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…

 

 

 

 

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Gilfach Nature Reserve, Rhayader

Head out of Rhayader on the A 470 Aberystwyth road and in about 3 miles, at the apex of a long bend and immediately after crossing the Pont Marteg, there is a turn on the right for St Harmon, Pant-y-dwr and – reached before either of those places – Gilfach Nature Reserve. I could tell you about it…

I could tell you about the many trails: like the Wyloer Hill Walk, taking you up onto the high ground on the northern side – a couple of strenuous uphill sections, but unobtrusively way-marked and well worth the effort. Or the Marteg Valley Nature Trail, shadowing the fast-flowing river with its populations of wagtails, dippers, maybe otters, and – at the right times of year – Atlantic Salmon. Or the short Oakwood Walk, in the company of pied flycatchers, their more elusive spotted cousins, redstarts, siskin and many other varieties. Take a few moments to be still, become part of the wood, let the birds find you.

The landscape of Gilfach is as much defined by its history as it is by geology: land worked as far back as the bronze age; a traditional working farm until around 30 years ago; remnants of the former Mid Wales railway line still evident in the form of stone bridges and uprights, and the route of the old track bed now forming part of the network of trails. The former farm buildings have been restored as a visitor centre, without in any way compromising their original character. There are facilities and local information and, as with the parking, honesty boxes for donations and contributions. The reserve is now owned and maintained by The Radnorshire Wildlife Trust.

I could tell you more still, but why listen to me when there are better options? You could be listening to somebody who really knows what he’s talking about when it comes to mid Wales, simply by clicking this link. *  It is indeed “a hidden gem…”

Or pay a visit to Gilfach: an hour or two if that’s all the time you have; better though to make more of a day of it; walk a few of the trails; combine them into a longer outing; choose a spot for a food stop and keep the binoculars close to hand.

* This video is also available to play inside The Byre at the visitor centre

Nuthatch chick – Gilfach

Red kite, low over hillside – Gilfach

Pied flycatcher (male) – Gilfach

A few days in Ardnamurchan (Part 3)

Two days compressed into a single short selection of pictures: more of the same, which reflects exactly how it was. And more of the same was never too much; not once.

So the random sequence is, in no particular order, of waves breaking on a rocky shoreline, the suck and hiss of the retreating water telling its own story of how unwise it would be to take reckless liberties on slippery rocks. Small boats passing larger ships; a haze blurring the demarcation between sea and sky; a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry seemingly suspended in a fog – hovering between air and water.

Great black-backed gulls; oystercatchers; Manx shearwaters; the ringed plover with eggs (or young) secreted somewhere among the weed and shingle of Kilmory; pink sea thrift somehow apparently growing from the bare bedrock of Ardnamurchan point.

And Kilmory itself, quiet, lonely, a place to tread carefully, a place to revisit…

Days 5 and 6

 

Music: The Gael (Dougie Maclean)

A few days in Ardnamurchan (Part 1)

This was new ground for us; at least once we’d crossed Loch Linnhe it was. Ardnamurchan was a strange oversight, considering how many times in the past we’d driven that stretch of the A82 from Crianlarich to Fort William. We’d passed the slip road for the Corran ferry any number of times and never boarded; looked over the loch to the other side, wondered about it, but never crossed. I’m thinking this could almost be worked into a new verse for Caledonia.

So, on an impulse, we decided to visit the Ardnamurchan peninsula, found some accommodation, booked and then spent a few weeks trying to plan for… well, for west of Scotland, so all eventualities. Having spent those weeks reiterating the possibility (likelihood!) of rain-bearing westerlies, potentially storm force, I did feel some responsibility for the fact that we’d gone overboard on the waterproofs and fleece and were correspondingly a bit under-equipped when it came to shorts and T-shirts. But pessimism is a lifelong affliction and my new mantra is that, yes we can go back, but we’ll never be that lucky again…

This is definitely one of those occasions where the pictures tell a better story than any words, so with that in mind I’ve tried to create a sequence of slideshows, which my cheapskate, bottom of the range, WordPress plan doesn’t exactly make easy. The slideshows were created firstly with iMovie then uploaded to Youtube and can be accessed by links; the transitions between frames are not the smoothest but I’m operating at the extremities of my technical knowledge here.

The first part of the journey begins not far from where it ends, insofar as I’ve omitted the M5/M6/M74/A74(M) sections and started somewhere around Ballaculish. The shots of Glencoe were mostly taken from a moving car (not by the driver!) and I’d forgotten just what a spectacular place it can be; which is pretty unforgivable really!

And we finally got to board the Corran ferry – in itself a short voyage of discovery.

Day 1 – Journey and crossing

Day 2 – Laga Bay and Glenborrodale

 

Music: Kicking Bird’s gift (from Dances with wolves); Comfortably numb (Pink Floyd)

Should aesthetics trump functionality?

I’m assuming it’s still okay to use the word ‘trump’ in the title of a post without attracting some incoherent response from the man on Capitol Hill.

On a short outing in the Severn Valley a few days ago, I was struck by the contrast between some of the structures and apparatus – old and quite new – which we encountered along the way. At the foot crossing in Eymore Wood we paused briefly as former Southern Region pacific 34027 Taw Valley passed through with a longish and busy train. This is the locomotive which has, on occasions, appeared around the country in maroon livery carrying the Hogwarts Express nameplate. Built immediately post WW2 (1946) it still looks the part, although – had it not been rescued from a south Wales scrapyard – it would have had a very short working life, having been withdrawn from service by 1964.

There is a slight uphill incline at this point and it was the kind of cold, crisp day when a bit of exertion generally produces good, photogenic steam.

Between the railway and the nearby river, a couple of Severn Trent reservoirs double up as boating lakes and wildlife retreats – wildfowl mostly but with a growing cormorant population. In combination with the preserved railway, the river itself and the northern edge of the extensive Wyre Forest, which reaches all the way to the opposite bank, it’s an attractive and not over-used area. Unfortunately, it seems to have been considered an appropriate site for a solar farm (Cenin Renewables in conjunction with Severn Trent apparently) – a development which started small and seems to be proliferating over a wide area. This is part of a cluster sited a few metres from the bank of the river…

One of the local councils – Kidderminster Parish – said at the time of the initial development they only found out about Severn Trent’s plans after they were approved because of (quote) “a loophole in planning regulations”. I could go on about the effectiveness and appropriate siting of these panels – that and the still ongoing debate around their dubious longevity and payback – but that would make for a much longer post. For now I’ll leave it that they’re unsightly and in a place where they should never have been considered; a place, incidentally, where if you pitched a tent for a night’s wild camp you’d quite likely be moved on.

About a couple of hundred metres upstream (no more) John Fowler’s elegant and timeless cast-iron arch bridge carries the railway across the Severn. Probably an unfair comparison, but even in the fading light of our return journey it struck us as more enhancement than intrusion…

Earlier in the day I’d taken this shot from the road bridge adjacent to Arley Station. It’s a jumble and just about everything is wrong with it, but I quite like the overall chaotic effect of steam, people, trains and infrastructure…

There are still a few examples of lower quadrant semaphore signalling to be found out on the main lines, including around the Worcester/Droitwich/Malvern area. Upper quadrants (raised signals) are a bit more numerous, particularly around the stations on the Highland Main Line; the GWR always liked to be different.

With the light almost gone, there was just about enough time to capture the bulrushes below. This group are at the edge of one of the two small reservoirs and are often frequented by coots, and occasionally reed warblers. Nature’s designs are often studies in understated elegance; something we could learn from…

A sense of place

The west midlands confuses people: not the endless proliferation of local dialects; not the eccentricities of the motorway network; perplexing though both of those can be. New York might well be “so good they named it twice” but The West Midlands (capitalised this time) is apparently such a brilliantly imaginative name for a place that to use it only once would have seemed wasteful; so it’s been applied to two completely different entities – one of which resides within the other.

First, there’s The County of West Midlands: neither small nor perfectly formed, this nondescript aggregation of bits taken from Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire, all of which – reduced though they may be – still separately exist, managed to be a compromise of sorts in that it was held in almost unanimous contempt by residents of all three of its constituent parts. The reasons for their discontent might have varied – from the erosion of cultural identity to concern over the effects on property prices “If people get the idea we’re a suburb of Dudley” (yes, seriously) – but the thing that united us them was that we they just weren’t happy and that’s all there was too it. It doesn’t take much.

Then there’s the other ‘West Midlands’ which, according to Wiki is “One of the nine official regions of England”, stretching from Herefordshire and The Cotswolds to the edge of The Peaks and all points west, right up to the Welsh border. None of this is new, although it is to me.

Both versions of The West Midlands are officially designated as NUTS, which will surprise almost no-one.

Within about 10-15 minutes at a decent walking pace I can reach the remnant of an old Roman road, which marks the boundary with Staffordshire, just at the point where it is tapering down to nothing in the middle of some nondescript pasture; in rather less time again it is possible to exit Staffordshire and cross seamlessly into Worcestershire. So, I reached the Roman road, left behind the neatly suburban West Midlands (designated NUTS1) and crossed into the unkempt agricultural West Midlands (NUTS2), heading for one of those places where The Woodland Trust is doing some of its sterling work.

This is, for a while, an odd patchwork of an area: the clearly defined residential plots come to an abrupt end and are replaced by a chaotic, bits and pieces landscape of indeterminate ownership – a couple of small copses and a few fields which have remained undisturbed for, to my knowledge, the best part of 35 years. Vegetation comes and goes, proliferates, dies back, and the tracks which meander between the trees and brambles follow the same lines that they have followed for as long as I’ve known them.

At least over time the wildlife changes: the buzzards and ravens which would once have been considered exotic are now relatively commonplace, particularly the buzzards. The grey squirrel and rabbit populations ensure there is certainly no shortage of food; no doubt there are field voles out there as well, but they maintain a lower profile. These days the squirrels have to compete for cached food with the expanding population of jays – a bird with attractive plumage but frequently sounding as if it’s being tortured. Goldcrest are present in good numbers; possibly they always were and I never noticed them or, more likely, thought that anything so small would automatically be a wren.

Today the kind of snowfall we rarely see any more has thrown a pristine blanket over some of the less attractive aspects, like the unused rolls of razor wire and discarded feed sacks. The woods themselves seem to be groaning under the covering of snow and the goldcrests and wrens, as they flit between branches, set up small tremors dislodging many times their own body weight.


     

Modern camera technology

The final photograph in the previous post was of a kingfisher, sitting on some stonework just out of Worcester city centre. I described it in the post as ‘heavily cropped’ and I think it’s a testimony to the quality of modern camera sensors and lenses that an image can be effectively ‘blown up’ and still retain so much resolution.

Here’s what happened (and I must stress that there was no skill involved on my part beyond the use of the cropping tool; no photoshopping or enhancement of any kind – it is all down to the camera equipment).

The kingfisher flew across the river and alighted on the quayside; it was some distance away but was clearly a kingfisher. Not wishing to spook the bird, my son took a few shots in ‘burst’ mode without moving any closer. He was using a Sony Alpha 6000 with a Sony 55-210 zoom lens; from memory he thinks it was shot at maximum zoom but it was all in a bit of a hurry. This is the original shot…

The kingfisher is visible, just left of centre and on the corner of the quayside.

When we’d got the pictures loaded onto the computer at home, I just thought I’d try cropping to remove the railings; I expected the result to be grainy and unusable. This was the first crop…

It was way better than I would have anticipated, but I knew you couldn’t expect to keep cropping without compromising image quality. Nevertheless, I though I’d give it one more trim – this time with really low expectations…

The result was the photograph above, which is the one used in the previous post.

I just thought this was an amazing testimony to the quality of modern camera equipment, even in the hands of an amateur (although Rob, to be fair to him, does have a decent eye for a picture). I contributed nothing beyond the use of the cropping tool.