26 February 2019

Yesterday was the hottest February day—and, indeed, the hottest winter day—on record. To read the BBC’s coverage, you’d think this was wonderful news.

—Grand day, said the man in the bird-seed shop.
—Yes, I just had to turn the air-conditioning on in the car.
—We’ll pay for it!

Pragmatic Yorkshire thinking.

The record held for 24 hours. Today was even hotter: more like May than February.

We shall indeed pay for it.

25 February 2019

As I took my customary quick glance out the window at the top of the stairs on my way down to breakfast, a ghostly figure flapped into view. Unmistakable: a barn owl! It flew across Ruth’s garden, up towards the apex of her bungalow roof, then banked suddenly to the left on wide, rounded wings. What a thrill!

I jammed my head into the deep, narrow window alcove to follow the owl as long as I could. But the owl didn’t disappear across the field as I expected. It suddenly flipped over and dived headlong into the long grass a couple of metres into the field behind our hawthorns.

I legged it downstairs and into the kitchen, where Jen was putting the kettle on. ‘BARN OWL. FIELD. NOW!’ I blurted, and legged it back upstairs. Jen joined me a couple of seconds later. We hurried through into the barn section of the house to look through the larger, round pitching-eye window.

Seconds later, the owl rose from the field and flapped off to the right with some sort of rodent in its beak. It landed on a fence post, presenting us with a magnificent profile view as it began to swallow the rodent whole. The rodent looked far too big to swallow, but the owl repeatedly threw its head forward, straightening its gullet, and the rodent slowly disappeared.

There was a sudden, distant screaming sound… The kettle had begun to whistle. I ran back downstairs to take it off the hob, then back upstairs into the study to get my binoculars. I returned to Jen’s side at the round window just in time to see the barn owl leap from the fence post and flap off low across Russell’s field in the general direction of the farm.

The highlight of my week, and it was only 06:55 on as Monday morning!

23 February 2019

Took Pat’s dog, Rosie, for a walk up through Crow Next Wood and on to the cobbled lane above. Ridiculously warm and sunny weather for February.

Cobbled lane

The lane looked particularly stunning in the strong sidelight, which cast tree-trunk shadows on the moss-covered walls. I took a few snaps with my phone, but keep meaning to return there on my own some time for some proper shots. It’s a lovely location.

As usual, Rosie threw me a deaf one and shot off home once we were within about 500 yards of the house. So I waited and took in the view over Hebden Bridge, knowing she’d eventually return to find out what the hell was keeping me.

20 February 2019

[ Dee Marshes, Gayton ]

The plan was to do some work in the car before heading off to Dad’s, but I arrived at the usually quiet car park to find it packed with birders. It was an unusually high tide, and the marshes were flooded.

There were hundreds of birds milling about: black-headed gulls, redshank, curlews, teal, mallard, greylag and pink-footed geese, a few shelducks. Far out, I spotted a small formation of darker-coloured geese heading out into the estuary. ‘Brent,’ observed the birder standing next to me with his kick-ass telescope. Brent geese: my first ever.

I’d arrived just in time for the high tide. Over the next hour the waters and birders swiftly dissipated, till I had the car park all to myself, as originally planned.

Time to do some work!

16 February 2019

Bill and Angela were visiting. As the glorious weather was still with us, Angela expressed interest in a walk on the Moor. To make the suggestion more palatable to Bill, we said we’d contrive to finish at a pub in Hebden Bridge, with a taxi back up the hill home.

Summit photo!

After the obligatory group summit-photo at the trig point (courtesy of a passing jogger), we headed off along the edge. I’d promised Angela grouse, but, for once, they stubbornly refused to show. I suspected the strong south-westerly breeze was to blame. The grouse seem to move into the lea of the edge on windy days, meaning they’re concealed over the brow of the hill.

We came down off the Moor at Old Town and took the track at the side of the mill, down through the fields and Nutclough Wood into Hebden Bridge. It was open jackets and bare heads all the way, more like late April than mid-February. Having said that, snow in late April wouldn’t be a first.

14 February 2019

An unseasonably glorious St Valentine’s Day: sunshine, blue sky, white clouds, cool breeze. Vague plans for working on my Darwin book were immediately abandoned, and I headed up on to the Moor.

Red grouse were calling from random refuges in the heather. I flushed three as I climbed the rise up to the trig point. I made a brew and spent ten minutes admiring the familiar view. Heading off along the edge, I bumped into another bearded walker who, it turned out, was also skiving off work.


Not much in the way of birdsong yet, but I did hear one little brown job half-heartedly chortling away somewhere. Get a move on, Spring!

A large formation of geese flew overhead as I descended the edge. I heard them long before I spotted them. They didn’t seem to have any clear path in their collective mind, banking suddenly to the north, before heading off east, back the way they’d come. As they dwindled into the distance, they seemed more like a puff of smoke than a flight of birds.


12 February 2019

Charles Darwin’s 210th birthday. Ten years ago today, I planted the Darwin Bicentennial Oak in the corner of the garden. I went to inspect it again this morning, and took what has become the traditional annual photograph. It was about 18 inches high when I planted it. It’s considerably taller now, but still a mere sapling. A decade counts as nothing to an oak.

The Darwin Bicentennial Oak

10 February 2019

I’ve lost track of what number Philip we’re on at present. For years now, we’ve referred to the male pheasant that takes up winter residence in the garden as Philip, but I’m pretty sure they haven’t always been the same chap. Certainly, the current Philip doesn’t bang on the dining-room window, demanding to be fed, like his notorious predecessor. Unless it is the same Philip, but he’s learnt some manners.

For most of this winter, there’s also been a female pheasant in the garden. Philippa, obviously. The two have pretty much ignored each other all winter. But now spring is in the air, Philip has suddenly begun to find Philippa very interesting indeed. He spends much of his time strutting in parallel with her, his wings slightly ajar, angling his back to her, as if to say, ‘Look at my beautiful feathers!’ Which is, in effect, exactly what he is saying. When it comes to pheasants, beautiful feathers quite literally help pull the birds.

Darwin wrote about this sort of shenanigans, of course. He called it sexual selection, which it’s really a special case of natural selection. Being good at attracting the opposite sex is one more evolved trick in leaving more offspring.

Good luck, Philip! We’re rooting for you, mate!

7 February 2019

[ Dee Marshes, Gayton ]

I drove here through atrocious weather, en route to Dad’s to celebrate his 84th birthday. Being early (deliberately, as usual), I decided to do some writing at the marshes in the car. The weather soon picked up: bright sunshine, but with a strong, cold northerly wind.

I don’t know what it was that made me look up from the screen of my iPad after about half an hour—I was probably searching for an appropriate word—but suddenly, there was a female hen harrier flying low above the marsh, about 20 metres in front of the car. Having learnt from my previous unexpected close encounters with hen harriers, I had my camera at the ready just in case, and was out the car and firing away in 10 seconds. They weren’t particularly good photos, but as good as could be expected, given the short notice.

Female hen harrier

The harrier’s outrageous white rump and banded tail-feathers were unmistakeable. Always such a thrill. She headed off slowly, northwards, along the edge of the marsh, into the wind. She was soon out of range of my camera lens, so I switched to binoculars, watching her as she banked to and fro, low above the reeds, setting startled teal, woodpigeons and waders to flight.

When she was about half a mile away, the harrier swerved suddenly, hovered, then dropped into the reeds. I assume her strike must have been successful, as I waited a good five minutes without seeing her rise again. Then the bitter wind drove me back into the car.

A short while later, I glanced up from my iPad once more to see a buzzard heading my way from the north with four crows in hot pursuit. Once again, I leapt out the car, camera in hand. But before the buzzard could reach me, the crows had forced it to land on the marsh. Flushed with success, their mobbing continued. Two crows landed a short distance behind the buzzard to stare at it menacingly; the other pair continued to dive-bomb the poor raptor, making sure to keep out of striking distance. After enduring about five minutes of this bullying, the buzzard sped off with the crows once again in hot pursuit.

Minutes later, the female hen harrier was back, about 400 metres to the north, tormented by her own solitary crow as she tried to hunt above the Phragmites.

I’m beginning to suspect the marshes might not be a location particularly conducive to work.

📷 More photos »

6 February 2019

As I was driving up Pellon Lane out of Halifax this morning, a juvenile fox ran across the road in front of me and leapt on to a garden wall. It was a fine, healthy looking beast.

I hadn’t seen a fox for ages. They tend to hang out more in towns than the countryside these days, so being in town this morning will have increased my chances. Thinking about it, I’ve only seen one fox in Hebden Bridge since I moved here almost 18 years ago. We were looking after Rosie, Pat’s cocker spaniel, at the time, and I’d taken her for a walk up Burlees Lane. It was Rosie who spotted the fox, not me. We stood and stared at each other from a respectable distance before the fox turned and trotted away.

Come to think of it some some more, I’ve also only heard a vixen’s nighttime mating call once since I moved here. It was on my very first night. I lay in bed, listening to her alarming screams. The screams lasted for about 15 minutes before being curtailed by two shotgun blasts. Which presumably goes some way to explaining why foxes seem to prefer our towns these days.

I finally finished decorating the back bedroom late in the afternoon. My right wrist is completely knackered. ‘Only one undercoat and two top-coats required’ ranks up there alongside ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’, and ‘the cheque’s in the post’.