Sunday 26 November 2023

The Unpredictable Draw of Nature

 As I prepared to upload the images for this posting a large flock of jackdaws has flown noisily past the back of the house. It happens every year. Every day during the winter months in the morning the daws flock noisily from their roost past our house at a very low level, so low I am at daw-level watching them from the bedroom window. Then in the afternoon they return in the reverse direction although they fly much higher over the fields at the back of the house heading to their roost, a roost that I've never actually discovered but suspect it's about 8 miles away in the woods near Clevedon.

I find winter a beautiful season, a season which if I'm truthful is the one time of the year when I have more of a craving to be outdoors observing nature than during the rest of the year.  Possibly this is to do with absorbing as much daylight as possible during these short autumnal days as they morph into the very dark days before Christmas. Or maybe it is the arrival of large winter flocks of birds to find food and shelter here away from their northern breeding grounds. Sometimes it is the sunlight light levels bursting through a crystal clear atmosphere such as I observed yesterday illuminating these reed feathers at the RSPB's Ham Wall nature reserve.

We'd arrived at Ham Wall to watch the starlings come into roost. In preference I tend to avoid visits to hot spots of nature watching at weekends as there are too many people about to observe more than the regular incumbents.  I made an exception yesterday. After the first frost of the season had blanketed the countryside in an iced dusting, the clear blue sky and surprisingly warm sunshine for the noted 5 degree temperature suggested a good day to see a starling murmuration over at the Avalon Marshes. We'd been there recently and watched a good number of starlings fly in around ten days ago but it had been a very blustery day and the starlings were quick to settle with little of their famed aerial display taking place. I hoped then that the calm but cold weather on this visit might produce a fine murmuration display.

At this time of the year the starlings come in to roost from around 4 o'clock. We arrived at the car park at 2.30pm and it was almost full, high-viz clad carpark operatives waved us to park sideways on in the carpark - they were expecting it to be busy.  It was. Sometimes though the atmosphere of hundreds of people milling about makes for the experience. We began with beverages, Mrs Wessex-Reiver having a hot chocolate and I a filter coffee. We stood by a picnic table, taking in the atmosphere, when we were joined by a chatty lady who like us visits here regularly, but had just come today for a quick visit, though not to see the starlings. During the conversation as we sipped our drinks she and her husband mentioned a huge heronry near High Ham in Mid-Somerset which I'd not heard of before, a mental note was then made to visit there in the spring.

Saying our adieus we wandered off into the reserve, and as we did so a lady in front stopped and asked if we'd been here before. She and her husband had come from Oxford especially to see the starlings coming into roost. The Avalon Marshes cover a huge area and I can well understand someone on their first visit thinking "Where do we go". We had a good chat, I pointed out nothing is guaranteed as the birds can change where they roost each day,  but I suggested she would be best to stay by Viewing Platform 1 just ahead of where we were talking and she'd be okay, not least as nearer the time the RSPB send staff along there to help people understand this marvellous piece of co-ordinated behaviour. Chatty conversation number two over, we wandered further into the reserve towards where the starlings had come in to roost ten days ago. I spied a vacant bench with a view over the reedbed, and I made myself at home here, joined by a very obliging pair of male robins who devoured the little bits of bread Mrs Wessex-Reiver had with her.

With 45 minutes before the show began Mrs Wessex-Reiver headed off for a walk while I faffed about with my camera lens which looked a little dirty. Lost in my endeavours I heard "This chap looks like he knows what he's doing, shall we stay here?"  I looked up and a family of four plus dog were surrounding me. It turned out they were staying for the weekend in Somerton as the son had bought his father a 'starling weekend' for his father's birthday earlier in the year. They'd never been to Somerset before and thus had no idea what to do, so for the second time in half an hour I passed on what paltry knowledge I could muster. They were a nice family simply having a lovely time somewhere they'd looked forward to visiting for years. The draw of nature watching is strong. As we chatted a crowd began to develop around us so by the time the starlings arrived my once clear view over the reeds had become one of bobble hats, prams, children on shoulders and dogs looking bemused.

Thankfully for my new found friends the starlings gave a reasonable performance overhead. Not huge numbers of birds but a dozen or so largish flocks milling about in the sky, not murmurating exactly but very pleasant to watch as they drifted about and then into the reeds. Thinking that was the performance over we said our goodbyes and Mrs Wessex-Reiver and I began to wander slowly back to the carpark. We'd only gone a few hundred meters when we noticed a huge flock to our right in a different part of the reedbed. Sometimes the flocks of starlings converge into a single mass of activity, this evening however the various groups had formed and then split into roosting in three different areas of the reedbed. This often happens. This flock in front of us were very restless and were rising and falling into the reeds en masse. My new friends caught up with us and they saw and heard the commotion well. The chap's wife was mesmerised by what was happening and when I mentioned the noise of the wingbeats she couldn't believe it. Afterwards she thanked me for helping them have such a wonderful time.  I pointed out it was the birds not me bringing joy, but I can understand having some local knowledge maybe helped their experience.    

By now it was getting fairly dark so we sauntered further on to Viewing Platform 1 where we joined hundreds of people milling about, families, people on bicycles, couples, individuals unwrapping sandwiches and pouring tea from a flask, it was like a mass wildlife party, everyone enjoying the last of the light with the still restless starlings bobbing up and down in the reeds a few hundred meters away providing the entertainment. We watched this all for bit then I suggested to Mrs Wessex-Reiver we could walk out in the opposite direction onto the viewing platform at the end of the boardwalk and see what might be happening there. And I'm glad we did.

The noise from this third group of starlings deciding to roost here was astonishing. That noise came from the chattering of thousands of birds trying to settle for the night coupled with whoosh-wingbeats of those who couldn't find the right spot and were then agitatedly flying about between the reeds to find a new desirable piece of real estate. So low were some of these starling groups flying, and at quite a speed, that their passing was breaking the water surface and causing ripples and wavelets to form. By now the light was fading fast, seeing individual birds was impossible, it was simply a blur of activity. That didn't dampen the enthusiasm of the large number of people crammed into the viewing platform, no one was moving. It was now 4.45pm. 

Forty five minutes of entertainment by nature just doing what it does every day. As we walked back I noticed moonlight reflected on one of the pools. A moment of stillness in a landscape still chaotic with both visitors and nature on the move. Approaching the main path through the reserve those visitors were still ten deep still watching the starlings doing their thing. That's such a lovely thing to see as I suggest most people there were very much like the people we chatted to,  day visitors, some visiting for the first time, others regulars but maybe not hardened birdwatchers, families out for a bit of exercise, friends meeting up. Simply people coming out on a Saturday evening to watch nature's own unpredictable version of Strictly Come Dancing. 

Monday 13 November 2023

A Plodge Around Frampton Cotterell's Nature

To Plodge - Verb (intransitive) - to wade in water, esp the sea. Northeast England dialect. 

Well, I found myself a long way away from the sea on this Remembrance Sunday, but I and my two companions were definitely plodging - such a great word PLODGE - a word I grew up with and a word which sounds like the very action it describes. And on this visit to Frampton Cotterell we did plodge with merry abandon. 

A friend of mine has recently become involved with her local nature group in the village of Frampton Cotterell. The village itself is a handful of miles north of Bristol in South Gloucestershire, and as such like many communities across the land which now find themselves hard by major cities, its countryside is under pressure to develop.  Partly due to this threat of development and partly to enhance the natural history value of the area back in 2021 a new nature group was formed Frampton Cotterell Nature, and my friend Sheena found herself on the committee.  Over the months she has mentioned snippets of news from this group while we've supped a coffee or I've read the updates on Facebook, but until yesterday I'd not visited any of the sites they oversee. We therefore arranged to pop up yesterday and as had happened with recent nature rambles this autumn it was raining. Mrs Wessex-Reiver joined me.

As Ovid said "Fortune and love favour the brave." Thus despite the predicted deluge with stout wellingtons now on our feet and a waterproof mackintosh on our backs we set off from Sheena's house, gaily splashing through the village before we joined the Frome Valley Walkway at the first of the sites now managed by the group. Sadly I've forgotten what this area was called but it followed the banks of the river, is open access to anyone and in recent months has seen tree planting and management take place to enhance nature here.

Not a long river, the Frome winds its 20 miles from a little further north at Dodington and eventually spills itself into the mighty River Avon at Bristol where it ends its days at the Bristol Channel flowing past the aptly named Avonmouth.  Here at Frampton Cotterell I was informed it was usually little more than a big stream, though today after a lot of rain recently it was a boiling coffee coloured river in full spate. Kingfishers are resident here though with the river in such force they'll not be able to fish, kingfishers can suffer high mortality at times of flooding for this reason.  Further upstream otters are found. A pleasant enough start to our walk though in November the wildflowers have sensibly disappeared for another year awaiting warmer days.

A little further on we came to a small wooded area where a few weeks ago a working party had been invited to come and do some coppicing one morning. This little parcel of woodland had been coppiced before but not for a long time. On that coppicing day my friend turned up as did the organiser and that was it. However hard they tried two people can not do much coppicing over a morning and as we stood there our discussion ranged on how few people turn out to planned working days despite a lot of people showing interest and enthusiasm. That is a perennial problem with many nature organisations (and not just nature groups) where often it is just a few people who do many of the tasks and become the stalwarts of any group. But where are the rest of the volunteers, especially if as I learnt the nature group have 750 followers on social media? There's also an age issue, many work-party people are retired, which of course is due to working people not having time, so we discussed how the nature group could maybe encourage families, or school groups to come along. Or just anyone. It's a universal problem. Hopefully they'll get a few more helpers on the next coppicing date whenever that is.

Emerging from the coppicing woodland the valley opened up again with sodden remnants of flowers hinting at a beautiful wildflower area in the summer, an area which seamlessly transferred into a small orchard where anyone can come and pick the apples (a local jam maker is particularly fond of these).  This is exactly what a locally managed site should be, owned by the Parish Council, managed by locals, for locals with specific tasks and need targeted by those locally on the ground.  Oddly as we were walking along the river banks of the Frome, here at least the ground underfoot was quite dry, which lulled us into a false sense of security.

Crossing the main road and circumnavigating the boundary wall of St Peter's church we wandered down Mill Lane past some allotments through a kissing gate and into another Parish Council owned site, Centenary Fields. The nature group looks after a dozen or so sites, however this Centenary Fields,  which opened in 1994, is arguably the focal point of their operations as aside from its size, it is slap bang in the middle of the village. 

In the summer I was told a family music festival takes place here but for the rest of the year it is an open area for dog walkers, families, nature lovers and anyone who just wants to use the space. A lot of tree planting has happened here and on the day before we visited a working party had begun to dig out a wildlife pond (complete with a dead hedge) which despite not being complete was already filling up. 

Moving from the pond we were shown a newly planted woodland area. This resulted in an interesting discussion about plastic tree guards, something I have a particular loathing for. I spotted a mature tree close by that still sported its tree guard and discussing with my friend, try as we might it could not be removed with the bark now fused into the plastic. It is a true oversight of many a grant application that money is there for planting, often insisting on tree guards but no funds for aftercare or even the removal of the guards after a few years.  Not far away a native hedge had been planted by a private landowner without tree guards being used. As if to rub salt into the wound these unprotected hedge saplings looked really healthy.

The brilliant naturalist Chris Sperring has a much simpler, and bio-DNA-friendly way of regenerating trees in open public areas  - brambles. By encouraging brambles, themselves excellent for many wildlife species a native and locally adapted succession occurs. If left unmanaged he argues grassland first becomes brambles, eventually some shrubs develop both providing super habitat for many birds and mammals before the odd tree seedling from local trees naturally regenerating pokes its head up above the bramble tangle, a tangle which by its very thorniness is protecting the young tree from deer or other browsers thus doing the job of plastic tree guards for free. Eventually these saplings will grow, form a canopy and as they mature so the brambles' vigour is reduced due to reduced light levels reaching the understory and eventually many of the shrubs and bramble disappear leaving a young woodland. No need for planting, tree guards, or fencing, or money being spent, with a natural succession from open ground to woodland happening at a rate other species can adapt to. Sadly though this succession can take 30 years and humans being humans crave an instant hit, so we manage and plant and add tree guards.

As we walked on the countryside was beginning to open up into agricultural land. Passing through another kissing gate we came into a pony paddock which would be perfect for many species having shrubs here and rough grass areas there but I learnt it is possibly going to be offered up for development. We walked on towards a local well known spot called Black Rocks where the river Frome was hurling itself around a natural bend through a rock cutting. This is a well known spot in the summer used by people just to come and enjoy a bit of fresh air (and the odd fizzy drink!). 

Onwards we walked now heading into a lovely mature section of riparian woodland where the 'seep seep' of redwing could be heard overhead before crossing a new metal bridge over the raging Frome and onward to the other side where we emerged onto Somme-like agricultural land where maize had just been harvested. We were still following the Frome Valley Walkway and now found ourselves at approximately half way through our planned walk, with our initial plan to walk onto the village of Iron Acton and back to the warm dryness of Sheena's house. However we became bogged down in the quagmire that is the Great British countryside at winter. Welly sucking mud was followed by calf deep puddles, or both, most exciting in many ways but it made onward travel slow and laborious. The countryside around here however was lovely and as it adjoined the Frampton Cotterell nature sites a lovely example of that new thinking of joined up landscapes making for a larger habitat species can move about in. Of course if we stopped developing on land, or reduced the intensity of agriculture we'd not need these refugia areas.

Back to the mud. After I'd moved south thirty years ago my late mum was astonished on visiting Dorset many years ago over Christmas. Up until that point she had only ever visited in the summer when dust devils rose from the hot baked earth of Hardy's Wessex. As we three yesterday plodged along this Gloucester footpath I thought of mum all those years ago astonished at the rivers of water rushing down country lanes or spilling down tracks. The countryside is nothing if not muddy in winter.  

There is also increasing evidence that being close to mud is beneficial to our health. In her book 52 Ways To Walk, Annabel Streets discusses the benefits of mud, especially a microbiota  butyrate which is meant to be good for our gut fauna. Another substance geosmin is known to induce feelings of calm according to evolutionary psychologists. But that aside there is however something very satisfying in squelching through mud on a walk, though as we were concentrating so much on where our feet were treading spotting any of the limited wildlife on show was a challenge.  

Sheena pointed out she had done this route back in May while on a dawn chorus walk when it was a lot drier. The nature group itself have now counted over 80 species of birds in the area which is encouraging for a farmed landscape. On our visit in the flooded fields to our right gulls were afloat on the temporary lakes while rook, jackdaw and carrion crow circled about, and the chatter of smaller birds helped lift the spirits.

Eventually we reached Hoover's Lane and faced a choice - straight on took us to Iron Acton through more fields or turning right took us back to Frampton Cotterell along the very flooded looking lane.  We decided on the latter option, not least as we were tiring a little with all this plodging, had begun to resemble drowned rats plus we craved a light refreshment. The unmade lane back was easy to follow but badly flooded along most of it's length, at one point the water was almost up to the top of my wellingtons. This was becoming quite an adventure, maybe next time I'll wear some chest waders. 

The lane though was interesting, a lot of mature hedge trees and at one point I heard the pip pip contact call of a great spotted woodpecker just moments before it flew off, thankfully seen by both Sheena and Mrs Wessex-Reiver. I learnt that all the land to the right of us was under threat of development. Nothing decided yet but the pressure was on, and that is a worry for the nature group. But I can see why this land has potential for housing, large flat fields, next to an arterial road into Bristol, itself only half an hour's drive away as the advertising might say. In reality I discovered even now at rush-hour it can take an hour and a half to reach the centre of Bristol, just 8 miles away.

Onward we walked as the rain really did begin to intensify until finally arriving back in Frampton Cotterell, two hours after we set off and having walked 3.4 very wet miles. The hot chocolate and sausage roll in the village farm shop was most welcome after that.

Despite the rain, the flooding and the mud we had an excellent visit.  Admittedly not the best day to take onboard the results of what this local wildlife group are doing, or trying to do, but with those 750 members of the Facebook site onboard, even if just 1% turn their interest into action they'll build up a loyal following and I hope they succeed in improving nature abundance and biodiversity in and around their village. I will come back in the summer when it is hopefully a little drier and see what it looks like when the various shades of brown under a leaded sky have departed.

Frampton Cotterell Nature Blog - further reading;


Sunday 5 November 2023

A Very Wet Newport Wetlands

A streak of mad spontaneity seems to grip our family, and myself in particular. 

I woke yesterday to a dawn of half light and full rain. Not just rain but a deluge, though there was no wind which was something to celebrate at least. I lay there wondering what to do while the rat-a-tat-tat of raindrops committing kamikaze death falls against the window confirmed in my mind it was a perfect day to be outdoors. But where? By due process of elimination, too muddy, too exposed, too near Bristol, too far, the RSPB's Newport Wetlands was fixed upon. 

We can almost see the wetlands from the back of our house in Somerset. As the raindrops fly it is 12 miles over the Bristol Channel, as the car drives it is exactly 38 miles. We, Mrs Wessex-Reiver and I, arrived just after 10am in rain. The forecast however was of an improving picture by noon. The carpark was quite full which surprised me but as this was my first visit here maybe this is normal on a wet Saturday morning.

"There's a fungi workshop happening in the woodland this morning, that's why the carpark is busy" the meet and greet lady sheltering under a sodden gazebo informed us. "It's quiet in the reserve there's no one else here but you two" she added, giving us one of those old-fashioned looks as if to say bless, these old people are game for anything.  We chatted for a while, explaining it was my first visit even though I've known of this place for decades. Predictably the conversation ended with an announcement that we'll pop into the café first while it is so wet.

From the café a capacious picture window revealed a sizeable pond devoid of any living creatures, until that is, as the rain eased from torrential to heavy a moorhen broke cover and swam into some reeds ( photographic evidence centre of image). My first tick of the visit. As we're the three camouflaged gentleman having a coffee. Obviously proper birdwatchers in that clothing they did however look suspiciously dry, and seemed to know the café staff, who outnumbered us five customers. It was going well. 

Eventually we'd read every RSPB events leaflet on the tables, perused all the Christmas cards, fondled the novelty gifts and examined every second hand book. Running out of excuses, even though it was still raining, we'd best at least show willing and actually go outside. Immediately we became lost. Somehow we'd wandered into the educational area, which was huge. Thinking we needed to walk through this to gain access to the reserve we came to a dead end at the pond dipping platform, which was apt on a day like today. On a sunny day this would be lovely, today it was a blanket of squashy sodden emptiness.

Retracing our steps we found a different path which seemed to head off into some woodland, it did, and from which we emerged at the entrance to the reserve itself. It's all quite easy once you know. By now the rainfall was intensifying, the hard path was more lake with stepping-stone islands and we were the only two people for miles around other than two dog walkers whose hi-viz full body wet weather gear allowed for only an eye slit and a muffled 'morning' as they splashed past. But we are British, it's just a bit of rain, onwards. 

Onwards brought us to a viewing platform. The view was of an empty lake and the Newport Power Station. This trip was becoming brilliant, like some art-noir film, I was fully expecting Michael Caine to appear traipsing about in a gabardine mac carrying a sawn off shotgun. But before we left this vantage point a mallard appeared. Tick two then. 

We'd been told to head for the lighthouse "it's beautiful over there". It possibly is, but by the time we'd reached this (over a quite scary inflatable pontoon set-up complete with danger of drowning symbols), the clouds were so dark we needed a torch. BUT - out from the gloom the glorious bubbling call of a curlew lifted our spirits. Not one either, a couple of calls at different locations. We'd reached the Bristol Channel.

I'd hoped we'd see Clevedon or Portishead across the water but the weather meant even seeing the edge of the marsh 50m away was a challenge. Emptying the small pond that had formed in the eye piece of my binoculars I scanned the coast. Redshank and curlew, shelduck, mallard, lots of them, and numerous grey things in the marsh vegetation, godwits maybe? To be honest they were so hunkered down, and with the rain running down my neck, I gave up trying to identify them and we decided to keep walking past a very wet stonechat perched on a reed.

I have to say bleak though it was, being the only two people on this bit of coastline in seriously bad weather was brilliant. What an atmosphere it created. Stark man-made industrialisation dominated the skyline behind us, turn 180 degrees and the sound of the waves lapping the shore coupled with the bubbling call of the curlew uplifted our spirits to the point where we forgot it was raining.  I loved it and I know Mrs Wessex-Reiver loved it too as she stood for a good ten minutes taking it all in, either that or hypothermia was setting in. I on the other hand noticed something astonishing...blue sky.

Lord preserve us, finally the rain was easing. After an hour of being deluged it was almost as if a curtain was slowly being drawn across the sky to reveal that much anticipated better and drier day forecast was behind it. And as always happens with the sun coming out the birds appear. More stonechat, reed bunting, starling, redwing, fieldfare and on the water cormorant, mute swan, little grebe, tufted duck and so on. Robins began to sing in competition with numerous unseen wren blasting out their calls. There was even a rainbow.

By now we were on the path back to the visitor centre and seemed to wander into some lovely woodland, a surprise for a coastal wetland site. Here we met a very friendly robin who Mrs Wessex-Reiver fed some bara birth cake we had left over from the café. Above us a flotilla of long-tail tits flipped through the branches chattering sonorously and then away. Then emerging from this woodland we walked through some very red-berried scrubby areas with fields to our right and above our heads the Aeolian drone of a now strengthening wind blowing through the high-voltage cables slung between two rows of pylons. This is not a pretty site but it is packed with interest, not least as I'd seen, rather than heard,  my first redwing and fieldfare of the season.

After just under two and a half miles we found ourselves back at the visitor centre - predictably in brilliant sunshine. By now sane people were arriving to presumably have a pleasant wander about in warm sunny conditions while waiting for the starling murmuration to begin - from 4.10pm on the board said. The café was filling up so we grabbed a table for a well earned lunch before driving home blinded by the intensity of the sun beating down from a cloudless sky.

But I loved this first visit to Newport Wetlands, first but by no means the last. And after a tot-up I realised I'd seen quite a few birds after all. Not bad for a wet day.

Blue tit, great tit, woodpigeon, moorhen, rook, carrion crow, magpie, robin, curlew, mallard, cormorant, ducks on the estuary miles away,  tufted duck, reed bunting, stone chat, herring gull, black headed gull, little grebe, mute swan redwing and fieldfare both seen, chiffchaff, wren, cettis warbler, jay, blackbird, starling, those waders unidentified, pheasant, long-tailed tit and house sparrow.

Wednesday 18 October 2023

Storm Babet Birdwatching at RSPB Arne


There has to be a certain level of insanity in my DNA to come birdwatching at the RSPB's Arne reserve during Storm Babet. Especially as we'd been there the day before in sunshine, though it had been a tad windy. Today however we arrived as the rain lashed down and the roar of the wind through the trees was deafening.

We'd come today as we're in Dorset on a mini break at Studland. With the weather being so bad we'd spent the morning lounging about in the hotel gazing out the window discussing what to do today. Eventually the need to go outside drove us first to Swanage, which was being lashed by sea foam and flooding meaning the sea road was closed. Turning tail we headed to Arne, for a wet walk at least. 

Having been met by Gayle at the entrance, I succumbed to the thumb screws and we have re-joined the RSPB as joint members. I used to be a member for years but as I subscribed to many conservation agencies a few years ago I let it lapse. The question did go though my mind today, "why didn't I join yesterday?" after paying my £10 admission. Then I'd have had two free visits.  Anyway it's all in a good cause. Today I joined and got in for free. It was nice chatting to Gayle, I think she enjoyed the custom as due to the inclement weather there were maybe only a dozen cars here. Yesterday it was so busy we'd parked in the overflow carpark. We chatted for ages with the rain thundering down around us. There'd been a guided walk in the morning when a hen harrier and Dartford warbler had been seen despite the weather.

I've been to Arne many times, both for work and for pleasure, but not for about ten years. Mrs Wessex-Reiver had only been to Arne once before (with me) before yesterday when it was so cold we only stayed an hour but she had seen avocet for the first time on that visit. Yesterday's species she was keen to see were the sika.

After a coffee, to see if the torrential rain would relent, there was nothing for it. We ventured out. Actually to begin with it wasn't too dreadful as we walked towards the new Middlebere hide, though apart from a few great tits and a grey squirrel we didn't see another living thing. Which was perfect. It's beautiful here and in the inclement weather it felt quite wild, until vestiges of Poole loomed out from the distant murk. After a mile we reached the new hide.

It's an impressive hide but not a design I have come across before, fully open to the shoreline with tiered seating going back three levels. In normal circumstances this hide would provide perfect shelter, today however the sheeting rain blew into the hide as a result over half of the tiered seating was sodden and soaked. The rain was also keeping the birds at bay. In half an hour we saw a few redshank and oystercatcher, curlew were calling somewhere, a few black tailed godwits flying about, a few flying formations of 6-10 teal and nine Brent geese. And that was it. Everything else with any sense remained hidden. While we were there Babet began to really wreak her power. The wind strengthened and the rain resembled a celestial power shower, it was coming down in a deluge. And we had to move out of this shelter.

Moving to the back of the hide I disturbed a female stonechat which looked soaked. It was the only bird in our line of sight. We sat for a while hoping the rain may ease but it didn't and we just had to brave it and head out into the waterfall. By the time we reached the relative calm of the woods we were properly soaked, thank gawd for good waterproofs.

Walking on after catching our breath, the track back to the visitor centre had become a temporary river since we'd walked along it less than an hour before, quite impressive for an area of free flowing sandy soil.

Such a contrast to yesterday when we came in sunshine. On that visit it was blowing a hoolie but we walked for over two hours in a circular amble to and from the Shipstal hide.  En-route we stumbled across a sika group, female and fawn first, stag later with a couple of other females distant. Mrs Wessex-Reiver had really wanted to see sika close and this didn't disappoint as they were at most 10 meters away and quite unfazed by our presence. It afforded a good view of the stag and their frowning face. Mrs Wessex-Reiver was surprised how small these deer are. 

At the hide yesterday all the birds were way out into the harbour mostly sheltering from the wind. There were eight spoonbills, a lot of redshank, lapwing, godwits, lapwing and oystercatcher but to be honest they were so far away I couldn't really see that well. Closer were some little and great egret and a small murmuration of starling. And on the way back from the hide a kestrel.

Thus these two visits in not too ideal weather came to an end. I have to say walking around today in the rain of Storm Babet was a lovely experience. The trick of course is abandoning all hope of serious birdwatching and just enjoy being out there.  When we arrived I was told a rare vagrant was at Arne, at Shipstal beach, a Forster's tern from North America. Well I have to say when I scanned the beach there wasn't a single bird to be seen. It and all the other birds had probably flown to Poole to get out the wind, if it had any sense. 

By the time we arrived back at the carpark there were only two vehicles remaining, one being ours. We chatted to Gayle and her colleague who were impressed we'd gone into the reserve during the storm, and not more than 30 visitors had passed through the entrance. That's why we'd enjoyed it so much, just us, Storm Babet and a wild landscape to explore. Perfect.

Saturday 30 September 2023

Interesting Times : Loss and Renewal

The tree has been felled. What do I think?  

Like millions around the world I was alerted to breaking news last Thursday at breakfast time. The iconic sycamore tree at Sycamore Gap on Hadrian's Wall had been felled. At that time mis-information suggested it had simply blown over during Storm Arwen. But even I, a man who'd not held a chainsaw in anger for 30 years, could see this felling was at the hands of a much lesser force, Mankind.  

Like many I was angry, more angry than I could have possibly imagined.  I was upset, it really troubled me that this had happened. Who could be so crass as to have done this to a beautiful landmark. My best friend was on holiday in southern Spain. He lives literally on top of Hadrian's Wall, it runs underneath the kitchen of his converted Chapel, only a stone's throw from Sycamore Gap. I texted him. His replied was immediate and simple "Eh????". Exactly my reaction on hearing this. I couldn't believe what I was reading.

Quite a bit of that reading was hilarious as journalists who had no idea about this tree sprang into action. One copy in the on-line edition of the Daily Mirror had the headline,  "Beautiful 300 year old tree planted between 1840 and 1860 felled by vandals". Even with my mathematical incompetence I think they had the dates wrong. It was soon changed. The BBC Website ran a headline for a few minutes "Medieval tree visited by Robin Hood felled near Hadrian's Wall". Obviously that journalist's only fact gleaned from the press releases that speed around broadcast media's newsrooms was that Kevin Costner in the 1991 film Prince of Thieves travelled from Dover to Sycamore Gap on foot in one day.  Some copy was even more bizarre. The New York Times initially ran with Sycamore Tree felled near Scotland. I read on, realising how isolated the American press is. Northumberland was mentioned in the third paragraph and apparently Hadrian's Wall is a short drive from Scotland's beautiful capital home of whisky and Robbie Burn's. Of course American's only know about Scotland, so in modern terms it was simply click bait.

But all this smoke and mirrors aside, there is a real sense of anger prevailing over this felling of a single tree. I completely understand this sentiment, for many the tree stood for something, whether that was personal, aesthetic, natural history, a symbol that represented the north east or simply a focal point for a lovely photograph. But why was I so angry? I'd never been there.

Northumberland is a beautiful county and littered across this landscape are magnificent sycamore trees such as those I photographed above near Matfen in mid Northumberland a few years ago. Every farmstead, field and village has mature sycamores as a permanent symbol living in and of the landscape. Most, like the one now lying on it's side, are 200-300 years old. They are majestic and I love them, as they remind me of being a child, lazy sunny summer days when I'd be out for a wander near Rothbury and often found myself resting with my back on the trunk of a sycamore while I drank my ginger beer or ate a massive gobstopper. However I'd never been to 'the' sycamore at Sycamore Gap, a name which is itself fairly modern, as it was allegedly just made up by a Lawrence Hewer when an Ordnance Survey team visited and wanted to know what the feature was called. 

I'd driven past the Gap many times while on the 'Military Road', in the same way that many motorists on the A303 pass Stonehenge but don't stop but admire the view. I'd even stopped the car once when my Canadian cousins were visiting on their whistle stop tour of Britain so we could take a quick photo out of the car window. But although I've walked sections of Hadrian's Wall, I'd never got to the tree. And that is what interests me in two ways. Firstly it was a difficult place to reach even in daylight, so how on earth was a hefty chainsaw carried over there in complete darkness? It really is dark up there. But secondly, why did the loss of a tree I only knew of from a distance affect me?

I think answering that latter point is easy. As we age, loss becomes a larger part in our lives as our own mortality comes over the horizon, and trees themselves are meant to be permanent - we don't lose them - but if we do it matters. 

Take the image below, the oak on the right of this hedge line is known as Julie's tree.

Nobody calls it Julie's tree apart from my wife, the very same Julie and myself. This was a landscape I got to know when we first met, the wide rolling landscapes that surrounded her village in Wiltshire. We walked up here on one of my first visits and while almost identical to every other tree for miles around this tree, (along with another in the village that was fenced off and we couldn't visit anymore), became "our" tree. And that is the answer. Permanence in the landscape grabs hold of the soul and never escapes. Julie moved to Somerset in 2014 and since then we've not been back to 'our' tree. I hope it still stands and hope it is well, but in my mind it is a permanent symbol of a happy time for both of us in Wiltshire.

The image of me at the top of this post is of Blindburn at the head of the Coquet Valley in Northumberland. I love it up here but have absolutely no connection to it other than it means something to me as a casual visitor. But I feel protective towards it. Oddly though, my wife owns a house further down the valley at Harbottle which we have no spiritual connection to. Julie may own it but it is occupied by a long term tenant and his family, a local family with children which is a wonderful addition for the village. But as we don't live there, that full blown spiritual connection will be focussed on those children growing up in this wonderful part of the world, not me. But I still have some connection.

Academic careers have been made analysing what it is to have a memory, what it means to experience spirituality or a Spirit of Place, that historical record of a time and a place that means something in that precise moment of time to an individual when we are there, alive and living. In a similar vein the below image of me as a volunteer warden at the National Trust's property of Cragside in Northumberland in the 1980s is another example. I didn't perform paid work there, I never lived on the estate, but for about six years, I spent every weekend there doing something I absolutely loved, being out in nature, learning how wardens (now rangers) operate and meeting the public. I forged fantastic long term friendships there, but then I moved south and I've only returned a couple of times as a visitor. But if anything catastrophic happened to Cragside, as happened to the sycamore at Sycamore Gap, I'd be devastated. 

The wanton destruction of the sycamore on Hadrian's Wall was an abominable act.  Why someone thought it was a good idea to illegally fell a beautiful tree is not something I think anyone will find out soon. But it's gone. Many people are suggesting what happens next. An Anthony Gormley sculpture in its place. I personally hope this doesn't happen. A wooden sculpture of the tree made from the trunk. Maybe, but can this be in a museum or arts centre. I worry the site may become a bizarre shrine to something that was once loved but has gone, eradicated and will never ever come back. Nature carries on if we let it, but what replaces it will never be what was there.

There was an excellent comment by Gary Bartlett I read, who perfectly summarised my thoughts on what may happen to one option.  The National Trust and many others are suggesting the coppicing of the stump will preserve the tree. I don't know Gary, but he writes......

" It's a nice thought.... But let's be realistic. I first met this particular tree in 1990 when surveying the trees on sections of Hadrians wall. This Sycamore was in it's unadulterated natural form, three centuries in the making. It had a twin stem which added to it's aesthetic appeal.

Sycamore will respond to hard pruning but a coppice or a pollard never take on the appearance of the natural form... You can go to Sherwood forest and see 700yr old oaks that haven't been pollarded for well over a hundred years... And they still bear the signatures of the woodman's saw. There is a reasonable possibility that this tree will soon throw multiple shoots up from the stump - it will have the appearance of a scruffy thicket for a few years. With careful selection of maybe 2 or 3 dominant stems (& their protection from further vandalism); a new tree may be crafted... After 10yrs of nurture, a new multi-stem tree with a natural habit may be visibly appreciated & in 40 to 50 years it may have the appearance of a reasonably mature tree. It will be 80+ years before it has anything like the stature of what was lost & another 50yrs beyond that until it has any sense of grandeur. In the meantime, the tree will be vulnerable to pathogens - especially fungal.

It is exposed to fairly strong winds - and sucker shoots in maple species are prone to tearing out at their union with the stump or stub. This structural weakness will be ever present for the first 20-30yrs at least. Sycamore don't tend to send up daughter plants / clones away from the stump like many Prunus or Poplus species will... So new shoots will be limited to the stump - which will in time decay from the centre... There is a risk that the shock of losing the main stem might kill the tree (at this age), so regeneration is not guaranteed.

Planting a replacement will be challenging as the site is a scheduled ancient monument - so a planting site would need to be identified for a new tree - agreed by Historic England / English Heritage and the National Trust (whichever have jurisdiction on this section of Hadrian's wall). An archaeological dig would likely be required before a new tree could be planted.

The tree that has been lost will never be replicated - it was unique.

Northumberland has many tens of thousands of Sycamore trees; many of which are older, taller, broader and arguably more magnificent than this one (I urge you to seek them out - they will warm your soul).

But this tree was the iconic "Sycamore Gap" tree... It cannot be replaced by a tribute act. 
This tree seems to have become a metaphor for man's relationship with all trees... From the Amazonian rain forests, to trees being felled for access to building sites or new infrastructure. It's loss feels like the assassination of Martin Luther King or Kennedy... Senseless."

Gary Bartlett ended his piece with these words on the desire to coppice.

[I admire the optimism.... ]... Unfortunately few of us will be around to discuss this by the time this tree may become anything reminiscent of the original."

Other people will have many other views and that is how it should be. But for me now some forty eight hours into the story, this is how I'm increasingly feeling. The anger I felt at that tree's destruction has softened. I'll now never visit the tree, but, and this is important, if it had been such an important part of my life, I'd have made the effort to visit it while it still stood. Now, my mind is focused on change and the future. Let the fallen tree decay at it's own rate into the landscape, help dead wood invertebrates and plants thrive for a few decades in this most treeless of landscapes. Plant something new, maybe not in the same place, but nearby. The loss felt by my generation by this criminal act could benefit generations to come. I remember visiting Kew Gardens while on a botanical course in February 1988, just months after the October 1987 storm had ripped through the gardens. Many much loved trees from their specimen area had fallen. It was while on a walk around the site, then still closed off to the public, with Kew's arboriculturalist that he said something I've never forgotten. 

"[sic] Arriving at Kew on the morning after the storm he cried and cried for the lost trees there, many of whom he thought of as family. But then as the weeks passed he realised this was a moment to embrace change and plan for the future.

Looking at Kew Gardens now it's almost impossible to imagine the damage caused on that October night. My hope then is the same fate befalls the toppling of this sycamore. Over the months and years we'll see change at Sycamore Gap. We as a society must and can look forward. What can we do as a society to make the landscape better for children being born in 200 years time? We have benefited from a tree being planted in the 18th Century maturing in the age of Social Media. Much like the trees below in the field next to the aforementioned friend's house only a stone's throw from Sycamore Gap which I photographed while on a walk before breakfast last November. They're just trees, no one except the odd walker will notice them. They stand there quietly removed from the consciousness of collective society. Would anyone miss these unknown trees if they were felled one night? I doubt it, and that is a most sobering thought. 

Monday 14 August 2023

Yatton Moth Trapping : Mid August weekend part 2

 As if Saturday's trip out to West Somerset and a wildflower field wasn't enough, at 8.30 am on Sunday I found myself driving the 8 miles or so to a friend of mine's garden in North Somerset, where, despite the rain and the wind the evening before, a moth trap had been set up the previous night. 

Higgy (for he is a man of one name) had long been trying to organise a moth trapping event for the local conservation group YACWAG (Yatton And Congresbury Wildlife Action Group) of which he is a member. This planning had been going on for weeks, but with the recent run of wet and windy weekends all attempts to fire up the moth trap had been cancelled. However this weekend despite the weather forecast being at best 'iffy' Higgy informed me the trap would be lit and come-what-may it is going ahead so come to the garden at 9am when all will be revealed. I arrived at ten to 9 in the morning, the only person at that point.

Now, I have been to moth trapping set ups before but in every case I'd been there for work. Fascinating though they were at the time, I was there to record radio programmes so having to concentrate on that I always left having absolutely no idea what I'd seen. This then would be my very first participation moment for the reveal, and I wasn't disappointed, though as 9am came and went for a while I feared no one else would turn up.

Higgy's garden is a wildlife haven - the width of a 1960's house, the garden is long, and beyond the fence he also owns a slice of the field at the back. In fact this is where YACWAG are interesting, as not only are they an excellent conservation group who run events, provide advice and can undertake surveys, but YACWAG own parcels of land around the two villages in North Somerset and once in their ownership that land is managed solely for wildlife. That alone makes it a remarkable local conservation organisation.

Not only had the trap been set up the night before but Higgy had been up since first light emptying the trap and placing examples of the 283 individual moths caught that night into specimen tubes and arranging them for us to peer at.  It was now well after 9am and I was still the only person and that made me feel sad for Higgy over the work and effort he'd put in, but eventually we swelled to a group of 4 other plus his daughter who was asked to be chief moth releaser, as all moths were released once identified. Enough people really otherwise it would become unwieldy, and as a group we set to flicking through the books and listening to Higgy's hints and tips while gazing manically at an as yet unidentified brown moth in a specimen tube. 

Some I recognised immediately like this Jersey Tiger [Euplagia quadripunctaria]. This year has been phenomenal down south for these fabulous looking moths, who seem to be exploding northwards due to climate changes. Five were caught overnight, which is interesting given they are a day flying moth. We quickly got through the easy ones, elephant hawk-moth, box bush moth, and then came the difficult ones. I was hopeless, and at one point resorted to Google Lens to identify a moth. I may end up being ex-communicated for that, but I was intrigued to see how accurate it was - as it turned out 100% and in less than 2 seconds. Impressive. But that's why I'd come, to learn. Everyone was helping each other while helping themselves to scones or flapjack made by Higgy's wife. There were far too many moths to photograph but my particular highlights were....

Uncertain moth [Hoplodrina octogenaria] - 45 caught overnight. What a beast to identify for a beginner. Scanning the books there are about a 100 near identical moths. [Update - this is a Common rustic agg. Thanks Stewart - turns out this is also how it was identified on the day - I messed up with my notes

Grey Dagger - [Acronicta psi] - 3 caught overnight. I loved this moth, don't think I've seen it before but its markings just say its name.  I've long loved moth names, they're so flamboyant.

Flame Carpet - Xanthorhoe designata - just the one caught overnight and it took us a good 30 minutes to work out what it was. There are so many similar species, it's going to be a while before I get my knowledge, and eye in.

Now this was my all time favourite of the day - Gold Spot - [Plusia festucae ] of which 11 were caught overnight. What a moth with it's triceratops looking shoulder plate, and burnished gold spots, it was like an art deco jewel. Loved it.

These two were interesting - I identified them as September Thorn - [Ennomos erosaria] on the right and a Dusky Thorn - [Ennomos fuscantaria] on the left. Just one of each caught overnight but Higgy was impressed I worked out they were different species of thorn moth, which is why they're photographed next to the book. In a later write up of the day for the YACWAG group I get a mention..

I should mention Andrew J Dawes who is now my official 'September Thorn Moth & Dusky Thorn Moth' expert!"

Which fails to recognise that next week if I saw anything like this I'd fail to even recognise it as a thorn spp.

Now this beauty had us all foxed, I could see Higgy enjoying our discomfort of scratching heads and endless flicking through the identification books. After many attempts (and more than a little help) we finally got to Setaceous Hebrew Character - [Xestia c-nigrum] of which 12 were caught. Another stunning moth. I was getting quite into this.

And finally this one had us all completely stumped. Eventually we gave up and Higgy let us know that it was a Swallow Prominent - [Pheosia tremula] of which there were 2 caught. A lot of discussion took place over whether this was actually a Scarce Swallow Prominent, and in the end why it wasn't, none of which I remember writing this. 

But what a fabulous morning, three hours in the end and what I didn't realise until later was this event was being run as part of a YACWAG's "wellness-walks programme" aimed at getting people out into nature. Well we certainly did get involved and I absolutely loved it. In total 53 species were identified, which Higgy mentioned was quite low for his garden due to the weather, he can regularly collect 400 individuals and near 100 species. Amazing really from a garden that is no bigger than a cricket wicket. 

After everyone had gone Higgy and I had a chat and he invited me back one night to see the trap running and identify the moths as they come in, while having a few beers. Now that sounds like a good moth trapping experience to me. I can't wait.

YACWAGS website  https://yacwag.org.uk/