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autumn autumn colours bird watching birds landscapes nature reserves photography wildlife

Walking on the Beacons – The Brecons

We always seem to walk over hill and moor country on cold days. Even back in the Autumn we found ourselves choosing a cold day to journey down to the Brecon Beacons in Carmthenshire for a moorland amble. The Brecons are an upland area of Wales that we tend to drive through but rarely visit so this was our chance to discover its landscape and wildlife.

As we set out on our walk the sky looked threatening.

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With each step we took up the gently slopes the temperature dropped and the wind got stronger. Around us the bracken had been cut, perhaps to reduce its dominance on the landscape and let other species come through. It seems that wherever there are too many sheep grazing such areas as this the bracken takes over as sheep do not eat it. An excess of bracken reduces biodiversity. Half way across this trimmed area of bracken we came across a flock of waders nervously feeding on the soft soil in the green grassed areas between the rust-coloured stripes. We moved slowly forward, binoculars in hands, desperately trying to work out what they were. Our first thought was Curlews but as we got closer we realised they were too small. Next idea that sprang to mind was Grey Plover which proved correct. they were obviously on the move to somewhere on the coast and had dropped in for shelter from the wind as it got stronger, for a rest and for nutrition. The soft soil would give easy access to creatures below the surface, for which they were probing with their long, strong bills.

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The slow walk up the slope took us through wet areas and gave us varied views.

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When we reached the highest point we stopped for a coffee break and froze! The biting wind stung our eyes and made them run, making tears run down our cheeks, and blew my hat away.

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We were hoping the dry-stone wall would afford some shelter, but most of it had long fallen exposing a rough old fence of pig-wire and gnarled posts. After replenishing our spirits we followed the fence-line along the ridge. It is amazing how photogenic a tumbledown, weather-beaten fence can prove to be.

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While having our break we watched Red Kite gracefully soaring overhead in search of carrion.

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As we dropped back down the slope at the end of the old wall we were sheltered slightly and the wind was on our backs – much better!

On the lower slopes just above the car park we came across two interesting fungi, very different in habit but both deep yellow in colour.

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So an exhilarating walk in exhilarating weather! We must return in more clement weather!

Categories
autumn autumn colours bird watching birds landscapes nature reserves photography Shropshire shrubs wildlife

Bracken and Bilberries – Part 2. The Stiperstones

As promised in the post “Bracken and Bilberries – Part 1” here now is a post about the Stiperstones, the ridge of hills that begins close behind our home and runs down towards the south of the county. It has been a long time since we climbed this rugged landscape, even though it is so close to home. My disabilities with spine and leg troubles coupled with  breathing problems stop me doing such things very often but I set myself a target each year to tackle something crazy! Climbing the Stiperstones was this year’s challenge.

The walk up to the ridge is a steep but wide grass path, shorn short by the resident ponies and cattle. From the gate at the bottom it looks a long way up. It looked even longer when we realised that we had left our flask of coffee at hom!. It was a bright day but there was a cold biting wind so we wrapped up well and set off. It looked much brighter than the day when we recently tackled the walk along the Stapeley Hill ridge.

Our green trackway through bracken was suffering from erosion from recent heavy rains which seem to come each autumn now. New drainage gulleys cross our path which mark an attempt to secure the surface more effectively when feet walk heavily over sodden turf.

Areas of bracken here, just as on the Stapeley Hill trail in my previous “Bracken and Bilberries” post, have been cut down in an attempt to get the heather back. This project is called “Returning to Purple”. Bracken does tend to take over but slowly the purples of heathers are re-emerging in our hills. Apart from bracken and the occasional heathers small evergreen shrubs which produce berries are the commonest plants – Bilberries, Cowberries, Crowberries and Whinberries. Locals still collect these berries for jams, jellies and fruit pies, but in previous centuries they were an important food source and even provided a little income for the cottagers. All these little, low-growing shrubs have dark evergreen leaves and berries offering varied colours and tastes. Cowberries, also known as Lingonberries, have edible berries with a stange mixture of sweetness and sourness. As well as here in the Shropshire Hills they are native to the Arctic Tundra and Boreal Forest. Bilberries produce edible black fruits and Crowberries similarly give black berries which have good flavour but are rather dry.

We stopped half way up the slope to get our breaths back and look back over the path we had so far covered. The view over towards “The Long Mynd was lit beautifully. Our next Bracken and Bilberry wander perhaps?

On the next stage of our ascent our eyes were drawn to a solitary tree high up on our left just below the top of the ridge. There are so few trees up here once you leave the low area where we parked the car. Every tree looks extra special because of this exclusivity and its stunted growth due to altitude, poor soils and prevailing weather.

As we neared the ridge the path got rockier and outcrops more frequent. The wind got colder making our eyes sting and run, and our ears. hurt.

The path divided as we reached the spine of the ridge with the route left taking us a short way along just over the other side of the ridge, the route right taking a long path right along the ridge to a series of rock outcrops. With the time we had left to walk and the sudden drop in temperature that hit us as we met the cold air rising up from the other side of the ridge we decided to do the shorter option. We would come back another day with more time and make sure we did not forget our coffee and fruit sustenance!

The path we took went  along the sharp top of the ridge occasionally dropping onto the colder side. It was freezing, so cold that little patches of snow lay on the path in places. This is a bit early in the year for snow around here! We walked into the sun and battled the strengthening biting wind, making our way towards the silhouetted rocky outcrops. It proved to be a lazy wind – too lazy to go around us so it went straight through.

We were so glad of our thermal gloves and thermal coats but we had forgotten our thermal beanie hats. Jude tried to cope with her jacket hood which proved simply too thin. I tried to cope with a baseball cap – the wind that was too lazy to walk around us was sadly not lazy when it came to blowing my hat away!

When we reached the rugged outcrop we were aiming for we knew it was worth getting cold for. A dramatic spiky rough outcrop!

From this ridge the views westward back towards Mitchells Fold and Stapeley Ridge and Wales beyond were breath-taking. Another place to stand together and think what a wonderful place we live in.

The views to the south were equally stunning.

The cold was penetrating too deeply and lack of sustenance was beginning to tell so we turned away from the sun and made our way back to the parting of the paths to begin the descent through the bracken and bilberries along the grassy track. The wind was now on our backs, so biting less and even helping us on our way a little.

As we reached the paths’ junction before turning back downhill we took a long look along the other walk we were determined to return to tackle another day. It looked inviting with the sun shining on it, calling out to us to return. We couldn’t refuse, so pledged to come back soon.

As we stood considering the trek we would make on our return to the Stiperstones, we watched Red Kite hunting the slopes below us. A rare chance to watch these big predators from above. Little else showed, just one Meadow Pipit and the commonest bird of the day Raven working their way over the hills in pairs.

Categories
bird watching birds conservation RSPB wildlife

Gigrin Memories

What a strange experience you get when you visit Gigrin Farm, a Red Kite feeding station in the Welsh Hills. Hundreds of them swirling overhead, hundreds of Kite, a bird which a sighting of a single specimen would set the heart pumping anywhere else. We get occasional glimpses of one passing over our heads when gardening and we regularly see an odd one or two as we drive around Shropshire. There are now signs that they are breeding in our county, but until recently we had to travel into the hills of mid-Wales to enjoy them.

When our children were young, a few decades ago now, we would drive for a few hours into the hill country of Mid-Wales, along a pretty inaccessible road into a valley where we knew we could find the Red Kite. Half a dozen were beginning to get established there and we revelled in watching them soaring in the thermals on the steep hillsides and feeding on the slopes. They came back from the brink, a handful of individuals, to a healthy and spreading population in the hundreds.

Visit the feeding station at Gilgrin, where the farmer feeds beef from the back of his tractor, and you will be able to watch them feed right in front of the hides. they are fed at the same time each day and know when that is. Travelling for miles to get here they stack up in the thermals on warm days or sit in trees and hedges and even on the ground in anticipation.

There is a definite hierarchy with the oldest birds coming in first as the others wait their turn in the pecking order. The youngest and most inexperienced wait patiently for three quarters of an hour or so for their food.

Buzzards come too, but they seem wiser. As the kite expend energy diving and swooping for a morsel of meat, never landing to grasp it in their talons, the Buzzards settle themselves on the grass amongst the meat and feed effortlessly, taking no notice whatsoever of the melee of feeding Kite around them. The odd Raven, Magpie, Crow and Jackdaw also grab an opportunistic lunch.

In flight above the feeding ground the colous of the Kites’ plumage becomes apparent, rich russets, browns, fawns and black. We were treated to a sight of an all-white individual.

With such close views we appreciated the graceful nature of their flight, we watch as wings and tails curled and constantly re-shaped themselves to aid manoevrability. They appeared to have fingers to give the finesse needed when flying in such large groups.