Category Archives: Swifts

Green belt

I went to stay with my old friend Mike in the south Manchester suburbs on Friday. In the evening, we took his dog, Milly, for a walk through Kenworthy Woods, along the banks of the River Mersey, and around Chorlton Water Park. I had never been there before, and was astonished to find such a large expanse of greenery right next to the M60, so close to Manchester. An area of precious green belt.

Chorlton Water Park and Kenworthy Woods, Greater Manchester. (East is to the top of the image.)
Chorlton Water Park and Kenworthy Woods, Greater Manchester. (North is to the left of the image.)

As we walked through the woods and along the river, Mike and I demonstrated to each other our general ignorance of trees, hazarding guesses at various species. We agreed on ash, and there were willows of some description, and hawthorns and horse chestnuts and sycamores. I think I impressed Mike at one point by confidently identifying alder, although, to be honest, it was little more than a guess. And there were some trees with heart-shaped leaves. I had no idea what those might have been, so I guessed lime. I really must get my head around trees some time, like Emma Warren is trying to do.

On the bird front, I don't think I've ever seen quite so many swifts in one place before. There were scores, if not hundreds of them, flying low over the river and lake. At one point, one of the swifts flew within touching distance of me. It was quite a thrill. I regretted not bringing my camera, but the light was poor, rain threatened, and the swifts were being true to their name.

Milly wasn't the least bit interested in the stupid swifts. Far more interesting to her were the bait boxes of the anglers fishing in the lake.

Burton Marshes

I took a walk down the new cyclepath at Burton Marshes to Burton Point yesterday afternoon.

To be honest, I'm in two minds about the cyclepath. I can see the appeal of a bike ride along the edge of the marshes, away from traffic. But it's turned a place of solitude and quiet reflection into something of a thoroughfare. One local dog-walker I met yesterday was extremely vocal about “all these damn bikes!”. (Actually, I paraphrase, he used a different adjective.) Still, at least it's a clearly defined and well-maintained path, which any would-be off-road cyclists will stray off at their peril, thanks to the nearby military firing-range. And I suppose it keeps the cyclists off the hills.

Southern marsh orchid
Southern marsh orchid.

I was pleased to see the yellow flag irises and southern marsh orchids out in abundance. As were the swifts, skimming low overhead.

Yellow flag irises and alder carr
Yellow flag irises and alder carr.

The Burton Point sandstone outcrop is the location of a disgracefully out-of-bounds Iron Age fort. At the time that the fort was built, it would have been on the banks of the River Dee. But, in the eighteenth century, the river was canalised upstream and its route diverted to allow the navigation of larger vessels to Chester—which is when the marshes began to spread. Had this not happened, I suppose the heavy industrialisation on the Welsh side of the Dee Estuary, where the river now flows, would have taken place on the Wirral side. In which case, Burton would not be such a Mecca for birds. Or cyclists. Or me. So hats-off to those eighteenth-century Dutch engineers who inadvertently enmarshed the English side of the Dee Estuary!

Dee edgelands
Dee edgelands.
Burton Point
Burton Point.

Full set of photos from my walk »

Grange Over Sands

I had a day-trip to Grange Over Sands on Saturday to watch my friend Mike launch the wooden kayak he has just finished building (with a little help from a professional boat-builder). Around 20 of Mike's friends turned up to watch him splash a small bottle of champagne over the bow of Lynne, named in memory of his long-term partner, and wife of only a few months, who died after a long illness last year.

Kayak launch
Mike names his kayak.
Kayak launch
It floats!

Some of Mike's more adventurous friends had brought boats of their own along, so, while they made a brief tour of the Kent Estuary, the rest of us hung around eating pork pies and drinking champagne (a classic combination). I'm sure Lynne would have been very pleased. She was a nice lady.

Grange Over Sands
Canoeists off Grange Over Sands.
Grange Over Sands
Grange Over Sands.
Herring gull
Herring gull.

Oh, and I saw my first swift of the summer, not far from Skipton. It made me happier than was strictly reasonable.

More photos »

Frodsham Marshes

I lived a stone's throw from Frodsham Marshes for over 30 years, yet I never thought to visit them. Today, en route to visit Dad, I decided to put that right. And I'm so glad that I did.

Trapped between an oil refinery and a massive chemical works, Frodsham Marshes are a classic example of overlooked wilderness. The sort of place celebrated by Richard Mabey in his marvellous The Unofficial Countryside, and by more recent authors including Robert Macfarlane, and Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley. Places where Nature hangs on—and, indeed, flourishes—alongside the modern, man-made world.


I could smell the petrochemicals as I left my car on the bridge over the motorway and headed along the dirt track. I didn't think the sloes at the side of the track would make particularly palatable gin. But the smell soon disappeared as I became accustomed to it, and the rough verges and farmland gave way to untidy hedgerows overflowing with elderberries.

A few late swifts flew overhead as I reached the man-made lake which appeared to have something to do with the Manchester Ship Canal. The lake contained scores of tufted ducks. At the far end, where the lake gave way to untidy grassland, there were waders. I'm pretty poor at wader identification, but managed to recognise lapwings, common sandpipers, and black-tailed godwits.

Black-tailed godwits
Black-tailed godwits.

Turning back, I was admiring a buzzard standing on some rough ground in front of the chemical works, when a small, unidentified little brown job shot overhead with a peregrine falcon in hot pursuit. After less than two seconds, they disappeared behind the hedgerow. But something told me they would be back momentarily, so I fumbled my camera into readiness. And there they were again, ducking and weaving right above me. I fired away like a crazy thing. They were far too fast to focus on, so I just kept shooting.

It was quite clear, though, that the peregrine's heart wasn't really in the pursuit. He almost seemed to be teasing his pursuee. After about ten seconds, he gave up, and disappeared back over the hedgerow.

Peregrine falcon
Peregrine falcon in luke-warm pursuit.

Walking back toward my car, I bumped into a man walking his greyhound. He asked me if I had seen anything. Peregrines are rather common on the marshes, it would seem. He also told me that, a couple of years back, he had spotted an osprey nearby. And a friend of his who works on the ship canal frequently sees porpoises there. Sadly, they never seem to make it back out through the lock gates.

All this wonderful wildlife in such an unpromising location. Perhaps there is still hope for the world after all.

More photos from my walk »

For more on peregrines, see J.A. Baker's poetic book, The Peregrine.

A spin around the Dales

A spin around the Yorkshire Dales with Jen.

Hart's tongue fern
Hart's tongue fern in a gryke.
First stop, Malham. We walked from the village up to Malham Cove, climbed to the top (where Harry Potter once made camp), then returned to the village down the other side. Glorious weather. There were dozens of swifts screaming above the cove like fighter jets. No sign of the local peregrines, unfortunately. I'm always amazed at how much plan life thrives in the grykes of the limestone pavement on top of the cove. Lots of hart's tongue ferns.

Spotted a juvenile wheatear at the top of the cove, and several more on our way down. Undoubtedly one of my favourite birds. The adults are one of the most dapper birds going—but not these scruffy juveniles.

I saw my first wheatear on Thurstaston cliffs when I was little. Mum explained that they were so named because the light stripe above their eyes made them look as if they had an ear of wheat tucked behind their ear. It wasn't until many years later that I learnt that wheatear is actually a corruption of the Norse for white arse, on account of the bird's distinctive backside. I don't think mum ever accepted my etymology.

Juvenile wheatear
Julenile white-arse.

After the biggest plates of fish and chips we had ever eaten at the Lister Arms, we drove across the tops to Arncliffe, then via Kettlewell and Upper Wharfedale to Malham, returning home via Ribblehead and Settle. The lane verges were covered in meadowsweet. I have never seen so much. One of mum's favourite flowers—if only for the name.

More photos » | Slideshow »


A walk in Eastham Woods with Dad and Molly. While the latter chased birds in the field, I photographed swifts screeching overhead. There were an awful lot of them.

A swift this evening.

Back at Dad's, a small flock of long-tailed tits was visiting the garden:

Long-tailed tit
A long-tailed tit slightly later this evening.

More photos from this evening | slideshow


Standing at the compost heap with my binoculars this evening, I spotted my first two swifts of the summer, soaring apparently effortlessly in the strong, westerly wind.

A swift six summers ago.

I don't know why, but it always surprises me to see swifts soaring and gliding. For some reason, I would expect their sleek, fighter-plane design to require constant thrust. Fortunately for the swifts, they were unencumbered by such doubts, and seemed to be positively enjoying themselves, swooping up and down in the wind.

Swifts are back in town! All is right with the world.