Friday, 22 July 2016

Misty Dolphins

The country sweltered as bright hot sunshine blazed in the azure blue sky, steaming away the rain that had dominated the summer so far. Across the country people headed to the seaside, rivers, pools and lakes. And where there were none they dug out their paddling pools, filling them with cool, clear water, the sighs audible across the country as the refreshing water bathed hot skin. People flocked to water like parched travellers searching the desert. OK all sounds rather dramatic for just one or two hot days in the year... but we are British and this is what we do!

The Wild Barley family did the same; introducing the newest member to the delights of the ocean lapping your toes, although in her case it was more like washing her from head to toe. The tiny little intake of breath as the cool water rushes over almost instantly followed with giggles of delight. When in West Wales there is one place I am always drawn to, the lure of those magnificent mammals never far away. While there is always a chance from most headlands along this coast, New Quay has to be one of the best places to try and see the bottlenose dolphins of Cardigan Bay. The dolphins and New Quay have both featured numerous times in Wild Barley over the years. This time while the sun beat down on the green Welsh countryside and even over head for a while, that mysterious, shrouding fret or haar, also known as sea fog lay thick over the water close to shore. As the morning progressed the coastline, harbour wall, houses, shops and yachts standing on their keels as the tide went out, all disappeared behind its pea soup like shroud. There would be no dolphins seen from shore this time....

Nothing for it but to head out onto a boat, all of us, the dog included. The sea itself was calm, just a slight roll and tiny dark waves breaking its surface. The fog surrounded the boat, cloaking the coast, with headlands occasional appearing from the greyness. No horizon, sea and sky merged into one. But it was not dreary, gloomy grey. The bright sunshine that was hidden above gave lightness to the grey, while the sea remained a beautiful green colour. The fog made the scene more mysterious; one could almost imagine hearing a fierce Welsh dragon breathing behind the mist...

Occasionally the sun would break through, turning the sea bright green, and revealing a rocky coastline with small pebbly bays, huge rocks and towering cliffs. Here the last few breeding seabirds wheeled from the rock, disappearing into the fog. Kittiwakes and fulmars sit high up the cliff, shags and cormorants stretch their wings while sat atop huge boulders. Bobbing on the water below small groups of razorbills and guillemots, the contrast of their black and while plumage gleaming against the green of the sea.


We continue on, the mist closing in once more, the boat guided only by GPS. The guide continues with her spiel, providing interesting information not only on the dolphins, but the bay, its history and geology (one just had to imagine the rock formations she was describing!) With no reference point as to where we were, we simply motor on through the pale grey, until suddenly up ahead something large and dark breaks the surface with a splash. The word 'dolphin' erupts from my lips interrupting (in the nicest possible way!) the guide. Four animals break the surface once again, heading for the boat which slows. A dark shape glides beneath the surface right alongside us, before they surface again in the wake of the boat. Eyes scan the water to the edge of the mist, searching. Then boom, two dolphins leap clear of the water in pure synchronicity. They are right on the edge of the mist. Two more breach, their forms more hazy as they disappear into the fog; a brief but none the less breathless encounter. We sit, quiet once more, searching for any sign of the group. The guide calls out; just by the headland she assure us is there, she has sighted a female and her new calf surfacing close by her side. Eyes strain into the mist. Sure enough the faint outline of rocks and coastline appears, a small fishing boat bobs nearby and there breaking the greeney grey water a dolphin followed closely by a small calf. We watch her for a while, before turning for home and heading back into the fog.

Calf bottlenose dolphins peaks above the waves next to mum

We pass closer to shore, watching the waves lap the rocks and swirl into crevices. The heads of grey seals pop up occasionally from the waves, watching us back. Further along and a heavily pregnant female lies high above the water line, soaking in the warmth filtering through the fog.

It is only a sense that we are almost back to harbour, based on time rather than position. Gazing back into the fog and suddenly four more bottlenose dolphins leap clear on the water, drawing further excited yelps from my lips. There is no time to stop. It is a last goodbye. The harbour comes into focus, appearing from the mist with its ghostly figures on top. We are soon back on dry land, the sun now starting to fight back against the blanket of fog, pushing it away from the houses and harbour. Yet it still lingers close offshore, not quite willing to give up its blanket hold on this part of the coast.
What a fabulous trip for our Wild Barley family. Robyn’s first boat trip and first dolphins (hopefully of many!) and Barley’s first trip on a boat... she is an old hand at dolphin watching from shore :)

Our trip was with New Quay Dolphin Spotting Trips who work in connection with Sea Watch Foundation.

Monday, 4 July 2016

The House Martins

Finally a dry, sunny, warm Sunday morning. Through a bright blue sky with only a few white fluffy clouds soar numerous, small, dark pointy winged birds with forked tails. As they twist and turn against the sky a brilliant white belly and rump flash against the dark back and wings. Their calls fill the air. To me it sounds like someone blowing short raspberries, Robyn in particular does a very good impression. It is in fact a short chirrup, but I like the analogy of my daughter blowing raspberries better! There are twenty or so of these small birds dashing through the warm morning. In groups they dip low and then shoot up under the eaves of the small brick cottage sitting near to farm buildings and open ground. Looking up under the eaves there are a dozen or so small, round, muddy brown blobs attached to the underside with a small dark hole. The birds are House Martins, and with the reed beds at Cranwich completely flooded with limited access we decided to try our luck at trying to catch some of these gorgeous little birds. 

The distinctive House Martin

In the same way we caught Swifts, we now hoist up a net in front of the eaves and the House Martin nests. As the birds drop out of the nest they invariably fall into the pockets of mist net and we are able to extract them safely. 

Up close they are not merely a black and white bird. The feathers on the back are glossy dark bluish purple, the contrast with the white rump and belly is striking. But the very best feature of House Martins are their feathered legs, right the way down to the claws on their toes. 

Up close to the House Martin

As with the Swifts one might ask the question, why go to this much trouble to try and catch House Martins? Well sadly, like the Swifts, House Martins are Amber listed on the Birds of Conservation Concern and has undergone a moderate decline in numbers. 

House Martins are a summer breeder, spending the winter south of the Sahara in Africa. They arrive from April, and although many do not start breeding immediately very soon they begin to build their little mud nests, often repairing old nests.  It is a delight to see small groups of chattering House Martins at muddy pools of water during the early summer, collecting their beakfuls of mud before swooping up to careful place them to form a the muddy shell which is then lined with soft feathers. One of problems is the lack of nesting spaces with modern buildings and the removal of nests from houses. It is illegal to remove House Martin nests during the breeding season, although many are still unfortunately destroyed because of the issue of the bird’s droppings. 

House Martin chicks peeking from the nest

Such is the concern with the decline in House Martins nesting in the UK, especially in England, the British Trust for Ornithology is running a National Survey of House Martins to try and establish reliable population estimates, investigate how the population is distributed and look at the position of nests, timing and number of broods. If you would like to find out more about the survey, and maybe even make a donation to help fund the research then please check out the BTO website

For us we now have the exciting opportunity of a breeding colony of House Martins that we can monitor on a regular basis. 

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