Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – A blue sky, fluffy white clouds and bright sunshine but the fingers are still nipped by the cold. All the puddles are frozen but the lake is open water. I am too eager as I approach the bank by the boathouse. A large flock of Wigeon, Mallard and a beautiful drake Goldeneye take to the air in a flurry of wings, splashing feet and loud alarm calls. A Green Woodpecker is on the telegraph pole in the meadow. Wigeon and Teal dabble around the edge of the scrape as noisy Canada Geese approach. A Carrion Crow drinks from the lake then starts investigating what looks like a stone. Tufted Duck congregate near the island but there appear to be no Cormorants here at all.
Leominster – A flock of over twenty Goldfinches is twittering noisily in the Ash tree in the garden. They fly off to next door’s garden and continue their chorus. Blue Tits hop through the trees and bushes. Any part of the garden that has been in the shade all day is still frozen. Despite the cold, the chickens are still laying well.
Friday – Mortimer Forest – From near the Forest Office at the Whitcliffe Car Park on Killhorse Lane, a path descends through the woods of Lower Whitcliffe towards the Teme flood plain. It is sunny out in the fields but bitterly cold here in the conifer woods. Cones and small fronds of the spruces litter underfoot. The path is frozen solid. Patches of deep, churned mud are ankle-twisting peaks and troughs of stone-hardness. A Great Tit calls its two-note song. A Carrion Crow caws out in the fields. A large, recently fallen branch blocks the path. The path now turns up the hillside and joins the main track. A large area of cleared hillside is surrounded by a plastic mesh fence, presumably to keep deer out. There is plenty of evidence of deer in the numerous hoof prints in the track. Ice forms layers in the ruts, often beautifully patterned with curving lines and holes. Pieces of stone by the path often are full of fossil shells, mostly fragments. Views can be had across sunlit fields of frost to Downton Castle. The track passes the two viaducts, Wheelers Vallet Dingle Crossing and Deepwood Dingle Crossing, carrying the Elan water pipe to Birmingham, then arrives at the pumping station. A steep slope goes down the road. It is irresistible to kick Maddy’s ball from the top where it gathers speed and nearly reaches the bottom of the valley. I call her back up and repeat the exercise but she is not falling for it a third time and lays down to await my descent. At the foot of the slope is an old concrete construct, marked on the 1904 map as a Washout Chamber, which I assume is a chamber giving controlled access to the water flow. Middlewood Road leads back beneath Deep Wood (now two words on the map) and Wheeler’s Vallet. A pair of Ravens fly over cronking. Lambs and calling in the fields. A Raven dances on the air, spiralling and pirouetting above the trees. It then spots a Common Buzzard in a tree and decides to hassle it. The two birds harry one another but it seems neither really has their heart in the matter and they fly off in different directions. There is a substantial wire mesh fence all around the garden of Brick House, maybe the owners got tired of deer helping themselves to their plants! A covey of Red-legged Partridge flies up from the other side of the hedgerow, followed by a noisy male Pheasant. Nuthatches are calling from the trees. Eventually I reach the steps which leads to the path back up through Lower Whitcliffe to Killhorse Lane.
Saturday – Leominster – It seems slightly less cold than yesterday, but the thermometer still shows -3°C. The ground is frozen hard which makes Maddy’s glowing ball bounce high into the air on each throw. It also makes it harder for her to catch as it shoots off at all angles as it hits a frozen lump of mud. I try to dig some leeks for soup but it is a tricky task. The frozen ground is not going to give up the stems easily. When the fork goes into the ground after the application of some considerable force, the leek comes out with a large lump of iced compost attached. Any attempt to remove it simply results in a broken leek, so I bring the whole indoors to thaw. The chickens’ water needs to be changed first thing every morning as it is a block of ice. I also pour a kettle of boiling water into the bird baths so that there is some water for avian visitors to drink, but I suspect it will not remain liquid for long. It has started to snow. The snow falls lightly throughout the afternoon and is now beginning to build up. It has stopped now darkness falls but the falling temperature means it is unlikely to go away overnight.
Sunday – Leominster – A thaw did start last night as light rain fell, but ceased as the temperature fell. Walking across the car park this morning is a noisy affair as ice crunches loudly underfoot. Most mornings now there are Robins and Song Thrushes singing around the Grange and Minster but this morning there is silence. From the Millennium Park, Tawny Owls can be heard in the far distance, probably on Eaton Hill. Round further a Song Thrush is singing beyond the Kenwater and a Robin sings fitfully in The Priory, the street leading down to the Kenwater bridge. Other parts of the country have been more affected by the snow. There are no newspapers, apparently the lorries carrying them have been held up and rerouted from the M25 which is closed by an accident in the northern section.
Monday – Croft – It took some determination to head out to the woods and fields today. It still cold, although above zero so thawing continues apace. Everywhere will be reverting to mud. It is raining intermittently. However, the cycling song of a Great Tit, cheep of Blue Tits, burbles of Nuthatches, caws of Rooks, chacks of Jackdaws, mews of Common Buzzard and rasps of Mistle Thrushes soon cheers the soul. Some pools in Fish Pool Valley are iced over, some clear of ice and yet another is partly frozen. Blackbirds pink their alarms. A pair of Mallard swim on a partially frozen pool. There is far more snow and ice than I anticipated, and subsequently far less mud! The snow is covered in human, dog and deer prints. Wet green mosses coating Elder branches glow like emeralds. Across Croft Ambrey and down the Spanish Chestnut field. Large branches continue to fall from the ancient and dying chestnuts. However, the saplings in their wooden protector frames are growing well. Across the Arrow and Lugg valley there is a gentle mist in the blue-grey landscape. Chaffinches call on the edge of the wood above Park House. New gates have been installed on the track down to the castle for which I am grateful, stiles can get to be hard work these days. Park House can now be seen so much more clearly now trees and shrubs have been cleared, although this has left a rather unsightly gas tank on view. A small flock of Redwings and several Blackbirds rise from the field. The Redwings are the first winter thrushes I have seen for a while; I know not whether the majority had started to move northwards again because of the previously mild weather or they had headed on south having stripped most of the berries from the trees.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – A bitterly cold morning. The car park is an ice-rink. Despite the frozen ground there are some fresh molehills on the meadow. A Common Buzzard mews as it rises from the woods. There cannot be much air movement as the buzzard has to keep flapping its wings with only a few glides. The lake is frozen over, just a patch open in front of the hide. Wigeon, Mallard, Tufted Duck, feral white geese, Mute Swans, Goldeneye, Coot, Teal, Canada Geese and a single Cormorant crowd into the open water. The Cormorant decides it is not the place to fish with all this disturbance and takes off for the trees to join a couple of others. The Canada Geese are argumentative and, of course, noisy. A woodpecker drums in the distance.
Thursday – Home – Still cold, although not as cold as yesterday. Plans for the day ruined by a dead battery in the car. Had to get rescued by the local garage who have ordered a new battery. Being a Honda, it will not be cheap! Took delivery of some High Energy bird seed from Vine Farm at the start of the week. It is proving very popular. Wood Pigeons, a Collared Dove, Robin and Dunnock are feeding around the base of the massive stump on which the seed has been spread. A Blackbird has taken charge of the main pile of seed but is failing to keep off House Sparrows, Greenfinches, Blue and Great Tits and a male Blackcap. Paul Evans was pondering in the Guardian the other day as to whether the over-wintering Blackcaps are the first generation who have never migrated to southern Europe and Africa in the winter. It is pleasing to see the House Sparrows as their numbers have plummeted over the last decade. A few minutes later it is a female Blackbird, several Chaffinches and, unfortunately a Grey Squirrel. However a second squirrel arrives and they prefer to start chasing one another rather than gobbling down the seed.
Tuesday – Bodenham Lake – Peter and I head down the track to the lake with the dogs. Zebedee the Springer Spaniel is in and out of the bushes and undergrowth, nose in everything. Maddy just trots along with her ball, dropping it in front of us now and again for another kick. It is much milder now and dry today, however there is still ice around, both on the lake and in the puddles. A pair of Tufted Duck eye us warily. We head round to the hide. A large flock of Canada Geese are on the scrape making a loud racket. Wigeon drift away. Pairs of Teal feed on the edge of the scrape. A Cormorant with a considerable amount of white on its head and a paler, greener back sits in the trees. This bird has the characteristics of the Central European species, Phalacrocorax carbo sinensis, compared with a nearby one which seems to be pure Phalacrocorax carbo carbo, but some authorities seem to be indicating there is much overlap these days. We head back to the meadow. A Robin sings sweetly. We then cross the orchards and go around to the River Lugg which is flowing swiftly.
Friday – Long Mynd – It is greyer here in Cardingmill Valley than at home and there is a cool wind. The brook babbles brightly down the valley. Sheep graze beside the road and on up the steep valley sides. There are numerous Chaffinches pinking often from the middle of Gorse thickets. The track crosses the brook several times as it rises into the ever narrowing valley. The valley sides are dotted with stubby Hawthorns on the southern side, Cow Ridge and Gorse to the north, Haddon Hill. Outcrops of rock erupt on the valley sides, coloured pale green by lichens. A Great Tit and Greenfinch sing from the Hawthorns. A Raven croaks as it flies along the hillside. A rabbit scurries into the Gorse. A Dunnock sings. More Ravens drift over the hilltops. They hardly move their wings, floating on the wind, gliding forwards, hovering and slipping sideways effortlessly. The track divides. I take the Jack Mytton Trail or Mott’s Road. It climbs steadily beside Calf Ridge, emerging on top of Long Mynd cloaked in mist. The wind is cold and blustery. Take a northwards path. Views briefly appear as the mist lofts momentarily then vanish again in whiteness. A Red Grouse rises and whirrs away, calling Be quick, Go back, Go back, Go back. A Skylark is singing in the gloom. A pair of waders dash across tops, too distant to identify. I miss my path, there should be a noticeable crossroads of two paths but I do not find such. There are pools indicating the springs marked on the map. I follow another path, Long Batch, for a while but it starts heading northwards and I want the south. The Wrekin stands high out on the Shropshire plain. I cross the moor for a while than pick up a narrow track that is heading down and across a deep clough. Across a small stream and up the other side. The path reaches the top of the hillside, the back of Haddon Hill, near to a golf course – a weird way to despoil some of an area of outstanding natural beauty... Ahead is Caer Caradoc, to the south east Bodbury Hill with its Iron Age hill-fort ramparts clearly displayed. A path leads on out onto a narrow ridge called The Pike. A large party with dogs is ascending. I tell Maddy to ignore the dogs and walk on, but she decides that one is being too friendly and has a bit of a go, unfortunately dropping her ball which bounces off down the steep slope and into the Gorse. It is lost but it takes some calling to persuade Maddy she is not going to find it. She rejoins me with a grumbling bark and we descend into Cardingmill Valley.
Saturday – Home – After a windy start, the day turns wet then as the rain moves away the temperature falls suddenly. It is warm enough in the greenhouse to sow some more seeds in pots. In go broad beans, Witkiem and Aquadulce, as many of the autumn sown plants are looking the worse for wear after the recent cold snap. A couple of types of lettuce and some red and green cabbage are also started. A few pots of aubergines seeds are put into the bathroom where the chillies and tomatoes are doing fairly well. In the early evening I persuade Kay to leave the warmth of the lounge and come out into the dark. There is a wonderful display of stars tonight. But our objective rises a few minutes later – the International Space Station. It rises in the western sky and climbs past a brilliant Venus and then past a slightly less bright Jupiter and up into the sky. It suddenly fades and disappears as it passes into Earth shadow. Currently the crew consists of Commander Dan Burbank and Flight Engineers Anton Shkaplerov, Anatoly Ivanishin, Don Pettit, Oleg Kononenko and Andre Kuipers, names sadly unknown to the vast majority of the world’s population despite the extraordinary fact that they are up there circling the Earth, something unimaginable just a couple of generations ago.
Monday – Croft Ambrey – A grey sky over a cold and muddy wood. But the chorus of bird song promises the end of winter. Of course, the weather can still bring surprises but it is now unlikely we will have a prolonged cold spell. Is this tempting fate? The ground is littered with fallen branches and twigs as winter frosts and winds thin out the weak. Some leaves are emerging. Occasionally a Hawthorn has buds that are just on the point of opening. Other leaves are on a climber, probably Honeysuckle although it is not easy to tell from a distance. Up on the top of Leinthall Common the old Hornbeam by the gate has even more rot in its trunk. Another beside it fell some years back. Up onto Croft Ambrey. The Ash that has a branch forming a gently rocking seat I regularly sit upon, is a fascinating tree. A main trunk still rises skywards but another has torn away but remains attached. This happened some time ago as the edges of the tear have healed with new bark. However, the interior of the break is rotting which will, in years to come, destroy the integrity of the whole tree. The broken branch, large enough to be a bifurcated main trunk itself, crashed into another Ash. Various branches reach the ground. Another Ash, just a young one maybe 15 years old, has struggled its way through the maze of branches and is aiming up. On the far side of the Spanish Chestnut field a tractor and trailer is followed by a herd of cows. As it proceeds up the field the trailer is raised on its hydraulic ram and a large pile of strongly smelling silage slips down to the ground. The fork on the front of the tractor is then used to break up the pile of silage and spread it for the munching cattle.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – Bird song greets me as soon as I arrive. Great and Blue Tits, Blackbirds and Robins but all are dominated by a Song Thrush that is in full voice. Towards the lake everything is drowned out by baying Canada Geese. Males follow females, arching their necks towards them and calling incessantly. Fights break out in a flurry of wings and water. A Moorhen creeps back into the reed bed. A pair of Mute Swans glide serenely seemingly unimpressed by the cackling geese. A lone drake Goldeneye dives in the middle of the western bay. A few Cormorants sit on the pontoon and the white individual is on his favourite branch high in the trees on the island. There are few other waterfowl around, a couple of Mallard, some Wigeon, four Tufted Duck and Coot. Carrion Crows strut around the scrape investigating everything by poking at it with their bills. A cock Pheasant stands in the willows on the far side, seemingly watching the antics of the Canada Geese on the water’s edge.
Thursday – Home – The garden is awakening from winter. Crocii (or crocuses, or even croci, whichever you fancy) gleam yellow and purple. Snowdrops are in thick bunches all over the beds. Daffodil leaves are now joined by buds. The Hellebores have been in flower for a few weeks now. The vegetable beds are mainly cleared of plants, ready for a new season. The leeks were dug earlier in the week and several bags frozen. The one bed with this year’s produce-to-be is a bit of a mixture. The garlic looks good, the broad beans are looking less so, several have been lost to frost and the onion bed has large holes where the nascent plants have just disappeared. I can replace the broad beans and do, in fact, have several pots of newly sown seed in the greenhouse, but the onions will not be replaced unless I can find a few cheap sets. A nose of a decent sized amphibian quickly disappears under water as I approach the pond – too fast to tell if it was a frog or toad. We both comment simultaneously that we hope there is another or no spawn. A pair of Robins are engaged in a mid-air battle, clawing and kicking at one another whilst fluttering upright. As I write this, Kay rushes in to report she has just seen a Brimstone butterfly, the earliest we can recall. By mid-afternoon the sun has warmed the air. We dig three holes to fill with compost then place metal pyramids over them for sweet peas later in the year. The ground is full of roots from the old pear trees and vines. Numerous bulbs are dug up, many Bluebells which will quickly be replaced, we are rather over-run with them anyway. But we do rescue the Snowdrops. There is also a very large stone buried near the vine which takes some removing. Down come the hanging baskets which should really have been removed at the beginning of winter. I tip them out into the chicken run and the girls do a fine job eating the weeds growing in them then scratching the mounds of compost and spreading it nicely.
Friday – Radnor Forest – Into Wales with the sky darkening as I head westwards. This is Radnor although these days we must call it the county of Powys. Near Pont y Nantau a track heads into the Radnor Forest, once a huge Royal Hunting Forest. Cloud sits on the hilltops and a breeze gusts. Magpies chatter in nearby trees and sheep are noisy on fields over the other side of the valley. Blue Tits chatter and Chaffinches and Dunnocks sing in the track-side bushes. A Raven yelps high in the rolling mists on the hillside. A Common Buzzard circles over the fields below the dark conifer woods. The track enters Warren Wood, named for the extensive rabbit warrens once maintained here for food. Great stacks of freshly felled logs bear witness to recent logging. The logs display about 60 rings showing the trees were planted in the early 1950s. Past an old quarry where ferns and saplings now grow. On the other side of the track the hillside falls away precipitously to the Black Brook. A Song Thrush serenades from the woods. The rock is Silurian mudstones, dark grey with few fossils, just the occasional piece of shell. The stream is joined by another, Summergil Brook. A path travels through a deep, narrow gorge, its entrance guarded by towering Redwoods, planted by the Victorians when the area was a popular tourists’ site as part of the picturesque movement. Trees and rocks are thickly endowed with mosses. Ferns occupy every crack. The ground is carpeted by Golden Saxifrage with some Wild Arum. At the end of the gorge is a spectacular waterfall - Water-Break-Its-Neck. Back to the track and then off on a path that climbs steadily through woodlands mainly consisting of Sweet Chestnut. Up past Warren House, a hill-farm. The path emerges onto a misty sheep pasture and continues upwards. A pair of Mistle Thrushes fly over. The pasture is covered in molehills like measles on a child’s face. Carrion Crows chatter in the distance. Up through more conifer plantation and out into tussocky moorland. Visibility is much reduced up here and the wind is strong. A flock of Fieldfares rise and fly off north. Out into the mist. I am not sure exactly where I am as there are no landmarks to be seen, just grey. A fenced-off area contains a pool, Pwll y Gaseg. A compass bearing indicates I am heading the right way and eventually a junction just past Lluestau’r Haul proves this to be so. It can be slightly unnerving up here. There is no-one apparently for miles. No signal on my mobile. Total isolation in our crowded island. A Skylark sings to the west somewhere. Despite the absence of trees here a Song Thrush is in full song not far away. I keep on across moorland but have come too far. Still no landmarks so I head south again. A pond appears that does not seem to be on the map. Pretty confused now! Still, south will bring me out somewhere near my destination. I then work out the pond is marked on the map as a spring. A path fords the stream and then rises across the flanks of Crinfynydd above Cwn Du. But I am on the wrong side, lured up here by the open hillside which the map shows as forested. It has been cleared sometime in the last few years, the furrows in the steep hillside still visible. The track I should be on is closer to Nyth-grug which stands at 538 metres high. However, this path drops down and a path leads back to Warren House. On leaving the car park I notice there are a dozen dead moles hanging on a fence.
Monday – Croft – The last few days have been mild and today is no exception. There has been talk of record February temperatures for some parts. However, there is still a slight coolness in the Fish Pool Valley. Great and Blue Tits call incessantly. A Chaffinch and Wood Pigeon joins them. A Common Buzzard perches on a branch of a tall sapling. Further up the valley, Song Thrushes, Robins, Wrens and Blackbirds sing and a woodpecker drums. The first Dog Mercury is almost in flower. Up the hill through Lyngham Vallet to the edge of Leinthall Common, then along the Mortimer Trail to Croft Ambrey. A raptor glides swiftly overhead and alights towards the top of a Larch. It is a long way off but I reckon it is a female Sparrowhawk. The distant hills are clear but cloud is thickening and the wind rising. Cronking Ravens pass over. Down through the woods. A hazel stands with pale green catkins shining against the dark conifer woods. An old kissing gate stands by the path at the Keeper’s Cottage junction. In summer it is hidden by brambles and bracken but now it can be seen through the dead, brown foliage. Carrion Crows caw around the fields and a Green Woodpecker yaffless from the wood near the old quarry. The field between the wood and Park House is shown on the old maps as an orchard. Sadly all the trees have been grubbed out and it is now just a rough pasture.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lakes – The day that only happens every four years, in a Leap Year. A cool, grey morning that nips the fingers. Blue, Great and Coal Tits chatter, Chaffinches sing and woodpeckers drum. Bullfinches sit in the hedge, the male’s pink breast bright, then slip away in silence, white rumps flashing. On the lake Canada Geese make their usual racket. There are few other wildfowl in evidence, a couple of Coot, a dozen Tufted Duck and some Mallard. A Common Pheasant stalks around the scrape but a pair of noisy Canada Geese see him off. A pair of Mute Swans with a fully grown cygnet glide into view. A few Cormorants are in the trees. A Green Woodpecker flies across from the island. Mistletoe is in flower. The guidebooks describe the flowers as green and inconspicuous, but they are bright yellow and make the whole plant take on a lemony glow.