Birds at a Glance

chaffinchThese aren’t drawings of the birds’ ‘true’, accurate appearance – it would be easier to study a bird book for an authoritative version of that – but they aren’t drawings of the birds as I saw them either; they’re drawings of the way I remembered the appearance of the bird after I’d looked at it for as long as possible, which wasn’t long enough, through binoculars.

This way of drawing varies from my normal approach where I look and look and look again, building up a drawing from dozens, probably hundreds, of little observations. blackbirdThat’s not an option with most of the birds in our garden. I took mental notes of shape and colour during my one lingering look at each bird and then tried to stick to that, rather than revert to the familiar picture of, say, a Blackbird, that I might already carry in my mind.

I gave myself license not to worry if the final drawing didn’t look all that much like the bird. As I say, I could have referred to a bird book if that had been my aim but these are the colours and the shapes, as accurately and honestly as I could transfer them from memory to paper.

The species I drew are male Chaffinch, Starling, female and male Blackbird, Great Tit and Woodpigeon. I used an ArtPen with brown Noodler’s waterproof ink and Cotman watercolours.

Ash Trees at Dusk

Coxley Wood, sunset

blue titrobin and blackbird4 pm; I was going to draw birds but there was little activity by the time I’d filled up the feeders and settled down with my sketchbook. A couple of Blue Tits briefly peer out from the hedge, a Robin flits about below, a Blackbird pecks in distracted haste at the bare earth of the border while over in the wood, three Woodpigeons are clattering around in the tops of the Ashes.

Ash, Horbury CemeteryYesterday morning I was sorry to see this large Ash (left) in Horbury Cemetery being felled, one of several that are to go. It appears to be a healthy specimen but there’s no doubt that in some gale over the next decade or so it would have blown down, causing considerable damage to the houses that were built adjacent to the cemetery in the 1960s, when the tree was probably already half a century old (if I get the opportunity, I’ll count the rings). Unfortunately trees can do more than damage property and this autumn, during one evening of high winds punctuated by more powerful gusts, a huge bough from a tree at Stanley Churchyard crashed down onto a passing car, fatally injuring a woman.

Luckily the Ashes and Crack Willows in my watercolour of the lower end of Coxley Wood, don’t threaten any road or property and it’s highly unlikely that anyone would risk walking through in the kind of high winds which caused the accident at Stanley.

Spring Mill Beck

Spring Mill Beck
Alder, Spring Mill Beck

Working on my latest booklet of local walks, I’m discovering the odd footpath that I’ve never walked on before, then there are others, like the one beside Spring Mill Beck (above), that I’ve known since childhood but walked on only a handful of occasions. Some footpaths don’t connect with any of my regular routes so, although they might be nearer to home than some of my favourites, there’s rarely the opportunity to visit them.

My first memory of this path alongside the beck between Ossett Spa and Horbury, was of walking it with my younger brother Bill in the 1960s when I was in my early teens. We spotted a Toad on the path ahead of us and this was such a rare find that we decided we’d take it home so that it could live in the moist, ferny toadatmosphere of father’s greenhouse. We’d heard that having a Toad in the greenhouse was a natural form of pest control. I wouldn’t relocate a Toad for this reason today!

Carr Lodge play areaBill caught it and carried it home, a mile through the streets of Horbury, in one of his shoes.

Bill and I used to climb up the quarry face at Storrs Hill but today’s children don’t have to go further than the local park to climb. Since the last time I walked through Carr Lodge Park in Horbury these climbing rocks have been erected in the play area. The rock in the foreground isn’t suffering from a mystery virus; those spots are climbing holds inserted in the rock. If no one had been looking I’d have been tempted to give it a try!

The Hawk and the Squirrel

Harris HawkWatching a Grey Squirrel carrying bedding to its drey the other day, I was thinking what an easy life these suburban squirrels must have, with no natural enemies apart from the occasional Fox, which can’t follow them up into the tree-tops. But the squirrels of Spring Mill Park must be well aware of one powerful predator that has been hawking around the area for the last 14 years; this North American Harris Hawk, Parabuteo unicinctus, one of three which belong to a local falconer.

grey squirrelHe exercises them regularly but confides to me that it’s now getting a bit too much for him. When the bird goes down on prey it’s not like a retriever dog, it won’t bring the prey back to him, so it might end up half a mile away – as the hawk flies – up the slope in one of the pastures between Spring Mill Park and the motorway.

This hawk can easily tackle prey such as Rabbits and Magpies but if you’re hawking for Grey Squirrels – which, for all their cuteness, are often seen as a pest species, here in Britain where they’ve been introduced – the hawk needs to be equipped with special leg-guards as the squirrel, when caught, can swivel around and use its impressive incisors to bite into the back of the hawk’s legs, potentially inflicting permanent damage.

Flying weight is critical for hawking; fly a bird that’s even a few grams over its ideal weight and it will happily soar about all day without bothering to go for prey. This female Harris Hawk, I’m informed, needs to weigh in at precisely 2 pounds, 1 ounce and 3 grams, when it is taken out to hunt.

goshawkThe falconer was once surprised, when he was calling back one of his hawks, by the sudden appearance of a Goshawk which flew down and perched on the fence nearby. It had jesses so he managed to get near it and take it back to his avairy. The ring, which all captive falcons wear, revealed that it had been lost by a falconer who lives at Addingham, 23 miles to the north-west of Spring Mill, so he was able to reunite the bird with its owner.

Sparrows on the Shed

roofing felt x 60

This photograph looks rather like a scree-slope on a Lakeland fell but in fact each of these slate-like fragments is less than a millimetre across, smaller than the commas on this page. It’s a piece of roofing felt taken at 60x magnification through my microscope. The felt is bitumen-coated with a ‘green mineral’ finish, but it looks browner in my photograph. The flaky shapes and the colour make me guess that this is a green variety of Muscovite mica called fuchsite. The flakes (laminæ) of Muscovite are thin and surprisingly flexible, so they’re ideal as a coating on rolls of roofing felt.

There’s another mineral present; the rounded, glassy mineral near the bottom left-hand corner is a worn grain of sand, silica.

Fuchsite is rich in chromium but like other micas, as a form of silicate, it has a chemical composition based on aluminium, silica and oxygen (AlSi3O10). Micas are part of the group of minerals known as Phyllosilicates or sheet silicates, which take their name from phyllon, the Greek for leaf.

sparrows on the shedIt was sparrows pecking on our newly felted shed roof that prompted me to take a closer look at its composition. Why should sparrows feel the need to peck at flakes of mica?

Muscovite is 2-4 on the Mohs scale of hardness, depending whether you’re testing the softer ‘sides’ or the harder face of the flakes. This means that it’s somewhere between a finger-nail and a pocket-knife in hardness, so the sparrows might swallow it as a form of ‘gritting’. The flakes might be used in the bird’s gizzard to help grind down the seeds and grain that form its staple diet. Fuchsite is made of clayey minerals so it might also have medicinal properties that help with digestion, just as we’d take kaolin, a fine white clay that is another form of sheet sillicate.

sparrows on a wallSparrows will also peck at mortar on walls (right), which gives them access to more minerals; silica in the sand and the calcium carbonate in the cement.

When Paul and I put the new roofing felt I predicted that the sparrows would love it: “It’s like putting a new sheet of Tydsan in a budgie’s cage!”

Tydsan is the trade name of sheets of sandpaper, cut to size.

“Our budgies had to make do with newspaper in their cages!” Paul tells me.

Muddy Boots

Busht Beck

muddy bootsIt’s good for me to have a walks booklet to write at this time of year as I’m sure that I wouldn’t otherwise have set out on a six mile walk, crossing some unfamiliar corners of the countryside, and that would have been a pity because I’ve enjoyed the walk a lot, despite the muddy boots!

My ambition in life is to be able to drawn direct from nature but practically on a day like today, in locations that are a muddy half mile tramp from the nearest road, that’s impossible, so I go for the approach Wainwright used when he illustrated his famous guides to the Lakeland Fells; I take plenty of photographs which I can then draw at leisure indoors. Wainwright had to use black and white photographic prints, I can sit at the widescreen of my computer or load a few images onto a memory stick and draw them from our widescreen television downstairs. I feel I’m not being so unsociable with Barbara if I take my work downstairs; she can get on with whatever she’s doing and we can have some music on in the background. The average drawing takes me one CD album to complete.

With the ground so muddy and the paths so trampled, the hedges and woods so stark and bare, I find myself looking for other subjects to suggest how attractive the walk can be. Architectural details look good at any time of year and I also look for untrampled corners like mossy trees trunks and streams, or, even better, the two combined as on this bend on Bushy Beck (above) downstream from Ardsley Reservoir.

I took 83 photographs on this 6 mile walk. Any change of direction in the path, any stile or bridge is always worth recording, just in case I need it to illustrate a tricky point on the walk.

Shed Roof

garden shed
Our garden shed in its heyday, painted as a sample when I was working on illustrations for Dr Hessayon's Garden Expert guides.

Paul the gardener tells me that one year he and his father decided to record all the produce they harvested from their vegetable garden, which is about the size of a tennis court. The total weight of apples, onions, potatoes, carrots, cabbages, soft fruits and so on was three-quarters of a ton!

This morning we’re re-roofing my garden shed.

garden path“That should last us out!” he suggests.

Well, I hope it doesn’t last us out but I think it’s got a chance of lasting out the twenty-year old shed itself, which is looking rather battered and weatherworn where we’ve cut back the Ivy that engulfed it.

Spot the shed! – in this photograph of the back garden (right), the Ivy-covered shed is on the right. People would walk down the path and not notice that we had a shed until they walked back up and saw the side with the door in.

The Runtlings

Poplar plantation

Years ago, when I led a series of Calder Valley Walks as a further education class, these slopes between Ossett and Dewsbury were the western limits to our explorations. It wasn’t one of our regular routes and my memory of our occasional winter visits is of trying to locate an indistinct footpath that zigzagged aimlessly across a dark, muddy, misty, featureless ploughed field. I’m pleased to discover, coming back a decade later, that the wayward footpath has now been replaced by a new logical version which follows a ditch straight down the slope.

It’s amazing how much the landscape has changed since I was last here; the new footpath now leads to a plantation of poplars, planted with regimental precision, which have grown ten or fifteen feet tall since my last visit. I have memories of these as ‘whips’, freshly planted in plastic rabbit-guards. ‘It would be interesting to come back here, to see how it changes’, I suggested, looking at the newly landscaped slopes.

There’s new planting too on the banks of the Calder with an area of willows which I guess have been planted as bio-fuel. Old maps of the Calder valley show osier beds where willow was grown for basket making. The baskets were hand-made on an industrial scale by Burdekins, now located at Flushdyke near Spring Mill but today a furniture store. The bulk of their trade was for textile mills including large baskets for spindles of yarn and wheeled baskets for the rag recycling trade. Baskets for pigeons and pets were a sideline for them.

The name Runtlings may be Old English for ‘the meadow with the ditch’.

‘Ings’ can mean ‘meadow’, ‘hill’ or ‘place’. ‘Rene’ of ‘ryne’ is a ‘ditch’ or ‘channel’ and a ‘run’ is a ‘stream’. But I wonder if the name might derive from ‘hruna’; a tree trunk or log used as a conduit for water.

Drawings to follow! Please come back in a day or two . . .

Fieldfares in the Crab Apple

redwingredwingsWhen the snow returned yesterday morning almost an inch fell, although it wasn’t as cold as it was after last year’s snowfalls. When I’ve cleared the driveway it’s been powdery but yesterday afternoon it was just starting to turn slushy, so it was heavier and slushily sticky to clear from the paving slabs. Powdery snow leaves the driveway cleaner; slush leaves it damp and filthy.

golden hornetAs the snow fell, Blackbirds, Fieldfares and Redwings came to the Golden Hornet crab apple, the one that we pruned on Monday. The snow-covered little apples, golden until mid-autumn (left) but now frosted and brown, proved a big attraction. We counted eight Redwings and five Fieldfare around midday, although I guess that at times there were more.

redwingfieldfareMy pen and ink drawings from my 1979 Sketchbook of the Natural History of the Country Round Wakefield don’t do justice to these attractive winter thrushes. The Fieldfare’s light grey, chestnut and whitish plumage is striking against a snowy landscape, as is the chestnut red beneath the wings of the Redwing. I often have difficulty picking out the red of the Redwing when I see it in silhouette in bushes or in flight but it was very obvious today, at close quarters seen through the 10 x 50 binoculars that I keep by the studio window.

The shapes of the birds were different today; Blackbird, Redwing and Fieldfare all had a more rounded silhouette as they had their feathers fluffed out against the cold.

Salmon or Sea Trout?


mystery fish - a sea trout?Today I saw cormorant and goosanders on the Calder; the increasing number of ducks on the river is an indication of how water quality has improved. I was delighted to see this photograph (left) in an e-mail, taken on a mobile phone by local angler Keith Inglehearn, who had been fishing for pike in the River Calder at Horbury Bridge on 31 December.

“I caught the fish pictured on a whole mackerel and it weighed 6 pounds.” Keith tells me “It was returned carefully to the water and swam off strongly.”

To me this looks like a salmon so I contacted Kevin Sunderland, who has been monitoring their return into the Aire and Calder. Kevin tells me: “I’m no expert on these things but my initial thoughts are that the fish isn’t a salmon but is probably a sea trout. I base this solely on the fact that the tail does not appear to be forked as in a salmon.

“I went to Knottingley on 5th November to see what the effect the flooded river would have on Knottingley Weir. I believe that any fish below the weir would have got up. I went to Kirkthorpe on 15th November and witnessed numerous large fish attempting to ascend the weir, presumably the fish which had got up Knottingley a week previously. Maybe the fish which Keith caught was one of these.”

mystery fishI’m hoping that the experts at the Environment Agency will be able to help us identify the species. If Sea Trout can migrate up river and find their way up Kirkthorpe Weir at Wakefield it shouldn’t long before the Salmon follow them.

“It really is remarkable for the river to be holding fish like this.” says Keith, “I have lived around this area all my life and I have been an angler for the last 43 years. I remember very well what the state of the river and canal was like when I was a youngster!”