a following wind

Sunday afternoon, a couple of weeks ago, the storm has blown through, a rearguard of cloud moves away to the east. Overhead, a bright blue sky and rag ends of clouds caught on a stiff northerly breeze.

Looking up on the off chance, a habit.

Half a dozen or so swallows fly over, purposeful, direct, southbound.

It gives me an idea. Equipped with binoculars, a chair, and an hour ahead of me, I install myself at the end of the garden where I have a clear view of the sky. Check the time and wait. It doesn’t take long – another small flock, heading the same way, south, and the same focused flight, intent. Minutes later another group. And another.

I watch for an hour, and over the course of that time I count 142 swallows and 12 house martins. Not a huge number by any means, but a near constant flow. In all, 32 groups pass over, ranging from lone birds to 20 or more, so on average every 2 minutes. Unlike the interweaving flight of resident feeding swallows, they are all flying in one direction. This behaviour suggests that with the wind in the right direction, and more than 9000 kilometres to go, this is an opportunity not to be squandered.

So, do migrating birds wait for a following wind? It makes sense, but this is something I need to look into.

Two days later, late afternoon, I watched a group of six swallows skim over the village. And that was the last time. So long until next year.

Last weekend I talk a walk to the copse around sunrise, and the number of Robins was notable – far more than usual. It seemed almost as if every few metres there would be one singing or scolding. I counted 20 over about a kilometre – normally there would be perhaps 5–10. No doubt these will be part of the influx of migrants that overwinter here, so as one lot of visitors are leaving, another are taking their place.

In the copse itself a noisy flock of about 30 Magpies congregated in the tops of the trees – I don’t recall seeing this many at one time before. In the half-light Meadow pipits called as they passed overhead, reminding me that soon the sky will be punctuated by the flight calls of Fieldfares and Redwings. Smaller birds were still relatively quiet, although from time to time, I could see movement in the lower tiers of the trees. Nearby, an alarm call from a wren, and at one point, soft ticking sounds came from within a scrubby bush, and a small flock of Long-tailed tits appeared, moving through the branches like bobbing musical notes.

I reached the high ground that overlooks the copse as the clouds to the east flared momentarily a deep rose-red. With the sun up, daylight quickly increased and with it bird activity. Blue tits, Great tits and Chaffinches started to call to one another as they worked through the Blackthorn scrub on the edge of the copse. Hidden from view, but very close to me I could hear the slightly mournful call of a Bullfinch. Further away, a Chiffchaff haltingly gave song.

Time to walk back, taking in another part of the copse on my way. The blackberries, mostly over now, have been both abundant and delicious. Blackthorn branches are weighed down with sloes, and the Guelder Rose bushes are covered in berries. I hope this means our birds will do well this winter.


wet woodland, a stately tree

It rained non-stop on the second day of our trip to Scotland. Not wishing to spend the whole day indoors kicking our heels, we went in search of a short local walk.

Balmorino is a small village that sits on the southern shore of the Firth of Tay in Fife. Parking near the ruins of the 13th century abbey, we followed a path past a large barn, behind which stood another ruin – an unidentified if impressive bit of industrial/agricultural machinery.

Following the path, we soon entered woodland that follows the shore of the Firth westwards from Balmorino. The wood is a mix of Scots pine and other coniferous species along with broad-leaved trees such as Beech, Sycamore and Sweet Chestnut, some of them truly impressive specimens. We had also read that red squirrel can be seen here, so we kept our eyes peeled, which presents a challenge as you can’t look up at the trees and look where you are going at the same time. Fortunately there were no twisted ankles, but sadly no squirrels spotted either.

The tide was out so at various points we were able to get down onto the beach. Because of the rain, visibility was not that great, but we could see across to Dundee. We did an out and back walk, backtracking on our route, partly because the rain came on heavier and we preferred the shelter of the trees, partly because we just liked the woods. Should we ever come back the area would be worthy of much further exploration – the walk can be extended, and then loop back inland, for example.

We had a quick look around the abbey ruins, but what really got our attention was a magnificent Sweet Chestnut, standing on the edge of woodland behind the abbey. Said to be about 430 years old, this is one elder statesmen of a tree, all twists and bulges. Sweet chestnuts have a tendency to produce a beautiful twisting pattern in the bark – this one is no different and the urge to touch it is irresistible. I love the way an ancient tree like this evokes a sense of awe.

copse report #1


Yesterday I took a dawn walk to see what bird life there was on my ‘patch’ – a route that takes me from home, along the lanes and round part of our community copse. This was the first time in some little while that I have done this; recently my resolve to go out early has been eroded by the seemingly interminable winter.

Many of the usual suspects were in evidence – Blackbirds were in full song, along with numerous very loud Wrens. Dunnocks, so easily overlooked, were singing from the tops of hedges in several locations. More unusually, a Grey Wagtail was sat on the ridge of a nearby farm building. Great Spotted Woodpeckers drummed in the distance.

Once I was at the copse, I could hear some of our summer migrants – Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps. I’ve already heard them elsewhere this year, but was keen to see if they were around here, and its good to know they are back on the patch. Both species seem to do well here – no doubt this is down to the habitat. This part of the copse is a mixture of both scrub bushes and more mature top layer trees and it is very noticeable that the warblers tend to be found in the former. Through previous observations it is apparent that several territories are maintained, for both Chiffchaff and Blackcap.

The song of the Blackcap is one of my favourites, and one male was certainly staking his claim to territory in one corner of the copse. A pair nested in this location last year, so I hope they have returned. Later I saw what was probably this male, having a ‘sing-off’ with another male, while a female was nearby.

Blackthorn blossom was still out, and some of the trees are starting to break bud, so there was a flush of green starting to appear. Despite the fact that it was a foggy morning, and cool enough at that time of day to still require a woolly hat it finally felt like spring.

This got me thinking about the arrival of spring. Not the meteorological or lunar spring, but how each of us decides that spring is here. From a seasonal point of view the change in the seasons is not generally sudden; a switching off of one and turning on of the next. It’s a gradual process, where numerous factors slowly transition from one state to another. An increase in day length, warmer temperatures, greater intensity in light as the sun’s path gets higher, along with the dawn chorus, arrival of summer migrants and trees blossoming. All of these contribute to what makes spring, but at what point can we say that the combination of those factors has reached a point of sufficient magnitude that spring can be said to have ’arrived’?

Going through the winter requires a certain mindset, a bracing of oneself for the wet, cold and short days. This year the extension of that season throughout March and well into April has required a resolve that certainly goes well beyond what is normally needed. I think it fair to say that I don’t just speak for myself when I say we have had enough.

This week has been the turning point. Just over a week ago I saw my first swallow, and several others since. There is more of a fresh green look to the landscape than the brown of winter. And although we had two wet days at the start of the week, an upward shift in temperatures, culminating in a beautiful sunny day yesterday really felt like winter had been thrown off. I no longer feel I am bracing myself against the cold and wet.

Going for that walk was specifically about seeing what summer warblers had returned. Without realising, it was also drawing a line in the sand; an affirmation that winter is over. Perhaps the arrival of spring is not only about a change in the season, but also our frame of mind.

a short walk in Aller & Beer Woods

Overlooking the Somerset Levels, this stretch of broad-leaved woodland is both a nature reserve and SSSI.

Making the most of a nice morning for a walk, this is the first time we’ve visited Aller & Beer Woods. A few woodland flowers were showing themselves, including what we think is Toothwort.  An unusual looking plant, it is parasitic, living on the roots of other plants – my wildflower book says it particularly likes Hazel, of which there was plenty. The adjoining Turn Hill affords great views across the Levels. Lots of bird activity, including Song Thrush, Green Woodpecker, a pair of screeching Jays, and as a bonus, we heard our first Blackcap of the year.

More info at the Somerset Wildlife Trust website here.