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.


BBTs, BGTs and the McGarrigle sisters

Bright April mornings are deceptive. In the Yarner Wood car park just before 09.00: the air was still, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and it seemed quite warm. We stopped to admire a pair of Mandarin ducks on the new pond and then walked on up the concrete path to the hide – and as we climbed the side of the valley realised that it was not quite as warm as we had thought (and as the temperature had only been 5° in the courtyard, perhaps we should not have been that surprised).

It took an hour (and a detour back to the car park to collect a hat) to warm up.

Yarner Wood is a magical place. We spent three hours walking the woods – from the car park up and across the heathland, before the long steady climb to the top of the wood, just below Trendlebere Down, and then down the other side of the valley. And as we walked and talked, Greater Spotted Woodpeckers, Ravens, squabbling Crows, Nuthatches, Chiffchaffs, Buzzards, BBTs (bloody Blue Tits), BGTs (likewise Great Tits), a female Kestrel stooping on smaller songbirds, and everywhere birdsong.

No Pied Flys yet – last year we saw them on 27 March; this year, despite last week’s warm weather, they are going to be a little later.

And the McGarrigle sisters? I had Walking Song in my head,

Wouldn’t it be nice to walk together/Baring our souls while wearing out the leather/We could talk shop/Harmonise a song/Wouldn’t it be nice to walk along.

The boys are back (again)

We reached Yarner Wood not long past 10.00: our first visit this year and a wonderful sense of anticipation.

Although quite grey down at the car park, it was warm in the hide (nothing much to see – just a pair of Blue Tits exploring one of the nesting boxes ) and as we climbed the path, sun burning off the cloud and the sky turned blue. The woodland is still bare -branched, so it is easy to spot what there is, or isn’t, but it is filled with bird song: all the usual suspects (Robin, Wren, Blackbird, Blue Tit) and also Chiffchaff,  Nuthatches, a Goldcrest, the drumming of one Woodpecker across the valley and another up the hill behind us, and a Raven seeing off a Buzzard.

Add to this Bumblebees on the bilberry, the occasional Peacock butterfly, and Wood ants warmed by the sun and busy.

It was a perfect Sunday morning – and then not one but two male Pied Flycatchers: the first by Box 46, and the second a little further on, engaging in some territorial argy-bargy with a Nuthatch. Last year Pied Flycatchers were  first seen in Yarner on 7 April, and we didn’t see them until 21 April (when I posted The boys are back). They are early this year.

It may only be March, but for us Pied Flycatchers are one of the first signs that summer is really on its way.


The boys are back

Saturday afternoon in Yarner Wood: bright sunshine and Pied Flycatchers. Summer is starting.

Yarner Wood is our local patch, and we visit the reserve throughout the year. But our first visit in April is always special, as we wonder whether the Pied Flycatchers are back. It was no different last weekend. The car park was unusually full (we later met the guided tour) and the weather not warm. Some years leaf break will have started; this year the oaks were still bare branched.

At the hide very little, but Caroline suddenly fixed on a male Pied Flycatcher. This was the only bird we saw from the hide, although there was birdsong in the treetops. We took our usual route, along and up, and as we reached Flycatcher Alley, nest boxes every other tree, we heard and then saw more Pied Flycatchers. All male, and in the course of the afternoon about eight in all. Reading the Warden’s notes later, they have been back at Yarner since 8 April.

And as well as the Pied Flycatchers, a Raven high over the wood, a Bullfinch, Greater Spotted Woodpeckers drumming, and all the usual suspects: Chiffchaffs, Great, Blue and Coal Tits, Blackbirds, Wrens, Robins, Nuthatches and Treecreepers. Time stands still in Yarner Wood and by the time we left it was well past six o’clock.

The next day we were having a birthday tea with my mother-in-law. Her garden was alive with bird song, and she knows Summer is back because the Swallows, who have been nesting in her garage for the past 15 or so years, have returned. We stood and watched them, a fast glide and down below the lintel and up and out of sight.

All we need now are the Swifts.

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.

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.