This stone lion, reclining on the lawn, always takes me by surprise as we walk past a large evergreen oak and it springs into view. Surprisingly, a real lion was once kept here in the Menagerie at Nostell Priory, just yards from the Doncaster to Wakefield turnpike road, behind a high stone wall in an old quarry. There’s a story that it once escaped and roamed around the area.
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.
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.
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.
Mallards and Mute Swans
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.
It’s our great nephew Henry Roman’s christening today and I’ve been collared by Oliver, aged eight, and Ted, aged six. Oliver asks me to draw a snake – I’m going to need a bit more practice with that – and Ted requests a husky, which again I struggle to draw from memory; I definitely wouldn’t trust that character to pull my sleigh.
Oliver, who has been reading my Deep in the Wood, which he claims is his favourite book, asks me which was my favourite out of all the books that I’ve written. The Britain sketchbook, I guess.
“Did you write all the books in the world?” asks Ted.
“There are a few that I didn’t write.” I explain.
“What’s it’s name?” I ask him, having been slightly more successful than I was with my drawing of the husky.
My aim is to give the impression that my sketches were drawn from life. I don’t think that I’d ever be able to achieve the same feeling of spontaneity by working from a photograph, but I’ll try to suggest character and movement rather than getting too involved in details such as the texture of the fur.
I’m drawing direct from a photograph on the screen, rather than starting with a tracing, which would be a sure way of getting the proportions right. My inevitable second attempts at lines give a similar effect to when I’m drawing a living animal and it moves slightly, adding a degree of animation. That’s the theory, anyway.
Squirrels will make an appearance in my Dalesman nature diary this autumn, so I picked up these squirrel-nibbled cones at Nostell this morning to illustrate the article. I’ll be writing about the red squirrels of Snaizeholme near Hawes but these cones have been nibbled by greys.
An ecologist recently told me that the last red he’d seen near Wakefield had been running down the road at Newmillerdam; I think that this would have been in the late 1970s or possibly early 1980s.
It sounds as if the unfortunate creature had an inkling that the greys had taken over and was heading off like a lemming on one last desperate migration. Lets hope it finally arrived at Snaizeholme.
We had a shrew and later a hedgehog foraging under the bird feeders yesterday and this afternoon – on a day when it never stopped raining – a wood mouse was feeding on the spilt sunflower seeds and the crumbs of fat ball.
We’ve guessed during the last month or two that a pair of bullfinches must have a nest nearby. We used to see them sitting opposite each other on the sunflower hearts feeder and I suspected that they were gathering seed to feed their young. Bullfinches feed their young on regurgitated seeds which they store in the bullfinch equivalent of a hamster’s cheek pouches.
Today a bullfinch fledgling was sitting on the washing line, begging for food. The adult male, on a perch on the feeder, appeared to be de-husking sunflower hearts and storing them in his pouches. He then flew over to the washing line and fed them to the fledgling.
8.35 a.m.: A dunnock chases a shrew across the lawn but the shrew ignores it and continues its zig-zag pattern of foraging. It disappears into a small hole for a minute then pops up again in the same place and continues its investigations, pushing its nose amongst the grass stems.
It has lighter-coloured ears; it is whitish beneath and it has a stiffish looking tail which to me looks wider in proportion to its body than I’d expect. It has velvety light brown-grey fur. I’ve shown it too brownish here.
Shrew v. Blackbird
10.40 a.m.; Not so the female blackbird, which pecks at the shrew which is now foraging at the foot of the bird-feeding pole; she pecks at it several times and it scuttles off to take cover in the nearby flower border.
6.30 p.m.; The shrew is still around, busily investigating the turf by the edge of the lawn.
8.30 p.m.; A hedgehog snuffles about beneath the bird feeders.
Sad to report, the following day, following non-stop rain, the bedraggled shrew had expired and was lying on the lawn. Its body measured 5.2 cm, its tail about 4 cm.
They’re letting the alpacas out into the paddock this morning at Charlotte’s Ice Cream Parlour, Whitley. They seem so excited and frisky that I get the impression that this must be the first time they’ve been out since they were transferred to the stables for the winter.
Also getting their first taste of springtime freedom are the donkeys, which are trotting out briskly but not as boisterously as the llamas.
Crows v. Kestrel
We spot a kestrel hovering motionless over the open pasture but it doesn’t stay there for long: two carrion crows make a beeline towards it and the first dives down on it then loops around and swoops up from below, sending it on its way.
There’s a high-pitched whistling call from the wildfowl pool where a drake is having a go at a pair of mandarin ducks, which are perching on a rock at the corner of the pool. Unlike the kestrel, it doesn’t look as if they’re going to move.
I must go back and take a closer look at the ‘drake’. I’ve drawn him from memory and made him look like a miniature Canada goose, but I suspect that he might have been a variety of duck. He might even have had a black mask and a white neck, rather than vice versa, like a barnacle goose, as I’ve shown him.
10.15 a.m.: It’s almost a year since we walked the circuit of Langsett Reservoir. We always go anticlockwise as the lakeside path through the pines gets us off to a brisk start; we prefer to leave picking our way through the mud at the far corner of the lake until later.
A coal tit flits about, investigating the branches of a lakeside pine.
As we climb the rocky path up to the moor, a robin perches in a shrub on the heathy slope.
A curlew repeats its bubbling call over an expanse of heather. Down by the lake we hear a shrill piping, which we guess is a sandpiper.
When we call on our friend Diana, I usually struggle to draw her cat, PC, because, if he’s in, he hankers to go out but, once he’s out, it’s not long until he jumps on the outside windowsill to demand to be let in again. A busy cat.
Not today though, as it’s cold, dull and rainy out there. Snoozing in his basket or reclining on the windowsill, as he is today, you might imagine that PC would be far too laid back to catch a bird. Unfortunately not: Diana has had to stop feeding the birds in her front garden, which is a shame because she used to enjoy seeing goldfinches crowding onto the nyger seed feeder.