redshank’s legs stand out in the sun, reflecting beautifully in the still water of a pool, whilst the blood red of Oystercatchers bills couldn’t be more intense.

I could search and find more, but Chris was quite right.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Surf

Sitting on a bench overlooking the sea on an unseasonably warm November day, the thin, hazy sun reflects silver and grey and lights the autumn flowering of gorse on the cliffs behind. There’s a slight breeze and few birds, save the odd passing gull and a shag diving between crests in the waves. The sun’s glare closes my eyes and I’m aware of the sound of the gently breaking surf. It’s soft, calming, continuous and at the same time intermittent; I’m mesmerised. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, just an everyday sound that I realise I miss most times I walk these very familiar cliff paths. I finally open my eyes and realise how fortunate I am to live in this wonderful place.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Sanderlings

There’s not a cloud in the sky. The warming November sun illuminates the wet mud and it’s perfectly still. As if by magic, the empty shore is suddenly full of flashing grey and white wings. 300 or more Sanderlings swirl low over the ground, gyrating left and right, white under-wings glinting as they catch the late afternoon light. The rhythm is breathtaking; some break away into a smaller group then reunite before the whole flock lands gently on the mud. In a moment, they’re off again, landing further away this time in a flooded depression. They bathe busily, the sound of wings travelling across the silent shore. Sanderlings hardly ever seem to rest, incessantly running over the mud at what appears full speed; they stop only for an instant to grab a morsel. Again, and with no apparent signal, the flock takes off and provides another marvel of synchronised flight as before disappearing out of sight to a distant part of the beach.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Heaven

The roadside verges on the last couple of miles down the narrow lanes to Martin’s Haven are uncut and awash with red campion and foxgloves; they paint a vivid picture against the vibrant blue sky of a Pembrokeshire morning. Our destination is the small island of Skokholm. Approaching the haven, tantalising glimpses of the island are visible through hedgerow gaps and our hearts beat a little faster. It’s Founder’s Day, when the Wildlife Trust offers a trip to the island to the major donors who contributed to Skokholm’s purchase a few years ago.

The crossing takes about half an hour. Jack Sound can be unkind and landing on the island is never easy. Today we’re lucky, there’s little swell in South Haven as grey seals and puffins watch us jump ashore. The gentle walk up to the old farm buildings announces the beauty of this wild place. Soft rabbit-mowed turf covered by great patches of scarlet pimpernel marks the path bordered by dense bracken, sheep sorrel, red campion and singing sedge warblers. Just as on Skomer Island to the north, the narrow track is littered with corpses of Manx shearwaters; they fall prey to the gulls at dawn.

The old cottage and wheelhouse are full of history, but most famously known as the home of the pioneering ornithologist Ronald Lockley who lived here over half a century ago; his books inspired many a budding environmentalist including both Chris and I.

We walk round the island, small white-painted stones marking the indistinct route. Each step has to be carefully considered so as not to crush one of the 45,000 fragile shearwater borrows. The screams of choughs are never far away. Mad Bay, Purple Cove, Wild Goose Bay, Wreck Bay; we wonder about the history of these beautiful sandstone cliffs. Away from the white lighthouse, the path follows the faint remains of the old pony-driven rail tracks passing smart male wheatears and down to Crab Bay. In a small sunken hide overlooking the glistening sea, puffins, almost at eye level and only a few feet away, go in and out of burrows with sand eels; hundreds more wheel overhead and a wren competes valiantly against the sound of the sea. This is my favourite spot in the entire world. I’m in heaven and I know Chris is too.