A blackbird was singing its heart out in the garden early this morning. Not a bad way to start a year.
A lovely winter’s day. Took a walk around the lanes with Jen. The rooks in the trees at Ibbot Royd were very vocal. It was almost as if they thought spring might be on its way. To them, it probably is: rooks are early nesters. Any sign of spring is most welcome, but it’s still only just the start of winter: there’s plenty of grim weather yet to come, if previous years are anything to go by. Which they usually are.
A cold, crisp, windless, bright, sunny day: my favourite kind of weather.
I’d decided to take some test photos with my expensive new filter kit (a Christmas present from Jen). The basis of the kit is a frame that attaches to the front of the camera lens, into which you can slot one or more filters. I only have the one filter at the moment: a graduated grey number. The sky is usually a lot brighter than the land beneath. If you expose your shot correctly for the sky, the land can be under-exposed. If you expose correctly for the land, the sky can be over-exposed (or ‘blown-out’). Obviously, it’s possible to compensate for this when post-processing your photos on your computer, but it’s generally best to start off with as accurate an exposure as you can. A graduated grey filter helps you to achieve this by darkening the sky, making it possible to expose both sky and land correctly.
I wasn’t after any photographic masterpieces today. The point of the exercise was simply to re-familiarise myself with using graduated filters (it’s been many, many years). I soon re-discovered one old problem I’d forgotten about: my oldest lens’s barrel rotates when you focus, meaning the filter rotates with it, meaning you have to re-adjust the filter every time you focus. And making sure the grey part of the filter is darkening all of the sky but none of the land also takes practice. It’s all rather fiddly.
But fiddly is a good thing! One of my vague aims for this year is to try to do certain things more slowly. Anyone who knows me will doubtless be astonished to hear I could slow down even further. But I want to work at being more observant, and at at taking better photos. And the one thing I’ve learnt over the years about taking better photos is you need to slow down and think about what you’ve doing, instead of just snapping away. Having to faff about with filters will certainly help. Especially if, as is wise when using them, I also use a tripod. When it comes to photography, tripods are the ultimate faff. They’re also a total pain. But the resulting photos are always so much better.
There’s no way I’m going to be using my fancy new filter and my tripod every time I go out with my camera. But my plan this year is to go out on a number of slow photography expeditions, with the aim of coming back with perhaps just one good photograph, instead of lots of half-decent ones.
Spotted on my walk to Burton Point: hundreds of lapwings; a few curlews; marsh harrier; heron; wren; two long-tailed tits; a couple of robins; lots of crows. There was also something squawking monotonously from the alder carr near the Point. I stood there for five minutes hoping to catch a glimpse, as I had no idea whether it was a bird of prey, a gull, or something else entirely. Sadly, the identity of my mysterious squawker was to remain a mystery.
Took Pat’s cocker spaniel, Rosie, for a walk in Crow Nest Wood while Jen had a brew and a chat with her mum.
One of the taller beech trees at the top of the steep dell had blown over since last time I was there a couple of months back. It hadn’t been uprooted, but had snapped all the way through a couple of feet above the ground. I’d noticed this particular tree last time: it had a large number of bracket fungi around its base. The fungi were still there doing their work, some on the fallen tree, some on the stump. When I looked closer, it became clear the tree was badly decayed inside, which presumably explains why it snapped. But whether the fungi were the original cause of the decay, or were late arrivals who took advantage of an already afflicted tree, I couldn’t tell. Either way, bad news for the tree; good news for the fungi. A matter of death and life. Entropy versus its brave, but ultimately forlorn adversary.
A phone call in the evening.
Neighbourhood gossip: Galstones Farm over at Old Town caught fire last night. The elderly owner is said to have died. Dreadful.
Jen’s old house was immediately above Galstones. It has one of the most iconic views in Hebden Bridge, looking across the valley towards Heptonstall and Stoodley Pike monument.
Our late friend Mary was brought up at Galstones, among other farms. I remember her telling us how once, when she was young and very poorly, the locals spread straw on the road above the farm to deaden road-noise. When it rained heavily, water used to run down the steep track right into the farm’s stone-flagged kitchen. The most effective way to avoid serious flooding was to open the door opposite and simply let the water flow out again, down the valley into Hebden Bridge and beyond. Practical Yorkshire common-sense in action.
Something with a very hearty appetite has managed to circumvent our crow-proof bird-feeder. The feeder hangs from our cherry tree and resembles a giant glass doughnut. Small birds can enter either of the doughnut holes to get to the seeds inside; large birds and squirrels can’t get at the food because the glass is too slippery to gain purchase when trying to reach in. But a couple of the local magpies have now learnt to hover at the doughnut opening and shove their heads inside. Magpies are crows: I should probably ask for my money back!
The garden pheasants appreciate the magpies’ new trick. They rush across the lawn to stand under the feeder as the pied villains approach. There is always considerable spillage, and the pheasants are the main beneficiaries.
The caged bird-table and the metal feeder by the kitchen window remain unmolested by crows. I suspect proximity to the house is the primary deterrent.
A hour or so to take down the Christmas decorations. Another couple of hours to put them back up again next December. Is it really worth all the hassle? (Of course it is.)
A late-afternoon walk around the lanes with Jen in the gloaming. The hill-fog crept down from the Moor as we walked, so we returned home slightly damp, even though it wasn’t raining. Time for a brew and a fire.
Venus shone like a spotlight high above our gate before dawn this morning. Slightly to the left and far dimmer, Jupiter, the largest planet by far in our solar system. A short while later, I spotted another planet in the glow of the rising sun. The astronomy app on my phone informed me it was either Mercury or Saturn, but I was damned if I could tell which. The smart money was on Saturn.
After a day of wind and rain, a day of perfect calm and sunshine. I was supposed to be decorating the back bedroom this afternoon, but the Moor beckoned. Not so much a dilemma as a total no-brainer.
There were plenty of red grouse around today. Two startled the hell out of me before I even arrived at the Moor gate. They shot off low across the heather, emitting their alarm guks. I spotted another eyeing me warily from a heathery hummock as I headed up to the trig point. He soon shot off too with his partner in hot pursuit.
At this time of year, the sun never gets high above the horizon, so the views to the south and west, over towards Stoodley Pike monument, were mostly obscured by glare. But there were marvellously clear views farther north, over towards Haworth and Top Withens (Wuthering Heights).
I spotted more grouse as I headed along the Edge, and more still as I descended and began to loop back. Rooks were dibbing in the fields directly below the Moor. Others were performing intricate aeronautical manoeuvres with some visiting gulls.
I took a photograph of the view over towards Stoodley Pike from the steep sunken track down off the Moor from Johnny House. It was into the glare, but after a lot of post-processing back home, I managed to salvage a pretty decent image. A location, perhaps, to file away for a future photo-expedition involving tripod and filters.
Called to see Mike D en route to Dad’s. We’ve been friends since our first year at secondary school, age 11. Mike, who works on trees, had promised me some sycamore logs. I’d promised Mike my old photographic slide projector, and a magazine about VW camper vans containing a multi-page article about the restoration of his parents’ former van, The Blue Bullet. Conversion rates don’t apply to mutual favours, so we both ended up net winners.
Mike had warned me the logs needed splitting, so I turned up with hatchet, steel wedges, and lump-hammer. Mike provided a sledgehammer for extra heft. The logs had been seasoned well on Mike’s patio, so splitting them turned out easier than either of us expected—although I could have done without the glancing blow to my left thumb with the lump-hammer. It took us about an hour to split a car-boot’s worth. Having the right tools for the job certainly helped. As did the celebratory bacon butties afterwards.
I’ll season most of the logs some more down in our cellar, but I’ll keep a few back for immediate burning, just to let Mike know how excellent they were.
Postscript: The logs really were excellent, and did not need any more seasoning.
While replenishing the bird-feeders this morning, I spotted our first snowdrops of the year poking out from beneath the leaf-litter. They were already in flower. There was no sign of them at the same time last week. Snowdrops don’t hang about. They’ve established their niche by flowering before most other plants. One good way to avoid competition for resources is to strut your stuff when nobody else is trying to strut theirs.
To pull off their trick of flowering early, snowdrops have evolved a form of antifreeze to mitigate against the worst of the winter weather. Their leaves also have stiff tips to help them push out from frost-hardened soil and snow. Candlemass bells, they used to be called, being at their peak around the mid-winter feast of Candlemass on 2nd February. Or Groundhog Day, if you prefer the secular.
Our snowdrops came from my parents’ garden, whose snowdrops in turn came (before I was born) from the local wood: a practice which would be frowned on these days. Some of my parents’ snowdrops have also been transplanted to Mum’s grave. She always said they were her favourite flowers. Which is why she was so keen to have some growing in her son’s garden.
It’s been blowing a hooley the last couple of days: a strong, steady, surprisingly warm northerly. The perfect weather for making marmalade. But, before that, the annual ritual of clearing last autumn’s drifts of leaves from the driveway. I always wait for a strong northerly, then scoop up the leaves with the snow-shovel and fling them into the air. As if by magic, they fly out through the gate and head off across Russell’s fields towards Birmingham and beyond. I wonder if they’ve reached Africa yet.
We spent all afternoon making two batches of marmalade. As always, there was the big debate about whether we should use the (frankly rubbish) old trick of dropping a small blob of the molten mixture on to a cold plate to see if it would set. I, being me, prefer the scientific approach of boiling the marmalade to exactly 106°C, as measured with our preserve-making thermometer. Which means I’ll be to blame if the damn stuff doesn’t set. But it does look very promising, cooling down in all those jars.
Heading towards the garage before first-light this morning, I spotted something dark and squat on the back lawn. My eyes strained through the gloom, but I couldn’t make out any details. My initial thought was bloody cat, but it was a bit too big for a cat. A badger, perhaps? If only!
I edged closer. I still couldn’t make it out. It wasn’t moving. It must have seen me.
And then the security light came on.
I found myself face-to-face with an errant snow-shovelful of leaves from yesterday’s leaf-flinging escapade.
A quick visit to the Dee Marshes at Parkgate before meeting Carolyn for lunch. Several curlews piping, flocks of lapwings, a few little egrets, rooks and jackdaws, and a close encounter with a very friendly robin. As I was about to leave, a raven cronked low overhead, heading off across the marshes.
After lunch, Carolyn and I took her great dane, Minnie, for a walk in Burton Woods. She told me it has rapidly become one of her favourite walks. I was astonished to learn Carolyn was unaware of the two quakers’ graves at the edge of the wood, directly behind the church: a burial site as close as quakers were allowed to consecrated ground in less enlightened times. I took Carolyn to see the graves. As soon as we arrived, Carolyn heard a woodpecker hammering high up in a beech tree. It took us a couple of minutes to spot it among the branches: a great spotted woodpecker—always a thrill.
The phrase tempting fate has always baffled me. Isn’t the whole point of fate supposed to be that it’s unavoidable? There’s nothing you can do to affect its outcome. Try as you might, you can’t ‘tempt’ it. It wouldn’t be fate otherwise. (Not that fate is an actual thing, you understand.)
I’ve been avoiding tempting fate for over a month now. Not once have I mentioned to anyone what a mild and snow-free winter it’s been so far.
Anyway, it bucketed down with sleet this evening, so I now feel it’s safe to say it’s been a remarkably mild and snow-free winter so far.
The weather forecast for the early hours was far from encouraging, so I decided not to set an alarm and to leave things to chance. If I happened to be awake at around 05:00, and if the sky happened to be clear, I would get up and venture outside. Which is how I came to find myself standing behind my tripod on the front lawn at 05:15, photographing the lunar eclipse.
As my mate Thony, an expert on the history of astronomy, tweeted a few hours later, ‘If you’ve seen one lunar eclipse, you’ve seen em all.’ My photos did indeed look remarkably similar to the ones I’d taken of previous lunar eclipses. But it’s always a thrill to see predictive science come up trumps yet again: here was the promised eclipse, bang on cue, just to the left of Gemini.
But this wasn’t any boring old lunar eclipse, you understand. As the media were falling over themselves to point out, this was a ‘super blood wolf moon’. ‘Super’ because the moon was closer to the earth than usual, making it almost imperceptibly larger and brighter. ‘Blood’ because, as with all full lunar eclipses, the moon turned red. And ‘wolf’ because it was the first full moon in January, when wolf courtship howls are supposedly at their peak. To maintain our interest, it seems to be an unwritten rule that every lunar eclipse has to have one more adjective than the last.
The rosy lunar glow is caused by sunlight refracting through the earth’s atmosphere and bouncing back at us off the face of the moon. Reflected sunrises and sunsets from around the world: a truly international collaboration. It’s not the colour I marvel at, but the way in which the moon is sculpted by the subdued light, revealing its true three-dimensional nature. On all other nights, the moon looks like a flat disc, with varying amounts bitten away. When the moon is in full eclipse, it is very clearly a solid sphere, hanging up there in the blackness, as if by magic.
I tried to contain my disappointment at not hearing any wolves serenading in the valley below. But I was delighted to hear the persistent ke-wick of a female tawny owl a short distance away, down near the Manor House. After a few minutes, her cries were answered by the more distant hoo-hoo-ooo of a male off towards Nutclough Wood.
As I lowered my gaze from the moon to admire the mist rising from the valley, a shooting star streaked towards Heptonstall. The icing on the cake. Elated, I began to dismantle my camera kit. Lunar eclipses were all well and good, but I was bloody freezing.
Bitterly cold, but bright. En route to Dad’s, I decided to pay a visit to the RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands reserve. The volunteers there had recently been tweeting about new visitors at the reserve in the form of bearded tits. I had never seen a bearded tit, so thought a brief visit was worth a shot.
There were surprisingly few birds at the reserve. The scrapes and mere were covered in thick ice, forcing their usual residents to move elsewhere. But I made my way to the main hide to find a flock of woolly hatted birders gazing toward the distant reeds through impressive telescopes. After a few minutes, one of them explained to the rest of us how the best way to look for bearded tits was to look for movement in the reeds. If the birds did reveal themselves, it was usually very briefly. Then he spotted one through his telescope, and gave a very good description of where to look for it. Through my puny binoculars, I couldn’t see a damn thing. After a while, I spotted a minuscule dot flying off above the reeds, but something about its jizz cried out blue tit to me.
The chap with the telescope called out again a few minutes later. The bird had returned. It was a male, he said. Good grief, his telescope must have been powerful. I still couldn’t see a thing. Then the bird was gone. I waited for ten minutes or so, then headed back to the car.
I wasn’t at all disappointed at my failure to add a new bird to my non-existent life list. Indeed, I took an almost perverse pleasure in not seeing any bearded tits. Where would be the fun if rare visitors were always easy to spot? There’s always next time.
Jen was off all last week, so I had a much-needed week off decorating duties. It’s a running joke in her office that the weather always turns glorious whenever Jen is off. The whole of last week was bitterly cold, with an inch of snow on the ground. No doubt some would count that as glorious, but not us.
We took several walks around the lanes, and I managed to take one or two decent photos, but our only off-the-beaten track excursion was down into Hebden Bridge via Nutclough Wood. Many of last autumn’s colours were still in evidence, looking incongruous against the snowy backdrop.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
I’m sitting in my car, overlooking the Dee Marshes at Gayton. It was raining heavily when I arrived, so I got on with some work. After I’d been here about an hour, the rain suddenly stopped and the sun came out. From uncomfortably cold to uncomfortably hot in five seconds flat. I got out the car to remove some layers and cool down. The sunshine had worked its magic: skylarks burst into song from various locations above the marsh. Sometimes seasonal transformations can be very rapid indeed.
It soon clouded over again, and the skylarks settled down. I got back to my work. After another hour or there about, I looked up to see a small bird of prey gliding past, low and fast. It landed on a post about 100 metres away. A male merlin! Slate-grey back, russet nape and breast, yellow legs and talons. What a thrill! Too far away to photograph, unfortunately. It stayed there for about five minutes before being chased off by a carrion crow, which added insult to injury by commandeering the post. It was only on seeing the crow perched on the same post that I truly appreciated just how small male merlins are: not much bigger than blackbirds.
Now it’s pissing down again. Time for some work. (Who am I kidding?)
Our four-weekly home-haircut. We were joined this time by Yvonne, our great-niece Lotte (3), and our great-nephew, Melle (8 months). Three-year-olds turn out to be exhausting. But after having played ‘knights’ in the garden with Lotte (she with a five-foot-long bamboo sword; me with a one-foot-long bamboo sword), I am officially her new best friend. I shouldn’t let it go to my head: Lotte’s best friend changes with each new encounter, apparently.
Took Pat’s dog Rosie for a walk along the canal in the afternoon. Bitterly cold.
To the Farm for a birthday party in the evening. We forgot the mustard we’d been asked to bring, so I popped back down the hill to fetch it. As I walked back up the hill, from about 250 yards away, I saw a large, white bird circling around the eaves of the Farm’s ‘big mistal’ (Yorkshire for cow-shed). My immediate thought was BARN OWL! But, before I could hurry up the hill to investigate, a van pulled up alongside me, and the passenger asked for directions. By the time I’d managed to fob him off with a (perfectly true) never heard of the place, the bird had disappeared.
Bloody hell, perhaps the barn owl I’ve spotted a couple of times over recent months really is roosting in one of the Farm’s buildings, as I’d hoped!
Storm Gerald swept across the UK earlier this week. Or Storm Gareth, as I kept referring to it. I’m hopeless with names. I don’t approve of this newfangled fad for giving storms monikers. Hurricane envy is what it is.
In Gerald’s aftermath (now there’s a phrase I never thought I’d find myself using), we experienced a couple of days of high winds and driving rain. As often happens in such circumstances, I found a new leak in the house. Two leaks on this occasion. Both windows in the living room had large puddles on their sills. The windows, which are fairly new, weren’t to blame: the water will have got in through some minuscule cracks in our pointing and worked its way down the wall cavity until it met with the windows’ lintels and frames, and seeped its way round into the house. That’s one problem with having a converted barn for a living room: they weren’t designed to be waterproof, just weather-resistant. And the local millstone grit from which our house is made is a surprisingly porous.
The broken rainwater drain beneath our drive was in full fountain mode, turning the driveway into a burbling stream. I like to think of it as the source of the Humber.
Jen and I headed over to Mytholmroyd in the afternoon. The River Calder was alarmingly high. One poor chap was making a real nuisance of himself with passing pedestrians by pumping out his cellar on to the pavement. According to local social media, the flood sirens had sounded. There will be many sleepless nights throughout Calderdale.
What a difference a day makes. No rain to speak of, and plenty of sunshine. With water seeping slowly from the moors, it will take a few days for river-levels to return to normal. But there’s a definite feeling of the valley having dodged a bullet.
The vernal equinox occurred at 21:58 on 20th, marking the official start of spring, as far as I’m concerned. Almost bang on cue, 40ish hours later, I heard my first chiffchaff of the year chiffing and chaffing for all it was worth from some gloriously becatkinned goat willows at the side of the B&Q car park in Halifax. Edgeland habitats often bring unexpected thrills like this.
Took Rosie the cocker spaniel for a walk through Crow Nest Wood and back to Pat’s via the railway station. At every fork in the path, Rosie tried to turn towards home. This laziness on her behalf introduced me to a new footpath I wasn’t previously aware of that proved a far more pleasant, albeit shorter, route than the one I’d planned to take.
When I got home, I discovered the metal lace-loop of one of my walking boots had snapped right off. The metal had been badly corroded. I’ve only had the boots two years. The previous pair (same brand and model name) lasted just short of 20 years. When I went online to see if there was any sort of guarantee, I came across a bulletin board bemoaning the fall of this once great brand since being bought by a major conglomerate and having all of its manufacturing outsourced to sweatshops in the Far East. A brand I’ve recommended to friends and family has, it turns out, been transformed into cheap crap. There’s capitalism for you.
My first bumblebee of the year. A huge one, exploring the nooks and crannies in the wall at the side of our drive. It will have been a queen, recently out of hibernation, checking out potential nest sites.
A walk along the edge of the Dee Marshes to Burton Point. Skylarks skylarking. Rooks cavorting. Occasional goose honks. A fast, high-flying kestrel pretending to be a peregrine. Long-tailed tits in the alders at the carr. Thousands of last year’s reed mace heads with downy haloes. Goat willow catkins. Emerging hawthorn leaves. Gorse in full flower (as always). Noisy cyclist conversations (ditto).
I sat on a rock at the point for half an hour, thinking about nothing in particular. There were many pools out on the marsh following a recent high tide. Little egrets hunted in some of them. A great white egret prowled the drainage ditch at the edge of the military rifle range. A moorhen lurked in the reeds.
Thousands of tiny white flowers nestled among the blades of grass at my feet. I had no idea what they were, so made notes to check later with an online flower key. For once, my notes proved useful, and I was able to identify the flowers with confidence as common whitlow grass, whose scientific name, Draba verna, merely confirms spring has most definitely sprung.
A hoarse croak from the silver birches by the garden rough patch. Crow-like, but not entirely like a normal crow.
A minor commotion as the croaker spots me and burst from the branches: a jay. Another commotion: two jays. Rare garden visitors in this neck of the non-woods.
They fly away across the field on awkward, mechanical wings. Jays always give the impression of being unaccomplished fliers: capable, certainly, but nothing to write home about. Something, nevertheless, to write about here.
A break from the Saturday routine as Jen and I headed down the snicket to the all-day Caught by the Riverevent in Hebden Bridge. Readings and conversations in the morning and early afternoon; music in the evening.
As with the previous event, at which I displayed some of my Hebden’s Other Bridges photos, I came away inspired by the speakers, and deeply impressed at the undefinable institution that is Caught by the River. Jeff, John, and the gang, and their eclectic collection of contributors have built something very special indeed.
My birthday. Jen has taken the week off work, so we took a walk along Height Road, then down through the woods and fields and along the canal towpath into Hebden Bridge for a pub lunch and a crossword. Spotted a nuthatch hammering the hell out of something hard to crack in a beech tree in the woods. A beech nut from last autumn was my best bet. Several pairs of newborn lambs stumbled and gambolled after their mums in the fields. The Canada geese were as raucous as ever on the canal.
All in all, not a bad day on which to become yet another year older.
A knock on our door in the evening—an almost unheard of event. Has someone died? No, it’s neighbour John. Could we look after his new chickens for a couple of days while he’s away? As a reward, we get to keep any eggs. An equitable arrangement. I pop over the road with him for a quick tour of the swish new chicken-coop, only to discover the hens have left me a down-payment.
Poached eggs for lunch, collected fresh from John’s chicken-coop this morning. Fabulous.
A glorious spring day. I predict to Jen we’ll see swallows before the weekend is out. I’ve been looking out for them all week. Two hours later, I’m pottering in the garden when I hear twittering overhead. The first swallow of the year, high above our sycamore. One swallow might not make a summer, but it’s joined seconds later by a second. So I guess that makes it official.
More eggs in the evening. The girls are doing us proud.
For a couple of weeks now, Philip the garden pheasant has had two Philippas on the go. This morning, I caught him in flagrante delicto with one of them, deep among the lavender plants on our rockery. So perhaps we’ll be hearing the pitter-patter of tiny pheasant feet soon, neighbours’ abominable cats permitting.
En route to Dad’s, a return visit to RSPB Burton Mere in the hope of spotting my first ever bearded tits.
I was as thrilled as ever to see so many avocets near the reception building. They and the little egrets were unheard of on the Wirral when I was a boy. Godwits, geese, lapwings, ducks, but no time for any of those today: I immediately headed off to the viewing screen at the reedbed. It was a glorious spring day. Chiffchaffs and other warblers calling all around. Little grebes and tufted ducks. Little egrets making their weird Donald-Duck-gargling noises from the woods behind. Reed buntings feeding in their eponymous reeds. A raven gliding high in the blue sky, flipping upside-down occasionally, as they do. But not a single bearded tit (excluding Yours Truly).
I decided to hang around for a while, nature waiting, as I like to think of it. Other people came and went. I chatted with one retired gent, clearly an expert birder, who informed me the beautiful calls emanating from the reeds to our right were those of the elusive cetti’s warbler. So, not only did I learn a new bird-call, but also how to pronounce cetti’s [chetty’s].
After an hour, I headed off to see what was going on at the Marsh Covert hide. Geese, loads of bar-tailed godwits, shovelers, lapwings, teal, a pair of gadwalls. On my way back to the reedbed, I spotted several brimstone butterflies flying above the drainage ditch, and a chiffchaff chiff-chaffing its heart out high in a tree.
But still no bearded tits. A couple more reed buntings flew across the pool and disappeared into the reeds directly in front of me. I trained my binoculars on the spot where they had disappeared, and a blue head immediately popped out from the reeds. My heart skipped a beat… No, definitely not a reed bunting. For all of three seconds, I found myself face-to-face with my first ever bearded tit! A magnificent male. Not bearded at all, but moustachioed. (Not a tit either, if you want to be really pedantic.) The Scouse woman standing next to me gasped. “Was that what I thought it was?” she asked. I confirmed it was. She was practically in tears. It turned out she’d visited the reserve many, many times looking for bearded tits, and now she’d finally seen her first. Just like me.
Another expert birder joined us. He bore an uncanny resemblance to the writer Robert Macfarlane. Nice chap. We talked birds and cameras. He was lucky enough to see the white stork that visited the reserve last week. Our conversation was interrupted by the call of what I now recognised as a cetti’s warbler ringing out from the reeds immediately to our left. A little brown blob shot out of the reeds and headed off low across the pool. My second new species in under five minutes!
Jen and I took several pre-dinner early-evening walks around the lanes this week. It’s wonderful to hear the distant burbling of curlews drifting down from the Moor once again—and occasionally from the fields nearer to home. One flew right over our heads as we headed down the hill towards the Lane Ends this evening. I wonder where it overwintered. Perhaps it was one of the birds I heard calling from the Dee Marshes a few weeks back. Unlikely, but a nice thought.
A good few hours’ writing in the car, looking out across the Dee Marshes from Gayton. No sign of Wales today: too much mist, which soon brought rain.
I have a fabulous study at home with a glass-topped desk and a gorgeous 27” iMac computer. So, why do I seem to find it easier to write sitting in the passenger seat of my car, with a vegetable chopping-board laid across my knees for a table, banging words into my iPad? I suppose there are far fewer distractions here—especially when it’s pissing down, and all the birds have taken off somewhere. But not having my books to hand is problematic. Or are they a distraction too?
There are cowslips growing in the wall by the old well on Rowlands Lane. I assume the people in the house opposite planted them. I was also delighted to find a lone plant growing in the verge, about 50 metres away. I’m guessing that one seeded naturally from last year’s cowslips at the well.
As with so many other species, Charles Darwin studied cowslips and their near-relatives, primroses, in meticulous depth. He correctly concluded the two distinct arrangements of their sexual organs (the so-called pin-eyed and thrum-eyed forms) had evolved to prevent self-pollination. In his 1876 Autobiography, he wrote:
[N]o little discovery of mine ever gave me so much pleasure as the making out the meaning of heterostyled flowers. The results of crossing such flowers in an illegitimate manner, I believe to be very important, as bearing on the sterility of hybrids; although these results have been noticed by only a few persons.
Darwin made a habit of finding significance in the most insignificant of details. What better way to gain converts to your wonderful theory than by using it to explain phenomena nobody else realised needed explaining?
05:11 - Robin
05:15 - Blackbird
05:17 - Collared dove
05:18 - Wren and great tit
05:19 - House sparrows and wood pigeon
05:20 - Goldfinches
05:21 - Chaffinch and dunnock
05:24 - Tawny owl (!)
05:25 - Heavy thud as Jen closed the bedroom window.
Glorious Easter weather. Jen and I have been taking evening walks around the lanes all week. Yesterday evening, I received something of a jolt when it suddenly dawned on me something was missing: there were no lapwings tumbling above the fields near the Nook. Come to think of it, trips to the Wirral excluded, I haven’t seen or heard a single lapwing all year.
I spent three hours or so tending a garden incinerator bonfire on the back lawn this afternoon. All the time, I kept my eyes peeled for lapwings. But still no sign of any.
What on earth is going on? There should be lapwings.
Bonk-bonk-bonk! [pause…] Bonk-bonk-bonk! The unmistakeable April sound of a testosterone-pumped male chaffinch attacking his own reflection in the dining room window. I chased him away several times, but he was invariably back again a minute later, sometimes at a different window.
If previous experience is anything to go by, this nonsense will carry on for a few weeks.
We woke to a power-cut. No laundry this morning! No computer either. What on earth to do with all that unexpected free time? So I headed off to Hardcastle Crags to photograph bluebells. Forget the Serengeti and the Galápagos Islands: at bluebell time, the UK is second to none when it comes to natural spectacles.
As Jen and I rounded Nook Corner on our evening walk, my heart skipped a beat as I imagined I half-heard the distant arcade-game call of a lapwing. I spun round and looked back to see one flying away over the brow of the hill.
So, there are lapwings around after all. But I should have seen far more by now. It’s all very worrying.
An excited call from Jen in the kitchen first thing: “There’s a deer in the garden!” There was too: a roe deer nibbling at the privet hedge.
I ran upstairs to grab my camera, and returned to find Jen standing at the dining room window, with the deer on the other side gazing in. It had its nose almost against the glass. With hindsight (no pun intended), I wonder if it was staring at its own reflection.
I slowly raised my camera, but the deer immediately started, leaping on to the lawn behind the lavender. I took a quick photo, but the reflection from the glass door was very intrusive. So I sneaked through into the living room to try to get a better view. “It’s jumped into the field!” called Jen. So I opened the door on to the patio and slipped outside.
The deer stood not far away in the field at the front of the house. It observed me for a few seconds as I took photos, then sprang high into the air, bounding off across the field in the general direction of Nutclough Wood.
En route to Dad’s, I stopped at Burton Marshes and took a walk to Burton Point. Sedge warblers were calling frantically (and tunelessly) from the Phragmites. Spotted a whitethroat, several reed buntings, a raven (always a thrill), and a whinchat (ditto). There were about seven billion midges at the Point, but they were decent enough to leave me alone. I can’t recall when I started calling them midges: we always called them gnats when I was a boy.
I saw my first swift of the summer as I was driving over the tops at Wainstalls this evening. It appeared over the brow of the hill, out of Luddenden Dean, and powered north on rapid wings. I actually cheered.
Heard the local song thrush singing the first five notes of Glenn Miller’s In the Mood several times this morning. I ended up humming the damn tune all afternoon. Bloody ear-worms! I’d have thought Glenn Miller was a bit old-fashioned for the thrushes of today. Shouldn’t they be into hip-hop, or K-pop, or dub-step (whatever the hell they’re supposed to be)?
Greenflies all over the washing as it hung on the line this morning. Hundreds of them. I ended up ironing several into shirts.
As we headed down the hill into Hebden Bridge for a family bash at the Il Mulino this evening, Jen and I spotted a jackdaw gathering a huge beakful of hair from the back of a neighbour’s horse. They do it every year. Great nesting material. And the horses seem to enjoy it.
In an on-stage conversation at the Caught by the River event in Hebden Bridge at the end of March, nature writer Tim Dee amicably admonished his colleague Rob Cowen for using the word liminal. Were I the sort of chap to punch the air and whoop in approval, I would have done just that. Instead, I later simply tweeted my general agreement.
You never heard the word liminal until a few years back. True we had subliminal (as in advertising), and sublimation (as in chemicals changing directly from solid to gas), both of which appear to use the same Latin root, limen, meaning ‘threshold’. When you’re in a liminal state, you’re in transition, passing through some metaphorical doorway between two very different modes of being. Or, at least, that’s how I interpret what’s supposed to be going on.
Liminal is a perfectly good technical term. The problem is, everyone suddenly seems to be using the damn word—and much of the time they seem to be using it to convey some mystical or magical transition. It’s the sort of word beloved by people who also use the word spiritual (another of my pet peeves). As a person who stubbornly insists he’s made of atoms and nothing else, with no ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’, the word liminal, used in the way it increasingly is, really gets on my tits. I don’t know whether Tim Dee objects to it on similar grounds, or whether he simply dislikes trendy neologisms that have already become clichés. Perhaps both. Or perhaps he dislikes the word for some other reason entirely. It wouldn’t surprise me.
I had a lovely experience out on our patio an hour or so after sunset this evening. Old Town Mill was silhouetted in the salmony-pink afterglow on the north west skyline. A waxing gibbous moon hung high and hazy above. The garden robin was singing his heart out in the remaining light, while three of the local pipistrelle bats flew circles around my head, hunting for insects attracted to the residual heat radiating from our west-facing wall. To cap it all, a tawny owl hooted from somewhere nearby.
It was a wonderful moment of transition from day to night: sunset and moon; robin and owl; bats in the gloaming. It’s impossible to describe how special it felt. But the one word I sure as hell won’t be deploying from my limited, materialist vocabulary is liminal. I don’t see how that would help.
Finding myself in Wakefield with a few hours to kill, I paid a brief visit to the minuscule local museum, with its even more minuscule exhibition about local lad and early nineteenth-century naturalist, conservationist and explorer Charles Waterton.
Waterton was quite a character. Among other things, he was an expert taxidermist who cobbled together a number of fake animals, an illustration of one of which, his so-called Nondescript, was used as the frontispiece to his book Wanderings in South America (1825). He wrote tongue-in-cheek as if the Nondescript were a real, disconcertingly humanoid, creature. He had, in fact, fashioned it from the backside of a howler monkey! I was delighted to find the original Nondescript on display at the museum, along with a similar creation entitled Martin Luther After His Fall (Waterton was a staunch Catholic).
While he was staying at his uncle’s slave estate in British Guiana, Waterton taught one of the slaves the art of taxidermy. That slave, John Edmonstone, was later freed, and travelled to Scotland, where he ended up teaching taxidermy to university students. One of the students he taught was none other than Charles Darwin. Darwin read Waterton’s book on South America before heading off on the Beagle voyage. He later visited Waterton at his stately home near Wakefield, Walton Hall, describing Waterton as ‘an amusing strange fellow’.
Sounds like a typically perceptive description to me, Mr Darwin.
I stepped out on to the patio immediately after sunset to look for early bats (and possibly owls). No such luck. But I did hear my first cuckoo of the summer calling from very far off, from the general direction of the Moor. I listened, thrilled, for a good five minutes before it was drowned out by a passing bus and the chimes of an ice-cream van.
A visit to my lifelong friend Carolyn. I was recently sent a review copy of the book The Good Bee by Alison Benjamin & Brian McCallum. I enjoyed it very much, and thought Carolyn would too as she keeps bees, so I brought her my review copy. I also decided to grab some video footage of a couple of Carolyn’s bee hives to include in my review. This turned out to be a spectacularly stupid idea. As I approached the nearest hive, the bees, which are apparently close to swarming, immediately went into attack mode, stinging me on the cheek, and causing me to lose my glasses in a huge patch of nettles. It took Carolyn and me (by now, in beekeeper suits) 20 minutes to recover them. Fortunately, the video footage survives:
We later drove to nearby Burton and took a walk through the fields and woods. I’d not walked this particular route before. It was very bucolic.
Approaching Birch Services on the M62 en route to the Wirral, I was surprised to see a hooded crow perched on a sign at the side of the slip road . I passed close by and am sure it wasn’t a case of mistaken identity. I’ve seen hooded crows in Ireland, Scotland, and Italy, but never one in England before, as far as I can recall. In this part of the world, we have carrion crows, not hoodies. Whether carrion crows and hooded crows are different varieties of the same species, or separate species, is still a hotly debated topic. It’s the age-old story: lumpers v splitters. Carrion and hooded crows can certainly interbreed, so perhaps I saw a hybrid.
A good couple of hours working on a picnic bench at Parkgate on the edge of the Dee Marshes, distracted only by a marsh harrier being pursued, as always, by a crow, and a group of middle-aged women at a nearby table having a very loud conversation about diarrhoea.
At Dad’s, bumblebees were swarming about his bird box, just like they did this time last year. There were scores of them. Ginger abdomens, white tails. Tree bumblebees, Bombus hypnorum. There were several bees crammed in and around the entrance hole to the bird box. Some seemed to be ventilating it by beating their wings.
I watched as one bumblebee blundered into a nearby Welsh poppy whose petals were semi-closed. The bee’s movements inside the flower caused the petals to close even further, trapping the furious bee inside for a good two minutes. I’ve been reading Darwin on pollination recently. I think he would have been amused.
The parent blue tits have been in overdrive this week, going in and out of the nest box in our Scots pine every couple of minutes. The chicks must be close to fledging. We’ve had a nest box in that tree since early 2002, and have had blue tits successfully nest there every spring since.
I spotted another nest site this afternoon. We’re looking after Jen’s sister’s border collie, Mia, for a week, so I took her for a walk down Burlees Lane and up through the wood. At one point, a house sparrow flew low across the track in front of us and disappeared into a crack in a drystone wall. I could hear the excited cheeps of chicks inside.
Driving along Heights Road later in the afternoon, I saw a blue tit disappear into a very similar crack in a very similar wall. Who needs nest boxes when there are so many drystone walls to choose from?
An early(ish) morning walk with Rosie the cocker spaniel in Crow Nest Wood while Jen and her sister gabbed with their mum. I heard a strange, rasping noise coming from a tree in a garden near the wood. At first, I mistook it for my phone vibrating on silent and tried to take the call. It was a spooky noise. I decided it sounded crow-like, and guessed it to be a young magpie begging for food. But it was only a guess.
In the wood itself, I heard another bird I couldn’t see. It sounded a bit like a song thrush, but more intense somehow. I concluded it was probably a song thrush after all.
I really need to work on my bird-call identification skills.
A day spent reading Darwin’s Insectivorous Plants. No day spent reading Darwin is ever wasted. As with his earthworms book, Darwin on insectivorous plants is Darwin at his most nerdish. He loved to sweat the small stuff. What’s the point of coming up with a theory that explains pretty much everything in the natural world if you can’t apply it to the small stuff?
As usual, Darwin became more than a little obsessed, using painstakingly weighed snippets of human hair to ascertain exactly how small a weight it took to trigger the insect-enveloping reflex motion of his beloved sundews. To determine exactly what it took to get their juices flowing, he also fed the sundews all manner of materials, from glass to cat’s ear (by which, I mean an actual cat’s ear, not the plant of the same name). Even Darwin seems to have realised his obsession might have gone too far this time, describing his experiments to his best pal, Joseph Dalton Hooker, as ‘twaddle’.
What a guy! How can anyone not be obsessed by Charles Darwin?
My customary walk along the edge of the Dee Marshes to Burton Point. After days of drizzle, the weather was finally seasonably bright, although the south-westerly breeze held a distinct chill.
The magnificent roadside display of cow parsley was on its way out, but the yellow flag irises, marsh mallows, and marsh orchids had come into their own on the marsh itself.
Rabbits in the sheep field. Linnets on the barbed-wire fence. Plenty of swifts screaming overhead, but very few swallows. I kept an eye out for wheatears, but no joy. Thousands of tiny purple flowers on the rocky outcrop at the Point. With the assistance of an online flower key, I later decided they must be small-flowered cranesbill.
From the Phragmites, reed mace, and last of the cow parsley, sedge warblers were still warbling as if it were about to go out of fashion. For once, one of them came sufficiently close for me to take a half-decent photo.
Rain was forecast for pretty much all of the next fortnight, so I thought I’d make the most of today’s uncannily June-like weather by heading up to the Moor.
As I climbed the stile from the golf course, I spotted what I initially took to be a stolen egg in the middle of the track through the heather. It turned out to be a Titleist golf ball. There was nobody playing on the course at the time, so I pocketed it as a present for Dad.
Lots of meadow pipits, a few skylarks, and a lone lapwing as I headed up to the trig point. Having taken in the view, and touched the trig point to make it official, I made my way along the Edge to the cluster of rocks that appear on the cover of my book On the Moor. I decided to sit on the largest rock for half an hour, taking in the view down towards Hebden Bridge while having a brew.
The breeze was strong, but pleasant. Cloud shadows scudded across the heather. Bumblebees busied. A kestrel flew by, pursued by the obligatory crow. A couple of curlews called repeatedly from the fields below, but no lapwings. I neither saw nor heard any red grouse either, which is very unusual. Perhaps they were trying to be inconspicuous, with chicks about.
After my brew, I continued along the Edge, then turned downhill and headed along the wall at the edge of the Moor, back towards the golf course. More meadow pipits. A few linnets perched on the fence. I expected to see wheatears, but was disappointed. I expected to see lapwings, but saw only one. As I reached the old quarry at Johnny House, a buzzard circled overhead. Rare in these parts. Then, as I approached the golf course, I spotted what I took to be another golf ball in the middle of the track. Wrong again! This time, it really was a stolen egg. A pheasant’s egg, I think. Cracked open and abandoned to a very fortunate fly.
My annual check-up with the optician. He asked if anything has changed. I said my right eye is now noticeably worse than my left. The optician’s tests confirmed this. Time for some expensive spectacle lens upgrades.
The optician also casually informed me I have the beginnings of cataracts in both eyes. He explained how they form on eye lenses, using as a disconcerting simile the slow-frying of egg-whites in a pan. More entropy to be dealt with! I asked how long until I need to do something about them. He guessed about 10 years. My life is increasingly reckoned in decades these days.
Our garden is suddenly full of fledglings. Pied wagtails, great tits, blue tits, goldfinches.
I assume the blue tit fledglings came from our nest box. I spotted them this morning, hanging inexpertly beneath rhododendron branches, searching for insects.
I watched a great tit fledgling taking a energetic, solitary full-immersion soak in our bird bath. I’m guessing it was its first. It seemed to enjoy its bath. Who wouldn’t, after weeks crammed in a mite-infested, shit-stained nest with eight or so siblings?
Driving rain all afternoon, resulting in a spectacular cloud-sea in the valley below the house in the evening. My photos didn’t do it justice, but I captured a nice shot of the sunset behind Old Town Mill.
Driving home over the tops from Colne, along the old packhorse trail through Widdop, I spotted a handful of crows tucking into a squashed rabbit at the side of the road. They took flight as the car approached. The last to leave, I was astonished to see, wasn’t a crow after all, but a little owl.
I’ve seen little owls plenty of times in the middle of the afternoon before, but I had no idea they ate carrion. Come to think of it, though, why wouldn’t they?
As I walked towards the garage first thing this morning, I spooked a wren fledgling that had been hunting for insects by the wheely bin. It tried to fly over the garage roof, but couldn’t gain enough height, and crashed into the coal-hole door. It then flew off low, past the garage and outhouse, and disappeared into a crack in the drystone wall by the compost heap.
I wouldn’t mind betting the wren hatched in a nest somewhere very near its hiding place. We often see wrens by the compost heap. Rotting fruit and veg attract insects, and insects attract wrens.
A weekend at Bill and Angela’s. As usual, red kites were everywhere. A real conservation success story. I’ve only ever seen a single red kite at our place, two years ago next week, but they are also gradually re-establishing themselves in the North, so I’ll continue to keep my eyes peeled.
As I sat on the bench beneath the wisteria, enjoying a brew first thing, a robin shot into the foliage above. A chorus of plaintive, high-pitched cheeps immediately erupted. I’d been sitting five feet from a robins’ nest without realising. Time to withdraw into the house.
I went to bed too early and couldn’t sleep, so eventually got up to read a book in the study. A red full moon hung low in the sky above my friend’s farm. A ‘strawberry moon’, apparently. Not on account of its colour, but on account of its being strawberry season.
Slightly above and to the right of the moon, a planet shone like a spotlight. I checked the astronomy app on my phone: as I’d guessed, Jupiter. It really was astonishingly bright. So I opened the study window and trained my crappy binoculars on it, using the swivel chair as a totally ineffective tripod. The image darted about, but I eventually managed to steady the binoculars sufficiently to make out three small pinpricks of light close to the planet, at about eight o’clock from it. After a while, I spotted a fourth pinprick on the opposite side, slightly farther out, at about two o’clock. I was looking at the Galilean Moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, first spotted through a telescope less powerful than my binoculars by Galileo Galilei on 7th January 1610 (and second spotted by German astronomer Simon Marius just one night later).
Contrary to popular myth, the observation of four satellites orbiting another planet did not immediately prove the newfangled Copernican heliocentric system to be correct. There were numerous other rival models that allowed for orbits around other heavenly bodies. But Galileo and Marius’s independent observations did disprove the ancient and already somewhat discredited Ptolemaic system, which held that everything in the universe revolved around the Earth.
An entire world system refuted by some simple observations you might make in the comfort of your own study. How cool is science?
A trip to RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands, in search of spoonbills, cattle egrets, and bearded tits, none of which deigned to show their faces. I did, however, see lots of avocets and godwits, a couple of Cetty’s warblers, and a greenshank, along with hundreds of black-headed gulls.
I took a walk up to the Iron Age hillfort at Burton Point to take in the magnificent view across the marshes to Wales. The scene will have been very different for the people who built the fort, long before the River Dee was diverted to the Welsh side of the estuary, and the marshes began to form.
Before leaving, I decided to pay a quick visit to the Bunker Hide. On my way there, an unexpected thrill: my first ever bee orchids.
I’ve just bought Darwin’s snappily entitled On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, and on the Good Effects on Intercrossing (1862). I was thinking of maybe including a short section about orchids in the ‘Darwin book’ I’m currently working on. I’ll take my first bee orchids as a sign that maybe I indeed should.
I opened the curtains at Dad’s first thing this morning to find a male sparrowhawk perched on top of the bird-feeder with its back to me. Such angular birds, especially across the shoulders: the stealth fighters of the avian world.
Back in Yorkshire, I found three more furniture beetles on the frame of the large mirror in the downstairs loo. Like God (if JBS Haldane’s famous inference was correct), I have an inordinate fondness for beetles. But woodworm is intolerable: thanks to our lazy predecessors, we lost our previous dining room floor to the vile grubs. I squashed the three latest offenders, and added woodworm treatment to the shopping list.
Took our houseguest, Rosie the cocker spaniel, for two walks around the lanes today. Approaching home along the bridleway during the morning walk, I spotted something shining electric-blue from a shaded patch of nettles: a topaz treasure in the form of a jay’s feather.
We had the patio door open all day so Rosie could go into the garden whenever she liked. This enabled us to hear curlews burbling from the nearby fields throughout the afternoon. There seem to be more of them about this year, unlike the lapwings, swifts, and swallows. And I still haven’t seen a wheatear.
Finished reading Robert Macfarlane’s very entertaining Underland. People who venture underground are an odd bunch. I well remember the cavers’ drunken antics at The Old Hill Inn near Ingleton, back in the day. I’ve visited a few show-caves and -mines over the years, but it takes a special form of insanity to enjoy crawling through cramped, wet passageways in the pitch dark. It’s bad enough going down into our cellar for some firewood.
Reading Macfarlane’s book brought back two suppressed claustrophobic memories. The first was in Shetland in 1985, when I foolishly decided to crawl through a low, narrow passageway between the twin walls of a prehistoric circular stone tower, known as a broch. I became trapped for a couple of minutes, and had visions of rescuers having to dismantle a protected ancient monument to retrieve a stout archaeology student who really should have known better.
The second was of the time I was given a tour of a nuclear-powered submarine visiting the Liverpool docks. I was shown the small cabin in which, in the event of an emergency, the entire crew was supposed to gather and await rescue through an escape hatch. It felt pretty cramped with just a handful of us in there. The idea of fitting the entire ship’s complement in there seemed preposterous in the extreme. I got the distinct impression the officer showing us around thought so too.
Thunder and lightning had been confidently forecast for a week, so, of course, there was neither thunder nor lightning. There was, however, hill fog, and the atmosphere was almost unbearably humid, which made walking Rosie the borrowed cocker spaniel sticky and unpleasant.
Foxgloves out in abundance. Cuckoo spit. Vetch. Tormentil. Clover. Magnificent plate-sized clusters of elderflowers in full bloom.
Heavy rain relieved much of the humid tension left over from yesterday. I waited all morning for it to stop before taking Rosie for a walk. The second we stepped outside, of course, the downpour resumed. But we were out now, so, to Rosie’s consternation, I opened my umbrella and took her for a drag down Burlees Lane.
The rain had brought the swifts low. There were two or three dozen of them circling in a tight group overhead. I’ve been concerned about their numbers this summer, but there were plenty around this lunchtime.
I paused for a while to admire a clump of foxgloves at the side of the lane. I’ve been writing about them recently for my Darwin book, and wanted to double-check I’d described bumblebees’ foraging technique correctly. (Well spotted, once again, Mr Darwin!)
Nearing the end of what the Met Office will no doubt declare ‘the shittiest June on record’, a day of glorious sunshine.
At lunchtime, I took Rosie the cocker spaniel for a walk around the lanes. The bridleway at the bottom of the field in front of our house was looking magnificently overgrown, with only a narrow path winding its way through the grasses, nettles, and brambles. Butterflies and less pleasant insects were everywhere.
Jen, Rosie and I repeated the walk this evening, only to discover some public-spirited soul had passed through during the afternoon and strimmed down most the nettles and brambles. For good measure, they had also clipped back a number of nearby tree branches.
When will people get it into their heads the countryside is not supposed to look like a bloody garden?
Our last day looking after Rosie the cocker spaniel. I’ve never known a dog so averse to walks, but I took her for a final drag down the bridleway just to remind her who was boss.
As we emerged on to the main track, I spotted a beautiful small moth flitting about the grass and bracken. It was soot-black, apart from on the extremes of its wing-tips, which were white. The second I stopped to observe the moth, the ever-optimistic Rosie decided I must be turning for home, and headed off back down the track as far as her extended lead would allow. In the meantime, I tried unsuccessfully to capture some reference photos of the moth with my phone. With an excited cocker spaniel tugging on her lead as I did so, this proved impossible. But subsequent Googling revealed the moth to be an aptly named chimney sweeper moth.
Having dropped Rosie off at her home, we drove to Mike D’s garden party in Manchester. The party was officially to launch his new garden pond. Any excuse. Jen and I sat at the side of the pond for half an hour, watching midges laying eggs in the water, while water-boatmen scudded about on the surface trying to capture them.
Later, while sitting on a garden chair, tucking into some excellent pulled pork, I spotted a tiny jumping spider on my trouser leg. I spent a happy five minutes encouraging the spider to jump back and forth between my leg and the arm of the garden chair. Massive leaps for such a minuscule creature.
A volunteer at the main entrance hide informed me there was a green sandpiper ‘showing intermittently’ on one of the nearby islands. I had a good look, but saw no sign of it. But, as I admitted to another visitor, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t recognise a green sandpiper, even if it bit me. He laughed, being, it turned out, in exactly the same predicament.
I made a quick detour to see if the bee orchids I’d seen the other week were still there, but they had all gone to seed—which, despite my disappointment, was excellent news. Heading back from my detour, I tried to photograph hoverflies hovering in the dappled light beneath a trackside tree. The results might have been more successful had I brought my macro lens.
Avocets, black-headed gulls, hundreds of godwits. Little egret fledglings were fighting boisterously in the tree-tops near the Marsh Covert hide. From the hide itself, I saw seven spotted redshank, all standing on one leg with their backs to me. Not that I recognised them as spotted redshank, you understand: I overheard some expert birders taking about them.
I took a further detour round the mere on the way back to the car. No bird action to speak of, even though the mere was packed full of tiny dark fish, and less tiny striped ones. I haven’t a clue what they were, my fish-identification skills being on a par with my wader-identification skills.
I returned home to find that the fields surrounding the house had been mown in my absence. Unfortunate timing: watching the local kestrels following the tractor as it mows the field is always a thrill—though not for the local rodents simultaneously trying to escape mower blades and kestrel talons.
A lone kestrel hovered above the gate from our back lawn into the side field: a mopping-up exercise.
Half a dead magpie appeared overnight at the side of the hedge, courtesy, I presume, of one of the local cats. A pair of swallows were flying frantically back and forth, low across the back lawn, gathering insects to feed lazy offspring perched on telephone wires above the gate.
Later, long-tailed tits kicked up a commotion in the trees at the side of the road as I climbed the stile and made my way down through the woods into Hebden Bridge. I was en route to the latest Caught by the River event at the Trades Club.
Today’s event was dedicated to fiction. Despite reading almost no fiction these days, I enjoyed it immensely—especially the sessions in which various pairs of authors had conversations on stage. My favourite quote was a passing remark made by the author Helen Mort: “It never gets easier; it just gets better.” She was referring to running and rock-climbing, but the writer in me realised it also applies to writing. (Or, at least, I hope it does.)
It’s was such a pleasant morning, it would have seemed rude not to head up on to the Moor. So pleasant, in fact, that, once I was up there, I decided to take a detour via Churn Milk Joan, Miller’s Grave, Robin Hood’s Penny Stone, and the Greenwood Stone. (I describe making the same detour in a chapter of On the Moor.)
Churn Milk Joan is a famous local landmark: a standing stone erected to mark the boundary between the parishes of Wadsworth and Midgley. Evidently, Joan was also significant in a previous life, as she bears four prehistoric cup marks, carved by our Bronze Age or late Neolithic predecessors for purposes unknown. The Greenwood Stone also marks the parish boundary, but the only carving on that stone is considerably younger, marking the year of its erection (1775, if I read it correctly, although I’ve never been confident of the final digit, which might also be read as a 4).
Like Churn Milk Joan, as its name implies, Robin Hood’s Penny Stone, a large boulder in the middle of nowhere, is a place where locals traditionally left pennies. The tradition continues to this day, although I stupidly left all my cash at home. A short distance from Robin Hood’s Penny Stone lies Miller’s Grave, a Bronze Age burial cairn.
As on the previous occasion I was on the Moor, unusually, I didn’t see a single red grouse, although I did hear one calling go back! from somewhere in the heather. I was also disappointed, once again, not to see any of my beloved wheatears or lapwings. But I did get a few nice shots of meadow pipits, and saw a kestrel being chased off by a rook.
On an errand in the afternoon, I walked down into Hebden Bridge via Nutclough Wood. Butterflies were out in profusion along the bridleway. Not just the usual crowd, either. I spotted and photographed what I later worked out to be a ringlet and a large skipper (being confident of the former, but not of the latter).
There were loads of unripe hazelnuts on the lower branches as I passed through the wood. Presumably, hazelnuts gave Nutclough Wood the first syllable of its name; the clough being the narrow ravine in which the wood is situated.
A pub dinner in Parkgate with my dear friend Stense. I arrived early, as usual, and parked on the front outside the pub. There was a heron fishing in the big pool on the marsh. I also spotted a mini starling murmuration: fifty or so birds rose from the marsh, flashed back and forth in the sky for a while, then descended on to a chimney stack. A couple of minutes later, a second mini-murmuration, with the birds landing on a different rooftop.
After dinner, Stense and I marvelled at the sun beginning to set over the pool. The heron had left, replaced by the silhouettes of geese and goslings drifting on the glowing water. Stupidly, I hadn’t brought my camera. I took a single snap with my phone, explaining it would be crap. I was wrong. Camera phones have come a long way.
J.M.W. Turner painted a Dee sunset from Parkgate, but, according to the Tate’s website, the watercolour’s whereabouts are currently unknown.
Parkgate’s sunsets are slightly less glorious these days, marred as they have been by hundreds of wind turbines on the horizon.
We’re nearing peak moulting season. The back lawn had several feathers on it this morning, including a magnificent present from one of the local magpies.
A sparrowhawk flew across the bonnet of my car as I drove home along Height Road. I’d like to say I observed it closely, but I was too busy slamming on my brakes. The only real impression: huge yellow feet!
Took Rosie the cocker spaniel for a walk in Crow Nest Wood while Jen gabbed with her mum. The weather was almost unbearably humid. Rosie clearly agreed.
As we drove home through town, the streets were packed full of people in weird Victorian costumes, wearing goggles, pocket watches, bustles, you name it. Fairly standard garb for Hebden Bridge, we reckoned, but it turned out to be people celebrating the Steampunk Weekend. Every weekend seems to be something this time of year.
Working in the study with the window wide open first thing this morning, I heard the noise of somebody pottering about outside. It carried on for quite some time, growing more and more distracting. Eventually, it began to sound as if they were pottering right underneath the window. A really bold burglar, perhaps? I went over to the window, and found myself looking straight down at a roe deer that was trying to work out whether it could jump our narrow side-gate.
I ran to get Jen and my camera, and managed to get some nice shots of the deer as it trotted across the front lawn and clambered over the tumbled-down section of our wall. I guess that explains how it tumbled down.
After lunch, Jen and took a walk around the lanes. There were loads of butterflies about. I impressed Jen by being able to identify a ringlet butterfly, although I soon coughed I only recognised it because I’d had to look one up last week.
Another visit to RSPB Burton Mere en route to Dad’s. Too hot and sunny for my liking. It felt as if the birds agreed: there seemed to be fewer of them around this week.
As I approached the Marsh Covert hide, a kestrel flew past with a dead wader chick in its talons. From the hide itself, I managed to get a nice shot of a reed warbler perched on an eponymous reed. Farther down, by the screen, a bolshie black-headed gull was dive-bombing birders. Quite amusing to watch, until it turned its sights on me. A great white egret was standing next to a few little egrets at the water’s edge. When you see them side-by-side, the size difference is very noticeable.
Back at the reception hide, I photographed a young grey heron being dive-bombed by another bolshie black-headed gull. The heron retaliated with raised-daggers beak. A short while later, I photographed it catching a fish.
As I headed up to bed at Dad’s, I glanced out the window to see the moon in partial eclipse, low to the south, fifty years to the day since Apollo 11 blasted off.
Fifty years to the night since the first human beings touched down on the surface of the moon. Sure, dogs and chimps might have beaten us into space, but way to go, Homo sapiens! We can be a pretty awesome species, when we put our minds to it.
I witnessed the event from Dad’s lap. He got me up from bed especially. Mum thought he was totally insane, making a four-year-old child miss his sleep to watch something he would never remember. Dad said there was no way on earth his son was going to miss the first ever moon-landing.
They were both right, of course. But Dad was more right.
An indescribably hot and oppressive day yesterday, made a hundred times worse by ‘Boris’ Johnson becoming Prime Minister unelect.
The indescribably hot and oppressive day was followed by an indescribably hot and oppressive night. I was woken at 02:45 by a violent thunderstorm. Sheet lightning on all sides, with driving rain. It lasted for over an hour. The sky gods were clearly venting their displeasure at our having allowed such a self-serving, lying oaf to become our leader.
Today was only slightly less hot and oppressive. En route to Dad’s, I managed to do some work in an air-conditioned coffee shop, then headed off to the Dee Marshes, where I failed to do any work at all on account of the heat. I soon gave up and drove to a shady roadside pond near Raby, where I sat and watched dragonflies for an hour.
There was one particular blue dragonfly patrolling above the lily pads that instantly repelled any others wandering near its domain. Every so often, it would glide for a second or two before resuming its frantic wing-beats. I suppose this was to preserve strength, but the glides were so brief and infrequent, they hardly seemed worth the trouble. The dragonfly also made occasional, sudden diversions from its flight-path, presumably to snap minuscule insect victims from the air.
I like dragonflies. I like their attitude. And anything that preys on midges and mosquitos has to be a good thing in my book.
The hottest UK day on record. Utterly horrid. I don’t handle hot weather at all well. Even as a toddler, it made me miserable.
My car’s external air-temperature thermometer read 34°C as I headed along Height Road in the evening with the air-conditioning cranked up to eleven. The blast of hot air as I stepped out the car to open the garage instantly took me back to Hong Kong, 1997, disembarking from my plane at the tail end of the monsoon season, mistakenly assuming the ridiculously hot, humid air must be due to all the nearby jet engine exhausts.
An afternoon stroll around Withens Clough reservoir with Jen. There was a pleasant, light rain: so light as to not make us wet, but sufficient to cool us down. Canada geese honked across the water. A gentle breeze stirred the grasses at the side of the path. And that was about it. We had the place pretty much to ourselves, seeing only one other couple out walking their dog.
The ruined farm with its lone tree at the head of the valley looked as atmospheric as always. Very Wuthering Heights, although the supposed inspiration for Emily Brontë’s trainwreck-masterpiece is another Withens, Top Withens, several miles away across the moors.
A day of heavy rain. I’d promised to walk Rosie the cocker spaniel, but it was too wet for the woods, so I took her for a drag along the canal. Rosie does not appreciate rain. As soon as we turned for home, our roles were reversed, and she began to drag me.
We passed a chap sheltering beneath a rainbow-coloured umbrella. Even for Hebden Bridge, he looked pretty odd. Then I remembered it was the start of Hebden Bridge Pride Festival. Before I’m accused of intolerance, it wasn’t the rainbow-coloured umbrella that made him look odd, but his attire. Heaven knows, I’m no fashion guru, but I’m prepared to go out on a limb and say lederhosen is never a good look.
A deluge of rain for most of the day. Flood sirens in the evening. A horrible sound. Far more horrible for those living in the valley below.
The local moors will have been baked hard after the recent hot spell, meaning rainwater mostly rushes off, rather than sinking in, channelling into Hebden Bridge and other settlements downriver. Water-catchment is why Hebden Bridge is where it is. Milltowns were built for mills, and mills required reliable water supplies. But you occasionally get too much of a good thing. Fingers-crossed there’s no flooding.
Postscript: Online river-level graphs show it was a close call, but there seems to have been no major flooding.
Yesterday evening, Jen pointed out there was a lot more traffic on the lane than usual. It continued throughout the night. We assumed the main road down the valley must have been closed overnight as part of the flood-relief work in Mytholmroyd. Sadly, it turned out to be something far more dramatic: local landmark Walkley’s Mill had caught fire. It was damaged beyond repair, and its demolition began today.
The local jackdaws and rooks have begun congregating in large, acrobatic flocks. A few times each day, a couple of hundred birds fly past the house, en route to nowhere in particular, as far as I can tell. Seeing crows in large numbers is always a thrill—especially on windy days, when they swoop and interweave seemingly for the sheer joy of it.
In the unlikely event I’m wrong about reincarnation, I can think of far worse creatures to come back as than sociable corvids.
Woken at Dad’s at 05:30 by Molly the cocker spaniel barking downstairs. This is sometimes, but not always, a sign that she desperately needs to be let out into the garden. So I dragged myself out of bed, got dressed, and headed downstairs, only to find Molly excitedly waiting for me, her tail going 48 to the dozen, with one of her soft toys in her mouth. She just wanted to play. Molly is 12 years old; I am 54. So we played.
A pair of coal tits have made a welcome return to our bird table. My favourite members of the tit family. Shy grab-raiders. They wait till the bird table is unoccupied, fly in, grab a single sunflower seed heart, and are gone in an instant. I’d recognise their jizz from 50 paces.
A truly dreadful day of heavy driving rain. Jen spotted a male bullfinch on the bird table first thing this morning. Not being into birds, she didn’t know what it was, but she knew it was different. I’ll make a birder of her yet. We only get bullfinches a handful of times each year.
While Jen was gabbing with her mum mid-afternoon, I took Rosie the reluctant cocker spaniel for a short drag up the track. Rosie absolutely hates going out in the wet. Long trails of beech mast ran down either side of the track. Floodlines of sorts. The mast must have been washed down from Crow Nest Wood during one of the many recent deluges.
The Inglorious Twelfth. As a reward to myself for hoovering the entire house, I headed up to the Moor this afternoon in ironic search of hen harriers. Needless to say, I didn’t see any.
The weather was better than forecast: occasionally sunny, with a strong but pleasant westerly breeze. I climbed to the trig point, then headed along the Edge, pausing to take photos of the rocks that appear on the cover of On the Moor. I used my graduated grey filter to reduce contrast between sky and land, and was pleased with the result. Note to self: I know they’re a tremendous faff, but use filters more often.
The heather was in bloom: less spectacular than I’d hoped, but impressive in places. Once again, I didn’t see any red grouse, which is very unusual. I assumed they must have had an eye on the calendar, and were keeping their heads low.
On my way down from the Edge, I encountered a bequadbiked gamekeeper. We exchanged pleasantries, having met once before a few years back. He told me there would be no shooting this season, as grouse numbers are down by 65%. He blamed this on last summer’s hot, dry spell seeing off more chicks than usual. He also condemned the recent ban on shooting crows under general licence, claiming curlew and grouse chicks were being eaten in droves. I opined that eating other species’ chicks is what carrion crows do. He agreed. He also mentioned he’d seen a lot of grouse nests this year, so was hopeful for next season.
Spotted a couple of swifts at Johnny House. I thought they’d all gone by now. Perhaps these were migrants from farther north, just passing through. Having checked the nearly dead tree was still only nearly dead, I headed down through the tormentil and heather.
Later, as I drove through Booth en route to Halifax, a roe buck trotted out of a gateway straight in front of my car, occasioning an emergency stop. It bounded off down a footpath, seemingly oblivious to its near-death encounter.