Red Letter Days

2007 has been the year we have started birdwatching in earnest: see A Birdie Year. We are very lucky living where we do: Yarner Wood, the best place in the South West to see Pied Flycatchers, is 15 minutes down the road. 15 minutes in another direction will take you to the High Moor (Golden Plover at this time of year; Skylarks and Meadow Pipits for much of the Spring and Summer; and always the magical Ravens), or to Soussons Woods or the Fernworthy Plantations. Only a little longer and we can be on Dawlish Warren, watching waders along the Exe, or Slavonian Grebes and Common Scoters off shore.

We never know quite what we are going to see, and rarely set out with the intention of finding a particular bird. We don’t have life lists, and such records as we keep are more to help us remember what we have had the good fortune to watch, than to boast of our sightings. I see each day we are out as a red letter day, but some this past twelve months have been the reddest of such days: the afternoon of 14 April, with leafbreak just happening in Yarner and the first Pied Flycatchers arriving; the Ravens on Snowdon as we came off the Bwlch Main in very early May; the trip to the lighthouse at the tip of the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge on Nantucket Island in October. These are days that will live in the memory.

January Goldeneyes

Reading my past posts, a recurring feature is the weather, and in particular, in this part of the West Country, rain (or at times this past year the lack of it). Before starting to write this afternoon, I decided to avoid any mention of weather (or rain) but it so governs our lives that it is not possible to ignore weather; or not for very long. It may no longer dictate the course of daily life, as it did for my great grandfather, but it still plays a large part in that everyday life. Today was no different: where to walk and what to wear? Having heard the forecast, and more importantly looked west from our bedroom window over the Moor, we chose to drive up to the Hennock reservoirs.

Evidence of the recent storms was everywhere: some trees down and branches snapped off. There was wind this morning but walking up through the woods the air was still at ground level, even though 50 feet up the treetops were moving. With the wind these past couple of weeks, we have had rain, and the reservoirs are full, water tumbling down the spillways. In early October the reservoirs were as low as we had ever seen them; they are now filled to overflowing.

Bird life is sparse both on and along the edges of the reservoirs. It is not one of our favoured bird watching places although this morning we watched Coal and Marsh Tits in the trees, and on Kennick Reservoir, four pairs of Tufted Duck and, very unusually, two Goldeneye drakes. Roger Smaldon’s The Birds of Dartmoor describes Goldeneye as a very rare winter visitor to the Dartmoor reservoirs, most often at Burrator, and so to see them on one of the Hennock reservoirs was special. Both drakes were displaying, throwing back their heads but it was too far to hear to hear the growling call they make. Why they were doing this with no duck present is anyone’s guess: perhaps just practice for Spring.

Ending this post, I am afraid that much of it has been about weather, but then according to Samuel Johnson, when two Englishmen meet their first talk is of the weather, and so perhaps all I am doing is reinforcing a national stereotype.

A wild ending

Wild weather has kept us off the High Moor this holiday, but the upside has been the opportunity to watch birds. This we have taken and have spent the last four days doing just that.

On Boxing Day we were at Lydford Gorge: a short walk as the main route is closed over winter, but after the descent to the waterfall, we climbed back up and along the old railway line to the hide at the end. Just before high tide on Thursday, we watched squadrons of Oystercatcher and Dunlin arrive on the Dawlish Warren mud flats, the sun catching the flash of wings like glitter. We watched Marsh, Coal, Blue and Great Tits at Yarner Wood very late on Friday afternoon, with fleeting glimpses of a Nuthatch and a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in the half-light. Yesterday we saw more Godwit along the margin of the flooded area at Bowling Green Marsh than we have seen before, and mixed in among them Redshank, Lapwing, Pintail, Shoveler, Wigeon and Teal, as well as Canada Geese; and in the tree next to the hide, Longtailed Tits. Add to that watching Dippers on the Teign just up from Clifford Bridge on Christmas Eve, and seeing a trout (or perhaps even a very late salmon) jump in one of the pools.

This morning we were closer to home, back up to our favourite walk on Mardon Down, the weather rushing in from the south. In the space of 45 minutes we lost sight of the Moor completely but we missed the rain, which came just as we reached the Landrover (very clean and if not new, then definitely more pre-owned than second hand! One result of the problem with the central locking which I posted about in Technology is not all it is cracked up to be, was being persuaded by the silver-tongued salesman at Matford to trade in and up: another 110 Defender but three years and 70,000 miles younger).

2006 is not going out gently. The rain is hammering on the windows and it could already be tea-time, not just after lunch. It is all too easy to concentrate on our own small corner of Devon. But perhaps I do so because to understand the world beyond sometimes seems so difficult. These past few days have seen the unfolding drama of Saddam Hussein’s end, and yet more turmoil in Iraq. We caught the last half of Brian Walden’s Sunday reflection, A Point of View, on Radio 4 as we lay in bed this morning.

In five minutes, he put into words far better than I could ever hope to, a view many share. He spoke of lessons that need to be learned about the occupation of Iraq, calling it one disaster that we must never repeat. While entertaining no doubt about the physical courage of our troops, he asked our political leaders “to find the moral courage to face some unpalatable facts about Britain’s status in the world”, and in particular “the embarrassing impression that other countries look to us for ethical leadership”. As he put it somewhat bluntly, they don’t. And as for the rest of the world standing in awe of our righteousness, this illusion, he averred, is the source of many of our follies.

If I were to have one wish for 2007, it would be a government that understands this.