Sunday, 24 September 2017

Secret World

The days are getting shorter, and there’s a chill in the air at dusk, as I call on my friend at the other end of the village for an evening hunting for bats. Paul goes out regularly with his bat detector throughout spring and summer, and even now, though the nights are getting cooler, there are still lots to be found, and plenty of insects for the bats to eat. Using a bat detector feels like cheating, but without one, they would be impossible to find once the darkness engulfs us. In the dying light we don’t need the clever little hand-held device to pick out the pipistrelles, but as darkness falls, and less are visible, the electronic age comes into its own as the number of bats increase. Noctules, long-eared, lesser and greater horseshoes show up, no doubt fattening up for the long winter hibernation. We find hot spots where dozens feed on invisible moths, then nothing, where all we detect is the distant call of a tawny owl, and a little further on, one peering down at us from the top of lamppost.

Being out in the countryside at night heightens the sense of contact with nature. With vision taken away, sounds and smells are enhanced, and the slightest movement is exciting, even though most of the time I haven’t the faintest idea of what it might be. A vixen calls, sending a shiver down my spine, and the rustling on the woodland floor ahead could be a badger. A late alarm call from a blackbird interrupts the damp silence; I know there must be other birds roosting nearby, but there’s no way of telling where they are. I’m in a secret world, but not party to it.

Saturday, 23 September 2017


Great conkers hang between the fading leaves of the horse chestnut trees, which means it’s definitely changeover time now. Most of the summer migrants seem to have left, and there are more reports of arrivals than departures. Out and about today, I noted only a couple of chiffchaffs and a wheatear. Migration will continue for a little time yet, and there are still interesting reports of birds on the move, but it’s now more of a steady trickle than a mass exodus. There are always oddities that raise the pulse of the rarity hunters.  My son called late last night excited that a bobolink had turned up not far from here. His dilemma was whether to get up at dawn and try to see it before work, mine was whether to grab a field guide, or relive the last time I saw this unusual looking bird in Maryland a couple of years ago. I chose the memory.

It’s the time when jays begin to arrive from Scandinavia, and a good sign that they’re coming in is when I begin to see odd ones frequently flying across the road. They’ll arrive in numbers soon, and small flocks will then be commonplace. On arrival they gorge on the rich crop of acorns already falling from the now turning oak trees. During the next couple of months these continental jays will hide millions of acorns on woodland floors as a food store for colder times during winter. Jays are an integral part of the survival of our oak woodlands, since many of these buried acorns are not found, and will germinate into young oaks next spring.

Continental blackbirds are also arriving. In some winters they can be very common indeed, joining our home-grown birds competing for berries in parks and gardens. They arrive earlier than other winter thrushes, and are naturally difficult to distinguish from our resident blackbirds. Redwings and fieldfares will be also here soon to mark the beginning of winter proper.

Some common birds are forming into flocks. Meadow pipits, skylarks, chaffinches and especially goldfinches, all seem to be travelling about in larger groups now, and over the last week or so, the goldfinches at our garden feeders have increased to at least 20. The cooler weather is not too far away.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Surviving Winter

I bumped into a small party of tree sparrows in west Gower yesterday, and was reminded that they are pretty scarce in this part of the world. There’s been a lot of discussion as to whether they’ve suffered a real decline overall in recent times, but whatever the truth, lots of effort countrywide is being put into trying to increase their numbers.

Old fields and deserted farm buildings seem to suit them, and groups of local enthusiastic birders have started nest box schemes at such places, some of which have been successful, other not so. Newton Farm is derelict, and a great many boxes have been erected, both on the old buildings, and the surrounding trees, but as yet no clear picture has emerged as to which locations the birds prefer. Numbers may be slowly increasing, but this is possibly as a result of winter grain, which has been put out for them over the last few years. This not only helps the tree sparrows survive the winter, but also other finches such as yellowhammers and reed buntings as well.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Painted Ladies

Living in a place for a long time can often bring real rewards. I come to the path leading down to western side of Limeslade Bay each autumn to look for painted lady butterflies, knowing that I’ll almost certainly be lucky. On warm, sunny days they’re usually feeding on the flowers growing from the wall, and in early morning, before the heat of the sun wakes them up properly, they’re very tame. The two this morning are perfect, newly emerged and quite beautiful, and they’ll soon be off south on their incredible migration.

I nestle into the rocks behind the storm beach and look out to sea. Gulls silhouetted against the hazy morning light pass to and fro, and a small boat, filled with hopeful fishermen, heads west. It’s high tide, the sand is covered, and the only place accessible for feeding pied wagtails is the wrack of kelp on the pebbly shore. Several dart about in search of flies, but rock pipits, seemingly more suited to the shore, catch more sand hoppers than flies. A white wagtail appears as if from nowhere; we get just a few of these continental migrants in autumn, and I sometimes have difficulty identifying the juveniles. Side by side with pied wagtails like this, they’re easy, and I even get a reasonable photograph when it comes close.

My peace is disturbed by a man and his dog, he doesn’t stay long, but the birds are gone, and I return to the painted ladies to try once more for that elusive perfect photograph.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Autumn Colour

In mid-September there’s still some summer left, and I don’t have to walk far from home to find it. The small copse by the green looks autumnal, but remnants of summer are everywhere. Most flowers are in seed, or have faded away, but there’s still some colour.  In the lush understory, white greater willow herb seeds blow in the breeze, and there are still flowers on some of the taller stems. A few speckled wood butterflies compete for sunny glades, whilst small whites seem to pass by quickly.  Ragwort, with just a few leftover faded blooms, give a touch of yellow, but the vegetation is mostly green now, and slowly turning into shades of golden brown. Thistles, going to seed, attract noisy goldfinches, many in juvenile plumage, and clearly independent of their parents.

Swathes of the dreaded Japanese knotweed sport delicate white flowers. These invasive plants have spread dramatically in the copse over the last few years, and with little will, and few resources available to eradicate them, will probably take over most of the copse in a few years’ time.

A sizable flock of blue and great tits feeds noisily in the canopy of ash trees, and I hear a willow warbler and a nuthatch amongst them. It’s been another good year for ash seeds, which hang heavy on the tips of many branches, but I fear the consequences of ash dieback when, and if, it finally reaches Gower.

The sun has brought out dragonflies. Southern and migrant hawkers patrol the shaded paths, and beautiful crimson-bodied common darters sit motionless on a few stones. I came looking for colours of autumn, but it’s these magnificent creatures that steal the show.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

First Gale

High tides and strong winds can change the gentle nature of the Gower coast. Gone is the balmy weather of yesterday as the first gale of the autumn blows in from the west. On days like this, I often come to the cliffs to watch the sea boil, and to feel the full force of the Atlantic.  By Gower standards, today’s blow is not serious, probably force eight, and the rain is not too heavy. There’ll be many more severe gales in the weeks and months to come, when the wind can sometimes gust to over 100mph at Mumbles Head.

A few other like-minded souls sit in cars overlooking Limeslade Bay. Pointing into the gale, we sit mesmerised, watching the force of nature. With visibility just a couple of hundred yards, there’s not much to see, apart from the constant waves rolling in from the west, and crashing onto the rocks below. Gulls appear not to mind the gale, revelling in the wind that whips up the cliff-face from the sea. Black-headed gulls seem to enjoy it most, often flying backwards, whereas herring gulls seek shelter in the bay, huddling together on the rocks.

The gale is forecast to blow itself out by mid-afternoon, when crystal-clear light from the northwest will light up the still-boiling sea. This aftermath is what I really look forward to, and I’ll be back as soon as the first rays of sun appear.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

In the 18th Century

I like to come to Penrice Estate every month, it’s the perfect place to watch the countryside change. The ancient parklands have a Gilbert White feel to them, and often bring passages from ‘The Natural History of Selborne’ to mind. It’s the swallows feeding over lake that take me back today. White, and his correspondent Pennant, discussed in their letters whether swallows migrate, or spend winter hibernating at the bottom of ponds. There are just a few birds hunting over the lake this morning, most are already well on their way south, but with a little imagination it’s possible to realise how White might have thought, especially when the birds flying low over the water below vanish into darker corners of the lake-edge.

The 18th century house at Penrice stands out as one of the few buildings of real architectural merit on Gower. In clear northern light it looks magnificent, glowing in warm autumnal sun. In the park, few leaves have started to turn, although horse chestnuts near Kilvrough Manor were showing rustic brown leaves on the drive here. 

In the walled garden, apples hang heavy from bent branches, and pears have done well on the south facing walls. Pumpkins, some larger than footballs, runner beans, cabbages, lettuce, onions and much more are ready to pick, and a few late strawberries are poked at by a lone song thrush. In the lovingly restored lean-to greenhouse, tomatoes smelling like the real thing, and great bunches of grapes are set to harvest. It’s a time of plenty, and as I sit on an old bench outside, I realise I’m in a world that’s changed little in two centuries or more.

Inside the lovingly cared for orangery, I sit on an old wooden bench and I’m in the 18th century once more. Colourful exotic plants, many in pots, cover the floor. Almost ready-to-pick lemons, succulents, ferns and flowers I recognise from Asia, produce a delicate sweet-smelling scent, and save for the buzzing of a couple of bees there’s silence. It’s wonderful.