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.
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
A 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.
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.
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.
Charlotte’s Ice Cream Parlour, Whitley, 10.50 a.m.: A 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.
A 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.