It’s that time of the month again, when I put together my Wild Yorkshire sketchbook spread for the Dalesman magazine. I’m pleased with the way that the illustrations have come together but, for the lettering, I’m going for a slightly different technique.
Last month, I found that the Noodler’s ink that I use, which is waterproof when dry, was taking a surprisingly long time to dry on layout paper.
Even when I came back to my work after a break, there was still a danger that I’d smear a carefully hand-lettered heading or paragraph
I’ve switched to ordinary, non-waterproof Lamy fountain pen ink, which usually dries in minutes and instead of layout paper I’ve gone for a classic letter-writing paper, Basildon Bond, which is a pleasure to use: after all that is what it was designed for. It’s more substantial than layout paper, which gives me a feeling of confidence, something that I need when I attempt my neatest lettering with my waywardly shaky hand.
Once I get into the rhythm of lettering, I enjoy it. It just when I’m getting started that I’m a bit stuttery.
The pad comes with a pre-ruled backing sheet with lines that are at just the right spacing when I write with a Lamy Safari with a medium nib.
Perennial Dog’s Mercury, Mercurialis perennis, is already in flower in the hedgebanks, or at least the male flowers are now showing. Each plant is either male or female but I’ve yet to spot any female flowers; they are long-stalked and grow from the axils. An axil is the joint where a leaf stalk branches from the stem of a plant. Axilla is the Latin for armpit.
Like the petty spurge that I drew yesterday, dog’s mercury is a member of the Spurge Family, Euphorbiacaeae. It spreads by root-like rhizomes and is common throughout most of Britain in woods, hedges, scree and in the sheltered crevices (grykes) of limestone pavements. It is rare in Ireland.
The male flowers are just four or five millmetres across and grow in catkin-like tassels. Each has three bract-like tepals.
Petty spurge, Euphorbia peplus, is a common weed of gardens and waste ground but its tiny green flowers look quite exotic in close up. Those horned glands give it a hint of the extra-terrestial.
The winged capsules are the female parts of the flower. There are three here, the central one much larger than those at top and bottom of the picture. Each capsule has a tuft of stigmas (five on the lower one).
Appropriately, the male flowers are the ones that are sporting the stag’s horns (which are glands). Again, there are three in the photograph and I think that on the tips of the stamens of the top one there’s a hint of yellow pollen.
The the small beak-like fleshy ‘leaves’ that can be seen clasping the top and bottom flowers are a structure that is special to euphorbias called the cyathophyll. I think that must be a botanical term for ‘cup-like leaf’ because phyll means leaf and cyathos is derived from a Greek word meaning ‘A cup or ladle used for drawing wine from a bowl’.
The larger ‘leaves’ clasping each flower are bracts, which look very similar to the leaves in this species. Each umbel of flowers has three rays (primary branches).
The petty spurge is not thought to be a native to the British Isles but is believed to be long-established here, since before 1600.
Victorian stone masons left their marks on this embankment wall, south of Wakefield Westgate Station.
The Roman numeral ‘IV’ carved on this sandstone block appears to relate to the iron bracket that has been added to brace the wall but it’s the mark below that intrigues me: it looks like a flag, a key or a crossed out semiquaver. It has weathered more than the numeral, which suggests that the ironwork is a later addition.
The sun was at a perfect angle this morning for picking out the marks and we spotted dozens of them.
They’re carved at the centre of the facing side of each block. Some masons used letters of the alphabet. You can see that the quality of the sandstone varied because the ‘H’ in the top right of my photograph has faded away more than the one on the left.
There are crosses, arrows and triangles but my favourite marks are the fish-like hieroglyphs and that rabbit’s head (or perhaps it’s an upside-down ‘R’) in the bottom right-hand corner.
This embankment wall, between Westgate Wakefield and the first arch of the Ninety-nine Arches railway viaduct over Ings Road, was constructed in the mid-1860s.
There’s often a carrion crow on the old felled sweet chestnut trunk near the Lower Lake bridge, feeding on grain that’s been left there and frequently being photographed. You can see in my photograph that it’s stuffed its crop with grain.
A few rooks feeding alongside jackdaws on the turf in Obelisk Park also have full crops, but they are more likely to be feeding on earthworms and insect larvae, such as leather-jackets: the caterpillar-like larvae of the crane fly.
Under a yew near the Menagerie seven grey squirrels have gathered. They’re turning over the leaf litter and stopping to nibble at frequent intervals. One appears to have found half a nut, probably an acorn that it – or another of the squirrels – had hidden during the autumn.
We disturb the adult grey heron yet again. This time it was hoping to be left in peace at the top end of the lake beneath the Cascade Bridge. It takes off, clearing the clapper stones of the Druid’s Bridge with inches to spare.
The flock of fieldfares are still around. Wigeon have left the now completely ice-covered field pool. There’s a pair on the Middle Lake, along with two pairs of gadwall, tufted, the usual mallards and swans and an increasing number of goosanders, some swimming in pairs.
There are more wigeon on the ice-free Upper Lake, which isn’t accessible from the Park.
As we walk along the edge of Top Park Wood, a kestrel wheels from tree to tree ahead of us.
On the northern half of the trunk of an oak by the Lower Lake a coating of powdery green algae shows up in the morning sunlight. It is absent from the sunny south side of the tree so, if you’re trying to do a bit of natural navigating and you’re lost deep in the forest this could help you to orientate yourself.
This is probably Pleurococcus or a very similar-looking species of green algae. Seen through a microscope, Pleurcoccus is a globular single-celled alga with a thick cell wall to help it resist desiccation. The individual cells are slimy and stick together to form the powdery coating.
Green algae contains two kinds of chlorophyll: Chlorophyll A and Chlorophyll B. The two molecules work together; Chlorophyll A absorbs blue-violet and orange-red light while B extends the spectrum by absorbing blue light. The green that we see is the light that doesn’t get absorbed.
There’s a thin layer of slushy ice on a sheltered section of the canal, in the shade and shelter of the sandstone escarpment of Hartley Bank Woods, but some shards of thicker ice have been blown alongside the concrete canal bank and gathered in shards as they’ve piled up against a clump of grass at the water’s edge.
This is probably reed canary-grass, Phalaris arundinacea, which sometimes gets the nickname ‘canal grass’. I’ve even heard it described as ‘designer phragmites’, an alternative to the common reed, Phragmites australis, where space is at a premium!
A cormorant flies up from the marshy field known as the Strands. What open water there is here appears to be entirely ice-covered. The small lagoon by Beeston Bridge at the foot of the Balk is also frozen solid so the resident moorhens have lined up on the river’s embankment to peck amongst the rough grasses there. It’s probably marginally warmer over by the river.
Call of the Wild
11.45 a.m.: As I clear the snow from our driveway I hear an approaching cachophony: an unfamiliar sound . . . A little dog? A radio? The hooter of a child’s pedal car?
Soon a skein of eighty grey geese appears, three or four hundred feet above the rooftops. It’s a different sound to the argumentative sounding Canadas that we’re more familiar with; slightly deeper and, I think, a wilder kind of call.
They’re heading in the same direction as the skein we saw at breakfast time the other day: south east; so perhaps towards the Humber or the Old Moor RSPB reserve?
Against a clear blue sky, the winter sun picks out slashes of creamy white on the top branches of a tall sycamore, which I suspect are the result of grey squirrels stripping the bark. There’s no sign of damage on the adjacent oak but its bark, loaded with tannins, is probably not as nutritious as that of the sycamore.
The sycamore is probably the nearest that the squirrels can get to the tastier-sounding sugar maple, which, like the grey squirrel, is a native of North America.
In the topmost branches of another sycamore, a squirrel leans out to pick off buds from slender twigs which it eats, one after the other: a healthy snack.
In the summer and early autumn, hornets nested in an old ash trunk in the parkland near the Pleasure Grounds. By mid-autumn the trunk had rotted through at the base and come adrift from its roots but it was prevented from falling towards the path by the surrounding stout stems, which had sprung up around it: a natural equivalent of coppice shoots.
Now it has fallen back in the other direction and it lies on the ground. I can’t see the cavity that contained the hornets’ nest – it’s probably hidden on the underside – but all the timber is riddled with tunnels, some of them stuffed with frass, which has set hard like fine-textured chipboard.
The fine cold morning has brought in fieldfares, twenty-five of them. We’ve been expecting them to turn up here on the grassy slopes of the Obelisk Park.
Also back this morning, on a small, partly iced over pool in the corner of a grassy field just beyond the park boundary, are fifty wigeon, which often graze on the short turf here.
Joining the regular great tits, blue tits, coal tits and robins in the lakeside woods is a goldcrest, which, thanks to its size – along with the firecrest, it’s our joint smallest British bird – can inspect the slenderest of twigs.
A jay flies up into a sapling and we notice that it seems to be keeping an eye on a kestrel, a falcon of open spaces which seems a bit incongruous in this woodland setting.
It settles for a while, looking out over the lake. We rarely get such a good view of a kestrel and I make a mental note of its yellow beak, tipped in black; the tear-drop shaped dark patch beneath its eye; and the russet tan plumage of its back, speckled with dark brown.
As it flies to another perch, it shows pale grey tail feathers, banded with dark brown, almost black, at the tips.
Mallards and Mute Swans
Midwinter is hardly over but already, on the ice-fringed Lower Lake, the mallards have mating in mind. A drake head-bobs as he swims around the duck prior to mating.
As we round a corner by a lakeside bench, we disturb a heron. It must be getting tired of seeing us as we disturbed it here, same time, same place, yesterday morning.
One of the two cygnets of the mute swan family on the Middle Lake has now lost the last of its grey feathers. It’s now almost an adult, except for its bill which gives it away as a juvenile: this looks as if that has been given a coat of grey undercoat prior to the final coat of orange, which looks so striking on the adults.
The other cygnet still has a some grey on its back, as do the four cygnets of the swan family on the Lower Lake. They seem to be spending more time away from the adults, this morning at the far end of the side arm of the lake.
At the lakeside, a cigar-shaped seed-head of reedmace disperses a couple of wisps of its downy seeds. It has been calculated that one stalk can produce 200,000 seeds.
The pied wagtail patrolling the courtyard of the Stable Block at Nostell Priory reminds me of David Suchet’s portrayal of Hercule Poirot: busy, alert and pausing regularly to survey the scene with a detached intensity. Its jerky walk and the continuous polite little boughs of its head give it the deceptively ridiculous air that Poirot adopted to lull criminals into underestimating his intellectual powers.
The neat black-and-white pattern of its plumage reminds me of the immaculate old-fashioned formality of Poirot’s dress and of the smart white spats and black patent leather shoes that I can imagine him wearing.
Despite the cold raw wind, the rooks have gathered at their nests in the treetops in the south east corner of the park. Crows and jackdaws are circling and calling around Joiner Wood and the Pleasure Grounds.
At Nostell, we hear the green woodpecker more often than we see it but today as its laughing call rings out over Top Park Wood we see it fly over to a dead beech tree where it settles to explore the pockmarked upper bough.
We saw a small flock of about twenty fieldfares gathering in the treetops last week but they’re still not regulars. The large thrushes with smaller birds that we spot in the canopy of a tall oak by the Lower Lake prove to be half a dozen mistle thrushes accompanied by a few starlings, rather than fieldfares accompanied by redwings.
Goosanders and Gadwalls
Goosanders are gathering on the Middle Lake. There’s a conspicuous group of six black-and-white males but the red-headed females are diving in a quieter corner of the lake, twenty or thirty yards away.
Other winter ducks joining the year-round mallards, included a dozen tufted and three gadwalls. In recent weeks a flock of around fifty wigeon have been grazing close to a small pool just outside the park boundary beyond Top Park Wood but they’re not here today. Perhaps the sound of a pheasant shoot not far away has persuaded them that it’s time to head for somewhere away from the firing line, such as the far corner of the big lake at Anglers Country Park.
Bonus Woodpecker and Wild Geese
As a bonus, we spot a second species of woodpecker in the late afternoon: a great spotted coming to the fatball feeder that hangs on our washing line. It’s a female with no red on the back of her head but with a conspicuous red vent as she hangs awkwardly from the feeder, tail cocked upwards for balance.
This morning, before sunrise, a shallow V-shaped skein of geese passed over our house, heading south east. A warm front had been sweeping across the country from the south west, resulting in snow as warm air coming in from over the Atlantic meets cooler air from the north. Snow disrupted travel in the Midlands but we had just a few wet flakes of snow mixed in with a shower of rain at breakfast time.