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Our First Woodland Walk for Autumn – Part One

When the winter weather gets a bit grim for too many days in a row it is good to look back and remember good days out.

We look forward to our woodland walks each autumn. This year we started early as we enjoyed a great day wandering the woodlands around Lake Vyrnwy in mid-Wales. We made this foray early because we had a specific reason for going. We were in search of cones and bits of bark to use on our “Homes for Wildlife” day up on our allotments later in October when we intended to make lots of extra insect shelters and a big insect hotel.

We chose to walk in a section of tall statuesque conifers all with tall straight trunks and dark green glossy needles clothing their stems.

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It was a warm bright day so the woodland was pierced with sharp rays of sunshine, highlighting fungi amongst the ferns and brambles at the base of the trees and adding magic to the fresh new colours of autumn.

Fungi are the stars of the autumn woodland. We usually start looking out for them in September but with the seasons being a good four weeks behind this year we found our first here at Vyrnwy.

We stopped off in a clearing in the woods around the lake, a favourite place for our walks. A clear, fast-running mountain stream passes alongside and we always look to see what the floods from recent storms have brought down. A beautiful gnarled stump with delicate ferns on top sats close to our bank. A little further along a big branch pulled from a bankside tree was lodged in the middle of the stream caught in the overhanging branches of a tall tree.

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We hadn’t been many yards wandering down the narrow path with its surface softened by pine needles, when we realised that fungi time was here! We looked forward to seeking out specimens along the way. They turned up mostly at the base of trees or growing on old rotting tree stumps.

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With the fungi we found juicy Blackberries growing, their berries glowing in any shaft of light that found its way through the canopy.

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As we moved further into the wood we found more and more fungi of varying oranges, yellows and browns.

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Tree trunks themselves had areas of colour upon them, algae, mosses, lichen and seeping resins.

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Little did we know that we had the biggest surprise of all awaiting for us as we walked around the next corner. But that story is in my next post, “Our First Woodland Walk for Autumn – Part Two”.

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A Wader Spectacular

This was a special day. A spectacular day full of waders, which could only be billed as “A Wader Spectacular”. The action takes place at the RSPB reserve, Snettisham in Norfolk. The RSPB keep members informed of when the spectacular is at its best so we knew we could expect something special.

We made an early start as the success of our day was reliant on firstly the tides and secondly the weather. Tide tables told us we had the day right where the behaviour of the sea was concerned and as the darkness of night gave way to day we realised we were going to be in luck with the weather. But we were well prepared with flasks of hot coffee, for the coast of north Norfolk is always a cold place.

We walked along the shoreline past this old landing stage and found a comfortable place to settle down to wait with fold away chairs and flasks of warm coffee. As we waited for the tide to start to come in and the sandbanks to become engulfed in salty water we readied our binoculars and fixed the telescopes on their tripods. We didn’t have long to wait before the first flocks of waders surged over our heads making for the lagoons behind the sand dunes.

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The vast flocks mostly continued to feed greedily on the bugs and invertebrates hiding in the sand. Every second counts when your feeding is controlled by the turning of the tides. The waders were mainly Knots and Oyster Catchers but surprises appeared amongst them such as small groups of Avocet and the lone flock of just half a dozen Common Scoter which passed low over our heads like black overweight ducks.

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As each minute ticked away, the flocks fleeing the tides flew more frequently over our heads and each flock appeared to be larger than the last. We could feel and hear the air moving above us, stirred by the combined power of thousands of beating wings.

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As the flocks flew behind us they settled quickly into the reeds surrounding the lagoons, dropping from the sky as one. As the tide sped in covering their feeding grounds the sand banks at sea become emptied as the lagoons filled up.

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Enjoy the spectacle by following the photos in the gallery and watch the drama unfold.

When the flocks had moved from sea to lagoon, everything felt and sounded calm around us and we were engulfed by a strangely hollow feeling. We had been surrounded by hundreds of thousands of waders in flight and then suddenly it stopped as the last stragglers made their move.

We then found time to appreciate the beauty of nature on the beach. When finding our spot to watch the wader show the light was still too poor to see what was at our feet. Wild flowers, butterflies, moths and small birds were all there for us to enjoy.

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After enjoying the life of the shoreline we returned to the car via a hide that overlooked one end of one of the lagoons to see if we could spot any of the birds who had entertained us with their spectacular fly past. As you can see from the two photos they were pretty well hidden. I suppose once away from the safety of the sand banks and the surrounding sea they are more vulnerable to predator attack.

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As we left the hide my camera was attracted to this old landing stage once again.

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If you ever get a chance to experience a wader spectacular take it – it is an amazing natural phenomenon. To see more of my wader spectacular photos just click on the first photo and then follow the arrows.

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Go South 4. Dungeness RSPB Reserve.

Our plans to explore the shingle slopes of Dungeness soon came somewhat adrift. The wind increased to gale force. We decided to defy it and take the walk along the fisherman’s boardwalk across to the water’s edge. This was a stupid idea to say the least – the strongest gusts blew us off the boardwalk. We understood what it was like to be the “tumbleweed” of Dungeness, the dried Sea Kale plants.

We eventually struggled to the end by holding onto each other and making slow progress and tried to walk along the water’s edge. We couldn’t move as every step we moved forward the wind blew us straight back.

We gave up, went back to the car and drove along the coast a little to the RSPB Dungeness Reserve, situated in a more sheltered area. We vowed to return to Dungeness itself when the wind had calmed down.

The reserve was worth a visit so in the end we didn’t mind the diversion. Here was a strange watery landscape where unusual plants grow and unusual birds live and visit.

We particularly loved seeing the Vipers Bugloss in flower with its bright blue petals and strange structure. The dramatic seed heads of the Teasels and Mulleins looked so architectural and strongly structural, and would feed the finches as the cold weather set in.

The harsh environment created distorted trees and bushes twisted and stunted like bonsai creations.

I am forgetting what the RSPB is all about – the birds. Dungeness did not disappoint for despite the extreme winds which kept birds down on the ground we did manage to see a first ever bird, the Great Egret. We are getting used to seeing Little Egrets in the UK wherever there is a large expanse of water but we had never seen its much larger cousin. This was a red-letter day as we saw pairs of both species on the same lagoon.

After an hour walking around the reserve the wind appeared to be calming down so we bravely decided to give Dungeness another try.That will be the theme of the post “Go South 5. The Magic and Mystery of Dungeness”.

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Welsh Estuary Wildlife Walk

We left home as the sun was about to rise. The car’s thermometer told us it was already 9 degrees. Things were looking good for a day’s wandering around the RSPB’s reserve at Conway in North Wales. Driving off into Wales the sun rising behind us gave the sky a warm orange glow and the dull flat grey concrete of each bridge we passed under looked as if it was being warmed by fire.

The problem with the coast of North Wales is that it has its own weather! Today was no exception – the closer we got to our destination the duller the sky became and drizzle began to fall. It was to continue all day! Looking out over the reserve it looked very grey indeed!

We stopped near the reserve entrance overlooking the estuary – the tide was well and truly out so it was sand and mud as far as the eye could see. On the sand a few waders probed for invertebrates – a couple of Curlew, a Redshank and a Little Egret.

We entered the reserve proper and wandered along board walks and soggy gravel paths towards the scrapes and pools. At the first hide were treated to a view of a Water Rail, that little beautifully marked rail, much smaller and harder to find than its larger cousins the Coot and Moorhen, who were here wherever we looked. Dozens of Teal, Mallard, Canada Geese and Shelduck fed busily in shallow water and on the muddy margins. Out in open water Tufted Ducks dived constantly for food. A real surprise was a pair of Goldeneyes! The award for the star of the show on this body of water was the Red Breasted Merganzer. Six of these saw billed ducks actively dived for food stopping only for an occasional skirmish. The males looked most dapper with their black and white bodies topped off with green-black heads, red eyes and long thin red bills. Their wispy crests fluttered in the wind.

We moved on wandering through areas of scrub and small trees where Meadow Pipit and Linnets were spotted, through marshy ground and finally reached the estuary. Here the breeze turned to a freezing strong blast, making it hard to look for wildlife. In the muddy foreshore a dozen or so Redshanks fed with even more Black Tailed Godwits. Two Shoveller fed amongst scores of Shelduck in areas where water remained.  Both these species of duck were upending in their search for food in the shallow water. Our walk had taken us in such a short time from the sheltered area close to the reserve centre and coffee shop to this wilderness of wind, mud and driving rain.

The depth of the dark sky overhead varied as the drizzle came and went. It was amusing to watch the reaction of a Grey Heron to the arrival of the wetter, darker weather. He really seemed to sulk. The two following photos show the change in his attitude – a real mood swing!

He was not a very lively Heron at all. He definitely disapproved of the wet weather. the only time he made any movement was when an Egret landed near him and he let out a loud unpleasant “cronking” noise, sounding more like an animal than a bird. The Egret flew off but we were lucky enough to get a long very close up view of him from a hide near the estuary itself when we stopped for lunch and to escape the strong cold wind.  Seeing these two members of the Heron family together illustrated just how different they are. they both sport crests and shape wise they are almost the same but the Grey Heron looks much bulkier and dull in its black, grey and white plumage. The Egret is the purest white possible in a bird and is slender in profile. The Egret sports a crest on top of its head but also is graced with long wispy feathers hanging down its chest.

We watched our Little Egret feeding just in front of the hide. He performed a shuffling feet dance to stir up the mud and disturb invertebrates and small fish. At other times he seemed to stalk his prey moving slowly, cocking his head and then stabbing at a small fish with his beak. In close up we were amazed by his bright yellow feet – usually you only see his black legs as he wades in shallow water – and a matching yellow ring around his eyes. This sequence of three photos follows him as he stalks in shallow water.

He seemed to feed continuously in sharp contrast to the Heron who had time to just stand and hide from the Welsh weather. Only once did we notice the Little Egret take his mind off hunting. Another Egret flew across from the neighbouring pool and our Egret immediately launched a vicious attack driving the intruder away. The aggressive noise he made was the same harsh “cronking” noise made by the Grey Heron, described in one of my books as “fraink”.

We moved back to the calm of the centre buildings and treated ourselves to a latte and cappuccino. This is the perfect bird reserve cafe as it serves excellent food and coffee and has a whole wall of glass overlooking a scrape, reed areas and bird feeding station. Here we relished our coffees, warmed up, dried off and enjoyed close-up views of Siskins, Reed Buntings and Goldfinches feeding.

We got soaked, our eyes and noses wouldn’t stop running but what a great day we had. This reserve is worth a visit at any time of the year. The facilities are great and the volunteers most pleasant, knowledgable and helpful.

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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.

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Wildlife Oasis

Whilst gardening today I was aware of so much wildlife around us even this late in the year. The bird feeding stations were unusually busy and birds moved though the borders searching for insects and seeds. Nuthatches have returned this year after a three-year absence and the blackcaps have arrived for the winter. The mixed titmice flocks lead by the Long Tails visit regularly and bring the garden to life. There are still insects around and the occasional bee and wasp. The Field Voles and Shrews make forays into the borders in search of their meals. It has not taken a great deal of effort to encourage our wildlife but certainly benefit from seeing and hearing it all around us whenever we are in the garden, so why are there not nature reserves on every spare patch of land in town and country? Look out for a future blog about our wildlife gardening efforts.

When on holiday in Dorset in the early autumn we were amazed by the RSPB reserve in Weymouth,  Radipole, which is a true wildlife oasis in this busy seaside town. It is a wonderful place! So much nature just where you expect to see very little. We were treated to sightings of kingfisher, hobby, marsh harrier, little egret, snipe, reed bunting and warblers aplenty.

We found the walks around the reserve easy as they were flat and comfortable and refreshments were at hand via the bountiful blackberry bushes alongside the tracks. One section of the track is bordered with buddlejas specially planted for butterflies and wildflowers abound.

The reserve is home to rarities such as bittern, bearded tit and cettis warbler as well as many species of wader, duck and warblers such as sedge and grasshopper. As well as the birds otter are regularly spotted. The huge variety of species here is due to the variety of habitat which include lagoon and reedbed.

And all this is found alongside busy town roads, bustling junctions and retail parks. We thought we were lost when we found ourselves in a town car park until we spotted the thatched roof of the little visitors’ centre right at the far end. The welcome is so warm – all RSPB centres give a warm welcome to their visitors but the welcome here is warmer than the norm. The volunteers are full of useful information and will talk you through recent sightings and the best places to get good views. We arrived in a heavy downpour but enjoyed a good cup of coffee a chat with a volunteer and a view over the lagoon from the centre’s huge viewing window. We had a brilliant day and can recommend it to anyone visiting the South West.