27 May 2016

RSPB Symonds Yat & The Forest of Dean

If you go down to the woods today...

....You just might see a Goshawk! But you will be lucky, as they aren't common, they can fly through dense forest, rather than over it, and they don't really like posing for photographs.  

However the Forest of Dean, in Gloucestershire, is said to have the highest concentration of these elusive birds in England, and these hopeful birders, above, are keeping their eyes peeled from the old slag heap now known as New Fancy.  

The old slag heap, is a link to the industrial past, as the forest has provided coal, iron and other minerals over the centuries, with a tradition of there being freeminers whose rights were granted by Edward I in return for support in his campaign against the Scots.

There is not much industry left, but there are still freeminers, and not that many years ago I took my daughters into the dark of one of the still extant mines, guided by the miner himself.

The past is still with us, and I return from a walk to find that my car has regressed....

But that's the magic of the woods..... The Forest of Dean is bounded on the north and West by the River Wye

And falls away towards the Severn Estuary to the South and East.  The forest was also once a hunting ground for Saxon and then Norman kings and, covering about 45 square miles, it is one of the largest areas of ancient woodlands in England.

The ruins of Tintern Abbey, which stand just by the Wye, inspired William Wordsworth, on his second visit, to write Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798.....

For I have learned 

To look on nature, not as in the hour 

Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes 

The still sad music of humanity, 

Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power 

To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt 
A presence that disturbs me with the joy 
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime 
Of something far more deeply interfused, 
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, 
And the round ocean and the living air, 
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man......

Wordsworth's influence may even have launched British tourism, educating travellers that there was no need to go on The Grand Tour, when there were such sights as this within our isles.

But I digress.  My main reason for revisiting the area is to stand on Symonds Yat Rock for a week, as a volunteer with the RSPB, watching nesting Peregrine Falcons and chatting with others who have come this way.

Although the Rock is on Forestry Commission land, the viewpoint has been regularly attended during the breeding season by the RSPB since the Peregrines returned in 1982.  

Peregrine Falcons are the fastest creatures in the natural world, with the most recent reported highest speed of over 200 mph in steep power dives (stoops) when hunting their aerial prey.  They live on all continents except Antarctica, and are no longer endangered, but the use of organochloride pesticides such as DDT in the 1950s indirectly led to a serious decline in numbers, with approximately 80% of the UK population being lost.  They were recorded in this area in the Domesday book, and have been continuously nesting on limestone cliffs over the Wye near Symonds Yat since 1982, after an absence of 30 years.

In 1983 a pair tried to breed here, but someone abseiled down the cliff face and stole their eggs, so the following year the RSPB mounted a round-the-clock watch on the site. Since 1986 a progression of pairs have bred here with an average of two fledglings surviving each year.

The RSPB now tries to have a representative on the Rock every day, pointing the birds out to visitors and sharing views through binoculars and telescopes.  It is still a respectable distance from the cliff, and without professional lenses it is very difficult to take portraits of the birds.  I managed the shot above from the meadows by the river below, where you can just make out the female falcon perched on a branch at the top of the cliff.  During my watch I saw them flying and on one occasion the Tiercel (male) flew in a leisurely way pasts me above the river.  Through binoculars I saw him looking at me, an expression on his beak as if to say I know you haven't got your camera ready!

I also regularly saw a pair of Buzzards circling effortlessly over the meadows, 

and watched a Goshawk hunting over the river valley to the north before disappearing into a stretch of pine wood.  Remarkably there was also a Canada Goose nesting in a hole in the cliffs at the same height as the Peregrines.  During my week there was much speculation about how the goslings would fare when the time came to take a leap.  Since they would have to drop well over a hundred feet and then have to make their way through the woods and undergrowth, evading predators like foxes before reaching the river, it seemed unlikely that the choice of nest hole was ideal.  However, the day I left I noted mother goose standing on the edge of the nest hole giving her busy little goslings a pep talk.  And then, suddenly, they were gone.  A minute later and there was a great deal of honking in the woods below.  For ten minutes or so this continued before silence fell, and the woods were quiet. Then, a few minutes later, I witnessed an adult Canada Goose sail across the river with five goslings and another adult in line astern. The rest of the afternoon was spent with one adult in the water, one on the shore and five little balls of fluff playing on the beach and in the shallows!

Peregrines are now doing well in this country, and have adapted to city life, with many nesting on Cathedral Towers and other tall buildings, profiting from street lighting which enables them to hunt later and earlier than in the countryside. There are reckoned to be 1,500 breeding pairs in the UK now, and I have heard that at least seven of these are living in London.

But these are not the only birds to be seen at Symonds Yat.  In between spying on the Peregrine nest, I watched Nuthatches:

Marsh Tits:

Coal Tits:



and, annoyingly, Grey Squirrels.

The RSPB has two reserves in the area, one at Highnam Woods in the Severn vale, where Nightingales breed, and the other at Nagshead, at Parkend, where Pied Flycatchers and Redstarts live.  Tree nesting Mandarin Ducks are also seen here, 

And the woods are beautiful with bluebells at this time of year.

The forest is full of colour, and life, and is a wonderful natural environment to explore:

Whether you choose to wander:

Or to rest awhile near the river, with a pint of local cider:

After which an ordinary sunset can become a thing of rare beauty!

Who killed the bears?

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