16 October 2018

Everything is suddenly feeling very autumnal. For the first time since early spring, I decided to wear my hiking boots for my stroll around the lanes this afternoon. Good call: the heavy rain at the end of last week has made the going muddy in places. I like wearing hiking boots: it makes even the shortest of walks seem more of an expedition.

Someone had lit a large bonfire in the field behind the Lane Ends. For an anxious moment, as I rounded the bend and looked down from the top of the steep rise on Nook Lane, it looked for all the world as if the roof of the pub was on fire.

There seem to be more berries than usual this autumn. I passed one rowan visibly sagging under their weight, and the holly at the end of the bridleway was looking most festive. Even the Manor House elder was getting in on the act, and the transplanted hawthorns in our hedge have done us proud.

Some say a profusion of autumn berries is a sign of a long, cold winter ahead. Nonsense, obviously: it’s hard enough for the Met Office, equipped with supercomputers and scores of PhD-wielding meteorologists, to make accurate three-day weather forecasts; to suggest a tree can predict the weather an entire season ahead is romantic twaddle in the extreme.

Shutting the driveway gate this evening, I caught the distant sound of what I took to be a bike with squeaky brakes bombing downhill. As I listened more carefully, the noise resolved into the distant honking of geese. I scoured the sky until two high V-formations appeared from the west. There must have been about a hundred birds. The formations merged and split, then merged again, with the front birds occasionally peeling off to let some other daft sods take the lead for a change. They were so high, I had no chance of telling what species they were. Having said that, I’m pretty hopeless with geese, and might have struggled to tell what they were had they passed just a few feet above my head. But geese in autumn formation is always a wonderful, uplifting sight—especially so far from the coast.

A lone bat flitting beneath the canopy of the sycamore at dusk. I wonder where they hibernate.

17 October 2018

More geese this morning. Lots more. Another large formation heading east, following the Calder Valley. Little more than dots, they were so high. I’m always astonished how far the calls of flying geese travel.

I reckoned there to be around 300 to 400 birds. To check, I grabbed a photo on my phone and later counted the dots: 369, give or take. My skill at estimating flock sizes is evidently superior to my skill at identifying species of geese at altitude.

18 October 2018

· Wirral ·

I’m writing this on a picnic bench overlooking the Dee Marshes at Parkgate. I had a couple of hours to kill before meeting Carolyn, and the weather is absolutely glorious: sunny, still and crisp. The best sort of autumn day. So I’ve been sitting at the bench, writing about Charles Darwin and foxgloves and related matters.

A hen harrier flew past about an hour ago. Too far away to photograph, unfortunately. (Unlike the female hen harrier that flew past only ten metres away last week, just as I arrived at the marshes, with my camera gear still in the car boot! I swear it was deliberate.)

Bees and the occasional white butterfly. Curlews piping on the marsh. Rooks craa-ing all about. Some minuscule spiderlings have decided to use my camera bag and iPad as launch pads, parachuting off towards the marsh on gossamer threads.

It’s been such a wonderful morning, it’s astonishing I’ve managed to get any work done.

…Another welcome interruption. A kestrel just landed on a log on the marsh about twenty metres away.

Carolyn and I took a walk along the edge of the Dee Marshes to Burton Point, then on to the Welsh border. This is nowhere near as impressive as it sounds: the official border is very much on the English side of the estuary. On our way back, we had a great view of a grey heron poised in the marsh grass.

Grey heron

19 October 2018

Jen’s mum’s driveway offers a delightful panoramic view across Hebden Bridge. I like to stand there, gazing down at the town for a few minutes before trying to spot our house, concealed behind trees way off to the right, high on the other side of the valley.

Hebden Bridge

The other weekend, I was rewarded with an extra-long gazing session as I waited for Rosie, Jen’s mum’s cocker spaniel, to dry off in the sun after the bath we’d just given her. I’m always surprised how difficult it can be to get my bearings viewing the familiar town from high up. You tend to think of towns as streets and shop-fronts. From up there, it’s all rooftops, chimneys, and skylights.

As I took in the bird’s-eye view, bang on cue, a shadow swept over me. I looked up to see a buzzard passing low overhead. It glided lazily out across the valley, gaining height but not altitude as the land fell away.

Buzzards are relatively rare in these parts. This is sheep- and grouse-country: large raptors are not tolerated. But there seems to have been an increase in their numbers over the last couple of years. I even saw a red kite last year, which delighted me no end.

The buzzard pivoted about its axis on broad wings, rolling to starboard, heading off over the canal marina. I watched as it drifted across the valley towards the wood below Dodd Naze. The last I saw, it turned sharply to the left, dropped to gain speed, then swept back up and disappeared into the canopy of a large oak.

Rosie came over for a fuss. As I tickled her armpits, it occurred to me how differently the buzzard and I view the valley. In all, its effortless glide from the house to the wood on the far side had taken less than a minute. The deep valley and town in between were irrelevant to the buzzard. The same journey on foot would have taken me a good 20 minutes, and would have been anything but effortless.

22 October 2018

With a sharp drop in temperature and strong winds forecast for the end of the week, I thought I’d better bring forward my planned photo-trip to the woods at Hardcastle Crags. The idea was to photograph autumn colours, not bare trees.

It was a delightfully sunny morning, but the bottom of the valley was in shade, so I headed up through the trees on the north side of the valley, looking for sunlight. I spotted a couple of jays hunting for acorns, and was almost deafened by the alarm-calls of nuthatches, initiated no doubt by my sudden(ish) lumbering presence. My stinking cold, which I’ve had for the last week, has reached the ‘chesty’ phase, and I was even more short of breath than usual as I trudged up the steep, slippery slope, burdened with a rucksack of camera gear and a tripod. Having grabbed a few shots/breathers on the way, I finally made it to the track along the tree-line, and headed west looking for views. I eventually came to the rocky outcrops with views across the treetops, and took some more shots, then continued along the track through deciduous trees, then pines, then down through more deciduous trees to Gibson Mill. On my way down, I became aware of having twisted my ankle, though I didn’t remember actually twisting it.

The sun was in completely the wrong direction (front and centre) for the classic/clichéd shot of the mill across the millpond, so I turned through 90° and took some nice shots of autumnal trees reflected in the water. I then clambered down the steps at the side of the millpond to take some slow-shutter-speed, tripod-assisted shots of the weir and river. In the process, I nearly fell arse-over-tit on the slippery boulders at the foot of the weir. As usual with photographs of moving water, I experimented with various shutter speeds. Also as usual, I discovered ⅛ second, or there about, seemed to work best.

Hardcastle Crags, autumn

Before limping back to the car along the riverside path, I grabbed a quick mug of tea, and a chocolate and walnut brownie from the Weaving Shed café at the mill. The mill prides itself on being off-grid, relying on hydro- and solar-power for its electricity, firewood for heating, and compost-loos for other essential business. If only every building in Britain could be equally sustainable. Unfortunately, few other buildings in Britain come with their own millponds, and are set amid 400 acres of managed woodland.

It was a lovely walk, and I captured some nice shots, but I really could have done without twisting my ankle.

23 October 2018

It was pretty windy as I lay in bed with a throbbing ankle last night. We always leave a bedroom window open, no matter what the weather. I love to listen to the wind as I lie in bed: it reminds me there’s still a whole planet out there going about its business.

Went for a walk around the lanes at lunchtime to see if some exercise would work wonders on my ankle. Bad idea.

27 October 2018

I sensed a presence behind me as I bent to unlock the garage door first thing this morning. Turning, I glanced back and forth through the half-light. Nothing.

I was about to turn back, when something made me look up. A shadow hung in the air above the field at the back of the house, about 15 metres in front of me and 15 metres up. A kestrel on a pre-dawn hunting expedition. It was too dark to make out any details, but the dim hovering silhouette was unmistakable.

There have been noticeably more kestrels around in recent weeks. I’m guessing it’s down to the shorter days. Fewer daylight hours mean fewer hours in which to hunt, so a larger proportion of them need to be spent in the air. I dare say the colder weather discourages the kestrels’ prey from roaming about too much, making the takings even leaner.

It must be hard work being a kestrel in the winter months.

31 October 2018

Following an annoying relapse of my almost-better ankle, I’ve been avoiding taking walks, which is hard. In the meantime, I’ve been looking through last month’s photographs from Anglesey.

I was pleased to end up with a couple of nice shots of terns this year. It always seems a bit touch-and-go whether I’ll see any terns in early September. Most of them have gone by then, but there are usually a few still around. Sandwich terns, mostly. Adults, usually accompanied by one or two of this year’s fully fledged, wheezing young. The wheezing seems to be the young terns’ plaintive calls for food. But it’s in both the adults’ and young birds’ interests for the young to learn to catch fish for themselves. They must pick up plenty of tips by following their parents and observing them in action.

Sandwich tern

One thing I’ve noticed watching terns fishing alongside their young is how the adult birds tend to pull out of far more dives than their offspring. I assume it’s an experience thing: the adults must realise the chances of a successful strike have changed for some reason—the target fish changing position, say—whereas the young birds seem far less likely to reassess circumstances and abort their dives. Such considerations no doubt contribute to the adults’ far greater success rate when they do actually strike at their target. Practice and experience make perfect.

I was pleased to see the adult birds occasionally yielding to the youngsters’ plaintive calls, feeding them with freshly caught fish. Building expertise through practice and experience takes time; in the meantime, the youngsters still needed looking after.

Sandwich terns