The birds of The Long Mynd

I think I might be a bird-watcher; not that it matters but I think I might…

I did read sometime ago about the distinction (I nearly said pecking order and thought better of it) between bird-watchers, birders and twitchers. I’d forgotten where, so I took it up with Wiki, and apparently there is a system…

” Bird-watcher: A rather ambiguous term used to describe the person who watches birds for any reason at all, and should not be used to refer to the serious birder…” Okay, that sounds like me.

” Birder: The acceptable term used to describe the person who seriously pursues the hobby of birding…” Confirmation – the seriously bit rules me out.

Twitching: A British term used to mean “the pursuit of a previously located rare bird.The term twitcher, sometimes misapplied as a synonym for birder, is reserved for those who travel long distances to see a rare bird…” Well that’s not me either: my naturally pessimistic “it will be gone by the time I get there” mindset would just make it a non-starter.

Or possibly none of the above: maybe I’m just a walker who sometimes inadvertently spooks the wildlife into breaking cover. If so, I apologise for the lack of stealth and no harm is intended.

There are many things which repeatedly draw us back to the Shropshire Hills and the variety of the birds is certainly among them. As with anywhere it’s possible to cover many miles and see very little, as was indeed the case on a baking hot day a couple of weeks back, when the hills were alive with sweltering DofErs, groaning under the weight of their loads. A day when the Year 11s outnumbered the meadow pipits.

Fast forward a week and the skies are more cloudy, the temperature a few degrees lower, the long hollows (valleys) – Carding Mill aside –  all but deserted. And the birds are back: meadow pipits, skylarks, a male peregrine, followed by a juvenile, ravens (as always), linnets, stonechats perched on top of clumps of gorse. And their close relatives, whinchats – tiny birds who in their brief lives (2/3 years on average) routinely make the annual return journey from southern Africa for our brief northern spring and summer.

This one was pictured a couple of years back, alongside the track which winds up Ashes Hollow…

On our most recent visit, just before the path leading down from Callow hill arrives in Little Stretton, we came across a brood of young swallows, newly-fledged and still very much dependent for food. In the lower picture one of the chicks appears to be trying to eat its parent…

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Moving on…

I’ve decided to abandon the blog: the intention is to leave it online for a while but, after this post, there will only be one further entry which will be – rather neatly – the 150th. There are a number of reasons – the wish to avoid repetition being one – but primary among them is the irritation of dealing with spammers, including the odd ones seeming to emanate from some pretty strange places; ‘odd’ in every sense of the word.

According to the stats captured by WordPress, the filters have eliminated 1,850 spam comments: that’s 1,850 I never even got to see – a number which needs to be added to the many hundreds I’ve had to delete at the point of moderation. I have no idea why I seem to attract so many fruitcakes to a site with relatively low traffic and generally innocuous subject matter, but there it is…

The pattern seems to be that a particular post becomes a focal point for random comments – some in languages which I don’t speak; others offering ‘opportunities’ for which I am neither young enough, nor sufficiently flexible. Closing that post to comments merely seems to have the effect of diverting the traffic to another target; and so it goes on…

As a last aside regarding outdoor matters, we were out on The Long Mynd at the weekend, in the best of autumn weather: the watercourses are slowly replenishing following the dry summer and, for the first time in many months, I elected to wear boots. It turned out to be the right decision but still not one I enjoyed.

Oh, and the golden plover had returned, as they often do about now. But they don’t seem to stay for the whole winter and I have no idea where the next part of their journey takes them.

The plan is to give Instagram a try – more pictures/fewer words. That is what the 150th post will be about. I’ll leave the blog out there, if only as a gateway to the many and excellent other outdoor sites.

A walk with not much to look at…

“It’s foggy up here”. Perceptive, that’s me.

Admittedly, it had been perfectly clear when we left home – about 4 miles away as the crow flies and about 600 feet lower – but the change in conditions really didn’t need to be pointed out. “Nothing gets past you, does it?” I thought the sarcasm was uncalled for.

dsc_0003I actually don’t mind the occasional walk in foggy conditions, and admittedly it’s easier to be philosophical when the journey from home has only taken about 10 minutes and you’ve seen the views from these particular hills literally dozens of times before. Perhaps not quite so easy if you’ve driven a long distance to explore somewhere previously unvisited. And I suppose we half expected it to clear as the morning progressed and a little bit of sun and wind worked their magic.

So off we set on a familiar circuit, able to see very little beyond a couple of dozen yards in any direction, listening out for signs of the birds who seem to be gearing up for what should be – migrations aside – their most active period of the year.

dsc_0009Occasionally the shadowy but recognisable shape of a blackbird could be seen rummaging away in the leaf litter; and a few robins, confident and optimistic, shadowed our progress along the track. Meanwhile, the only variation in the visibility seemed to be in those places where it became noticeably worse.

There are two, three or four tops in the Clent Hills cluster, depending on your interpretation. Three of them are over 1,000 feet in height, although only one – Walton Hill – is designated as a Marilyn. Calcot Hill is sometimes dismissed as just another undulation on the ridge of Walton Hill; Wychbury is often disregarded, simply as a consequence of being separated from the others by the busy A456; Clent Hill is the most visited, the one with the café and other facilities, and the second highest. The whole area does seem somewhat susceptible to hill fogs and this was neither the first, nor the worst we have encountered. As we left and began to drop down the steep lane leading away from the car park, we were very quickly back into clear conditions.

Pictures taken with a smartphone

I might be about to buy a new compact camera: I have a venerable but ageing Panasonic Lumix – an item seemingly so bombproof it will probably outlive me. But, like many things of a certain age, its performance is limited and – powered, as it is, by AA batteries – prone to running out of steam just when you might need it. It strikes me that, apart from the battery-powered bit, I could just as easily be describing bits of my anatomy here.

Because of a preference for binoculars slung around my neck, as opposed to a camera, I’m often caught napping when an opportunity – particularly for a wildlife shot – presents itself. The Panasonic dates back to long before the days of superzoom compacts, and the bridge camera, which I also sometimes carry, is invariably in the rucksack. Birds and other animals will rarely sit patiently while you take off a pack, retrieve a camera, zoom, focus, generally faff… Although, strangely, it seems they will often hang around until you’re nearly ready before making off.

So, a pocket-sized camera seems like the answer. My son has a fairly recent Panasonic compact, with a 30X zoom, and gets some very good results; although he has to keep it very steady when shooting at anything over 20X.

In the interim, I’ve been trying to take the occasional shot with a camera phone, just by way of experimentation and in the knowledge that the camera on the phone I have is generally described as “disappointing” by reviewers. Some of the results are below and I was surprised at how atmospheric some of them seemed to have turned out. However – atmospheric or otherwise – the one thing they all have in common is that the colours and lighting bear little resemblance to what they were actually like on the day.

The pictures below, mostly give the impression of gathering gloom and fading light: in fact they were all taken at just gone 1 pm on a fairly bright winter’s day, with broken cloud and sunshine. Even the lightest of them – the bottom one – significantly understates how light it was in reality. The camera might not lie, but it can be pretty economical with the truth…   dsc_0043  dsc_0041  dsc_0038  dsc_0036

All pictures were taken from the eastern side of Kinver Edge, Staffordshire, looking          roughly due east. The higher ground in the distance is the Clent Hills, Worcestershire.

The phone is (according to the box) a Sony Xperia M4 Aqua and the camera sensor is 13 megapixels – more pixels than the one on my too-heavy-to-take-on-a-walk Sony DSLR, although that doesn’t necessarily mean a bigger sensor, apparently. It’s produced some quite nice pictures – just not quite the ones I thought I was taking.

This will take a little getting used to…

This is to be the first post as a WordPress user. The final one as a Blogger blogger can be found here, along with some of those which preceded it; how long they will survive is anybody’s guess. The earlier posts from the old Blogger site are gradually being imported over here, under the heading “From the vaults”. Not all of them will make the journey – the time for a clearout was overdue.

Should anyone click on the above link, the most useful thing they will find is the section on the right-hand side headed “Always worth a visit”. It is a list of the blogs which I most frequently follow, and there gems among them; clicking on any of them will lead to others, which in turn will… well, you get the idea. There’s some wonderful stuff out there, freely available and accessible through any number of gateways. When I find out how to do it, I will bring them across to this site; it will be like hanging favourite pictures in a new house.

The opening entries on the old blog – back in November 2009 – were a couple of posts about the hills on my own doorstep; the second of them beginning with: “The Clent hills will be familiar to anyone who has ever driven the first two or three junctions of the M5; just about where the urban sprawl of the West Midlands finally surrenders its grip…” To quote Jarvis Cocker: “I don’t know why but I had to start it somewhere, so it started there…” This one might as well start in the same place…

75190005

Quiet day – Clent Hills

In the five and a bit years since those first tentative excursions into the strange, twilight world of the outdoor blogger I’ve probably tramped that local patch more than any other, although there’s the odd stretch of canal would run it close. And if there are times when I don’t much fancy it (and there are), those thoughts quickly dissipate once the outing is under way. A pair of tops, close enough to present a bactrian profile from certain aspects; one of them (Walton Hill) a designated Marilyn; ravens, raptors and ring ouzels; roe deer and muntjac; a café serving proper outdoor scran; escape chutes plunging away from the crowds on those days, relatively few in number, when crowds there are; bluebells.

All of this despite the ever-busy M5 passing less than 2 miles to the east and the boundary of the (mostly) post-industrial black country being closer still to the north. And, with nothing higher for 20 miles in any direction, the views can be exceptional; on the best of days it’s possible to pick out the Berwyns, some 60 miles away. Which reminds me of another place that’s overdue for a revisit…

P1060273

Bluebells – Clent Hills

The return to earth (20/06/2015)

The return to earth

There’s no avoiding the fact that leaving the highlands involves ‘coming down’ in more than one sense. From a seemingly unending choice of mountains topping three and a half thousand feet, we return to a locality where the highest accessible summits reach around half that height.

Abdon Burf (Brown Clee), at 540 metres (1,770 feet), is the highest point in Worcestershire and Shropshire; Long Mynd – despite feeling much more like proper hill country – tops out at the summit of Pole Bank (516 metres/1693 feet).

It’s hard not to suffer withdrawal symptoms, and not just for the landscape either: highland place names evoke a particular nostalgia, all of their own. Simply planning a route in The Cairngorms can be enough to prompt anticipation and excitement: tracing a line on the map across allt; gleann; creag; stob. The principal waterways – Dee, Spey, Feshie – mostly seem to be identified by the anglicised ‘river’ but elsewhere the landscape is doing its bit to preserve the mystery and romance of gaelic. Could there be a better and more appropriate way of conserving a language than through the naming and identification of iconic landmarks?

The Welsh have a word – ‘Hiraeth’ – which has no direct equivalent in English, but one definition is “… a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia and wistfulness”. And there we have it, in a nutshell – an Englishman, back home and stricken with hiraeth for the wild places of Scotland (and their names). It’s almost a subliminal argument in favour of the union.

So, what to do? The realities of daily life demand attention and recreation has to take its place in the queue; not always at the front, unfortunately. Meanwhile, the post holiday void has to be filled, as best it can, by the frequently shorter and invariably less dramatic outings taken closer to home. As coping strategies go, this seems better than any of the alternatives…

f8181-dsc08175

The Worcester and Birmingham canal, near Droitwich

Canal walks are one of our staples, and what they lack in terms of hills is usually compensated for by the generally less hurried pace of life and movement around inland waterways. That and the often surprising diversity of wildlife colonising the margins; particularly where the canals border on areas of arable farmland.

Canals in the Droitwich area have benefited from substantial restoration efforts in recent years. These are too extensive and complex to cover in a blog post but there are a number of online sites detailing the work which has been carried out. Suffice it to say that the restoration projects have reactivated previously derelict and overgrown sections of waterway and towpath, created a variety of new wildlife habitats and some excellent walking opportunities. The restored canals are now in the care of The Canal and River Trust: their site can be viewed here; there is also, among others, a wiki page giving some of the back story.

a5c73-dsc081322b2_edited-1

Reed Warbler

One particular component of the  habitat enhancement has been the creation of extensive reed beds; these attract a variety of bird species but seem particularly appealing to probably the highest concentration of reed warblers we’ve ever encountered anywhere. Perhaps the day will eventually arrive when I can reliably distinguish them from a whitethroat at first sight; I’m not there yet.

Reed warblers are one of the varieties vulnerable to being used as a host by parasitic cuckoos and we heard distinctive cuckoo calls coming from a copse quite close to the towpath. In fact we’ve heard a number of cuckoos calling in the vicinity of local canals this spring/summer, where we can often go several years without hearing a single one in the locality. I suppose it could be that this is connected to the apparently thriving warbler population.

73a30-dsc08242_edited-1

Serendipity: while trying to pinpoint the precise location of the cuckoo, Rob chanced upon this green woodpecker sitting uncharacteristically motionless on top of a tree stump…

pastedGraphic_3.pdf

 

 

d24b0-dsc08053

 

 

 

Cultivated land, hedgerows, some woodland. A nice mix of habitat for warblers and other varieties.

 

 

Be ready for the weather (whatever it happens to be)…

For the weekend, and the few days leading up to it, the weather forecasts had been so vague as to be just about meaningless. A frontal system moving across from the west might/might not reach us; colder air from the north could extend this far south, but on the other hand…

Maybe both would make it all the way and meet above our heads in some post-biblical apocalypse. Alternatively it might just be grey skies and some drizzle – that’s always a sound bet in the midlands, in January.

Canal & Kinver.18.01.15_01 18 15_0002So, in the absence of any guidance from the meteorologists, we layered up for just about every eventuality and set off with no particular plan, other than that we’d start with the canal and feed any ducks we happened to meet. There were loads of them, and they cleaned us out of food in no time; to those who missed out, we can only apologise.

Setting off along the towpath, the weather was pretty benign, although with that extra couple of degrees more bite that you often seem to get near water. We were going to be out for no more than about three hours, so this would do just fine – it might even be possible to shed a layer as we warmed up.

Canal & Kinver.18.01.15_01 18 15_0014A spur of the moment decision led to us leaving the canalside walk and heading off towards the most accessible piece of higher ground – Kinver Edge.

‘High’ is a relative term, and even by the humble standards of our local hills the height of the ridge is modest (the trig point is at 538 feet), although there are a couple of steepish, if relatively short, pulls to be negotiated on the way to the crest of the ridge.

If we were going to discard a layer, this would have been the time; but it would inevitably mean stopping again to put it all back on, so we put up with briefly being a bit too warm. As it turned out, it wouldn’t be lasting for very long.

Kinver Edge is the southernmost point of the Staffordshire Way, and the place where it meets the merged Worcestershire Way and North Worcestershire path. It was also, for us, just about the point of no return in terms of this particular walk and therefore – inevitably – the place where the weather suddenly changed for the worse.

Canal & Kinver.18.01.15_01 18 15_0017What little was left of the day’s sun was quickly consumed by grey cloud and the wind, from which we had previously been sheltered, carried the first warning shots of a sleet storm. The temperature dropped several degrees.

This all seemed to happen in the time it took to cover a few paces and a quick glance in the direction from which the storm was gathering suggested it was only going to get worse. It did, with a vengeance: sky almost black; daylight virtually extinguished; rain and sleet horizontal in a biting wind, even penetrating the cover of the woods. And then it was gone…

Just as if a switch had been thrown, the weak sun was visible again, the rain and sleet eased, and the wind subsided – no wonder the forecasters hedge their bets. Any thoughts of being too warm were gone for good though.

Eventually we rejoined the canal towpath and finished the walk in near darkness; our eyes adjusting to the gathering gloom as the dusk thickened.

Canal & Kinver.18.01.15_01 18 15_0030

Surprisingly, two weeks into January, a number of gorse bushes were already coming into flower