I can’t take full credit for this piece of land art. The pheasants, up to twelve of them at a time, worked hard over our long drawn-out winter circling the bird feeding pole, pouncing on any fragment of sunflower heart dropped by the goldfinches, bullfinches and others, gradually trampling away the grass and compacting the clayey soil.
Taking a tip from Nick Bailey on last week’s Gardener’s World, I sharpened my spade and half-moon turf cutter before starting to dig over the resulting bare patch. I went around the trampled area with the turf cutter first then dug spade-width sections.
A sharpened spade made it so much easier but, even so, I’m taking a break before forking it over, adding a bit of gravel and sowing it with grass seed.
I choose the ducks that appear to have settled down by the pool at Charlotte’s Ice Cream Parlour, but sleeping ducks are soon disturbed; preening ducks soon go on to the next stage in their routine; and all of them, as soon as I get my watercolours out, seem to remember that they’ve got urgent business in the duck shelter and they disappear out of sight altogether.
It’s such a pleasure attempting to draw them and, like my attempts at creating frames for a comic strip yesterday, I realise that all I need to do is keep at it, try my best and some of the character of each bird will come over in my drawing.
After dinosaurs, mallard drakes were one of my earliest inspirations for drawing natural history. They’re so handsome at this time of year and even a basic drawing soon appears mallard-like when you add the bottle green of the head, the brown of the breast and the yellow of the bill.
When Sir Peter Scott was a young school boy and wanted to paint nothing but ducks, his art teacher told him:
“Go away and paint a pudding, when you’ve learnt to paint a pudding, then you can move on to painting ducks.”
As so many of my sketchbooks feature drawings made in coffee shops and tea rooms, I think that I can say that I’ve now had adequate practise at painting puddings.
The same view of Stanley Ferry Flash, near Wakefield, taken by Richard Brook on Sunday, 9 September, 1973 (above), and on Friday, 24 January, 1986 (below). The colliery spoil heap in the background, from one of the Stanley Collieries, perhaps Stanley Deep Drop, has grown, or at least been reshaped in the intervening years.
Part of the spoil heap area became Stanley Marsh Nature Reserve.
Common Reed, Phragmites, has colonised the area, although some reedmace remains. The rough grasses, greater willowherb and water plantain seem to have been drowned out, so I wonder if the whole site subsided, or whether water levels stayed about the same but the reed out-competed the other plants.
One of the pleasures of archiving Richard Brook’s slides of West Yorkshire wildlife habitats of half a century ago is being reminded of familiar places from my earliest birdwatching expeditions. Already in 1966, Fairburn Ings was establishing a reputation for itself as a nature reserve. At that time, if I remember rightly, it was managed by the West Riding County Council.
As he was trekking around the wilder fringes of the area, there are rarely figures in Richard’s slides, but he wasn’t quite able to crop this little boy feeding the swans out of the frame.
Richard took the photograph on Tuesday, 2 August 1966.
Ferrybridge Cooling Towers
I can make out just three cooling towers at Ferrybridge Power Station. There had been eight but there had been a catastrophic collapse of three of them on 1 November in the previous year, due to vibration caused by a westerly gale with winds of 85 mph.
11 a.m.: Flakes of snow drift down from grey cloud but that hasn’t put off the golfers on a green of Dewsbury District Golf Course above Whitley Wood. A flock of gulls fly across and line up on the embankment of the reservoir.
Patches of snow on distant moors disappear into the mist.
After the snow and black ice over the weekend, it’s good to be out at Nostell again. The place seems to have sprung to life: blue skies, sunlit trees and the breeze picking up sparkling ripples on the lake which had been leaden grey with ice last time we were here.
Winter aconites and snowdrops are at their freshest.
It’s ten degrees warmer than it was yesterday and one of the cygnets on the lower lake has been stirred into action: she – I assume this is a female – is sitting at the water’s edge in a quiet backwater behind a small screen of reedmace, practicing her nest-making skills; plucking pieces of vegetation and throwing them back with a flick of her head. They’re tending to land on her tail, but she’s so enthusiastic, she’ll soon build on her skills.
There’s nesting activity here at home too: Barbara spots a blue tit leaving the nest box on the back wall of our house.
There’s often a carrion crow on the old felled sweet chestnut trunk near the Lower Lake bridge, feeding on grain that’s been left there and frequently being photographed. You can see in my photograph that it’s stuffed its crop with grain.
A few rooks feeding alongside jackdaws on the turf in Obelisk Park also have full crops, but they are more likely to be feeding on earthworms and insect larvae, such as leather-jackets: the caterpillar-like larvae of the crane fly.
Under a yew near the Menagerie seven grey squirrels have gathered. They’re turning over the leaf litter and stopping to nibble at frequent intervals. One appears to have found half a nut, probably an acorn that it – or another of the squirrels – had hidden during the autumn.
We disturb the adult grey heron yet again. This time it was hoping to be left in peace at the top end of the lake beneath the Cascade Bridge. It takes off, clearing the clapper stones of the Druid’s Bridge with inches to spare.
The flock of fieldfares are still around. Wigeon have left the now completely ice-covered field pool. There’s a pair on the Middle Lake, along with two pairs of gadwall, tufted, the usual mallards and swans and an increasing number of goosanders, some swimming in pairs.
There are more wigeon on the ice-free Upper Lake, which isn’t accessible from the Park.
As we walk along the edge of Top Park Wood, a kestrel wheels from tree to tree ahead of us.
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.
The sycamore is probably the nearest that the squirrels can get to the tastier-sounding sugar maple, which, like the grey squirrel, is a native of North America.
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.
A jay flies up into a sapling and we notice that it seems to be keeping an eye on a kestrel, a falcon of open spaces which seems a bit incongruous in this woodland setting.
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.
As it flies to another perch, it shows pale grey tail feathers, banded with dark brown, almost black, at the tips.
Mallards and Mute Swans
Midwinter is hardly over but already, on the ice-fringed Lower Lake, the mallards have mating in mind. A drake head-bobs as he swims around the duck prior to mating.
As we round a corner by a lakeside bench, we disturb a heron. It must be getting tired of seeing us as we disturbed it here, same time, same place, yesterday morning.
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.
At the lakeside, a cigar-shaped seed-head of reedmace disperses a couple of wisps of its downy seeds. It has been calculated that one stalk can produce 200,000 seeds.
The pied wagtail patrolling the courtyard of the Stable Block at Nostell Priory reminds me of David Suchet’s portrayal of Hercule Poirot: busy, alert and pausing regularly to survey the scene with a detached intensity. Its jerky walk and the continuous polite little boughs of its head give it the deceptively ridiculous air that Poirot adopted to lull criminals into underestimating his intellectual powers.
The neat black-and-white pattern of its plumage reminds me of the immaculate old-fashioned formality of Poirot’s dress and of the smart white spats and black patent leather shoes that I can imagine him wearing.
Despite the cold raw wind, the rooks have gathered at their nests in the treetops in the south east corner of the park. Crows and jackdaws are circling and calling around Joiner Wood and the Pleasure Grounds.
At Nostell, we hear the green woodpecker more often than we see it but today as its laughing call rings out over Top Park Wood we see it fly over to a dead beech tree where it settles to explore the pockmarked upper bough.
We saw a small flock of about twenty fieldfares gathering in the treetops last week but they’re still not regulars. The large thrushes with smaller birds that we spot in the canopy of a tall oak by the Lower Lake prove to be half a dozen mistle thrushes accompanied by a few starlings, rather than fieldfares accompanied by redwings.
Goosanders and Gadwalls
Goosanders are gathering on the Middle Lake. There’s a conspicuous group of six black-and-white males but the red-headed females are diving in a quieter corner of the lake, twenty or thirty yards away.
Other winter ducks joining the year-round mallards, included a dozen tufted and three gadwalls. In recent weeks a flock of around fifty wigeon have been grazing close to a small pool just outside the park boundary beyond Top Park Wood but they’re not here today. Perhaps the sound of a pheasant shoot not far away has persuaded them that it’s time to head for somewhere away from the firing line, such as the far corner of the big lake at Anglers Country Park.
Bonus Woodpecker and Wild Geese
As a bonus, we spot a second species of woodpecker in the late afternoon: a great spotted coming to the fatball feeder that hangs on our washing line. It’s a female with no red on the back of her head but with a conspicuous red vent as she hangs awkwardly from the feeder, tail cocked upwards for balance.
This morning, before sunrise, a shallow V-shaped skein of geese passed over our house, heading south east. A warm front had been sweeping across the country from the south west, resulting in snow as warm air coming in from over the Atlantic meets cooler air from the north. Snow disrupted travel in the Midlands but we had just a few wet flakes of snow mixed in with a shower of rain at breakfast time.
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.