Wednesday, 28 November 2012

A Sterling Weekend of Starlings and Such

Upheaval from southern roots is a bewildering thing. Acclimatisation to new cultures and surroundings can certainly take its time as The Gambia proved before. Just 250 miles of quintessentially British scenery separate my home county of Suffolk and Cumbria nevertheless the differences are numerous. It has only taken a couple of years, nevertheless Cumbria finally feels like home; but not Cumbria as the outside world knows it.

Post-Lake-District-hype has developed into a love of the less tourist-ridden areas. Away from the plethora of people eager to stand amongst the gods, high above the clouds, there is more; the world containing places such as Dalston, Drumburgh, Silloth among other quirky little places to visit. When Mum came to visit, a year’s worth of experience of Carlisle and surrounding areas proved handy as the mantle of tour guide was draped firmly around me. The relief of having explored a little avoided a “blind leading the blind” situation.

After a lengthy journey from Wiltshire herself, Mum was about ready to stretch her legs. A late afternoon stroll to Dalston proved the perfect remedy to restless legs. Keeping an eye out for waxwings (which have somehow eluded me this year) I lead her on a wildlife tour of the river. Just two weeks previous to this the bushes along this route had provided one of those breathtaking nature moments. This particular moment involved the flyby of a Barn Owl being mobbed by 3 crows, around 5 meters away at head height. Hoping for another encounter in a similar vein of fortune, we marched forward in circumstances not overly different from that of my previous encounter.

Spotting birds in twilight shrouded trees proved tricky. It took at least 3 minutes to spot a Linnet chirping and when it was finally unveiled, embarrassingly enough for me, it was Mum who’s eagle eye had caught a glimpse of it. Redemption followed swiftly as I spotted a kingfisher and the resident dippers of the River Caldew. Despite scouring the tree lines and low grasslands there was no sign of a Barn Owl; it seemed that my foolish promise to find one was exactly that. Foolish.

I had hoped to find the Otters along the Caldew as I had been trying in vain to locate them for a few weeks. This was not to be the lucky trip as we arrived in Dalston both Otter-less and Barn Owl-less. A quick turnaround was in order as light was fading and someone, being rather sensible, is not a fan of being out in the dark. Halfway home, between looking at flittering clouds of seagulls drifting effortlessly on thermals and trying to seem like a semi knowledgeable tour de force, embarrassment struck again. Mum spotted a Barn Owl silent, with ominous purpose; it was gliding head-on around 20 meters in front. Abruptly the autumnal temperatures flooded through my veins and with the tingle of excitement we halted, frozen in our tracks. The Owl stayed true for a few meters more before darting off towards bountiful grasslands across the river. Whatever happened now, day 1 had been a success.

The stunning route of the Stumpy documentary, winding around the hidden nooks and crannies of the Cumbrian Solway coast was the plan readied for undertaking on day 2. One by one, place-by-place the locations were introduced: Sandsfield and Burgh-by-Sands before a brief intermission at Drumburgh. A chase after what I thought may be a small flock of waxwings proved detrimental for my new shoes as they absorbed half the mud on the Solway, leaving me a little soggy-footed. The likes of Port Carlisle and Bowness-on-Solway filled a void in the imagination my Mum had had to conjure of my journeys. Keeping an eye out for the Great White Egret that seems to have made RSPB Campfield its home we trundled by the entrance to the reserve. A rendezvous with the gangly scarcity and its snow-white plumage was about half a mile ahead. It sprung into its cumbersome early flight from a pool to the west of the Campfield entrance.

Intentions from here had been to investigate a Red Breasted goose near Cardurnock, however it was not to be our day. The goose had chosen to feed amongst Barnacle geese far from the nearest viewing point. During the few minutes we spent at this location there was a bittersweet mix of ups and downs, offered in dribs and drabs. Firstly the let down of the Red Breasted goose followed instantaneously by a few negative attitudes by some of the twitchers towards a younger stranger among their ranks. Although normally this would not bother me, I had encountered this kind of attitude towards someone my age (and infinitely more knowledgeable than me) in Norfolk. I lifted my binoculars tentatively towards my face and scanned. Waves of murmurs spread across the twitchers to my right; they had spotted it too. A ringtail harrier was swooping from left to right across the marsh with a smaller indistinguishable bird nearby. People with the stronger scopes reliably informed me that it was in fact a Merlin. Everything had completely turned on its head. Unbelievable! Although a stunning bird the Red Breasted Goose will never quite match up to the prowess of the Hen Harrier, magnificent.
The journey continued with Abbeytown, Skinburness and then on to Silloth for fish and chips. It was the perfect way to celebrate a near perfect sweep of many of Cumbria’s greatest wildlife locations. With fortune being on the whole favouring the planned trips it was time to take a risk on something spontaneous. A last minute gamble on a decision to cross the border to Scotland and hope for a Starling murmuration was set in motion. Devoid of any life, the skies of Gretna were a bitter disappointment so we settled for a warm beverage and further catch up before returning to the car. As spontaneous as the decision we had made to go to Gretna, the skies blackened with small flocks of starlings. From the east, the southeast, the northeast and a few from the west like some sort of supernatural magnetism they assembled. The fluidity of the cloud twisting and swirling hypnotizing any observer as is intended. Whichever predator causes the commotion is the intended target for confusion after all. The murmuration is a magical experience; an experience that just a few decades ago was commonplace across much of Britain. With Starling murmurations now a commodity this spectacle is fast becoming one of greatest yet rarest wildlife experiences in the natural world. There was no better way to end what was a fantastic weekend of sharing what I had previously learnt and explored with Mum.

As the cloud, an almost viscous grease-like smear across a dusty canvas of cloud, filed systematically into their roost the guilty party flew over our heads. It was the kestrel that had caused all of the trouble. We were genuinely breathless.

Since these trips I have managed to locate the Otters on the Caldew and hope to undertake a little Otter work for my dissertation. Fingers crossed they will be the subject of my next post.

Hope you enjoy(ed) the video!

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