Nethergill Farm, Langstrothdale, 9.10 a.m.: The trees on the far side of Oughtershaw Beck have faded away as the morning mist fills the valley. I was keen to study clouds during our stay here, now we’re in one.
Barbara counts thirty-eight starlings which have cascaded out of the mist and settled along the power line; there are at least twice as many below – so a flock of more than a hundred in total – but as they are performing a Mexican wave of short leap-frogging flights to get to the leading edge of their feeding party on the rushy sheep-nibbled turf, it’s impossible to count them.
The Track to Swarthgill
10.40 a.m.: The mist has closed in as we walk up Langstrothdale along the track to Swarthgill Farm, so we can’t see beyond the power lines a couple of hundred yards away down the slope. Droplets sparkle on the seed heads of grasses and on hammock-webs, slung a few inches from the ground amongst the stiff leaves of sedges.
A pair of wrens are checking out the crevices in the lichen-splashed drystone wall, pausing between sorties to meet up again, bobbing and perking up their tails as they face each other, perching on adjacent capstones.
We hear but don’t see a red grouse calling “G-bak! G-Bak! G-bak!” from somewhere down near the beck.
More startling is the cock pheasant that explodes with indignant grockling in wall-top height flight as we reach the tree-lined drive to Swarthgill. Its rhythm is like a bicycle with badly damaged spokes careering along, alarmingly out of control as it passes us by:
“GerrROK! GerrROK! Gerr ROK!”
A small group of reed bunting fly to the tops of the small trees in the shrubbery around the garden of the farmhouse. There’s a male in winter plumage – brown cap, black bib – with at least two brown streaky companions: juveniles or females.
The reed bunting feeding technique this morning is to gently hop up a twig, carefully inspecting both sides of it and picking off food items (probably insects, spiders and any other invertebrate that they come across).
On this still, humid morning, a little cloud of mosquito-sized insects, probably winter gnats, hovers above us just after we’ve passed the shelter belt of trees growing alongside one of the gills (streams in a sometimes deep channel on the hillside) which give Nethergill its name: the farm sits between two gills.
2.30 p.m.: We get a good view of a dipper as it sits for a few minutes on the end of a mossy rock in Oughtershaw beck. It’s motionless except for its nictitating membrane: an inner eyelid, which keeps flashing white as it moves across the eye. To me this ‘third eyelid’ appears to pass over the eye from bottom to top but I believe it actually crosses from back to front. Diving birds use their transparent nictitating membrane underwater. The dipper’s eyelid appears to be white but I suspect that it is transparent or semi-transparent from the point of view of the dipper.
I didn’t catch the bird in my photograph of the beck (above), but tried to memorise the shapes and colours by watching it with binoculars for as long as possible and drawing it from memory later (left).
There are no grey wagtails or sandpipers, which we frequently saw along the beck during our visit here in June.
It dives as it continues into deeper water above the riffles then on a narrower, deeper bend, it dives midstream, emerging by the steep, undercut bank on the outside bank of the meander.
It thoroughly investigates under the bank, swimming around right under the overhang. The only prey that I briefly catch a glimpse of in its bill is broad and brownish, perhaps a bullhead.
At the top end of this stretch, where the beck broadens out a little, it goes through a bathing routine, this time in the middle of the stream.