Foraging Party

long-tailed tit11.30 a.m., Lower Lake, Nostell Priory Park: As we walk into the wood behind the house at Nostell Priory, a mixed party of woodland birds is making its way through the trees ahead of us.

Each bird has its own approach to feeding, exploiting a different niche to the other birds in the party:

  • the blue tit hangs upside down to peck at an opened-up capsule hanging from the end of a slender twig on the beech tree. I suspect that it’s more interested in any invertebrates that might be sheltering in the crevices than it is in the beech nut itself
  • the coal tit closely inspects the branches of a holly
  • long-tailed tits flit about amongst the branches
  • a robin flies onto one of the lower branches of a holly then flies down to perch on a log. It’s the only bird in the group that gives the impression that it might be as much concerned with keeping an eye on its territory as it is on feeding
  • the great tit keeps flying down to ground level to probe amongst the leaf litter
  • a wren hops under the massive logs of a felled sweet chestnut, a niche that none of the other birds can explore
  • a magpie follows the foraging group along. If there’s anything going on in its territory, a magpie will always want a piece of the action

Later we add another two birds to our woodland list for this morning: a dunnock flies out from beneath a conifer and, as another feeding party makes its way through trees and shrubs at the entrance to the Menagerie, a goldcrest flies in front of us to investigate the branches of a holly.

We puzzle over a bird call in the trees by the chalets in Top Wood. To me it sounds like something the size of a woodpecker, but it isn’t the mad laughing ‘yaffle’ call of the green woodpecker. We check it out with a search on the RSPB website; it’s a nuthatch. It’s got a loud call for such a small bird, one that can be difficult to spot as it makes its way along the trunk and branches of trees in the wood.

A Good Year for Cygnets

On the Lower Lake, amongst the wigeon, mallards, moorhens and tufted ducks, there are six female goosanders. We don’t see any males.

It’s been a good year for mute swans: the pair on the Lower Lake have three cygnets, the pair on the Middle Lake have four. Last year the Nostell swans weren’t so successful, with only two cygnets successfully reared.

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.