"Summer Solway Estuary and Gulls flying" - a pastel sketch from my studio window.
Campfield Marsh Reserve, here on the Solway, is a really nice place to visit at the end of Summer, especially its estuary element. As you may know, inland reserves can be a little quiet at this time of the year - when those Spring migrants with their beautiful songs have now fallen silent and are not so readily visible.
Fortunately, we do have at least two miles of estuary frontage and salt marsh to delight the eye of the late summer visitor. There is a good access road the full length and really nice parking places along the way where splendid flocks of waders can be easily viewed from the comfort of your car even, especially around the time of the high tide . . . who knows what occasional rarity may present itself for your delight!
Just at present - to give you some idea - we have thousands of Oystercatchers (such jolly little fellows) and stacks of Curlew. Then, we have those beautiful Grey Plover (very spectacular) and not to mention their quieter cousins: the Golden Plover . . . and Dunlin and Knot which are all starting to gather for the Autumn. Also, from time to time, we may see those busy little fellows, the Ringed Plover. Both Black and Bar-tailed Godwits can be seen but unfortunately their red summer plumage is fading slightly. Plenty of wildfowl, particularly Mallard and Teal, are all to be viewed.
For the best watching we do recommend to bring a good pair of binoculars or telescope. There are excellent facilities in the nearby village of Bowness-on-Solway: a good pub in the middle of the village which, I am reliably informed provides very good food - a local speciality at present being wild caught salmon amongst other delectable items . . . Yum! Yum! Also there is new tearoom connected to Wallsend Guest House which again, I am reliably informed, is excellent. Other public facilities are to be had in the village hall (in the middle of the village), in the Hadrian’s Wall walking season. As we do not yet have these offices here at Campfield, might we suggest that you make your plans accordingly.
All in all, the Solway, Campfield Marsh and the village of Bowness-on Solway can afford you a very pleasant day out. The weather, I’m afraid, we cannot guarantee - so remember to bring some warm clothing and waterproofs, should you be so minded to leave the comfort of your vehicle and brave the elements. I also might add - bring your sun cream, as the Solway is also very well known for its sunshine days too: blue skies and miles of open estuary, where the unwary can be quickly burned by the sun. They don’t call it ’Costa del Solway’ for nothing! Just check out the locals, they can be discerned by their deep copper tan . . . mmm! Great!
Bowness-on-Solway is not a conventially pretty village but characterful - based on the line of Hadrian's wall where it has developed over the last 2 millenia - dreaming through the centuries as a farming and fishing village.
RECENT SIGHTINGS - on the estuary.
Wader roost viewed in the distance from entrance to the Lonning - 1st August 2012
Corvid flock - 3rd August
Little Egrets with Gulls,seen from Maryland layby - 16th August.
Dunlin and Ringed Plover at Bowness railings - 16th August
Dunlin detail - 16th August
Little Egret (with leg rings) at Scargavel Point - 20th August ( they are still here on the estuary as we write)
Seen flying along the saltmarsh - 20th August.
Little Egret on saltmarsh with Oystercatchers who were waiting for the high tide to receed - 20th August
Curlew flying in - 21st August.
Oystercatchers and Gulls landing on saltmarsh - 21st August
Oystercatchers, Gulls and Blacktailed Godwit resting at the top of the tide - 23rd August
Waders on the mudflats as the tide comes in -
The spectacle of large flock of Oystercatchers with Knot, landing on the saltmarsh- 23 rd August
. . . and they kept coming.
A couple of Blacktailed Godwits on the shoreline - 28th August
Cormorants on tideline - 29th August
Great Black-backed Gulls wrestling with a flounder.
RECENT SIGHTINGS - on the wetlands.
Female Marsh Harrier flew in over the hide and gave us a quick check out - 19th August 2012
Hunting over the rushes on the wet meadow, viewed from the hide.
The Marsh Harrier was hoping to benefit from anything the cattle disturbed. It has been appearing on the Reserve now, on a regular basis, over the last couple of weeks.
RECENT SIGHTINGS - North Plain Lonning.
Female Black Darter - 8th August
Male Black Darter on the track - 19th August
Female Southern Hawker on trackside vegetation - 8th August.
Male Southern Hawker - 17th August.
Male Common Darter on track - 20th August.
Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly - 10th August
Male Wall Brown on dry vegetation - 19th August.
Wall Brown showing beautifully patterned underside of wing - 21st August.
Swallows flying over old grain silo - 19th August.
Swallows flying round old grain silo - 19th August.
Male Roe Deer heading down the Lonning.
We knew that there had been regular Marsh Harrier sightings over the wetlands in front of the hide, during the past week or so - so we thought we would like some! It’s a sport that can involve many hours of patient and fruitless watching but that can sometimes present the persistent birder with massive rewards - and so it was to be this early afternoon!
We had been slightly delayed coming along the Lonning by dragon and damselflies: Judith being unable to resist the temptation of so many creatures, was excitedly darting about from pool to pool; hedgerow to hedgerow; tracking down these elusive beauties - great fun for camera people but exasperating to watch! So I pressed on determinedly towards the hide which, on entering, was like a furnace inside. I threw open the door and all the windows (quietly of course, my bush craft is impeccable!) I knew that should the Harrier appear one would need instant freedom of action and as much all round viewing capacity as possible - which involved rearranging the seating a little. I then sat down with the bins to scan our area of action. ‘Be prepared’ was the Motto! … Baden Powell would have been proud.
Just then Judith appeared. “ Good Lord! What have you been doing?” “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail,” I rejoined quickly with that well-known North Country saying … the clichés flowed like water! I must have been in that kind of mood: primitive hunting instincts of man coming to the surface. The Goddess of the Chase -Diana, I believe, must have looked kindly on us as hardly had Judith sat down when she shouted, “What’s the huge bird that has just floated in over the hide?” Now I’m good in a crisis - I controlled my shaking hand, focussing up the bins with icy calm, hit straight onto the bird. It was an adult female Marsh Harrier and we were about to get the treat of a lifetime. “Hit the button, Judith.”
The bird proceeded to give us a fantastic display of hunting power: gliding only feet above the reeds and rushes; stopping suddenly and pirouetting into a dive, all in one motion; occasionally alighting and if the hunt was unsuccessful, rising immediately to recommence its quest. Its mastery of low-level flight was incredible - hardly a wing movement, just this rapid glide, covering ground at an amazing rate. Sometimes during all this small parties of duck, that we had been unaware of, were flushed from the thick covering of reeds and rushes and scattered in blind panic - spray flying. But our huntress wasted no time on this sort of quarry - too much trouble and too much energy spent … proving this by dropping out of sight into a particularly dense mass of reeds and staying down. What toothsome morsel this might be, one could only speculate but she stayed down for some five minutes before erupting and continuing the hunt. This bird was hungry! Then after a few more minutes dropping into a phragmites bed - this time the delay was even longer. This process continued in front of us for the next quarter of an hour or so, but who cares - time seems to stand still when observing such a spectacle!
Mercifully the camera batteries held up but the strain on Judith must have been considerable, as she moved with the grace of a hunting panther from window to window and I with my bins trained on this spectacle conducting a sort of inane commentary in the hope that this would assist her to keep track. Thank goodness the hide was empty as any possible witness would have doubted our sanity - indeed, I was beginning to doubt my own! “Heavens,” I said, “It’s only a bird. No one got hurt!” But I defy even the most reckless Everest mountaineers or intrepid hang-gliders to have had a better adrenalin rush than this! This was ancient hunting instinct coupled with 21st century technology, working in perfect unison. What more could a birder wish for! Our feet floated on air as we sped home.
Perhaps the kind viewer might indulge us in the showing of a few too many photos.
The Marsh Harrier floated in silently over the hide.
. . . and headed straight over the causeway towards the wood.
She knew her way about as she flew along the rushes in front of the wood.
Down almost at ground level she hunted quickly over this open area.
Thoughts have turned to the beds of phragmites on the Reserve's western boundary.
Perhaps the cattle grazing in this area were disturbing prey.
Turning back to scan the area again.
She obviously has seen something.
Bingo! A quick wheel and a dive - and down we go.
It was a few minutes or so before she resumed her hunting, back to the same old place. It was obviously a productive spot.
Spotted something else?
Wow - some dive that!
This time it was seven or so minutes before she erupted from the reeds and carried on as before.
Hunting this area must be getting quite profitable.
No, not again!
Yes, another success!
. . . and so it carried on. After another interval of time the hunt resumed.
. . . with the same amount of intensity.
This must be an excellent habitat for small mammals, birds and insects.
Back now to quartering the rushes near the corner of the wood.
Turning back across the rushes from whence she came. A small morsel might have been missed!
There are areas of open water here although not visible from the hide.
Sure enough a party of Mallard were flushed out by the advancing hunter.
. . . but were too much bother to chase when easier prey was at hand.
Let's see what delights the rushy meadows hold!
Down we go again.
A quick pounce - there must be something good down there!
Again after a short interval, the hunt continues.
Hunger must have been satisfed as she heads away from the Reserve wetlands
. . . and off east into the distance.
All this was observed from the hide in the space of about 20 minutes.
We had been to town in the morning - not my idea of a fun day out! But during the drive back along the Solway marshes towards Campfield, our spirits started to lift. The weather was wonderful: sun beating down from a Summer Constable sky - you know the one with the little fluffy clouds; the marshes looked superb - sea asters in bloom; salt marshes bright green with cattle and sheep dotted about randomly over the whole landscape; the blue estuary and wader flocks indulging in aerial displays. Judith said,”the tide’s full now, let’s stop at the ‘stones’ (a point where the road runs right next to the estuary, with a sort of sea wall under it - where Hadrian had chosen to build his wall - wise man! … and here on the shingle below one can expect at high tide, to see a good collection of waders at almost anytime of the year - within only a few yards. Here, the waders generally seem to pay no attention to vehicles going up and down and, these days, with the advent of the Hadrian’s long distant walk ending up here, parties of merrily chattering walkers yomping and clattering along, seems to have no effect on the birds either.)
Today, we were really in luck. There was a party of in excess of 100 Ringed Plover and Dunlin resting on the stones, waiting for the tide to recede. I parked the vehicle as near to the edge as I dare, opened the driver window and vacated the seat to allow Judith with her long lens to start clicking happily away at the massed waders below her, whilst I cheerfully consumed the remainder of my chicken and salad sandwich packed lunch - birding at its best! Salad cream anyone?
By now, Judith, as high as a kite, said, “Let’s go along to the Saltmarsh Pool - there are probably loads of birds there too, on the high tide roost.” And so it proved to be: gulls wheeling; Oystercatchers in their many hundreds, now out on the sands as the tide was falling quickly; Dunlin, Lapwing, Curlew and Golden Plover scuttling about, taking advantage of the newly delivered feast that the tide brings each day.
As we came up to the RSPB layby, we saw some of the Campfield work party there already, on their lunch break, gazing intently out over the scrape. Oh Heaven! What more can the day bring? A pair of Little Egret, newly arrived, were avidly feeding up and down the pool within yards of the viewpoint. Again, Judith got cracking with the camera. By now, she must have taken several hundred digi pics and the camera was showing signs of exhaustion - digi cameras do need to rest now and then! We were then able to engage in conversation with the work party folk who informed us that the morning’s task had been the pulling of ragwort and the ‘dabbing’ of rushes. For those of you who have not partaken of this particular activity, I can tell you that it is hard, backbreaking and boring - but necessary work. We compliment them on their dedication and persistence. A large group of them have been coming here every Thursday morning for now, to my knowledge, nearly a couple of decades - winter and summer alike. These people are what I call ‘conservationists’ - their dedication in assisting the staff here has made all things possible and helped to build and maintain the infrastructure of the Reserve to what it is today!
In conversation they drew attention to the fact that Marsh Harriers had been seen regularly on the Reserve over the last few days - a female and two immatures.
Our cup runneth over! A Solway day to remember.
Waders landing on the stones - Bowness railings.
Dunlin and Ringed Plover dropping in.
They soon settle down to rest and wait for the tide to go out.
Dunlin with a few specks of rain.
Feeding soon resumes as tide recedes.
Ringed Plover and a Dunlin preening and bathing.
Massed Oystercatchers on the tideline as the tide recedes - near Maryland farm.
Oystercatchers at the turn of the tide.
Saltmarsh Pool and marsh beyond.
Little Egret and Gulls.
Two Little Egret hunting together.
Fishing the edge of the pool.
This one had a yellowish ring on both legs - just too far away to read though.
For some time now we had been able to detect a slight air of despondency, amongst the Staff on the Reserve, mixed with hope and anticipation - brought about by this monsoon-like summer that I’m sure most of us in the British Isles will have experienced.
Our situation here on the Reserve is as bad as for farming generally in the country - heightened by the requirement, not only to farm in a viable manner but to also farm for birds. These two requirements, I’m sure you will realise, do not always interlock easily! One can read ‘rainforests’ of literature on this subject written, I suspect, in the cloistered calm of university studies by unblistered fingers. But the grizzled veterans of the Solway marshes and wetlands are in the position of having to make these high aspirations reality! Stephen, our estate worker, had been optimistically transforming the old cow barns from dismal dank uninhabitable places into clean, sweet-smelling open areas of floor and light - using tractor and sheer physical hard labour, over a period of some ten days of wet weather, it was ready to receive the wonderful rounded bales of hay which would then be stored as winter fodder for the flock of sheep from the Haweswater Reserve who were coming for winter lowland grazing - good economics indeed!
… but the ‘hay’ hung wet, dank and matted in all the meadows of the wetland and here we were at the beginning of August. You, good readers, will have realised that hay is a July crop taken in by maidens and youths, weaving flowers and garlands into their hair. Thomas Hardy had obviously very little experience of taking a Solway hay crop in. Even the most hardy of local contractors, burnt black by the Solway wind and sun, who arrived one day, had to admit that they had to resort to fencing one of the meadows, as even their huge machines were unable to gather the hay ... caterpillar-tracked vehicles and marshland tractors, whose wheels stand higher than a man, were in danger of sinking out of sight!
Judith and I, in our newshound mode, approaching these hardy beings, timorously asked if we could take some photographs as they were very photographable. One of then straightened up from his task with a wry grin and said, “Nay, we have been called many things in our time but never photographable!” We assured them that they would look extremely good on the internet … and so it proved: they were born filmstars - acting out the part without prompting.
Scene changes (move on a few days). The morning was fine; the sun burning through the mist and the butterflies were out. We had had two or three days of sunshine and breeze. At breakfast, I said, “ this is the day!” My seasoned old eyes knew a good haymaking day when they saw one. I’ve wielded many a good pitchfork and hayrake in my youth! And so it proved to be - a convoy of vast machines came thundering by on the road to the farm. “This is it! Come on Judith - get the camera and off to the farm.” By now, these machines were weaving a marshland ballet: crisscrossing each other’s paths; cutting an acre here; two acres there; spray and steam rising from hot machinery - taking hay from where they could; spinning and turning in the hot sunshine; gulls wheeling in the thermals above, anticipating the rich feast of insects rising from the newly cut meadow. No ballet-master could have choreographed such a scene: man and machinery working in perfect conjunction. This was, indeed, extreme haymaking!
Two days later, with the sun miraculously still beating down, the turning and baling machines came - producing these wondrous rolls of gleaming hay, neatly wrapped in a nylon membrane, having dispersed them in the landscape in a composition that even Constable could not have equalled (the photographs, I’m sure, illustrate the scene well.) We now await their transfer to Stephen’s newly prepared barn where they will lie for the winter as excellent fodder - sweet smelling and redolent of Summer.
As I passed down the Lonning the next day, Norman, Dave and Stephen were having a confab in the yard. “Hi men!” I said, “How yer doin?”. I could tell from their cheery smiles and laughing faces that the cloud had lifted. This crop was money in the bank, so to speak - farming and conservation neatly interlocked!
The work had already begun on breaking up the infrastructure of the old cow barn.
Evidence here of hard manual work. Tractors alone cannot do it all.
Work was already running on a pace bringing infill in to the old gulleys.
Now you can begin to see things taking shape.
It must be admitted - it looks a very different place and is now ready to receive the hay bales. Sorting this lot out required real vision!
The Meadow was too wet to cut so it was decided to proceed with fencing the whole field - a major task in itself.
An access track was created round the entire field to facilitate fencing.
Posts placed roughly in position by the old broken willow and pond.
Heavy machinery bringing in posts and wire.
Contractor working on straining post.
First class craftsmen and top notch materials. This fence will be standing for another 30 years time - no trouble!
Nothing is going to get through this fence, barbed wire and sheep netting combination.
Look at that for a job well done! It looks easy when these men do it - but don’t try this at home, folks.
The access track and entrance now levelled ready for the haycutters to enter - when conditions permit.
Cutter entering the Lonning to gain access to the various meadows.
Work proceeds afoot.
A massive job requires massive machinery - spray and steam flying.
The ballet of the tractors begins.
Crossing and crisscrossing - a marvellous choreography of men and machinery.
The trick is to avoid collision and the rushes where underlies a deep pool. - speed and momentum must be maintained to avoid bogging down.
Spinning the hay.
The raking up of the hay.
Dry weather mercifully stayed with us. It is going to be a good hay crop after all!
Rowing up the hay ready for baling.
Sadly we missed the baling machine - a fascinating process that wrapped each bale in a plastic membrane.
Clouds gather but the bales are safe as they will continue to dry owing to the breathable membrane wrap.
Evening closes down on the Meadow Pool.
Waiting to be safely gathered in.
Watch this space for ‘stacking the barn’ - sounds like an old North Country folk song.