Thursday, 1 May 2014

Dark Peak Plovers (a.k.a. In Praise of Bleaklow): April 2014

Having wandered through some very different climes in the last few weeks...
 ...I'd been itching to get back out onto hills/sea ever since settling back into the grey of Birmingham city life.

And whatever Eliot might have said, April is an enormously under-rated moorland month. People flock to hills in August, but as far as birds and animals are concerned there's no less interesting month. Late April, on the other hand, features more activity than almost all other times of year. This is especially true of recent years in the Dark Peak, where a National Park wader recovery project has done amazing things for the moorland. Curlew, golden plover, skylark and short-eared owl used to be remarkable sights, but their sounds now fill the air almost constantly in certain places. Hence this post won't feature any mountains, but lots of seasonal spring creatures.

I grew up on the edge of the Peak District, and the golden plover - often heard but rarely seen - was a kind of mythologised feature of my childhood. Although I've never before gone anywhere looking for specific birds or seeking particular photos, I'd felt recently that I'd really like a picture of one of these evocative creatures - especially since I hadn't seen one for a decade or more. I'd even looked up the particular groundcover - low sward of sphagnum moss and cotton grass - that would make the most promising place to find some.

About lunchtime, sat at my desk in Birmingham, I realised the day was going to be nice and the night was going to be dry. I decided to spend a night, as carefully and unobtrusively as possible, in a sleeping bag on Bleaklow. This is obviously a very sensitive time to overnight on what are essentially curlew and plover breeding grounds, so I'd choose my spot very carefully, inside a peat hag rather than on the open moorland and far from any wader alarm calls. I certainly wouldn't take a tent up at this time of year.

I parked in Old Glossop, next to the Queen's Pub (where I worked behind the bar as a teenager) - there was plenty of evidence of spring in the chiff chaffs flitting through the foliage by the banks of Glossop brook:

One reason I've not yet started hankering after a long lens (i.e. over 300mm) is that with standard-length lenses photos often feature birds and animals interacting with the photographer, as the chiff chaff above was very clearly doing (that's me reflected in its eye).
I then headed up Glossop Low, past Torside Castle and onto Bleaklow ending up, eventually, amidst the fabulous rock formations of Wain Stones, Bleaklow Stones and (most fun of all) Grinah Stones (left middleground).
I only took one or two landscape shots so for photos of what the area actually looks like, see this flickr page by the wonderful Colin Ashcroft.

This is all very familiar territory (I used to come up here during my GCSE & A level revision, trying to memorise physics formulae and details of 20thC history). The farmland on the walk up was full of the area's distinctive black-faced lambs...
...and small birds like wheatear in very, very fine fettle. The orange-streaked gritstone set the wheatear off wonderfully: never before have I thought of their plumage as camouflage:
The large area of moorland beyond the farms on Glossop Low has recently been fenced off to discourage predators (fox and badger) from damaging wader populations. That ploy has worked. The grasses on the lower slopes were full of voles and the skies noisy with skylark and curlew. Here's a curlew in flight over the hazy view back to Glossop:
The mountain hares also seem to have multiplied, bolting from almost every grough on Bleaklow and Yellow Slacks (this one's lolloping through the peat hag I eventually spent the night in):

Most of the time hares are only seen individually, fleeing your arrival, but if you hang around until they've forgotten you're there they reveal much more communal and playful habits:
And every so often one fails to notice your arrival:
It took a little longer to reach the plover: they favour very particular habitats above 400m, where heather-cover is either cut back or broken by grasses and moss. Much like snow bunting, golden plover are an oddity for us to have on British hills. Britain is far south of their usual breeding range, which stretches from Iceland via Norway to Siberia, yet moorland plateaus from the Peak District to the Isle of Harris feature small breeding populations. One of the bird's eccentricities is its habit of feigning injury to lead anyone who strays near its nest away from eggs or chicks. They do this by flashing their bright white underwing to suggest a broken limb:
This means that once you've happened across a plover you won't need to follow it: the bird will follow you, communicating with its partner through a single-note call that writers invariably describe with emotive adjectives like 'plaintive' and 'lonely'. As I broke from the main path towards Crowden, making towards Torside Castle, these cries began to punctuate the general grouse and curlew calls. Soon, a male plover flew directly in front of me and landed on a nearby patch of heather stubble.
For the next hour or so, as I walked up in the direction of Bleaklow Head, that arrival was repeated over and over again. I tried in the photos below to give some sense of the kind of habitat plovers favour:

Eventually, I found myself a nice, dryish spot for the night and settled in amidst the rock-strewn wastes of Bleaklow under a star-studded sky.

This is a great spot to see Short Eared Owls (the most spectacular Peak District bird, and one wonderfully captured by a photographer I'm totally in awe of, David Cookson) but none today. It's also worth looking out for little owls (though I got this pic on a different day):
I spent the evening reading some of Basil Bunting's translations amidst the fresh smell of million-year-old peat while the sound of curlew, grouse and pipit continued, in the distance, long after dark.

Here's what Wainwright had to say about Bleaklow (in his guide to the Pennines):

'Nobody loves Bleaklow. All who get on it are glad to get off it...the toughest part of the Pennine way...mucky, too often belaboured by rain and wind and frightening in mist'.

Perhaps it's this inhospitable nature that means Bleaklow has a concentration of moorland wild things far greater than any single spot in Wainwright's beloved Lakes: for that reason it's undoubtedly one of my favourite places in England. It might be because writers like Wainwright have established the mildly exaggerated notion that the terrain is 'difficult' that most walkers stick resolutely to the paved Pennine Way and miss out on the abundant, pathless moorland that stretches away in all directions. Then again, as surprisingly frequent Mountain Rescue callouts demonstrate, getting lost in adverse conditions is easy even in this relatively gentle area - presumably down to the high number of ill-equipped visitors on a jaunt from nearby Manchester and Sheffield.

I got up with the dawn and headed down, through still more curlew, past a raven then a couple of kestrels on Yellow Slacks. Since dawn was before 5, this meant I could set off, before 8, for a day's work back down the M6. Dare I say it? 'I love Bleaklow' and I was very sad to get off it.

Only the following week did I discover the thing that would have made the perfect end to the day:
By that time, there were wader chicks, like this lapwing (green plover), out and about...
...and our friendly pied flycatcher was in 'exceptionally brave' (& singy) mode as it fed its newly-hatched young:
April & May have been particularly rich this year. Shame the summer has to start...

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