Signs of Spring

Sunday morning and we were back in Yarner Wood. It wasn’t much warmer than it was a fortnight ago, but Spring is definitely here, the Pied Flys are back, and we had another three hours of gentle birding: the long climb up to the top of the Reserve, by the side of Trendlebere Down, and then back, through the oak woodland.

Birdsong all the way, the odd glimpses of Ravens and a lone Buzzard, a Blackcap letting it rip from the very top of one of the trees, Warblers, and, Yarner’s special birds, Pied Flycatchers. On the report by the office, Pied Flys have been back since 2 April, the day after our last visit. The males usually arrive first, but today we saw two pairs, as well as a good half dozen single males. And just before the car park, a  pair of Redstarts.

No Swallows or Martins yet, but at home the death watch beetle are tapping away: another sign of Spring.


Just a perfect day

The last day of a week’s holiday, and another day out with the birds.

We started the week at the London Wetland Centre – very cold and gloomy, and notwithstanding recent sightings of Bitterns, we didn’t see any (we always arrive at a hide to be told, “You should have been here five minutes ago; you’ll never guess what we have just seen . . .”) – but plenty of Snipe, Tufted Duck, and Coot.

Wednesday was another cold but bright day at Slapton Ley and on the beach at Thurlestone. Shovellers, Tufted Duck and a solitary Little Grebe in the reeds by the Slapton Hide, and plenty of Canada Geese and more Tufted Duck on the water. Robins everywhere, and a Sparrowhawk through the bushes at the edge of the Ley, upsetting the troupe of Longtailed Tits that was bowling along the edge.

It was late afternoon by the time we reached Thurlestone – we had to stop in Kingsbridge, where I was living when Caroline and I first met, and stop at the deli at the top of Fore Street and visit Pig Finka.  The marshes behind the NT car park were frozen and there was very little duck around. Instead, there were Oystercatchers and Turnstones on the rocks edging the beach, and a wonderful sunset.

Today we have been at Roadford Lake. We didn’t know quite what to expect – we last visited in January 2009, and had then seen little (and been rained on). This time was different: in the woodland and along the edge, Nuthatches, Great, Blue, Coal, Marsh and Longtailed Tits, Greenfinch, 6 Bullfinches and half an hour later another 9, a Greater Spotted Woodpecker chased off by a solitary Raven gliding through the canopy, Crows, Rooks, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk and Buzzard, Dunnock, Blackbirds, a Song Thrush, Redwings, Goldcrests, Robins and Wrens – and on the water, Coot, Moorhen, Tufted Duck, Mallard, Teal, Widgeon, Gadwall, Pochard, Herons, Great Crested Grebes and a Little Grebe, Shag, 3 Goosanders, and in the last light of late afternoon, a pair of Goldeneye below the bridge.

A perfect day.

Thurlestone Rock and a calm sea
From the bridge at Roadford Lake

The promise of spring

For Caroline, today is always the first true day of spring. It is a point on which we agree to differ, as I always see spring coming much earlier. This year I was somewhat less certain, given the snow in early February. It has certainly been a varied four weeks, with bitter cold, which killed the Mimosa Tree in the garden, followed by heavy snow, which shattered the Magnolia Grandiflora, and then a warm change.

On Mardon Down, St David's Day 2009Late afternoon we were on Mardon Down for our usual weekend walk, setting off from the cattle grid and walking clockwise: warm sun, and frog spawn in the ditches alongside the road. The in-country is now green, and smoke drifted in the tea-time sun over Moretonhampstead. Sunday afternoon is clearly bonfire time.

There was little birdsong as we walked the road around Mardon, but first one Raven in the distance, calling for its partner, side slipping through clear air, and then another and another, before a fourth. We have seen Ravens up here before, but never so many: four in as many minutes.

Last week we walked the Teign Gorge, downstream from Dogmarsh Bridge, before climbing the Hunter’s Path up to Castle Drogo. We heard a Raven but failed to see it. That afternoon the highlight was seeing a pair of Dippers nest building in a tree stump on the bank opposite the pub at Fingle Bridge.

Spring is here. The Jackdaws were squabbling on the garage roof this morning, chasing each other around, while a solitary Goldfinch, in full colour, was on one of the seed feeders.

Limited visibility

Recently asked about my favourite day, my answer was either a May morning on the RSPB’s Ynys-Hir reserve in North Wales, or else winter midday on the northern moor. The latter is not a day for birding, but often bright and cold: an opportunity for long views and with the ground frozen less chance of wet feet. The picture that heads all these Dartmoor Letters posts is of the Belstone Ridge one New Year’s Day.

But as most of its visitors have found, Dartmoor weather is unpredictable. This is part of its charm, if that is the right word; and with the right clothing, and a map and compass, the weather is part and parcel of the experience. This is not to say that it doesn’t present its own challenges. We left the house two Sundays ago in sun, but looking towards the top of Cosdon as we drove north, all we could see was low cloud. Okehampton was gloomy, and by the time were at the camp, it was grey and spitting with rain. We walked away, up the military road towards Yes Tor, and as we climbed we entered the cloud. On the top visibility was down to little more than 50 metres as we turned south, first for High Willhays and then Dinger Tor.

Walking and birdwatching do not really go together, but at High Willhays a solitary Raven slowly lifted off the tor into the cloud no more than 20 metres ahead of us, lost in nothingness almost before we had had time to see him; and ten minutes later we heard first, and then saw, a small flock (about 20) Golden Plover.

The track down to Dinger from High Willhays is well trodden and usually easy to follow, but with no real visibility, and the ground spongy and waterlogged, we strayed off course. Stopping, retracing our steps and taking more care than often, we eventually reached Dinger with a certain measure of relief. To the right of the track, running down into the West Okement, the ground is always boggy and finding yourself in that, with poor light and a short day would have been little fun. At Dinger there was a small group of Royal Engineers, most wrapped up and sleeping in bivvy bags, with a solitary, wet and miserable looking picket, cradling a light machine gun. He told us they had been out on exercise for two days and had another five to go: he didn’t look happy.

From Dinger we walked the easy route back, with the weather worsening.

Summer’s lease

It has been a wet and dreary August. There have been the occasional days of sun, and with it warmth, but otherwise rain and damp, muggy days. Bank Holiday Monday was promised fine and our plan was to walk the ridge west of Great Mis Tor, starting at the car park past Merrivale Quarry and climbing up to Middle and Great Staple Tors before round to Cocks Hill via Roos Tor and Petertavy Common. We should have known better, after a decade living on the edge of the Dartmoor, that the best laid plans . . .

At Merrivale visibility in the low cloud was little more than 50 yards, and although the route planned is easy, navigation in low cloud across a landscape with few distinguishing features is a challenge. We turned in the car park and drove back to Princetown, parked behind the High Moor Centre and walked out along the disused railway track to King’s Tor. Considerably tamer but just being out and walking was enough.

We stopped on the way back to climb up the lip of Swelltor Quarries and were rewarded with the sight of a Raven. Its granite quarries are one of the best places to find Ravens on Dartmoor, and the sight of one below us in the mist was quite magical. The low cloud may have restricted the view, but we found ourselves much closer to those birds we came across than we might otherwise have done. In particular we got within feet of a male Wheatear, which held its ground, looking at us, before flicking away, its white rump the last thing we could see as the mist swallowed it up. For me this bird is summer on Dartmoor, perhaps not surprisingly, as Dartmoor holds the largest population of Wheatears in southern Britain. By the time we got back to the Princetown car park the sun was out, and we drove home under a clear sky.

In a recent Slow Lane column for the FT, Harry Eyres wrote about the rightness of summer; and of summer as kairological time. You need to read the whole column, but in short he contrasted our expectation of summer, that ‘everything will be right, the sun will shine, the company will gel’ with the ‘bitter disappointment some of us feel when summer fails to materialise’. But, he goes on, ‘the essence of kairological time is that it cannot be programmed; those moments of rightness come from nowhere’. And such was last Monday.

Spring butterflies

Today has been one of those April days when we have seen snow, hail, and sun, where a cold wind has kept us out of the garden, and yet the greenhouse has been so warm that I have been in shirtsleeves. We woke to snow, forecast by the Met Office, and as we drove up the hill behind the town, looking back we could see the tops of the High Moor lightly covered. Two hours later we returned in bright sunshine, the back of the Land Rover packed with plants and potting compost.

Spring is in the garden, and despite the fact that we now have help, there is a lot for us to do. Yesterday the roses in the courtyard had to be tied back, and wires replaced; today more tidying up, as well as the new plants to be sorted, and everything prepared. My greenhouse is still waiting for the first alpines.

Through the woods

And this is the time of year when we are pulled two ways, out into a garden that is just breaking into life, or up onto the moor or through the woods, to watch for birds and wait for summer visitors. Last week we were back in Yarner Wood, and knew that spring was here, as we watched Brimstone butterflies along the woodland paths, sulphur yellow males and the lighter greenish tinged females, like autumn leaves but falling upwards. The feeders at the hide were empty, but long-tailed tits romped through the tree tops and we watched a pair of nuthatches cleaning out nest box number 5, below the hide, ready for use. Opposite, in the high pines, we could see, and hear, the ravens. Next time we go, the pied fly-catchers should be back, and the greater spotted woodpeckers nesting.

Yarner ravens

Below Trendlebere Down, looking over the Bovey valley, is Yarner Wood. Part of the East Dartmoor Woods and Heaths NNR, it is ancient upland oakland, probably pre-1600. More importantly, for us, it is our patch. In spring, pied flycatchers arrive and the tree canopy is alive with small passerines, as well as all three of our native woodpeckers. There is a hide (in late winter the feeders attract a wide variety of tits and finches, as well as nuthatches) and the quiet woodland paths wind through the undercover of bilberry. As well as the birds, on warm summer days we have sat and watched roe deer and butterflies. Good Friday saw us walking up the path from the car park, buffeted by a bitter north wind, and far from sure that we would see any birds at all.
It is too early, and cold, for the pied flycatchers and other summer visitors, and the wind in the tree tops drowned out such bird song as there was. We were hoping to see ravens. The edge of the moor, where Hay Tor plunges into the Bovey valley is a good spot for watching these magical birds. There is a pair that nests somewhere on the ridge, across from the Yarner Wood hide, and we have often seen them above the treeline. This is the time of year to see ravens display, although as Caroline said as we reached the hide, chance would be a fine thing, given the weather. Yet as is so often the case in this part of the world, the weather blows through fast, and sun followed the rain. From the hide we saw one of the ravens, having first heard it: the call is unmistakeable, deep and carrying. As the weather improved we walked outside and almost immediately saw more ravens high in the sky, five in all.
For the next fifteen minutes we stood and watched. Three disappeared below the trees, but a pair remained and their aerial display was breathtaking, including the raven’s piece de resistance, a full barrel roll at speed, wings tucked in. And when this pair had gone, three more in the distant sky resolved themselves into a pair mobbing a large raptor, which through the glasses did not appear a buzzard, and was too large for a sparrowhawk or a kestrel. Although the rule is always go for the obvious (which here would be a buzzard), I think that along with the ravens we were also watching one of the scarcest, and most persecuted, of our hawks, accipiter gentilis, the northern goshawk. There was a report of a goshawk on Trendlebere some two weeks ago. Every day at Yarner has something memorable, but this was more special than most.