3 November 2019

By pre-arrangement, I finally met the author and online friend Neil Ansell today. Neil has been incredibly supportive of my writing over the years. He was visiting the Calder Valley for the Todmorden Book Festival. We took a pleasant autumnal walk along the Rochdale Canal, talking about nature writing and our current works in progress. Afterwards, we grabbed a coffee at a v✽gan café, then headed off to Neil’s gig at St Mary’s church.

Brexit Boat, Rochdale Canal
The Brexit Boat, Rochdale Canal

The session was entitled ‘Writing Wild Places’. Local author Andrew Bibby interviewed Neil and another pal of mine, Amy Liptrot, about their work. Neil read from his latest, The Last Wilderness, and Amy from The Outrun. The session ended with perceptive questions from the audience. I later congratulated Amy for using the word ‘orgasm’ in a packed Sunday church.

As always with these literary events, I came away totally inspired, determined to do better with my own writing. Thanks, chaps!

Neil Ansell & Amy Liptrot

30 October 2019

An autumnal photographic expedition to Hardcastle Crags—or a nice stroll alongside Hebden Water, if you prefer. I was eight days later than the equivalent expedition last year, and the difference showed. There were noticeably fewer leaves on the trees. But gauging the best date for peak autumn is always problematical, varying as it does from year to year.

Upon my arrival, I was immediately treated to a nice view of a great spotted woodpecker clambering around one of the riverside tree-trunks in search of food. But my priority today was photographs, not birds. So the high-pitched cheeping of assorted tits, and the alarm calls of nuthatches, went largely ignored.

Unlike last year, I decided to stick to the valley-bottom this year, despite its being mainly in the shade. I was after riverside reflections. For once, I got my tripod technique right. Tripods are an awful faff, but I discovered it was far more efficient, once I’d spotted a potential photograph, to set up the tripod and camera immediately and then decide whether it was worth taking a photo. Keeping the tripod legs extended when folded for carrying also saved a lot of faffing.

I was pleasantly pleased with the photos I took. As usual with autumnal shots, the unprocessed photos didn’t look nearly as impressive as the views I remembered taking, so some careful post-processing was required. This year, I twigged that the automatic white-balance of the camera had rendered the shots too cold-looking, so correcting that made a huge difference.

Hardcastle Crags, Autumn
Hebden Water, Hardcastle Crags, autumn

Although I was officially not in birding mode, I couldn’t resist checking if there were any dippers in the second millpond above Gibson Mill. It seems to be a favourite haunt of theirs. Sure enough, I immediately spotted a dipper chasing off a rival downstream. Dippers are very territorial birds. The resident dipper returned to the millpond a short while later, and I grabbed some nice shots on my way back from photographing further upstream. Dippers are definitely a top-ten bird.


Note to self: Go on more photo expeditions next year—and take a tripod.

📷 More photos »

26 October 2019

Our four-weekly haircuts from Kath, the visiting hairdresser. This time great-niece Lotte (4) and her mum came along to have theirs done too. Lotte was extremely impressed at the number of birds on our bird-table and -feeder. She recognised a robin, and I pointed out a blue tit, great tit, sparrow, and lots and lots of goldfinches. Lotte was particularly taken with the goldfinches, so I asked her to draw me a picture of one in her Spider-Man™ notebook.

‘Goldfinch’ by Lotte (4)
‘Goldfinch’ by Lotte (4)

Later, as Lotte was admiring the birds some more, her mum gasped and mouthed the word RAT! to Jen as something small and brown shot through the lavender at the edge of the patio. Jen knew straight away it was not a rat, but ‘one of those long, thin things’. When I eventually spotted it for myself, I was happy to confirm that it was indeed one of those long, thin things: our first ever garden weasel!

17 October 2019

· Wirral ·

A walk along the edge of the Dee Marshes to Burton Point. Lovely sunshine, with the marshes showing some subtle, autumnal hues. Very few birds, for a change: several squadrons of crows, a couple of little egrets, and a Cetti’s warbler singing invisibly from the greater reed-mace.

As I approached the point, I heard a raven cronking overheard. It was flying among some jackdaws. I thought they might have been mobbing the raven, but, if so, it was only half-hearted. Seeing a raven flying alongside its smaller cousins made me appreciate once again just how big they are: buzzard-sized!

Later, at Gayton Marshes, I spotted a large flock of knots twisting agitatedly back and forth just above the drainage channel, dark when their backs were towards me, flashing brightly as they turned in unison to reveal their lighter undersides. A few teal and redshank also rose in panic and headed off low up the channel. I wondered what had spooked them, and raised my binoculars in eager anticipation of a peregrine, marsh harrier or hen harrier. But the cause of the commotion turned out to be considerably slower and easier to spot than a raptor: a lone canoeist in hi-vis jacket paddling slowly up the channel.

9 October 2019

· Wirral ·

A visit to RSPB Burton Mere en route to Dad’s. Plenty of dragonflies around, including one pair latched together in flight, the male gripping the nape of the female’s neck with the claspers at the end of his abdomen—a prelude to a potential mating. I spent five minutes or so trying to photograph individual dragonflies in flight. Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought to bring my macro lens, so had to make do with my ordinary zoom. Latching on to such small, fast-moving targets is pretty much beyond the capabilities of my camera’s autofocus system, so I switched to manual focus mode and resigned myself to lots of blurry images. But a couple of the shots of common hawkers came out all right.

Common hawker

As I approached the Inner Marsh Farm hide, a Cetti’s warbler exploded into song less than two metres away, deep in the path-side branches. I could see it hopping back and forth behind a maze of twigs—a situation which also confounded my autofocus. By the time I’d slipped the lens back into manual mode, however, the bird had disappeared.

From the hide, I could see hundreds of black-tailed godwits huddled together in the shallow water, with a smaller number of lapwings at the water’s edge behind. A few redshank squabbled noisily, and a moorhen played with a stalk of grass a couple of metres away. After a while, a little egret appeared, and began fishing right in front of me. I took some nice photos, including some action shots as the bird reacted to the arrival of another egret interloper.

Little egret

📷 More photos »

In the evening, a text from neighbour John, saying he’ll have no eggs for us for the foreseeable future as a fox has killed three of his four hens. Very sad: I’d become rather attached to ‘the girls’, as I called them. The chicken-run looks like Fort Knox, but foxes are such resourceful creatures.

5 October 2019

Took Rosie the reluctant cocker spaniel for another drag around Crow Nest Wood. As we entered the beech trees, I heard what I took to be rain starting to fall through the leaves. But then I realised the sound was coming from a single tree. As I looked up, trying to work out what was causing the noise, about 20 wood pigeons exploded out of the canopy and headed off across the valley. I guess they must have been foraging for beech mast, in the process dislodging leaves and seed husks which pattered down through the lower branches like rain.

4 October 2019

There were eight mistle thrushes rasping on a power-line as I went to open the gate this evening. I spotted several more as I drove up the hill, and more still on Height Road. They’re likely to be recent arrivals from Northern Europe. Mistle thrushes are resident in the UK throughout the year, but their numbers are bolstered considerably during the winter months by birds arriving from Scandinavia and beyond. Their rasping calls always remind me of electric buzzers that haven’t been wired quite right.

Heading back from Halifax an hour later, I spotted three swallows perched on a telephone wire in Booth. You’re definitely leaving it a little late, chaps. Time to be off!

1 October 2019

A walk around the lanes first thing to get my head in gear. A pair of jays were gathering acorns next to the farm track. I managed to get to within 15 metres of them before they spotted me and flew off, white rumps bobbing. They have a strange, slightly undulating, ungainly flight when out in the open. I suppose it’s on account of their broad, somewhat stubby wings, which will be better suited for flying through woodland.

Jays always look much larger when you see them perched on branches, rather than flitting through the trees. They look more crow-like too, which should come as no surprise, bearing in mind they are crows.

27 September 2019

Buggered telephone line.

The joys of living almost 800 feet above sea-level on the side of an exposed hill… An unusually constructive stint on my ‘Darwin book’ yesterday was rudely interrupted, without any warning, by a bolt of lightning which took out a telephone line outside our neighbour’s house. The ensuing electrical surge fried our landline phone, wi-fi hub, data bridge, and rather expensive colour laser printer. Miraculously, our even more expensive iMac computer and state-of-the-art hi-fi system, which were both connected to the same local area network, remained unscathed. Unlike my underpants.

It’s almost as if Someone up there doesn’t want me to write a book about Darwin.

23 September 2019

At 08:50 BST this morning, the sun crossed the equator somewhere over the Indian Ocean, heading south, thereby making it officially autumn in the northern hemisphere. Official, that is, according to astronomical reckoning—which is the only reckoning that counts.

Equinox map
The position of the overhead sun (orange star) and moon (white circle) at the time of the autumnal equinox at 07:50 UT on 23-Sep-2019.