My friend Mike is currently building a kayak in Cumbria, so I went over to stay with him for a couple of days. On my way there, on Tuesday, I took a spin through the Yorkshire Dales, visited my joint-favourite second-hand bookshop in Sedbergh, drove over to Windermere, then took the Kirkstone Pass to Brothers Water.
I’ve wanted to visit Brothers Water for about 20 years—ever since Mum returned from a holiday in the Lake District with Dad, full of excitement at having seen red squirrels in the woods next to Brothers Water. She thought I should drive up there right away to look for them. On Tuesday, I finally got round to it.
Not wishing to build up any sort of suspense, I should tell you right away that I didn’t see any red squirrels. I’ve only seen one red squirrel in my entire life: out of a car window, when I was about six, in Dibbinsdale, near our home in Bromborough. You won’t find any red squirrels in Dibbinsdale today. Or ever again, most likely. They’ve been seen off by the pox, and a nationwide cull of the invasive grey vectors seems unlikely.
Who needs squirrels? It was a lovely walk along the footpath near Brothers Water. The weather was unseasonably warm, but there was quite a lot of mist about. Despite the mist, my photos came out better than I expected:
The following day, yesterday, with Mike taking almost as long as Noah on his boat, I took a spin up to Keswick to visit Castlerigg stone circle. I then popped into the town and visited the pencil museum. There’s 15 minutes (and £4.50) I’ll never get back!
I stopped for a brew at Coniston Water on my way back to Mike’s place. As I tucked into my, I felt, well-earned Eccles cake, I was visited by a pair of robins, on the scrounge for crumbs. Unfortunately, they took it in turns coming over to me, so I wasn’t able to get a photo of the two of them together. But they did come sufficiently close to enable me to use my favourite macro lens:
Yesterday would have been Mum’s 76th birthday. She’d have been delighted to hear of my close encounter with a pair of her favourite birds. Even more delighted than if I’d seen some red squirrels.
Yesterday afternoon was unseasonably glorious, so I decided to head up to the Moor.
There wasn’t an awful lot going on, but that’s not why I go up to the Moor.
On my way down from the edge, a chap with a spade and sack spotted me and my camera: “Landscape or wildlife?” he called. Both, I said.
It turned out he was the local gamekeeper, laying out grit for the grouse. We chatted for about 15 minutes. He is clearly trying to engage in outreach, to win over the hearts and minds of the locals. He explained that the people who shoot on the Moor aren’t a bunch of toffs, but a local group of hard-working enthusiasts; how they only shoot for six days a year; how they only took over the care of the Moor a few years back, and how he reckons the place is a lot better maintained these days. I agreed: it is. He then asked me for any feedback or ideas.
I suggested that a few more boggy patches and pools might be in order (he told me they’re working on this), and that the best way to combat the boom-bust predator-prey population cycles of the grouse-parasite and grouse would be to throw a few more predators into the mix. I don’t think he was quite with me on this one. I pointed out that, in the 20+ years I’ve been walking on the Moor, I’ve only ever seen two buzzards, one peregrine, and not a single hen harrier. The northern moorland, I said, should be practically swarming with raptors.
“Hen harriers numbers have plummeted drastically in recent years,” he agreed. “Nobody’s been able to work out why,” he added.
“It’s because game-keepers keep shooting them,” I said, calling a spade a spade.
He explained that he had seen a hen harrier on the Moor last summer, and had nearly shot it by accident. He was about to shoot some crows, when he realised they were mobbing a harrier.
He asked me if I’d ever eaten grouse. I said I had, but that I thought it was overrated, and much preferred duck. He confessed that he didn’t like the taste of grouse at all—far too strong—but assured me that all the grouse which are shot on the Moor do get eaten.
He seemed like a nice chap, but I’ll never understand the mentality of people who enjoy blasting wild birds out of the sky for fun.
Much better to bag wild birds with cameras than shotguns, I reckon.
I decided to visit the Dee Marshes at Parkgate and Burton on my way to visit Dad on Tuesday. As I arrived at Parkgate, I was frankly horrified to see around 40 middle-to-late-aged birders standing in the car park, gazing out across the marshes through a lot of seriously expensive optics.
Being an unsociable introvert (and somewhat embarrassed by my dinky sports binoculars), I gave them a wide berth and went to stand 50 or so yards away. They were looking at a very distant juvenile marsh harrier, which eventually flapped away across the reeds and rushes, tormented by the occasional brave crow. I would show you a photo, but it’s just a smudgy dot.
Spoonbills and great white egrets have been spotted on the marshes recently. Either of those would be new species to me, but I saw neither hide nor feather of them. Actually, come to think of it, I have seen spoonbills before, in Australia, but I’m sure they must have been a different species from the ones we get up here.
Even though the harrier had gone, the birders stayed around, so I decided to sneak off into the bushes and try to get a photo of the robin I could hear singing its little heart out. Mum would have been proud of me: harriers, spoonbills and great white egrets just yards away, and here was I trying to spot a robin. I must have got within 20 feet of him, but I couldn’t see him. What I was delighted to find in the undergrowth, though, was a pile of broken snail shells next to a stone: a song thrush‘s anvil:
Eventually, I decided to pop down to Burton Marshes to see what was happening there. Not an awful lot, it turned out. To be fair, it was getting a bit late. I heard some sort of warbler in the reeds, and caught a fleeting glimpse of it, and there were lapwings and dunlin and a few other bits and bobs. Having failed miserably with the robin, I also had a go at tracking down a great tit in one of the hawthorns at the side of the road, again without success. Then I decided just to sit on one of the benches looking out across the marshes and take in the view. Which meant that I had my back turned when a buzzard flew very nearby across the field behind me and landed in a tree.
I will get the hang of this bird-watching malarkey eventually.
I’m behind with my updates again. A quick summary might therefore be in order:
Sun, 06-May-2012: After a matinee screening at the Hebden Bridge Picture House, Jen and I bought a bag of chips and went to eat them by the packhorse bridge in the middle of town. I could not believe it: there was a dipper feeding in the shallows less than ten feet from where we were standing. It caught a small fish and spent about a minute battering it (no pun intended) against a rock before heading off with it upstream. Lends a whole new meaning to the phrase fish & chips. Needless to say, I did not have a camera to hand.
Wed, 16-May-2012: Went for a walk on the moor up to High Brown Knoll. Took a cracking photo of a robin in a garden at the side of Wainsgate Lane on my way up. Also saw a number of wheatears and curlew on the moor.
Sun, 20-May-2012: A walk with Jen on Blackstone Edge. Saw a number of golden plover: quite a rare bird for me! Even managed to get some snaps:
This week and last: A large, brown hare has been hanging out in the field behind the house. Finally managed to get some decent(ish) photos:
I was wide awake in bed at 5am as the dawn chorus began this morning. Mum used to say that the dawn chorus always begins with a lone blackbird. That was certainly the case this morning. It was joined about ten minutes later by a goldfinch, then greenfinches, a dunnock, chaffinches and a robin.
The dawn chorus up here in the bleak Pennines is nothing like the ones of my childhood in the leafy Wirral, but it’s still pretty spectacular, once it gets going.
First update of 2012. What can I say? I’ve been busy.
January began with snowdrops. I spotted my first, under the smaller of our two sycamores on 5th—the earliest snowdrop in our garden ever, I believe. Two days later, and it was decapitated in a storm. But it was a welcome reminder that winters don’t go on forever.
I had a truly astonishing walk up on the moor on 11th February. The area had been hit by frozen ice, so every heather twiglet and blade of grass had been sheathed in ice. It was so cold that the grouse, which I could hear nearby, had taken to hiding instead of flying away—presumably to save energy. They couldn’t have been getting much food, with all the heather frozen.
At home, we had our first siskin in the garden. Well, probably not our first—but certainly the first I recognised as a siskin! And we have had a small number of fieldfares and redwings in the front field, although those seem to have returned to Scandinavia now.
Then, this Tuesday, I was in the kitchen making a brew, when there was a tremendous crash against the window next to the bird-feeder. A sparrowhawk, I guessed. I ran over to the window, but there was no sign of anything, save for a few small feathers stuck to the window. But the blackbirds in the garden were going ballistic: they had clearly seen what had happened. I went back upstairs to work, but, 45 minutes later, I realised that the blackbirds were still going ballistic. I went to investigate, and found a little owl sitting in the thorn tree, getting mobbed by chaffinches. I managed to fire off a single, poorly exposed photo before it flew off.
I later read that little owls do indeed eat small birds. They also seem to have stolen a trick from sparrowhawks, and taken to ambushing small birds at feeders.
There are definite signs that spring is on the way. Our garden robin has taken to singing very vocally before sunrise, and is starting to get a bit bolshy. So I’m hoping I should be able to start giving more regular updates in this journal in the near future.