Easter running

Spring has crept up on us this year. The last week has not been warm, and we seem to have had more than our share of rain, with only a little sun.

The house this Easter weekend has been full of running: not us but the girls (or at least three of them). The Great West Run, Exeter’s half-marathon, is a month away and all three are going to be home to run for Cancer Research: if you want to sponsor them you’ll find their page on Just Giving.

A savage downpour yesterday morning saw two of them pounding the track round Mardon Down. This morning was more ambitious: just shy of ten miles from the Hennock Reservoirs home. I dropped them at 9.00 and they were home as the Church clock struck 11.00. They are all pleased with how today has gone, but to beat two hours on 2 May will be tough.

We walked part of their route this morning on Friday, starting at the Trenchford car park and taking the road round to Tottiford then up to the county road, sharp right down to Kennick, across the dam and back along the road. Five miles of easy walking (although gumboots weren’t the best choice of footwear), and the chance to see Spring here: Swallows and House Martins over Trenchford, the first we have seen this year, and the earliest we have seen them in the 13 years we have lived here.

And just so we know Spring is indeed here, we heard the unmistakeable tapping of death watch beetle in the shutters in the study. This, I hope, is the last part of the house which is still home to them.

Early August

Gatekeeper butterflies in the blackberry bushes along the road edge, and Housemartins low across the fields, skimming just above grass height hunting for insects: for all the signs of summer it was, nonetheless, a cheerless start to August.

And yet, between showers,  we walked our patch that first weekend: Mardon Down on the Saturday, and Sunday in and around the woods that border the Hennock reservoirs. There is always something to see and hear. On Mardon Down, Yellowhammers: first their unmistakeable song, and then we caught sight of three or four, heads as if dipped in sunshine yellow paint; and Redstarts, a first for us on Mardon. Sunday had us dodging showers. Looking back from the high road to the reservoirs, Fernworthy was half hidden in rain and the edges of the High Moor blurred by low cloud. We walked with the threat of a soaking but were back at the Land Rover before the skies opened, rewarded with seeing that the Great Crested Grebes that we had seen courting in late Spring had had at least one brood. There, at the dam end on Trenchford, the Great Crested Grebe parents and three youngsters, plus a slightly older one.

Early summer birdwatching

After the heat of the week before last, we have had four days or so of rain. Driving home late Friday afternoon, after two days in the centre of Bristol, the countryside south of Exeter was green and wet, and the roadside verges lost in cow parsley. The early purple orchids have replaced the primroses, and the steep slopes of the Teign Valley are blurred by trees in full leaf.

I am never quite sure when spring ends and summer begins in this part of Devon, but this weekend it feels that we are on the cusp. As I write this post, Caroline is sitting listening to bird calls on the RSBP website (if you haven’t tried it you should), to fix the sounds in her mind. With the start of summer, it is increasingly hard to watch birds in the tree canopy, but you can still hear them. Walking through Yarner Wood a fortnight ago, the pied flycatchers were easy to spot, but tomorrow when we hope to get out again, it will be harder: deeper shadow and thickening leaf cover. This year we are determined to raise our bird watching game, and learn to identify them by song.

Late April we were in Wales, staying outside Brecon and mixing walking and birdwatching, and since then, and much closer to home, we have been in Yarner Wood (pied flycatchers and ravens), by the Hennock reservoirs (blackcaps and great crested grebes) and out on the northern moor (red grouse and ravens).

The highlight in Wales was climbing Pen y Fan, highest of the Beacons. We started from the Upper Neuadd Reservoir and climbed easily in hazy sun along the old Roman road.

At the gate at Bwlch ar y Fan, we turned left to Cribyn, the tops lost in low cloud. We heard, before we saw, a group of a dozen or so young men, loud and raucous, first on the path down from Fan y Big, and then coming up fast behind us. By this time they were quieter. Each had a pack, though not a Bergen, so we weren’t sure whether they were squaddies or a college trip.

They passed us easily (the speed of the young) and as they did, their two instructors (we met them on Cribyn, and learnt they were junior leaders) were not even puffing. It was somewhat different for us, but we finally reached the top of Pen y Fan, the final stage up the steep stone pitched path reminding us of Snowdon last year. Sunlight, and ravens in the sky.

We were back in Wales, walking with ravens.

Great Crested Grebes

One of the discoveries this past year has been the writing of Mark Cocker. In the 1970s I never missed Harry Griffin’s Country Diary in The Guardian, and walking in the Lake District in the early autumn of 2005, Caroline bought me A Lifetime of Mountains, Martin Wainwright’s selection of Harry Griffin’s best columns. It was reading those that persuaded me to begin these Dartmoor Letters. But it was not until I bought Caroline A Tiger in the Sand, in anticipation of our birding week in North Norfolk in late January, that I realised that Mark Cocker has been a regular Country Diary columnist for nearly twenty years. It shows how long it has been since I read The Guardian (and is almost enough to make me change the daily paper).

In his Introduction, Cocker speaks of the “emotional charge of the encounter, the deep fulfilment that flows from our engagement with our fellow creatures”. As we walked  up at the Hennock reservoirs this morning, I thought of the piece I had just read, and in particular

“Nothing we do to capture our encounters can quite match up to the living reality. It will always evade and exceed our imaginations, whether it is a tiger in the jungle or a blackbird in the garden. This is where I believe writing on nature, in its various forms, is wholly distinct from a particular kind of wildlife television. Moving images of wildlife often far exceed, in terms of dramatic content and physical closeness, our own modest experiences of nature. They leave nothing unspoken, nor hint at any wider experience and, in a way, seek to replace our experience of the genuine article and become a substitute satisfaction.”

Last Sunday we had also been at Hennock but then in late afternoon. As well as seeing six plus Bullfinches, we also saw Crossbills in the treetops in the plantation alongside Tottiford Reservoir. This was a first for us at the Reservoirs. Hoping to see the Crossbills again, we drove this morning to Trenchford. As it turned out, no Bullfinches and no Crossbills. But instead we watched a pair of Great Crested Grebes, close to the bridge over the Trenchford stream, beginning their courtship. At one moment necks intertwined, at another synchronised diving; water weed offered by one to the other and then returned. It was quite magical.

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.