Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Ascent of the Cheviot - Second Attempt

More snow overnight but some blue sky around and the could base was higher, so we set off for a second attempt on the Cheviot. The wind had dropped and after heading up the valley, we took a shorter route up onto the hill, bypassing the Refuge Hut this time. There was snow all the way up the valley and I spotted a couple of bramblings along the stream near to the plantation. Most of the valley is planted with conifers but is gradually being returned to native woodland and there is plenty of grouse hunting up on the moors. Several red grouse flew up from the heather and the tops of the hills are a chequerboard of managed heather where it's been burnt and cleared at regular intervals to allow new shoots for the grouse to feed on.

We were overtaken by a local who had walked up from Kelso, just across the border. He was walking up to the Cheviot and back and we passed him again on his way down from the summit as we hiked up the last stretch. A boardwalk has been laid along the Pennine Way and all the way up to the Cheviot - partly to stop the erosion and partly to stop people getting stuck in the peat bog! The horizontal wind and snow from the previous couple of days had created interesting ice sculpture on the fences and stiles along the top and the snow had been blown horizontally around the clumps of grass.

Having reached the summit, we had a brief lunch stop at the top sheltering from the wind before heading off in a loop down towards Scald Hill and then along the boggy path to find our path back home. Passing several walkers going the other way, most appropriately dressed for the weather but one person in not much more than jeans and trainers heading up the hill! The weather closed in fairly quickly several times during the walk and cleared up just as quickly but was pretty cold. Once off the hill and on the forest tracks, it was an easy walk home through the conifer plantation with tea and simmnel cake to look forward to.

The streams are clear and typical of mountain streams, so it was hardly surprising to see a pair of dippers as we came down towards Coldburn. Also spotted a pair of ducks - some debate over whether they were pintails (that's what they looked like initially) or goldeneyes (more likely) given that those are listed on the bird list back in the bunkhouse and I saw a large white patch on their wings as they flew off and a dark head - not always easy when they're flying away from you and you only get a fleeting glimpse.

Also spotted or heard were curlew, as we crossed the field just below the bunkhouse, greenfinch, chaffinch and tits (blue and great) seen around the house and at least 10 chaffinches on the feeders at the house. Pheasant, seen and heard in the valley and the croak of ravens up on the hill, a very large, dark buzzard and goldcrests up in the plantation.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Bamburgh Castle and Lindisfarne

The hills were still covered in snow and low cloud so Plan B was to head down to the coast for a walk with a short stop in the local town for supplies as we'd run out of milk already - all that porridge for breakfast and endless cups of tea from the biggest teapot ever.

Bamburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast is only a short drive from where we were staying and although the snow came down in pretty thick flurries, we made it along the B roads with only one car sliding to a gentle stop on the wrong side of the road as it took a corner a bit too fast. Wrapped up against the elements we took a short walk up along the beach. The Farne Islands are only just off shore, much closer than I'd expected and Lindisfarne is just up the coast, which was our second stop after a quick lunch in the pub to warm up. By the time we left the pub the snow had pretty much gone and although it was still cold and windy, the sun was out.

Further up the coast just across from Lindisfarne we walked around Beal point to get a closer view of the waders and Brent Geese feeding on the mud flats. For the first time I saw eider in their natural environment and in the wild. They're possibly down from their summer nesting sites, although they're resident all year round along the Scottish coast and Northern England and Northern Ireland so they could have been locals. There were several pairs close to shore and several more feeding out in the shallow bay as the tide was in. A fact that several tourists hadn't realised as they drove down the causeway to find that they couldn't actually get across to Lindisfarne. In fact they'd have to wait another five hours until the tide went out.

A hare took off across the ploughed field near to the sluice gate and there was a small flock of dunlin, a few redshank and curlew feeding and flying from the salt marsh to the mudflats. Unfortunately and frustratingly I'd forgotten my binoculars so wasn't able to spot everything else that might have been there. We did see a pair of red-breasted mergansers as we walked back to the cars and what I took to be a merlin chasing a skylark. Well, it was small and swift-like and very fast.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Ascent of the Cheviot - First Attempt

We set out to climb the Cheviot - not a mountain by mountaineers standards, in fact no more than a mere foothill, if that but it is the highest peak in the Cheviots Hills, after which they were obviously named. As we walked out of the bunk house and straight up the valley (nothing like having walks right on the doorstep) it got colder and windier the higher we got and there was low cloud over the tops of where we were headed but it was a case of see how far we get.

A short stop at the Mountain Refuge hut at the top of the valley where interestingly someone had signed the visitors book at 8.30 that morning having camped overnight in the valley. They must have been VERY cold. It was cold enough in the bunkhouse. We headed off up the hill but the weather got progressively worse so after sheltering out of the wind in a gully, we abandoned the walk and headed back downhill. Although it doesn't look bad, the hail was horizontal and biting and it was pretty windy. Windy enough to almost get blown over and being up on an exposed hilltop would have been no fun at all.

Cheviot Hills

A weekend walking in the Cheviots - a long drive there and back but worth it for a lovely Easter weekend in the snow ... wind ... and hail.

A small group of us were staying at the Mounthooly Bunkhouse in the College valley. Very remote and a three mile drive into the valley down a very narrow road, ignore the Private - No Access signs if you're booked into the bunkhouse. No chance of driving out again if it snowed heavily unless you had a four-wheel drive. Sounds a strange name for the middle of nowhere but it's from the word colleche meaning a stream running through boggy ground and it certainly was ... boggy that is.

Situated in the Northumberland National Park, the valley is a typical glaciated valley with peat bogs up on the hilltops, scree slopes along the edges of the valley and grazed by sheep. There's a conservation project in place to return the existing conifer plantation to native woodland and encourage wildlife. Black grouse have also been seen in the Wilderness area which is part of the replanting and conservation project to encourage the

Fall out of the door and you've got easy access to the surrounding hills with a range of high and low level walks and plenty of forest tracks to follow for easier walking. Just three miles from the Scottish border and at the start of the Pennine Way. Plenty to keep us active over a long weekend and with plenty of other areas to explore not far away.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Quarry Clearance and Arlington Reservoir

Spotted two goldfinches on the feeder this morning just before I headed out to Lewes for a task on Malling Down. I wasn't expecting it to go ahead, as it was raining. Not exactly chucking it down but it was that type of drizzle that's going to soak through to the skin by the end of the day and might have made it hard to get the bonfire going.

Only three of us there but we decided to go and clear all the bottles and rubbish we'd collected last time and at least get that cleared with an idea of perhaps fitting in another task before Spring. We got up there to find the rubbish had all been cleared, so instead we took a walk round the quarry and the area we'd been working on, to see what was left to do and where we might start working next.

It's amazing how much we've cleared in this area so far. From the gate at the top of the steps, all the way up to the old quarry. All the trees and scrub are gone and there are several patches of grass. It looks great now but you can see where the elder has already started to sprout up around the stumps and the nettles are starting to come through. The area needs to be regularly grazed to keep the regrowth from taking hold and treating the stumps doesn't work for the elder, so we need to come up with a different strategy for that. One idea is to cut it back regularly over the spring and summer to see if can be killed off that way.

As this only took us an hour - I went on to Arlington reservoir hoping to see a variety of over-wintering birds. Not much around - at least not as far as over-wintering ducks were concerned but plenty of residents. There were at least 20 great-crested grebe, several cormorant (another 20), coot, moorhen and mallard oh and three Canada geese up on the grass by the boats. That was about it. However, one of the first birds I spotted as I walked down to the reservoir was a sand martin. An unusual sight - especially that early in the year and in such miserable weather. I spent a couple of hours there and walked through the boggy ground to the hide on the far side. Even less to be seen from there. I'm sure last year there were far more water birds around.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Off Road In The Mud

As part of my work as a volunteer ranger I was asked at short notice to go on a four-wheel driving course. This means that I'll be able to drive the land rovers when out on tasks - should they be short of drivers.

An early start, as the off road centre was in Kent but I linked up with another volunteer who lived just up the road in Lewes. Starting early meant we were ahead of the traffic and got there in good time. In fact such good time that having found the place, we were all set to go and get a coffee somewhere - although in the depths of Kent's orchards there weren't going to be too many Starbucks around. However, one of the staff turned up and let us in to the centre to wait in the warmth as it wasn't the warmest of days.

Well, centre sounds slightly glamorous it was a large warehouse with the workshop underneath where there was much hammering and welding going on and an upper level with the classroom, toilets, a small kitchen and offices. This was a 4-wheel driving course, would did you expect. We had to wait while the coffee machine heated up and there was a log burning stove, which once it got going, warmed the place up, along with supplies of coffee, chocolate or whatever combination you chose from the machine.

The rain from the previous few days made the 4x4 course extremely muddy! Firstly, we talked through the mechanics of 4-wheel driving - diffs, gears and learning even simple things, such as the fact that the engine drives the wheel with the least resistance - that's why they spin - on ice, mud or in the wet. Then it was out to put it into practice, in a fairly battered but working Range Rover. There were only three of us on the course which gave plenty of opportunity for driving practice, taking it turns to drive round the course and get used to the gears and the fact that even without your foot on the accelerator the engine still drives the vehicle forward - even on a slope.

Back into the classroom for more about safety, stopping and starting on a slope and the importance of momentum. Lunch was followed up with more hands-on practice this time in the mud and a variety of hills, slopes, mud, ruts and ditches, all the time avoiding the trees, which got pretty close as the range rover lurched from side to side, in and out of the trees, along the ruts and over the bumps. I only touched one small tree! It’s amazing how steep a gradient these vehicles will go up ... and down and the temptation to keep your foot on the brake, as you head down what feels like a ridiculously steep slope - results in a sharp reprimand of "Foot OFF the brake!". This is what they were made for – not driving to and from the nearest supermarket.

All in all a great day out but you're safe for the moment as I won't be allowed out on the road until I've completed the on-road and defensive driving part of the course.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Hidden Valleys and Rainbows

An extra task this weekend, slotted into the schedule for SWT as they'd cleared a large area last time (I wasn't around) and hadn't been able to burn all the wood, so rather than leave it, Peter rounded up some volunteers to help out this weekend.

I got there at about 11.30 - after two nights out dancing and a very late night last night, I wasn't quite up for starting much earlier. When I got there, the fire was already going and quite a good blaze too. I was amazed at how much they'd cleared last time. We'd been working our way round the old quarry, clearing back trees, brambles and ground elder. What was scrub is now cleared back and ready for the grassland species to move in, or that's the idea. Last month they'd started clearing a steep-sided valley that had been completely hidden and covered in scrub and trees but having felled some of the larger trees it was opening up. The area we'd been working on at the beginning of the year was now completely clear except for a few patches of cut scrub left to burn

We spent most of the day cutting up and dragging what was already there from the previous task. Despite the rain, most of the wood was pretty dry or rotten and much of the elder is covered in Jew's ear fungus - small pinky-brown cups that grow into what apparently looks like an ear. The older ones were sort of crinkled like an ear and soft and glutinous. They're edible but I didn't take any home to try. Perhaps next time.

There were seven of us in all and by the end of the day, we'd burnt everything that was there and opened up the valley. A few trees are still left around the edge, which will get taken down next weekend - weather permitting and open up the south-facing slope which has a better chance of reverting to grassland.

Yet again we had good weather for the day - a bit of a breeze (there's a gale coming in) but mainly dry - there was enough rain and wind last night. Having watched the dark grey rain clouds rolling in from the west and wondering if we were going to be drenched or not, we just caught the edge of a shower after lunch towards. It did result in the most amazing, arch of a rainbow as the sun came out and didn't stop us from working - except to admire the rainbow.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Territorial Robins

My robin is getting very territorial. Having seen the goldfinches for three days in a row having spotted them for the first time on the niger feeder, I haven't seen them for a few days and I'm wondering if they're being chased off by the robin. They're fairly timid at the best of times and if they're being chased away.

He (presumably it's the male) has been fairly aggressive with most of the birds - chasing them off the feeders, whenever they appear. It doesn't stop the blue tits who manage to dash in and grab a seed before being chased off and the starlings just ignore him. It's the same with the chaffinch and sparrows but fortunately he isn't around all the time.

He was fine a few weeks ago when there were two of them in the garden - perhaps it's got more aggressive if the female is now nesting.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Two Types Of Green

Another sunny day, not quite as cold as yesterday and a gentle run up to the Tye.

There was a greenfinch singing from the trees on the track, not that they've got much of a song as such - nothing like a robin, blackbird or thrush but colourful birds. As I ran back onto the playing fields a green woodpecker flew out low across the grass and then up into the trees. It seems to be it's favourite place as I often spot one there.

Not much around otherwise today.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Spring at Pulborough

A trip to Pulborough for a day out at the reserve with a friend, before all the wintering birds disappear. I was excited to see that a red kite had been spotted over the reserve a couple of days ago but according to the very friendly and helpful person in the Visitor's Centre - they tend to be seen about eight times a year so not a lot of chance that they'd be there today. There were two large herds of deer out on the levels - they're a common sight there. When I first visited Pulborough there might be a few of them near the woods by the Visitor's Centre but now there's a large herd.

It's a few months since I've been to the reserve and they've been hard at work, digging ditches, cutting back the undergrowth, pruning hedges and putting up fencing. It looks much tidier and open. Most of the trees and bushes are still bare so that also makes it seem more open.

Snipe had been seen in the West Mead hide - so that's where we headed first and it didn't take long to spot one and then seven others. One out on the edge of a clump of grass and the others all huddled down with their bills tucked along their wings and almost invisible against the background of grass. Off on the far-side of the brooks there were twelve herons all standing on the edge of one of the pools.

It most certainly helps to have a good spotting scope when visiting wild bird hides. Although binoculars are great - if you scan the edges and margins to see some of the waders and it gives you a chance of spotting something interesting that you're only just able to pick out as a 'bird' with binoculars. I've had my trusty Bushnell scope for ages. It's a bit knackered but still does the job and the zoom lens is very useful.

It was cold out in the hides but warm enough for the adders to be out basking in the warm(ish) spring sunshine when it came out. We spotted one - or rather, we noticed a group of people looking at the ground and saw the adder. A dark (male) curled up on the bank near the ditches. Further round between Winpenny and Little Hanger hides - there were several adders out basking in the sun - at least there were but as we walked up the sun had gone in and they'd retreated into the bracken.

Several wintering ducks on the pools - including pintails, shovelers, wigeon, teal and I spotted a pochard and a couple of pairs of gadwall. My favourite birds, after snipe are the waders like redshanks and godwits, although I'm not always very good at working out what's what. I spotted only one black tailed godwit and a few dunlin but did finally find the ruff that had been reported - two of them.

The reserve has a lovely coffee shop which is good for a quick lunch break and warm up before walking around the second half of the reserve. One lovely snipe - backlit by the low sun and finally a raptor - well a kestrel. Plenty of robins singing around the reserve and a good count of woodland birds - various tits, a tiny goldcrest and one female bullfinch. Someone had also spotted a mole. Another group of people looking at the ground - all you could see was the earth moving as it dug it's tunnel, no sign of the actual mole itself.

[Photos - Courtesy of Stephen Cotterell]