Redwings in the Yews

redwingThere’s a hint of a sweet, nutty smell of autumn leaves as we walk through the woods at Nostell Priory. Redwings and a mistle thrush are feeding on the berries of the yew trees in the churchyard. Other mixed groups of redwings, long-tailed tits, blue tits, coal tits and a nuthatch are moving through hollies, beeches and a sycamores in the lakeside woodlands.

Sycamore Leaf

sycamore leafThe fog lifts only briefly at midday. Although the hills of the Peak District rise above it, just as forecast, we decide not to drive for 25 minutes through such poor visibility in order to enjoy a walk there.

sycamore leafLooking for something suitable to draw in a drift of autumn leaves on a lawn in foggy Ossett I realise that they are all sycamore leaves; three sycamore trees stand alongside the little track beside the garden.

Rather than stand outdoors drawing the soggy pile, I choose one dry leaf that has been caught in the branches of a Russian vine and settle down to draw it in comfort indoors.

sycamore leafWe didn’t get out to walk over a landscape of ridges and channels but I can explore a landscape in miniature by closely observing the undulating surface and the network of veins of the leaf.

sycamore leafI remember when I was at the Grammar School here in Ossett and we had a few art lessons from a student teacher who got us to draw a close-up of a leaf – just a small section, about the size of a postage stamp, not the outline. She then got us to take it a stage further and work up a design from it. I stuck pretty much to what I could see, just adding colour, which at school was powder paints, mixed in a plastic palette.

sycamore leafI remember getting totally absorbed by the repetitive but varied detail. Drawing it must have been a semi-hypnotic process, like getting lost in a landscape of rolling hills and rivers.

Sketching Smeaton

SmeatonSmeatonWriting my nature diary for the January edition of the Dalesman magazine, I got sidetracked by the story of John Smeaton (1724-1792), ‘the father of civil engineering’. He only has a walk on part in my article, describing the rock in Coxley Quarry as ‘the best Blue Stone’ he had ever seen (I’ve come up with a theory of why he described the buff sandstone in the quarry as ‘Blue Stone’).

He visited the quarry in 1760 when he was acting as superintendent engineer on what would become the Calder and Hebble Navigation. The year before he had completed the construction of the Eddystone Lighthouse, which he designed to have the proportions of the trunk of an oak tree.

SmeatonHe’d also recently been awarded a medal by the Royal Society for his work on the mechanics of waterwheels and windmills. His enquiries into the relationship between pressure and velocity for objects moving in air led to a formula for calculating lift that the Wright brothers used in designing their aircraft.

Coxley QuarryI wanted to draw Smeaton looking suitably dynamic for my article but for the main illustration we’re going for an acrylic on board painting that I made on location twenty years ago in 1996.

A Hawthorn by the Beck

hawthorn3.25 p.m., 45°F, 7°C: This ivy-covered hawthorn has rotted through near its base and collapsed across a bend in Coxley Beck. When I painted this hawthorn twenty years ago, the bank on the outside bend had already been undercut.

brambleThe ivy will survive by putting out adventitious roots where the upper branches of the thorn have come to rest on the opposite bank.

Straggly stems of bramble hang over the water. One has climbed up a slender elder bush and dangles midstream, touching the surface of the water.

leavescrack willowGold, ochre, russet and yellow-green leaves of alder and crack willow are strewn along the edge of the stream. Tall shuttlecocks of fern help give a jungly look to the tangled stream-side vegetation. Himalayan balsam has been withered by frost but its tall fleshy canes are still hanging on to a few green leaves.

Head in the Clouds

Whernside emerging from raincloud.

10.20 a.m.: All the Three Peaks have their heads in the clouds this morning as we head home from our week in Langstrothdale, but there’s a patch of blue over Settle.

At Geartones there’s a bright half rainbow near the viaduct on the Settle Carlisle railway. A friend was telling me that if you can get to Leeds in time for a suitable connection you can get a train at Ribblehead station and arrive at London Kings Cross a little over four hours later. Quite a contrast.


moorRagged wisps of grey cloud trail down from the edge of the moor.

ravenRavens make their way across the hillside. With primaries outspread like spiky fingers, one of them quarters the open ground then plunges down amongst the grasses and rushes.

Ravens mate for life and often stay together as a pair throughout the year so, as Bertel Bruun suggests in the Hamlyn bird guide: “two dots moving along a ridges are often Ravens.”

We get a chance to compare them when a small group of carrion crows fly up the valley and settle in a tree. They seem altogether more lightweight with a less powerful way of flying. Barbara’s instant reaction when the raven appeared over the ridge was that it was a buzzard (although she’s still not convinced that we really did see a pair of ravens, and not a pair of crows!).

Captive raven at Knaresborough Castle drawn earlier this year.
Captive raven at Knaresborough Castle drawn earlier this year.

crowflyRooks and jackdaws which are congregating on the rough pasture below Nethergill Farm along with a flock of starlings, are generally more sociable than either carrion crows or ravens. I’d describe crows as cawing more raucously and harshly than rooks.

The pair of ravens fly over the valley and we briefly hear them vocalizing. To us it sounds like a rather nasal grunt but Bruun characterizes the call as a deep, resonant ‘pruuk’. They also have a ‘krra-krra-krra’ alarm call and, in the spring, a range of clucking noises.

We need to see ravens more often to get familiar with the character of the bird.


kestrelsKestrels are doing well in this stretch of Langstrothdale. We’ve seen them almost every time that we’ve been out. This morning two fly down the slope, the first with some scrap in its talons. The second dives down on it as they fly over the stream but the first retains its prize and settles in a tree.

Nethergill sheep enjoying a scratch against the picnic table in front of the field centre.
Nethergill sheep enjoying a scratch against the picnic table in front of the field centre.

Hardraw Force

Spotlighted by a beam of sunlight and framed by a blaze of autumn colour against a clear blue sky, Hardraw Force makes an appealing subject for the movie option of my camera.

The waterfall, with its 100 foot drop, can claim to have the highest unbroken drop of any waterfall in England, at least above ground: Fell Beck plunges three times as far down into Gaping Gill, 14 miles to the southeast of Hardraw, on the slopes of Ingleborough.

Hardraw Force is an extreme example of the stepped landscape features found on rocks of the Yoredale Series in Wensleydale, Swaledale and elsewhere: near horizontal layers of hard rocks – in this case Carbonferous limestone – are interspersed with softer strata and erosion acts on these, undermining the more resistant layers, to produce a stepped landscape.

A Step into the Past

fossil shells in a stepripple marksThere are echoes of past environments in the steps and the paving stones of the footpath across the fields back to Hawes with fossil ripple marks (right) and what look like the outlines of brachiopod shells (above).

We climb one of these steps on the north side of Wensleydale out of the village of Hardraw up to Simonstone and then follow the terrace through sheep pastures almost as far as Sedbusk, taking the footpath down the steps to Hayland packhorse bridge on our return to Hawes.

I’m fascinated by a twin-engined military aircraft making its way up Wensleydale, military aircraftfollowing it with binoculars until it flies directly in front of the low autumn sun! It probably helped that I’m wearing my 100% UV proof varifocals and that I turned away the instant that I was dazzled.


SemerwaterOn our way to Semerwater, as the road from Langstrothdale starts to drop from Green Side moor down Sleddale towards Hawes, we drive very gently through a small herd of hill cattle, a tough-looking bunch, who have gathered around some piles of rock salt at the road side. It’s the equivalent of the natural salt-licks which attract animals and birds in places like the African savannah and the Amazon rainforest.

whoopersFour whooper swans are relaxing on the narrow beach at the top end of Semerwater. They’re the first that I’ve seen, other than those at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Martinmere, in over twenty-five years. whooper swanThey appear to be the same size as our resident mute swan but, even at a distance, I can see that triangle of brilliant yellow on their bins. I also get the impression that they have a straighter neck than the mute, with its gracefully curved ‘swan neck’, giving them a somewhat goose-like appearance.

wigeonWe’re first made aware of the wigeons as we approach the lake by their whistling calls. I count thirty-eight but they’re outnumbered about ten times over by mallards. A flock of Canada geese leave the grassy eastern shore as we approach and launch themselves onto the lake in a leisurely fashion.lapwing

There’s a small flock of lapwings, perhaps twenty or thirty, by the inlet at the quiet western corner of the lake.

Swaledale Round-up

Swaledales have been described as ‘the hardiest of all British sheep apart from the Herdwick’.

Marsett to Stalling Busk

roe deerWe spot one roe deer running through the trees on the northeast shore of the lake and another, again amongst the trees, on the far side of Marsett Beck.

grey partridgeAs we cross another beck, Cragdale Water, via an elevated footbridge I disturb a grey partridge which flies off over a marshy field. At that moment we hear an unfamiliar piping call and a kingfisherkingfisher zooms across just yards in front of me, just below my eye-level, giving us a flash of its brilliant color in the bright afternoon sunlight.

buzzardA buzzard drifts over as we climb up towards the hamlet of Stalling Busk then a flock of 23 fieldfares flies up from a group of bushes on the hillside but the highlight of the afternoon is a fly past by a merlin. It’s a neat-looking grey and black male, zooming down the slope above the village at wall top level, with a nimbler style of stealthy flight than the larger sparrow hawk. merlinIt sweeps up into a tree but we can’t tell whether it settles there or not. Five or six crows appear a few moments later; they’re not calling but I can’t help thinking that they’ve been disturbed by the merlin.

Short-eared Owls

short-eared owlsDriving back over the moor with the sun low over Ingleborough, we see two short-eared owls flying low and briefly swooping at each other. We pull into the viewpoint lay-by and, resisting the urge to get out of the car to retrieve our binoculars from the boot, we use the car as a hide. This works well as one of the owls flies to within twenty yards of us as it crosses the road to join a third short-eared. Every hundred yards or so one will dip down into the moorland vegetation but we don’t see them emerge clutching any prey.

The Red Squirrels of Snaizeholme

red squirrelred squirrelAs soon as we park at Mirk Pot Farm, Snaizeholme, we get a view of a red squirrel which has been attracted to the bird feeders. When it has finished, it scampers past, paying no attention to us, heading for a corner of the plantation.

Walking towards the viewing area down through the conifer plantation, we pause to watch a second squirrel which is sitting in the fork of a conifer nibbling a pine cone as if it were a corn on the cob.

squirrelThis squirrel not only runs towards us but circles around us a couple of times. I’m using my telephoto lens and I’ve got my camera attached to a walking pole which doubles as a monopod, so I struggle to focus on the squirrel as it pauses for a few seconds just a few feet away from me. 

Two or three red squirrels are active around the feeder at the viewing area, but none comes quite as close to us as the first two squirrels that we saw.

It’s hard to believe that when Hugh and Jane Kemp arrived at Mirk Pot Farm in 1966, Snaizeholme was a bare hillside. red squirrelThey initially planted conifers but encouraged the regrowth of native trees, such as rowan, birch, blackthorn and oak, by fencing off the area from grazing sheep. Red squirrels started to arrive in 1997.

Red squirrels are capable of thriving in isolated conifer woods like this but as the woodlands of the Yorkshire Dales start to return to their natural state with more deciduous trees, would the red squirrels be able to hold their own if greys started to move in?

Young rabbit at
Young rabbit at West Field, Snaizeholme
Chaffinch, coal tit and pheasant.
Chaffinch, coal tit and pheasant.

We see lots of coal tits – probably the most numerous bird in the plantation – and the inevitable chaffinches near the feeding station and also a great spotted woodpecker in the top of a dead tree. When we return to the car park a goldcrest is hopping about feeding on the branches of a willow by the bird feeders.

goldcrestIt’s so quick that I realise that I’d be better if my camera could take a burst of multiple exposures (if it can, it’s not given as an option in the manual) because the instant that I press the shutter button, it moves. In fact it is probably never entirely motionless during the time that we’re watching it.

Dales Centre

Gayle BeckI’ve been concentrating on photography and trying to keep up with my written notes during our stay here but after lunch at the Firebox cafe at the Dales Countryside Museum at Hawes, I get the perfect chance to spend an hour drawing by Gayle Beck as the others head off to the shops. My key-fob thermometer registers a comfortable 60° Fahrenheit. Winter gnats dance in the sunny sheltered bank clearing beside me.

Mist around Ingleborough

IngleboroughAs we return over the moor we pull in at the view-point to photograph mist rising around the sphinx-shaped bulk of Ingleborough as the sun starts to set.

Dark Skies

From my 1979 book 'A Sketchbook of the Natural History of Wakefield'. I've never seen the Milky Way as bright as this!
From my 1979 book ‘A Sketchbook of the Natural History of Wakefield’. I’ve never seen the Milky Way as bright as this, even in the Dales!

Appropriately for Halloween, we hear the screeching call of the barn owl as we venture out briefly to look at the stars.

Above the hill, the Great Bear is fading into thin cloud but overhead the ‘W’ of Cassiopeia looks brighter than it might at home, against the dark sky of this part of the Yorkshire Dales. Through binoculars there are bright star fields sprinkled along this arm of the Milky Way and nearby the Pleiades are also impressive through binoculars.

Even with dark skies, I’m struggling to see the Andromeda galaxy which is directly overhead with my unaided eyes but the misty patch that marks its bright centre is clearly visible in binoculars. The photons that are reaching our eyes tonight set off on their long journey from Andromeda 250 million years ago.

Greenfield Valley

9 a.m.: The mist has cleared and we can see the conifer plantations of the Greenfield Valley again.

Fieldfares and starlings
Fieldfares and starlings

Two fieldfares settle on the rushy pasture in front of the farm. With their grey rump, greyish head and slithers of white on the front of their folded wings they’re more strikingly smart than the resident mistle thrush and the female blackbird which are also about this morning.

When one of them perches on the power line and starts preening, we see the dark band at the end of its tail and two tear-shaped streaks of chestnut on its breast.

Post Pecker

great-spotted woodpeckerA male great spotted woodpecker probes every crevice on the stout timber corner post of a wire fence. Having checked all around it, it perches on top then flies to the adjacent fence post. The slimmer post evidently doesn’t offer the same possibilities so it flies off, with bouncing flight, to the power line post and continues probing.

Two dippers are working their way down the beck towards Oughtershaw this morning; one wades in then completely submerges.

heronOn an afternoon walk to the Greenfield Valley we see a heron flying up Langstrothdale along Oughtershaw Beck, four pipits (no doubt meadow pipits) and a kestrel.


ZephrentisPausing to take a closer look at some crushed limestone on a forestry track, I find this complete fossil of a funnel-shaped coral amongst the more common macaroni-like lithostrotion corals and the stout toadstool cap-shaped shells of brachiopods (which I’m assuming are Productus).

The funnel-shaped coral is Zephrentis phrygia, given its species name because of its resemblance to the Phrygian cap, a tall, pointed felt cap which was worn with the point tilting forwards.

Harebell, yarrow and herb robert, Oughtershaw.
Harebell, yarrow and herb robert, Oughtershaw.

Harebell, yarrow and herb robert are still in flower on the banking below the drystone wall on the road immediately to the south of Oughtershaw.