Blackbirds at Dawn

Anglers Country Park, this morning. Photo credit: Barbara (my trusty Tough TG4 let me down temporarily this morning, so here’s the equally good iPhone version of what I was going to photograph).

There’s a fiery sunrise but, unlike yesterday, there’s no frost and the pond isn’t iced over. As they often do at this time of year, blackbirds have gathered on the lawn first thing and I’m pleased to see that one song thrush has joined them as thrushes – song or mistle – haven’t been a regulars in the garden this autumn.

Anglers Country Park

We take a stroll around the lake at Anglers Country Park, south-east of Wakefield this morning. About seventy-five pochards are resting in the quiet corner of the lake near the Main Hide, while a smaller flock of wigeon, perhaps 20 or 30 of them, are at the less-sheltered far end of the lake.

It’s a while since we saw a treecreeper, so we’re pleased to see one meticulously making its way up a trunk of one of the conifers in nearby Haw Park plantations. There seems to be a reasonable number of wrens about, so hopefully they won’t be caught out any prolonged severe winter weather.

The star bird of the morning though, is back at the car park, coming down to the bird feeders: tree sparrows, perhaps a dozen of them. The tree sparrow population has plummeted in recent years, so it’s good to see them again.


Room on the Broom trail at Anglers Country Park, an ingenious way of breaking up the two mile circuit of the lake for younger children (but wouldn’t it be better to get them really interested in ducks instead?).

Raptors by the Railway

Ochre trackside birches contrast with the clear blue sky.

A red kite glides over a broad stretch of the valley of the Wharfe.

Sheep and flocks of herring gulls are dotted around in the green pastures on the hillsides.

The frost hasn’t given in the cutting between Pannal and Hornbeam Park. A buzzard flies up from the top of the embankment and settles in a tree.

On our circuit of Harlow Carr RHS gardens, we see a second red kite, flying over the pinewoods.

The light is steadily fading on our journey home but, as the train stops at Weeton, we glimpse a heron.

Banded Demoiselle

A pair mute swans on the canal have reared four cygnets; we’re told that they started with five, but rearing four out of five is pretty good going.

As they sit together on the bank preening, they’re all making elegant swan-neck movements, like the warm-up for a ballet rehearsal; the two principle dancers flanking the corps de ballet.

A male banded demoiselle flies alongside the canal. In contrast to other damselflies, this one is so dark that it reminds us of the chimney sweep moths that we saw flying amongst grasses in the Dales a couple of weeks ago. It’s the first that I can remember seeing in the valley.

It’s a while since we saw a gatekeeper; a male comes to rest on a bramble leaf amongst the grasses by the towpath. The diagonal streaks on the forewings of the male are scent glands. Males have a habit of patrolling a small territory , typically on the edge of a woodland ride.

Ringlets are the butterflies that we’re seeing most frequently at the moment, mainly alongside hedgerows, especially where bramble is in blossom but even more popular with them is a patch of creeping thistle which is currently dotted with purple flower-heads.

Herons, Storks and Spoonbills

little egret wades through the weedy waters of a pool between the river and canal, occasionally stabbing at some prey in the water a foot or two ahead of it. A pigtail of a plume hangs down behind its head. ‘Little’ is an appropriate description: it looks petite compared with plump moorhen standing nearby at the water’s edge.

A juvenile grey heron touches down by the pool and steadily ambles along the bank towards the egret, which continues its progress towards the heron. I’m expecting the larger heron to see off the egret, but there’s no interaction between them.

Next to the pool is a nesting platform fixed on top of a tall pole. It was erected when a pair of wild white storks attempted to nest here in April 2004: the first nesting attempt in Britain for six hundred years. Storks like to nest near human habitation but it probably didn’t help that hundreds of birdwatchers flocked to the spot and stood on the towpath under the pole. The pair deserted.

But the good news is that it’s just been announced by the RSPB that spoonbills have nested at their Fairburn Ings nature reserve. They haven’t nested in Yorkshire since the 1700s. Unlike the storks, they were able to nest in peace as they wisely chose the cover of a stand of trees in one of the quieter corners of the reserve and the RSPB didn’t go public with the news until the three young had successfully fledged.

Buzzard and Sparrowhawk

As we walk down the Balk into the Calder Valley, a buzzard flies across in front of us, far enough down the slope that we’re getting an eye-level view of it. It’s surprising how different those long, broad wings look when seen from this unfamiliar angle.

Later a female sparrowhawk circles over the marshy field known as the Strands. At first, against the sky with nothing to judge its scale by, I’m wondering if it could be some larger bird of prey, but it soon flies right over our heads, so that we’re able to see the barring on its plumage and get a better idea of its size.

Wood Mouse

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.

It ran off and vanished down a hole in the middle of the lawn. There must be hidden world beneath the turf; yesterday a shrew popped underground via another hole in its restless search for food.

Fledgling Bullfinch

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.

The fledgling looked rather dull, perhaps a little duller than the female but it lacked her dark cap.

The Swallow and the Feather

Charlotte’s Ice Cream Parlour, Whitley, 10.50 a.m.:swallow lands on the AstroTurf by the picnic tables. Its mate swoops down and flutters above it briefly but doesn’t land.

After fluttering about a bit amongst the tables, the grounded bird takes off successfully but a minute later it flies down again and hovers close to the ground. It appears to be trying to pick up a feather but, as it gets close to it, the draught from its wings blows the feather away.

The picnic area is next to the lovebird and pheasant aviaries, so there are several feathers of assorted sizes lying around.



wallaby, possibly a species of rock wallaby, comes out of its hut to rest in the sun, in the shelter of a lush clump of grass.

In my Royal College of Art days, I enjoyed the weekly all-day drawing sessions at the London Zoo, lead by my tutor John Norris Wood. Drawing this wallaby at Charlotte’s Ice Cream Parlour reminds me how much I enjoy settling down to draw an animal. Focussing on one species for half an hour, an hour or more, is a different experience from trying to capture a moment of behaviour, as with my sketch of the swallow.

Although I’d love to spend a day drawing at Chester Zoo, where they have 500 species of animals, I need only a handful of species to keep me absorbed in drawing for a day, so I could get a lot out of a day drawing a smaller collection of animals, such as here at Charlotte’s.

Richard Brook

Richard giving the Conservation Officer’s report at a Wakefield Naturalists’ Society meeting in the Unity Hall, in my sketch from February, 1981.

We’ve been remembering my old friend, conservationist, plant breeder and 60s music fanatic, Richard Brook, who died on 20 April, aged 74. These extracts from his diary were compiled by Richard’s second cousin, Ann  Brook and read at his funeral on Monday by her sister Philippa.

The ‘Tripartite’ mentioned in the May entry refers to his award-winning ‘Tripartite’ narcissus, which he developed in the 1980s when he ran a commercial nursery specialising in daffodils. The Tripartite has three flowers on each stem and is still available globally. Last month it was exhibited at The North of England Horticultural Society’s Spring Flower Show at Harrogate.

A friend of Richard’s from the Daffodil Society laid some on his coffin at the end of the service.

Richard’s observations taken from diaries of 2010

Heard nuthatch in Wakefield Park.
Cloudy, cool, drizzle after dark.

Song thrush…
Sitting in a laurel bush.

Saw orange tip butterfly.
Killed one large fly.

19th of May. Blossom out!
Tripartite faded in the heat and drought.

Young Goldfinch came to the seed feeder.
…saw the first gatekeeper

Robin singing an autumn song.
First picking of Victoria plums.

Cloudy, cool, slight North breeze.
Sparrow hawk, hiding in the pear tree.

Evening dull, with light rain.
Buzzard over the garden again.

Warm sun and cloud in the morning,
sweet blackberries ripening,

Green woodpecker laughing.

Pair of jays came to the water bowl.
White frost, sunny, calm and cold.

Grey Heron

7.35 a.m.: The Grey Heron is back this morning. Attracting an apex predator is a good sign that there’s plenty of life in the pond but I can’t help worrying about the effects of repeated visits on our frog and newt populations. Perhaps I should cover one end of the pond as a refuge for them. A miniature water-lily would provide some cover.

The heron leaves the pond, preens briefly then flies up to the shed roof. It cranes its neck to choose its next course for breakfast: our neighbours’ carp.

I don’t think that this will go down well, Sean was so proud that his carp had produced a single baby this year, so I open the window and it flies off.

Sea Cliff Sketch

I’m drawing a seabird cliff for the May article of my Wild Yorkshire nature diary for the Dalesman magazine. When we visited Bempton Cliffs in May last year, I didn’t take my sketchbook as I was trying out a new telephoto lens. One of my photographs includes kittiwake and herring gull; razorbill and guillemot and a pair of puffins, all on their favoured nesting ledges and crevices, so I’m using that as reference for my illustration.

I would have struggled to draw that morning, as there was an eye-wateringly cold wind, but when we retreated to Scarborough for lunch it was like stepping into summer: the wind dropped and the sun came out.

Frisky Llamas

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.

Wildfowl Wars

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.


Charlotte’s Real Jersey Ice Cream

Grey Feathers

The black-tipped feather, lower right, is definitely wood pigeon, probably a secondary from its left wing. The others, I’m not so sure about; the white leading edge of the top feather makes me think gull.

The brownish cast to the feather, lower left, might be from a pink-footed goose. There’s a pinioned goose which we often see preening by the path beside the Middle Lake at Nostell, where I picked up all these feathers.