Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Worm's Head

Getting across the causeway to Worm’s Head at the western tip of Gower is always tricky, and can be dangerous. For about three and a half hours either side of high water, the Worm (old English for serpent) becomes an island, and it’s easy to get cut off by the fast flowing incoming tide. Many tourists make the trek across, some dressed in quite unsuitable attire; I’ve even seen ladies in flip-flops venturing out, but soon having second thoughts on the slippery, undulating rocks.

I’m trying to get to the very end to see the small colony of breeding auks. Once across the causeway the view back to the mainland is spectacular and my spirits rise. Rock pipits song-flight in the warm breeze, linnets and stonechats are busy amongst the dazzling yellow gorse, and a few meadow pipits flit about, but no skylarks sing. Wheatears take no heed of the determined visitors trooping along the narrow path; they probably have young already in a nest somewhere in the rocks below. The rocky bridge between the inner and middle part of the Worm sorts out the men from the boys, and is the most difficult part of the walk. Many turn back here when confronted by the sharp, and now slippery crossing. Others climb down to the rocky shore and opt for the 'clever' route; they too normally give up.

The north face of the outer head is where the seabirds nest, and from a safe distance I count the guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, kittiwakes and the few herring gulls that still breed. I keep my eyes open for puffins, but see none. A great commotion of kittiwakes, other gulls and the odd diving gannet tells me there’s a shoal of fish near the surface - usually a good place to look for porpoises.

The return journey always feels easier, especially when grey seals greet me in the sheltered waters by the causeway.

Monday, 29 May 2017


Hedgerows bursting with life border the quiet lane from Oxwich Green to Upper Slade. Bluebells, red campion, wood sorrel, buttercups, daisies, dandelions, cow parsley, herb robert and more, decorate the bright spring greens of ivy, nettles and hawthorn. In bright sunshine, and with little wind, my senses are alive to nature.

At the turning down to the tiny hamlet at Slade, the view over the sea is breathtaking. Lower down past the few immaculately kept dwellings, the path veers left along a narrow path above the sea. On limestone walls, and along the path, new plants appear; navelwort, lords and ladies, forget-me-nots, hart’s tongue ferns, ivy-leaved toadflax. There are butterflies too, small, large and green-veined whites, and wonderful male orange tips.

At the end of the path the view over Port Eynon Bay to Sedger’s Bank tells me it’s low tide. I can see for miles. All around, the cliffs are covered in carpets of bright gorse, and the sea is a patchwork quilt of greens and blues. Above the beach scalding whitethroats patrol the thin hedgerows bent with winter gales.

The sandy beach at Slade is a little gem, and is only there for a short time around low water. It’s deserted. Pure white surf rolls in from the glittering sea, pounding the sand and rocks  and I have it all to myself. Walking east along the cliff path, a stonechat escorts me through his territory. I pass a small storm beach, with a bed of silver-grey pebbles and rocks, and above the high water mark, golden lichen surrounds patches of thrift, birdsfoot trefoil and kidney vetch.

I’m joined for lunch by a gannet, fishing close inshore, and am watched over by yet another male stonechat.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

St Mark's Fly

They start to emerge in late April just in time for the influx of warblers. St Mark’s flies are small, hairy, jet-black capsules of energy snapped up eagerly by hungry migrants after long flights out of Africa. So called because they traditionally appear first on the 25th April, the feast of St Mark, they’re about for very much longer, and a month after the saint’s day are abundant again today. Slow flying and easy to catch, they make ideal prey for reed and sedge warblers at Oxwich Marsh. Some days they seem to be everywhere, landing on jackets, hair and just about any available surface. The birds don’t really hunt them, needing merely to pick them up as they pass through the reeds and willows.

Just about all the migrants are in now, reed and sedge warbler song is at its peak, and whitethroats song-flight from scrub on the edge of the marsh. I’m always struck by the ebullient and complicated song of sedge warblers, they're great mimics, and just from the mouth of one tiny bird, and from the one nearby I can hear blue tit, swallow, starling, linnet and more. How anyone can confuse them with the monotonous reed warbler is a mystery.

I read that purple herons are at last breeding in the south of England, another sure sign of climate change. They were here at Oxwich during its heyday, but as far as I know never bred. In the early 1970s the marsh was wet, rich in flora and fauna, and its natural succession from old flooded fields to rich eutrophic marsh, provided maximum biodiversity and biomass at that time. For several summers the marsh attracted other ‘exotics’ too, marsh harriers, little bitterns and bearded tits were all regular visitors. A lack of management has allowed this once magnificent wetland to dry out significantly, which is now a shadow of its former self.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Same Language

For the second time this month, I’ve met an interesting birdwatcher looking at waders down on the bay. A postgraduate student, he’s making a study of the effects of human disturbance on the birds. The project itself is not remarkable, and I suspect his results will turn out to prove the obvious, but what’s much more interesting is that he’s from Iraq. With the troubles far from over we talk openly about the war, but conversation soon reverts to natural history. We speak the same language of conservation. He tells me of the devastation of the great marshes in southern Iraq, and recent attempts to begin restoring some of the damage, the effects of war on the desert, and lots more. He’s hungry to learn about the conservation movement in the West, and amazed at its sophisticated infrastructure and increasing political power.

He asks where to find data about the number of waders here thirty years ago. He’s asked the old man who counts here almost every day, who apparently seems reluctant to give him the data he needs; I promise to help all I can.

We watch the few waders together. A small flock of ringed plovers flies to and fro, restless in the face of several dogs running in and out of the sea. We marvel at a quite exceptional summer plumage bar-tailed godwit, and my new friend can’t get over the smart oystercatcher flock resting on the sandbar in the mellow evening light. I’m struck by how the beauty of the natural world transcends culture, it belongs to us all, and perhaps if we paid more attention to this, we might reduce conflict and get on with saving the planet for future generations whatever creed we believe in.

We take down emails, but forget to exchange names. No matter, we’ll meet again soon.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

A Ring of Birch

Welsh Moor can be a bleak and desolate place in winter, but in spring and summer it’s very different.  A quiet exposed spot, and a bit off the beaten track, it’s not the kind of place that attracts many tourists, but it has a magic all of its own. Separated from Pengwern Common by mixed woodland, birch rings the perimeter of the common, which is almost devoid of mature trees. Owned and managed by the National Trust, just a few gorse bushes are allowed to mature on the rough land. Welsh Moor gains it’s conservation status from a rich flora, and is a stronghold of the endangered marsh fritillary butterfly.

Even into May, there’s still a slight chill blowing in from the estuary, but we’re well into spring at last.  Willow warbler song surrounds the common, a single lark sings high in the sky, and a red kite drifts by – a pair breeds near here, the location of the nest a well-kept local secret. Bumblebees search out flowers on the ground, and in the low, wetter hollows I find my marsh fritillaries. Delicately marked they’re not a spectacular butterfly, but like other rare creatures always provide a thrill.

Way beyond the common emerald-green fields, bordered by neat hedges, are dotted by the tiny shapes of cattle, looking like toys from this distance.  Far away to the east the Brecon Beacons, their peaks only recently free of snow, retain a winter hue, but they too are waking again.

The single road over the common follows the route of the Gower Way, but I see no one. An occasional car passes, disturbing the otherwise peaceful morning. As if from nowhere, two figures wearing bright yellow vests appear along the road. I learn that today volunteers from Llanrhidian village are out litter picking along all roads in the parish. They’re filled with pride and I feel humbled.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

What Have We Done to Our Wildlife

It’s mid-morning as I walk past the farm above Crawley Woods. Swallows have settled in, and there’s spring brightness everywhere. The hedgerows are alight with vibrant lime-green sycamore leaves, and there’s cow parsley and red campion showing in the verges.  Well-used steps form part of the steep, sandy path down to the wood.  A small stream runs alongside for a while, but like many on this side of Gower, soon vanishes underground, allowing the fluty songs of blackbirds and blackcaps to echo through the canopy of spring greens.  The woodland floor is a carpet of green, decorated with sapling sycamores and newly shooting ferns. Garlic and bluebells flowers are past their best flower, and here and there a few fading violets hang on. I have the wood to myself.

Where the wood meets Nicholaston Burrows, the view over Oxwich bay stops me in my tracks. A morning haze hangs over the pastel grey sea, but overhead the sky is a clear deep blue. The woodland changes to oak and ash, both not fully open yet after this late spring. The path between the woods and dunes is well used, but I’m the first here today.  The morning is warming; lizards scoot across the path, and an adder basks on an exposed grassy bank and doesn’t move as I pass. There are lords and ladies along the sides of the path, and high above on the limestone cliff a pair of kestrels see off a buzzard, when it gets too close.

It will be some time before the dunes flower properly, but after the long spell of cold weather, there are signs of spring at last. Hawkweeds, coltsfoot and dandelions give a splash of yellow, and in a sheltered dune slack, a group of early purple orchids are in flower.

At the bridge over Nicholaston Pill, I’m angered once again at the sight of the gabions that the Countryside Council of Wales build many years ago, which destroyed the beautiful oxbow, drained much of Oxwich Marsh, and helped reduce the biodiversity of what was one of the best wildlife sites in Wales.

I turn back realising there are no willow warblers, pipits or skylarks; unbelievable since it’s now May. Years ago, I came here to count the number of different kinds of butterflies. Nowadays I count the number of individuals. I find just a few orange tips and a small copper. What have we done to our wildlife?

Monday, 22 May 2017

Village Limes

There are five great lime trees just across the road from our cottage. Small-leaved limes, they’re found only in southern Britain, and are one of our most uncommon native trees. Majestic, and in a line, their delicate spring lime-greens stand out from the sycamore and horse chestnuts and are a fine spectacle. Early paintings and 19th century photographs of the village show the trees as mature, so they are probably over two centuries old.

It’s time to put out bedding plants, and our village boasts a thriving market garden possibility dating back to medieval times. Original field strips divided by ancient hedges still produce traditional vegetables, the only concession to modernity being long polytunnels for summer flowers such as fuchsias, bizzy lizzies, geraniums and the like.  Most of the original buildings in the village survive; the pub, the old blacksmith shop, now an art dealer, and several cottages are probably 300 years old. Until half a century ago, our own little cottage was also part of the market gardening community, the rear garden being the last remaining piece of a medieval strip of land. Restored several years ago, the old well on the green dates back to the original village. Although modern houses have appeared over the years, the old hamlet hangs on, deeply imprinted on the subconscious lives of us all.

At last the temperature is normal. Evening cricketers, dressed in full whites, contest the great game in front of no spectators. Swallows join in, but take no part, and overhead house martins are at last in residence. Spotted flycatchers are due at the end of the month, but they’re rare now, and I don’t hold out much hope of seeing one nearby. We can then forget the uncertainty of the last weeks, and look forward to summer, but I’ll then worry about how many young our village birds can produce in the critical two months ahead.