Going over old ground…

That’s as good a way as any of summarising our outings of late: old haunts revisited; familiar routes reprised; two or three hours of borrowed time; longer days whenever opportunity presents. Brief escapes snatched from the seemingly remorseless clutches of life as it is now mostly lived. Not that we have much cause for complaint, but we’d probably all prefer to be doing a bit more of what we’d choose, a bit less of what’s required.

Habitually, we don’t take an awful lot of photographs; my tendency is to give priority to binoculars over a camera, but there is the occasional shot, usually intended as nothing more than a record of the day. These are just a few from recent weeks, accompanied by a bit of brief notation.

A grainy shot of a high-flying goshawk, taken in the Forest of Dean on a day when the weather was indeed glorious, although I don’t remember the sky being quite as blue and cloudless as the picture suggests…

The area has a reputation as a relative ‘hot spot’ for what is still a quite rare, although thankfully recovering, raptor (UK breeding population around 400 pairs). Usually I wouldn’t post a location for a sighting of a threatened bird of prey, but this particular site is already widely publicised online.

Wild ponies, Long Mynd: these animals are an ever-present feature of the Long Mynd, roaming across almost the entire expanse of the hills; sometimes in larger gatherings (I think the correct collective is ‘string’), at other times dispersed into smaller groups. Andy Howell – a Shropshire Hills regular – has written many blog entries about the area and regularly encounters the ponies… [Link]

 

Also taken on Long Mynd – one of a pair of falcons seen flying high above Light Spout Hollow and photographed at maximum zoom on a Sony HX300 Bridge Camera. With no detail visible on the camera’s LCD screen, we later cropped the image in Photoshop Elements (hence the grain) and then lightened it just enough for colours and markings to show. It looks like a hobby, which we’ve seen there before but usually skimming low over the ground chasing dragonflies…

Higher still, but much easier to identify – a pair of red kite…

Taken on 19th April, this was a day when we saw more kite than on any previous visit. We’d sometimes wondered whether the ones and twos spotted on previous occasions were the early settlers in a burgeoning population, or itinerants from Radnorshire on a day trip. We’re now hopeful of an eastward shift, as has previously happened with first buzzards then raven, and another step in the revival of an iconic species; they are still something of a rarity east of the Severn.

For anyone prepared to seek out the less populous parts of the hills, this whole area offers some of the best opportunities for spotting a variety of birds of prey; in fact, it’s one of the few places we know of where you could conceivably, in a single day, sight all three of our native falcons, plus a visiting hobby. It would need to be a lucky day, and at the right time of year, but it’s by no means inconceivable.

Wheatear is a variety we often see on the quieter parts of the Shropshire hills. This one was sufficiently obliging to sit still for a couple of shots…

This next one is an odd picture: for some reason – and my guess is user incompetence – the camera has focussed more precisely on the dried reeds than on the intended object, the meadow pipit. This gives the bird a slightly ghostly appearance, almost as if it had been struck down and become more powerful than could possibly have been imagined. I quite like the unintended strangeness of it…

Just taking off from Carding Mill Valley, a rescue helicopter presumably called out to assist with the search for a teenage girl who had been reported missing on the day in the vicinity of the hills. Thankfully, she turned up later in the day – safe and unharmed.

 

 

Wild garlic, trackside, Severn Valley Railway: a nice smell, or a revolting one? It seems to divide opinion…

Also on the Severn Valley Railway: shunting operations at Highley Station. It was taken during the Easter holiday period and good to see that the trains on the day were consistently busy.

Recently I’ve started to take notice of the small oval ‘Shed’ plates attached to the front of steam locos; that’s probably the kind of thing I should be telling to a therapist. The one on the front of the engine nearest to the camera (85D) refers to the old steam shed at Kidderminster, so 1450 hasn’t strayed too far from home. Locomotive 1501 is displaying a former Old Oak Common plate (81A); this was the principal shed serving the Paddington end of the old GWR main line, and 1501 would have kept company with some very illustrious stablemates.

A stroll and a spring steam gala (19/03/17)

I can remember the dying days of steam on our railway network, and I’m glad that preservation has safeguarded some remnants of those times for the benefit and enjoyment of generations present and future. That said, I don’t quite share the almost evangelical zeal exhibited by some; and here’s the real heresy – I actually prefer the old diesels!

But sometimes, we just happen to be in the vicinity of the Severn Valley when there’s a gala day and there’s no denying the old steamers can be very photogenic. Here’s former BR Standard Class 92214 working its way through The Wyre Forest near to the old mining villages of Highley and Alveley.  Built at Swindon works during 1959, it had a short operational life – being withdrawn from service in 1965. At various times it has carried the names: Oliver Cromwell; Leicester City; Central Star; Cock o’ The North, and possibly some others besides…

Here it is again, later in the day, waiting and then just departing the station at Bewdley; by this time the header code and other adornments had been removed…

A member of the station staff is about to hand the single line running token to the driver…

Also pictured at Bewdley, an old Great Western saddle tank – a shunting engine built primarily for dockside workings and use in colliery sidings. Here it’s just running around a short train at the northern end of the station…

  The same engine photographed side-on at Highley station yard…

A couple of shots taken at Hampton Loade station: the top one is of a GWR 1400 class tank engine, just about to depart on a shuttle service to Bridgnorth. These engines, including this particular one, have a certain celebrity status: Oliver the Western Engine appears in the children’s books written by the Rev W Awdry, and also in the Thomas the Tank Engine television series. As if that wasn’t fame enough, this very engine (1450) appeared in the film The Titfield Thunderbolt, albeit carrying a different number, and also in an episode of The Goodies

The locomotive pictured below – with another just visible through the gap – is currently resident on the SVR and was at one time certified for main line running. 34027 Taw Valley is a former Southern Region, West Country class express locomotive, which at one time worked some of the named expresses around the south and south-west of England – trains such as The Atlantic Coast Express which ran all the way to the Southern Region’s most westerly terminus (Bude).

By the time this picture was taken, I’d begun to fixate on the small ‘shed plates’ on the front of the locos, which identify their former home depots. Taw Valley carries shed plate 73B (Bricklayer’s arms): the depot, long gone, was formerly situated near to the intersection of a number of main roads, including – among others – Tower Bridge Road and Old Kent Road. It is now the site of residential and light industrial development.

Another shot taken in the Wyre Forest section of the line: Battle of Britain class 34081 – sometimes named 92 Squadron, but not on the day. This locomotive now spends its days touring the various heritage railways as a guest locomotive; in its heyday it would, like Taw Valley above, have operated across the old BR Southern region – anywhere between Kent and North Devon…

But there are drawbacks where steamers are concerned; one of them being the need for backwards running after visiting a terminus with no turntable. This is 34081 again, bum-end first this time and producing some very environmentally dubious emissions…

And that’s where diesels have a big advantage for the lineside snappers – they’re the same at both ends. Well, apart from the shunters…

Oh, and the Class 20s, obviously…

And, stretching a point, the Class 14s, where the cab isn’t quite symmetrically positioned, like this one waiting at Kidderminster on a previous visit…

The nuthatch below was a picture of studied indifference as the trains passed a few feet from where he was sat chatting to his mate…

And that was pretty much the day; we moved between the stations on foot, covered a few miles in the process (probably about 7 or 8 in total) and took advantage of the benches and shelter for food stops and to avoid the occasional outbreaks of drizzly rain.

Just a few pictures…

Not many words to this post, just a handful of shots taken out and about with various hand-held devices…

Storm Doris uprooted a tree – A Scots pine, sadly – in the park, no more than about 80 yards from our front door. Not just any Scots pine either, although any loss is one too many; this was the tree where the female sparrowhawk used to sit – big, even for a female, and queen of all she surveyed. Recent work on the path around the pool may have destabilised the roots somewhat; if so, other pines in the same stand might be similarly at risk…

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This run of attractive and cleverly woven fencing along a stretch of the Droitwich canal, utilising the trunks and branches from an established hedge; hazel, I think, although I’m no expert. I believe the weaving technique has a local name which, like so much these days, escapes me. Whatever it’s called, it looks nicer than chain-link and razor wire…

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Last week in February and rhododendrons already in full bloom – or very close to it – Bunkers Hill Wood, right on the West Midlands/South Staffordshire border…

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Hampton Loade station, Severn Valley Railway, and I’m reminded that, like it or not, I’m looking at a scene that – more years ago than I care to remember – I would have witnessed many times out on the main line: an old, first generation, diesel multiple unit, standing alongside a BR tank engine pulling coaching stock. Dudley Port low level, early sixties, heading for The Hawthorns to watch The Albion; who knows where the time goes?

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And a carrion crow – plumage more blue-black and unblemished than any I can ever recall seeing…

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The shot of the carrion crow was taken on my son’s Sony HX300 bridge camera, which easily outperforms my Nikon P510, although it is a bit bigger and heavier.

 

 

A weekend wander

dscn1141It was almost windless today; the column of smoke rising from the farmer’s rubbish fire was proof of that. But it was also, even without windchill, bitingly cold – that seeping, bone cold which seems able to penetrate any number of layers without the temperature ever needing to go below freezing. We kept moving and were glad of any uphill stretches to generate a bit more heat. As is often the case, my thumbs were the last of the extremities to warm through; although even then the cold was replaced by an ache for a while. Perhaps I am becoming soft as the years tick by; if so, I am not alone, judging by the number of insulated jackets, zipped to the very top, the wearer’s nose tucked away inside, like a quilted balaclava.

dscn1132On the far side of a field – maybe a hundred metres or so away – a decent-sized buzzard was resting on a fence-post, feathers fluffed out against the cold. It was just about at the extreme of the zoom range on my camera and even leaning on a gate the shot wasn’t completely steady. The zooms on some of these modern cameras are remarkable in technological terms but there are limitations when it comes to using them towards the limits of their range. Mine is a Nikon bridge camera (a P510) with a supposed 42x maximum zoom: at anything beyond about 30x the light gathering starts to fall away appreciably; add in the effects of camera shake and quick, precise focussing becomes a problem. Wildlife subjects can be gone in the time it takes to frame and focus, but attempting to hurry the process can give mixed outcomes. No doubt things have moved on in the few years since I last bought a camera, but I can understand why those whose primary hobby is photography choose to carry SLR cameras, multiple lenses and tripods. I’d be unable to walk very far carrying that much gear, so there has to be a trade-off.

dscn1143Walking along a stretch of canal towpath in rapidly fading late afternoon light, we came across some cattle drinking from the side of the canal; something I’d never seen before. Although, as canals go, this stretch is relatively ‘pastoral’, I still couldn’t imagine January canal water being the most appealing of refreshments. It must be the case that animals in the wild have to take hydration wherever they can find it, and my judgement is probably still distorted by the altogether different canals remembered from my distant youth (see here).

dsc01140Spotting the Brush Class 60, returning steel coil empties along the Worcester-Stourbridge line and headed for the Round Oak terminal (and there’s a whole other story for a different day) was a bonus. At one time threatened with total withdrawal from operations this charismatic locomotive was one of the last made in numbers (100 were built) by Brush Traction’s Peterborough works, and has thankfully returned from the brink.

 

 

Suburban diary: Nuthatches

dscn1086To say that nuthatches have colonised our neighbourhood would be an overstatement; but there are now some, where previously there were none. We first noticed them in the local park, moving up through the trees in their familiar way, often disappearing at the very instant we identified them. Eventually a single bird briefly showed up on one of our feeders, disappeared and didn’t return. We are about 100 metres or so from the park and there are plenty of trees to choose from, probably plenty of feeders too, so there was some disappointment but no real surprise.

And then, earlier this year, they returned; a single individual to begin with, joined shortly afterwards by a second. They have been regular visitors ever since, particularly keen on the sunflower seeds and usually waiting until a feeder is clear of other birds before quickly taking seed to eat elsewhere, returning frequently. Surprisingly, they seem less attracted to the whole peanuts on offer than they do to the sunflower. So far they seem to have exhibited none of the aggressive behaviour sometimes associated with nuthatches.

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    Goldfinches: a little too flashy for my tastes, but thriving

In the twenty years or so since we moved here, the garden has undergone inevitable change: layouts have altered; plants, features, trees even, have come, gone, grown, flourished, failed. So too, the birds…

The flock of starlings, which greeted us when we first arrived – 200 strong or more – dwindled to a handful before, thankfully, beginning a faltering but continuing recovery. Goldfinches? We never saw any for years, then a few appeared to take an interest in some flowering lavender; today they are, numerically speaking, the dominant variety. Also surprisingly dominant in their own way are the blue tits – first to the nest boxes every year and well capable of holding their own at a crowded feeder. Of the occasional visitors, our favourites have probably been the usually solitary goldcrests and the slightly more frequent siskins – a maximum of four in the case of the latter, and always in winter. There have been blackcaps, also in winter and sometimes paired; long-tailed tits are no longer a rarity, although they seldom linger.

Sparrowhawk_10 14 14_0004A buzzard once perched on top of the gate, no more than 3 metres from the kitchen window. There have always been sparrowhawks: whether the present ones are direct descendants of the originals, or itinerants occupying a new territory, there is no way of knowing. As recently as last week, the current male was within a whisker of taking a nuthatch, in a beautifully executed tight loop around the feeder. The nuthatch was saved by the rotation of the feeder and the hawk continued onwards without any reduction in its speed, tilting almost 90º and squeezing through the tightest of gaps between tree and trellis. A juvenile [pictured left] once sat for a long time on top of one of our fence posts, looking a little confused and a bit disoriented. Possibly it was out on its own for the first time.

Autumn’s first real bite

Summer ends, inevitably. At some point the season becomes undeniably autumn.

The thing with summers, though – our summers –  is that, rather than storming out and slamming the door behind them, they have a tendency to slip quietly away. A whole September can pass, and then some of October, with the feeling that the end of summer still lingers, declining slowly, encroaching into autumn’s allotted time, delaying the changes which must inevitably come if nature’s work is to be accomplished – wind down; shutdown; restart…

And then, one day, it is unequivocally, unmistakably autumn. And here’s the odd bit – it already was, had been for a while but, just as summer exits quietly, autumn arrives without commotion; a seamless, understated handover.

This year, I hadn’t really noticed autumn until it was almost time to adjust the clocks. The combination of an extended dry spell and negligible winds had left the trees still holding a lot of leaf, even if the colours were changing. Losing that hour of daylight at the end of the day removed any lingering ambiguity.

Today, the message was reinforced by a wind more typical of midwinter – a biting, hostile, north-easterly. This was the day when an extra layer was added and never shed, even on the sustained uphill pulls; the day when we began the walk already wearing gloves – no need to “wait and see”. Today, I fished my Montane Prism out of the rucksack when we stopped for lunch, hunkered out of the wind in a sculpted hollow just about the size of a small sofa. When we set off again, the temptation was there to leave the jacket on but that would inevitably have involved stopping to discard it very soon afterwards.

 

Urban diary: Wildlife in Worcester

p1180184There could be a debate about whether the areas to the south and west of Worcester city centre genuinely qualify as urban: there’s a cathedral, a county cricket ground – once considered the most picturesque of all the first-class grounds – and the Severn meandering in a leisurely manner (today at least, if not always so) towards its confluence with the Teme. The Malvern hills are barely eight miles distant, and look closer.

We rarely drive to Worcester, or indeed to Malvern: for a day strolling the city, or a longer one walking the hills, the train is by far the preferred option. The walk from Foregate Street station to the riverside paths takes you right past the Cornish Bakehouse, purveyor of fine and varied pasties. Lunch is easily taken care of; all that remains is to choose from one of the wide selection of benches adjacent to the river. Stick to the cathedral side and any time from mid-morning on you’ll be catching the sun, if sun there is to be caught.

As well as the road bridge carrying the A44 there are two pedestrian footbridges crossing the river within easy walking distance of the city centre. The most recently constructed – just past Diglis weir on the southern side – added the final link in a pleasant, undemanding, circular walking route.

p1180135With the river low and slow-moving – consequence of an extended dry spell – a grey heron waded further from the bank than would usually be possible; repeatedly spearing and swallowing morsels too small to identify. There are some relatively new kids on this particular block – cormorants: there was a time, not so long ago, when they would have been a rarity this far upstream; these days they’re a fixture and their appetites are said to be prodigious by those who study these things. They will certainly be competing with the herons for food, possibly also for nesting sites. As of now, herons generally appear to be doing well; testimony to their adaptability and instinct for finding first water, then fish.

p1180101Speaking of which – fish that is – they could be forgiven a certain amount of paranoia: to further complicate their already hazardous existence, a kingfisher was patrolling a stretch of the river immediately south of the bridge. It was disinclined to pose for the camera – waiting part-hidden among the vegetation at the water’s edge. Seeing without being seen; not an easy trick for such a brightly-coloured bird.

Crossing the bridge and turning back in the direction of the city we found some of the plumpest wild blackberries we’d seen for a good few years; fully ripened and the size of large raspberries. Unfortunately a posse of hornets – the European variety, not the Asian ones which are the source of so much concern – had found the blackberries first. Risk seemed to outweigh reward, so we moved on. Last week in October and the hornets looked a long way from slowing down their activity.

p1180137There was still time for the day to throw us  one final surprise: a decent-sized salmon – exhausted from the look of it – making a few tired attempts to climb the weir, never really managing to get fully clear of the water. Eventually we lost sight of it, partly a consequence of being distracted by the brief drumming of a woodpecker before it flew away.