How Lucky I am

How lucky I am that what upsets me most this lovely May is the empty sky, the silent spring.  Last year for the first time there were no House Martins nesting in the village. Now there are no Swallows. By trudging up the hill I saw and heard a cuckoo last year, but not this.

These special birds have not disappeared totally. A few days ago, in the early morning, I travelled up the valley to the Junction Pool and hauled my photo kit up the steep Allt Rhyd y Groes from the Pysgotwr. There, high up between two areas of forest and moorland protected by NRW and the RSPB there is a farmstead with old barns and a lake and there they were, a whole flock of Martins, a few Swallows, and a very sleepy horse.

There was also an entry into the Welsh Heritage Caravan competition, and the return route could hardly have been more beautiful.

How lucky I am that I have enough to eat, that no mad fanatic is killing my grandchildren, no tyrant dropping bombs on me, that I have water and shelter, warmth, friends and family. So, what’s a few birds here or there? The answer I think is that there have always been mad tyrants and fanatics killing us, but as far as we can tell from what we read, we have never before been able to seriously alter the balance of nature.

Perhaps I am lucky that I’m not likely to be around when, as the American “preppers” say TSHTF. (Look it up)

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Morning at Port Mor

After a week of gale-force to moderate wind the only ripples in the water are those of the incoming tide. The sun is being selective, choosing which crags to light up. It casts glowing reflections sparingly, hiding mostly behind thin cloud, but can still pick out the boats in the harbour.

Out beyond the old jetty is a group of Eiders and just today a small group of Guillemots. Much nearer in the inlet are two House Martins swooping and banking over the water – the first this year.

The sun also picks out the brilliant shanks and bill of our single Redshank, which is chattering and strutting at the tide line as are the two Sandpipers. All around are those ventriloquists of the marshes, the Snipe. Some are hurtling around above me with wing-beats so rapid they remind me of bats. They circle and then stoop, bracing their outer tail feathers against the wind to produce their characteristic thrumming sound. Some of them are on guard duty and sit on a fence post calling “chakka chakka”. It’s very loud but where is it coming from? I have to use binoculars to find the bird.

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Mucky Weather

Monday

Temperature 3 degrees, wind speed 40 chance of precipitation 99%, and the wet stuff can’t make up its mind how best to punish me. It wants to get me nice and wet, but can’t resist the temptation to turn into hail and give me a good pounding.

I’m trudging across rough moorland to get to a bay where there is an old bothy and a good view. Just ahead is a steep valley with a small plantation of conifers. I’ve not been down there before and at least the wind should be less ferocious.  Not so, this is a clever wind which finds its way round corners and down valleys. Now I have a bog to get through.

Surely though when I get there I can sit in the shelter of the bothy, set up my tripod and camera and wait for all the wonderful birds to turn up.  Indeed, as it turns out, I can, and it really is a little better at the side of the rough old stone hut. Even the sun put in a brief appearance, but the wonderful birds had more sense than to go out flying today.  This is what it looked like when I was here last May.

There’s a gannet out to sea, the usual little gang of Oystercatchers and one of those birds with the long curvy beaks which could either be a Curlew or a Whimbrel. Duly noted; stanav position noted, half hour of watching done and another bit of my bird survey of Muck sorted. At least the waves were fun.

Now; how do I get back? It looks like a choice between a saturated bog or a steep craggy hill and that howling gale again.

Don’t you just love the Spring?

Tuesday

Temperature 6 degrees, wind speed 15 hardly a cloud in the sky. It’s time for an early start, so I pack a flask of coffee, a snack, and a lightweight waterproof just in case. It’s a long walk and a stiff climb to get to where the eagles are.

The views are so amazing I keep stopping for pictures. The birds are out enjoying the sun too. Meadow Pipits are everywhere. This was the copse I trudged through yesterday.

I take a detour south to check the cliffs where Shags, Razorbills and Fulmars nest. The Razorbills are still absent but the Shags and Fulmars are nesting. Everywhere on the island are Oystercatchers. They don’t like me being here and flutter overhead shouting at me. I still love them though.

An hour or so of slow trudging later I get to the highest point on the island Ben Airein at 137 m. From here I can see in the far distance the ferry from Mallaig still an hour away, and behind it Ben Nevis still snow capped.

So here I am sat on the same rock I used in May, and after 20 minutes or so relaxing with some coffee and a snack here is the eagle again. The pictures are not so good, and I think part of the problem is haze. I can’t call it heat haze because I still need gloves and layers of warm clothing, but there must be moisture rising in the almost still air.

Oh joy! The first swallows making landfall and the sun has brought out the flies to feed them – darting to and fro they are too quick for me. The sun has also brought out some early flowers – celandines I think. Time passes quickly – 90 minutes has gone and I must pack up the kit and start the long trudge back. I’m tired but happy and intrigued to see a dark coloured heron just as I reach the little village. When I edit the pictures later I am astonished to see, for the first time, a Purple Heron – very rare in this part of the world.

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Island Oddballs

They say it takes one to know one, and it’s a badge I’m happy to wear. Certainly this, my longest and most challenging trip to the little island of Muck has thrown some fierce weather at us, but it has also thrown up some good company.

Thursday was Rosie’s 81st birthday. An octogenarian radical, who lives alone in an ex-BBC pod-house, she is the lady I befriended when I was here in May. Also staying in the bunkhouse is Marg aged 80 who has been here many times and has even written a book about Muck and some of the other small islands. She gave Rosie this hat:

To celebrate we went to the tea room where they were doing a pizza night and found another eccentric already there. I had met her earlier. She is Ruth, early thirties, who earns a good living wandering around Scotland in her camper and taking videos: Ruth Aisling – YouTube I think she found us three very talkative old-uns a bit baffling but when alone she too is another island eccentric – a very different kind of internet influencer.  She spent years in Japan with her Japanese ex and easily switches to Japanese for the substantial following she has there.

Then this lot arrived:

This is the Dewhurst family, in descending order they are: Mark, Jacqui, Emily, Edward, Jessica and Anna. Two of the children slept in a tent outside, and they spent the two blustery, cold, showery days they were here exploring this wild country. They come from near Aberdeen. Mark is a GP and Jacqui works in health care and I have seldom met such and interesting and delightful family – different in that they all seem so well adjusted to life in these strange times.

I’m here for 2 weeks to do a bird survey. I’ve been drenched, battered by the wind, cold and exhausted, and yesterday I thought the whole thing was crazy.

Today it still is, but I’m making progress. My list of species is growing daily and to my delight the Golden Eagles are still here. Watch this space.

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Heading North Again

I’m in the little car park of the Mallaig swimming pool high above the town, and from the  windows I can see the long distinctive profile of the island of Eigg. At the southern end it rises gently to  vertical cliff and then the peak of An Scurr, underneath its woolly hat of cloud looking like a wedge stuck on top of what looks from here like  a plateau. It’s not; I’ve climbed up there, and the ground dips down beyond it before rising into the long ridge above Cleadale. The skyline then takes a gentle curve down to the sea at the north end.

My destination can just be made out as a smudge above the sea at the south end of Eigg. In Wales it would be called Ynys  Moch – pig island, though the Gaelic muc-mhara – sea-pig means porpoise. Here and now it is simply Muck. This will be my third visit in a year and the most challenging. I have offered to do a bird survey of the whole island with these objectives:

  • To find out which species are breeding on the island and record the locations and approximate numbers of nesting territories.
  • To establish a base line from which future surveys can be undertaken to assess any declines or increases in those numbers.
  • To produce an illustrated guide to the island’s bird life which could be sold
  • To provide some data to understand the impact of human activities and on the wild bird population.
  • This would include the impact of tourism, farming and the rearing and shooting of game birds.

Three days ago I was privileged to spend a couple of hours with Pete Ulrich and his brother Hans in the cold, wet but beautiful Ennerdale in Cumbria. He earns his living doing surveys for the RSPB, but also for wind farm companies – a statutory requirement which has enabled people like Pete to have such an interesting career. His methodology is daunting to an amateur like me, but I owe it to him, and to the island,  to do the job in such a way that it can be replicated by others in later years.

On Saturday night, Sunday and last night I was a guest with a close friend from my student days in the Borders town of Hawick. We shared an intense experience when we were students playing in a band called “The Soulbenders” every night for a month at a seaside town in Basque Spain in 1966 and caught up again at a band reunion in 2017.

Now 78 he has recently married for the third time: Birgitta, a vibrant woman a decade or so younger whom he has known most of his life. It’s a romantic novel with a twist in the tail: the house they live in belonged to her father. When he died he bequeathed them 5 years residence before it has to be sold. Jim, a fluent speaker of Japanese, still has work as an interpreter for Japanese film crews but no capital. Somehow I think they will keep those smiles.

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The Return of Brian

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A Tale of Two Bridges

I had no expectations of seeing any wonderful wildlife at either of the bridges, but watching the river is good for the soul so I went first to the new bridge – the really new shiny one, not the one called Pont Newydd (New Bridge) –  that’s the old one. 

I found my spot under the bridge and set up the tripod and camera. There are Dippers here but their nest was demolished with the previous bridge. Another regular is the Grey Wagtail, and Goosanders are fairly frequent visitors. I have seen squirrels, voles, mink and even an otter once. Today all was still. A robin sang briefly somewhere above me, but otherwise nothing moved but the water – until a white shape appeared upstream, hidden amongst the overhanging branches. It was a male Goosander. I had seen them here before but this time I was prepared, focussed on the bit of open water where it would appear. Instead, a female appeared closer to me. First rule of this game: expect the unexpected. I knew when she saw me she would take off and I had not yet, on many previous visits, succeeded in capturing that moment. Goosanders are one of my favourite birds. they are beautiful, sleek but slightly zany with that punky hair-style. Here she is, right in front of me, and true to form she takes off down river, the male following.

Good enough! I packed up and set off on my bike for Pont Newydd 2 kilometers downstream. Here I am under old dripping stone work decorated with little stalactites.

I set up again and focus upstream to where the little Nant Ogwrn flows into the Towy. This is a favourite spot for Dippers and Grey Wagtails and I have occasionally seen Goosanders here. How long does a duck take to float 1.5 miles? A little longer than it takes me to cycle and set up it seems, because here they are again, but with company this time.

The other two look female. They all make a beeline for the outflow from the little stream, and seem to enjoy scooting along with their beaks just below the surface looking for little creatures – larvae and small crustaceans – in the rushing water. They dive for their main food – small fish which they catch in the characteristic “saw teeth” which they share with their sea-going cousins Mergansers.  After a while they tire of this and the male and one of the females decide to explore further, moving steadily towards me.

I want to be one of them, to blend with the surroundings so that they see me, but don’t feel threatened. They are very close now and the female turns towards me, uncertain.

As a precaution she paddles fast upstream and briefly takes off, but after a few metres decides she’s not really bothered and settles back in the water. The male meanwhile faces me in challenge. I remain absolutely still, my face hidden behind the camera, my clothes dull. After a few minutes he relaxes, turns and moves in a leisurely fashion upstream. I am thrilled: I’ve done it!

I was planning to move off, but they seem very comfortable in their chosen place, preening and resting. Eventually they move off upstream and I can move again.

I have briefly been part of the lives of this group of wild creatures and my day is made.

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Muck again

Another grey dawn with the rain streaking the windows of the bunkhouse. Just below us is the inlet where the Grey Seals come in with the tide to fish and play. Great sheets of rain are crashing into the windows and thrashing the roof of the 4×4 parked outside, creating a plume of spray which is heading towards the café in the tiny village of Port Môr on the Isle of Muck.

I was here in May and loved it, partly because I met Dez Monks who involved me in a little of the social life of the island, and it is because he offered me a lift up here this last week that I am sitting here again on one of the uncomfortable tall stools in the kitchen area of the Bunkhouse.

We are the remnants of the holiday trade: the left-overs still keeping the Bunkhouse going though pretty much everything else, including the café is closed – at least to us. Lavish hospitality is available to the people in tweeds who are here for the shooting.

The ferry which was to have taken us off yesterday is now scheduled for tomorrow. The food that Dez and I brought is running out but Gayle and Les, who arrived a few days after us, are happy to share their supplies. If we are delayed again Ruth at the farm has supplies, so we won’t go hungry, but boredom looms.

We talk a lot. Dez has a strong clear voice and is never at a loss for words. Rosie, who joins us in the evenings for a meal, is always interesting and makes a special effort to speak clearly, but Les I find almost impossible to understand and Gayle has a light voice. When I do manage to hold a conversation with them I feel elated, but I think we are all getting a little stir crazy. I half welcome the company and half long for my own private space. At least I don’t have to share the bedroom.

This trip was a chance to sample island life in the off season. The temperature has remained above 12, the trees still have leaves and there are still some Swallows swooping under the trees where there are a few flying insects, but it’s windy and wet most days and much more like winter than when I was here in May. When the sun does appear the views are spectacular and much of the island is still wild rough grass and heather, rocks and streams. Walking is here is challenging but the views are exhilarating.

The eagles are still around. The adults I photographed in the spring reared two young, and we have all seen the young birds exploring.  Golden Eagle territories are huge so once fledged the young are encouraged to leave and find their own sites. Despite two strenuous hikes I have not been close enough to get any pictures. There are still lots of Ringed Plovers, a dozen or so Curlew, Lots of Rock Pipits and Meadow Pipits and a few Grey-Lag Geese but the three Pink Footed Geese I saw must have been stragglers for there are no flocks here.

However, there are some birds in super-abundance: around 6000 Mallards, Red-Legged Partridges and Pheasants, all bought in as chicks and reared on the island for the shooting parties who are now arriving at the Lodge. They, the birds, are everywhere and normally take off in alarm, but there are a few wiley ones who creep away. They, I guess are the ones that breed here naturally. Perhaps they have evolved a defence. This one followed me for several hundred metres, and tried to stop me walking past. His behaviour seemed unhinged, but perhaps there is a simple explanation. There’s a puzzle for the biologists.

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Nostalgia in France Part 2

Driving through parts of France which we used to know well, it was hard to feel any sense of familiarity. It was very hot – a constant reminder of that looming threat to everything we knew and remembered. The towns had lost the endearing scruffiness of 30 years ago. There was a sense of quiet prosperity: everything well ordered. Since we first drove through all those old villages with their pale stone houses, shuttered and pan-tiled, we had driven through many more over the years and the picturesque was no longer surprising. We were on our way to the second and larger of the two rough old houses we bought 34 years ago.

To avoid the worst of the heat, we set off from our base at Aubeterre at 9, and half an hour later we reached the town of Chalais, passing through the streets where the market stalls used to be hung with dead rabbits and large, sturdy off-white brassieres. Now there are phone covers and luxury foods. To drive slowly through the little village of Passirac and out along the lanes to Collardeau La Lande was exhilarating. It was still the same – the nice old buildings, the lovely oak and chestnut woods, the fields of sunflowers and maize, and there it was, almost as it was when we sold it. (See above) The old pictures re-photographed, show it more or less as we bought it.

Almost – the barn with the big bales was new. We parked and walked along the track to see if there was anyone there, but it was shuttered and silent. The house itself had hardly changed – a new veranda – but the old cottage opposite had been replaced with something new and bland.

Here, in the summer we had woken to the gentle cries of the Hoopoes strutting around the grass. Just up the track was the patch of scrub woodland where, at dusk, we had first seen and heard Nightjars clapping their wings and churring. 

The front door was exactly the same and, heart in mouth, I knocked. There was no reply, so we decided to try to find the lake where I had sat in the evening listening to the frog chorus, had watched a Hen Harrier perched in one of the trees, and had seen Hobby falcons swooping over the water catching beetles in their claws and then delicately transferring them to their beaks.

The parched woodland crunched underfoot, but the trees were the same wild mix of oak, chestnut and pine, light and open. The lake was less wild but still beautiful.

Happy with a sense of nostalgia satisfied, we drove back past the house.

“Wait” said Thelma. “The shutters are open. They must have come back.”

Again I knocked and this time the door was opened and a man of my own age stood there looking surprised. I went into my explanation in French but he soon stopped me:

“Parlez vous Anglais?” When I switched to English he asked if it had been me knocking earlier.

“We are not early risers” he explained.

He told me they were the very people we had sold the place to; we had never met because the sale had been conducted remotely. He had, however met my daughter Hannah who had called in years later. She and 8 of her art-student friends had stayed there and caused something of a stir locally. My first wife Jan had stayed there with her new husband. My mother had worked there with us, and of course we had stayed many times over the 4 or 5 years we owned it. I could have earned a living there, but Thelma had a good job in Bristol and only a few words of French, so reluctantly, we decided to sell. I’m still not sure it was the right decision.

We were invited in. He was friendly but his wife, sitting at the kitchen table looked unhappy, and didn’t get up. She was however pleased to see the album of old pictures I had brought and we talked about their 30 years living there. I asked if I could take some pictures and she showed us round. My chestnut floor in the sitting room which so nearly went badly wrong, was still there.

The big bedroom, then a dormitory for our student work-force was recognisable, as was our second bedroom, though all much smarter.

Sitting again in the kitchen I was delighted to see that the cheap rustic doors I had made with diagonal t&g boards were unchanged except for the colour, but I didn’t take pictures. Something had changed.

She, Daphne, was clearly still bitter about the state the house had been in when they took possession. We had left it clean and complete with all the furnishings. They had found it filthy and with all the portable items gone. It was clear that the place had been broken into, lived in, trashed and emptied. She still seemed to hold a grudge. My gut clenched and I couldn’t wait to get away.

Later my anger subsided and I began to understand. They had fallen into a trap we were familiar with from our time in France. You sell your house in Britain, buy something here for less than half your capital and live comfortably on the remainder. When I said how nice it was to see the place so little changed, it hurt. They had no more capital to put a new kitchen in or to develop the older part next door. They were stuck and there was tension between them. Perhaps we had ruined their day as they had ours.

Nostalgia is indeed not what it used to be, even a few hours ago.

 

 

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