Sunday, 26 March 2017

Beginnings

I don’t need to go far from our cottage to see the first signs of spring.   Each day I’m more confident that winter is finally behind us; there are new beginnings everywhere.  It’s been a while since the last frost, and wherever I go birds sing, and plants are wakening.  Snowdrops and crocuses are more or less over, and even though daffodils were late this year, they too are fading.  In sheltered spots a few dog violets are out, and dandelions are joining the seemingly ever-present daisies on the edges of fields.

Horse chestnuts shoot lemon-green leaves, and brambles begin to spread their tentacles in hedgerows.  We’ve passed the equinox, and with the sun getting higher each day, I can feel real warmth cutting through the canopy as I walk the sheltered path down to the beach.  There’s a carpet of shining fresh ivy on the woodland floor, and by the path, garlic looks as though it will flower soon.

Finding spring on the beach is not as easy. Rock pools look the same as they have all winter, with one managing to trap a starfish waiting for the next tide. There’s emerging life in the splash zone above the high tide line, and around the headland in a hidden inlet, the fleshy leaves of sea pinks peep through the gale-flattened sward of winter. There are no flowers yet, but they’ll soon cover the cliffs above this little cove.  On the beach, sand hoppers, having just emerged from their winter state, jump from warming kelp on the high tide line.  Kelp flies dart about, chased by hungry rock pipits, beginning to settle in for the breeding season.

Offshore, an early season holiday yacht makes steady progress against the westerly breeze; there’ll be many more when the weather improves.  It’s too cold and early in the season for the groups of sea bikes which, particularly at weekends, buzz noisily from Mumbles to Oxwich Bay, causing much annoyance to those seeking peace on the cliffs.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Mewslade

The narrow well-worn and hedge-lined path down to the cliff tops above Mewslade Bay is muddy.  Through the gate at the end of the lane is a world of finely rabbit-cropped grassland, gorse, flattened brown bracken, and limestone vistas, framed above with open sky and a blue-grey sea.  Wind-bent hawthorns, their branches covered with golden lichen, sprout tiny raspberry-coloured buds, one providing the perfect perch for a chiffchaff.  The little yellow bird sits preening, then singing, as if announcing the coming of spring.  Ancient limestone walls, now part of the fabric of the land and sometimes lost in the turf, support stunted trees just large enough to provide a pair of magpies support for a nest.  Along the path last night’s badger scrapes are fresh; I wonder if the government cull will ever reach these hidden setts.

Below, the straight slade down to the sea is deep, and open only to southerly winds, its steep sided crags of yellow gorse and lichen pointing to the golden beach beyond. I look for little owls which used to nest in a hole high up in a large limestone outcrop by the path, but as usual don't find them. The top path through newly shooting bramble and gorse, meanders to the cliff edge.  Carpets of newly opened celandines, some with attendant bumblebees, shelter on the leeward sides of walls, where a tortoiseshell butterfly searches for warmth.  Stonechats frequent this place in normal years, but last winter’s weather has ensured there are none here today.

Away from the peace of the valley, the cliff top is a noisy world of sea and pounding surf.  Ravens croak, circling herring gulls mew above the din, and the shrill cries of choughs pierce the wind as they enter their nest hole at Devil’s Truck.  Bravely a rock pipit parachutes down to the rocky shore, but is probably unheard by any potential mate in the cacophony of sound.

Turning landward the domed shape of an 18th century limestone kiln is clearly visible, and like the old stonewalls, is gradually being swallowed up by the landscape.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Summer stars

On the cliffs the light turns from dark and threatening to light grey, the rain stops, clouds pass and, like throwing a switch, the sun bursts out.  Within minutes blue sky is painted with thin wisps of racing clouds, bumblebees become airborne, robins, dunnocks and blackbirds respond with song, and long-tailed tits as if from nowhere, search the tips of an isolated willow for insects.  At this time of year, I always hope in vain for a ring ouzel on the coast, but can’t recall the last time I was lucky.  I remember ringing my first and only one on the Pembrokeshire island of Skokholm in the early 1970’s.  Caught on spring migration in one of the Heligoland traps, they are regular visitors to the island during March and April. I read on the Internet of their arrival in ones and twos, but finding real ones is much more difficult.

It will soon be time to take to the hills north of Gower in search of three summer stars; wheatear, whinchat and ring ouzel, but there has been worrying news about all three in recent years.  With wheatears well down, the range of whinchats contracting and the number of ring ouzels causing real concern, the chance of finding them all on the same day in the mountains is looking slim once more.  However it’s not all doom and gloom in the uplands.  The first results from the BTO’s Upland Breeding Bird Survey provided some better news; although its early days, after a long period of decline there are signs that ring ouzels may be holding their own and meadow pipits, red grouse, buzzards and merlins have all increased.  Who knows we may have turned a corner, but it will take a real optimist to hope that all of these would breed on Gower.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Out of Africa

After a morning of heady rain, clear watery light on the newly painted lifeboat house at Mumbles greets the arrival of the kittiwakes to the pier. They won't start nesting for a while, but having them back makes the heart beat a little faster.  Sparkling in clean summer plumage, more than a hundred rest and preen on the iron superstructure ready for the long summer ahead. It's a time of change. Most black-headed gulls have gone, and those that remain have brown heads. Turnstones, still in drab winter garb, roost between tides on the boat slip, but will be off north soon. A brimstone butterfly looking lost, flies over the sea and a bee collects pollen from the stamens of a  crocus flower in a pot by the pier restaurant. 

There are millions of birds moving out of Africa at present, and the headland by the lighthouse is a first landing on Gower from across the Bristol Channel for a male wheatear. They're arriving in good numbers now, but I hear disturbing news of this smart trans-Saharen migrant. The BTO reports that Wales has lost at least a quarter of its breeding wheatears in the last 15 years, and there have been significant reductions in Scotland.  This first wave of arrivals will be followed by the larger Greenland race, these true long distant travellers migrating a full 5,000 miles. The plight of wheatears is not unique; many of our small summer visitors are also in serious decline, and the reasons are complicated.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Equinox

Today marks the vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere; the official first day of spring.  It’s warmer, the countryside feels a bit more spring-like and chiffchaffs sing, but spring is late this year.  After a decade or so of early springs, this one has come as quite a shock.  Yellows are finally winning through, daffodils and celandines are in full bloom, and marsh marigolds are beginning to flower under sheltered willows in Oxwich Marsh.

It’s very likely that grey herons and kingfishers will have suffered from the hard winter.  I climb the fence into the mature wet alder wood. The familiar raucous calls of the herons are muted, and only a few birds bring sticks to nests.  Last winter’s long freeze must have had a heavy toll, and they may struggle to bring off more than a handful of young this year.  This old heronry has a long history and is part of the fabric of Penrice Estate.  The demise of elms forced the herons from an island in the great lake to this new spot decades ago, but their numbers have never really recovered.  Little egrets have thought about breeding here during the last few years, but have yet to succeed.  They too will have had a bad winter and maybe won’t show up at all this summer.


On north Gower, above the slope of a small valley, a pair of buzzards play effortlessly with the thermals, watched by a pair of interested ravens on nearby North Hill Tor.  A distant skylark, not even a dot in the sky, celebrates the turn of the seasons, and a much nearer meadow pipit parachutes down to an isolated hawthorn by the edge of the salt marsh.  There’s a feeling of nascent energy craving for release.  We will surely and finally get our just rewards for this long winter in the next couple of weeks.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Sunday Morning Special

The walk along the cliff footpath from Limeslade to Langland Bay is never the same.  There’s a breeze from the north, and ahead a cold clear blue sky stretches beyond Oxwich and Port Eynon Point to the horizon; overhead grey clouds have still to burn off.  With no firing of gorse along this part of the coast in recent years, a blaze of yellow covers the cliffs, promising even more when spring finally arrives.  No boats spoil the seascape, and apart from the occasional cormorant, the surface of the sea is a blank canvas.  It’s high tide, the sea laps gently against the rocks below, and I hear no pounding surf.

Many ritual Sunday morning walkers, some exercising dogs, are cheery and pass the time of day. ‘Good morning’, ‘what a lovely day’, reminding me of a special Sunday morning some time ago when Wales beat England in the Millennium Stadium to win the Six Nations Championship.  Even this far away from the event, big matches in Cardiff affect us here on Gower.  Rugby international bring prosperity; hotels and restaurants fill, and golf clubs get day visitors.


Joggers too pass, some so fit they seem not to feel the steep rises in the path.  I rest on a bench and look out to sea.  A rare Dartford warbler pops up from inside the gorse a few yards away and drops down before I can lift my binoculars.  The coast here is special, and the walker and joggers know it, but they probably don’t know about the very special resident they’ve just passed on their Sunday morning amble along the path.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Bovehill


There is little left of Bovehill Castle, just the remnants of the old 15th century walls of what is thought to be a fortified manor house standing high on a shelf above Landimore Marsh in north Gower. Mature sycamores grow from the ivy-clad limestone walls that still mark the boundary; there's a strong feeling of history here. The castle is marked on maps, but even so is difficult to find, and I guess most holidaymakers don’t give it a second thought. The walk through the farmyard and along a lane of stony banks covered with moss and golden lichen, passes hedgerows just beginning to show a hint of greening. The first female flowers of hazel squeeze from buds, and a few yellow forsythia flowers burst in the farmhouse garden. I come here not only for history, but also for the view, which is quite exceptional and it is shaped by the tide. High spring tides fill the estuary, and low water creates pools and meandering rivers, forming a mosaic of glinting light. There is a peace and isolation up here. The sound of ewes and lambs is broken by rooks from the wood to the west and a raven heading to its ancient nest site at North Hill Tor.

Sheep and ponies dot the green marsh far below. Remnants of the great winter flocks of ducks remain, but distance defeats my attempts at identification. Wader numbers too will soon be depleted, but oystercatchers still make music on the far shore and there is always the sound of redshanks. Shelducks, in pairs, are vivid against the wash of green, their nests in the adjacent woodland a mystery to most. The warm air brings out buzzards floating upwards in the thermals; there must be half a dozen territories left and right. Winter attracts big flocks of lapwings to the marsh, but only a few display below, and I wonder if any will stay to breed this year.


In the ivy-covered stonewalls of the remnant castle a wren is busy nest-building. Such activity. In rapid succession, long pieces of grass, many times the length of the little bird are taken in. It’s the male that builds the nest, and he will build more than one for her to choose from. He takes no notice at all of my presence, unlike a female blackbird, who cagily takes nesting material into the hedge. It really feels like spring is here.