The Calder Valley beyond Mirfield is disappearing into the haze this morning.
In the waterfowl pen at Charlotte’s Ice Cream Parlour, black swans are preening.
This disconsolate-looking West Highland terrier was sitting by a table at the the Caffe Capri.
These are the first scans from my sketchbook made using Affinity Photo. Aspects of the process are still slightly unfamiliar but there are plenty of short tutorial videos on specific subjects, like setting levels, so I’m not finding it too difficult to get into the program.
I do still miss the the preview that you get in Adobe Photoshop, which takes the guesswork out of exporting an image for the web. In practice, as I stick to pretty much the same settings every time, it’s unlikely that I’m going to be surprised by the end results.
The sketch of black swans preening looked very similar when I saved the same image in Photoshop.
3.50 a.m.: Not so much a dawn chorus as a dawn solo as the song thrush goes through it’s varied routine in the half light. It’s not until about an hour later that I hear the five-note cooing of a wood pigeon.
At breakfast-time, on our front lawn, which is shaded by the house from the morning sun, a young blackbird is repeatedly picking up some tiny food item, probably ants. It’s at that halfway stage: still brown and streaky above, but, in contrast, the tail and wing feathers are already showing up in black, so this is a young male.
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.