Squirrels in the Sycamores

Stripped bark

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.

Hornets’ Nest

Hornets at the nest hole, 13 August, 2017.
New shoots springing from the old ash stump: a natural equivalent of a coppice stool.

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.

Frass in old cavities in ash.

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.

Parkland Birds

Fieldfares and starlings

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.

Goose Chase

1.51 p.m.

Five pink-footed geese have touched down on the Middle Lake at Nostell Priory, but they’ve been spotted.

12 seconds later.

The cob mute swan of the lake’s resident family increases his speed as he draws nearer to them and the geese appear to be increasingly uneasy.

Another five seconds, and they’re taking off.

They soon decide that it’s time to make an exit and they take off heading down the lake, then double back to fly up the lake, heading off in the direction that they appeared from, only fifteen minutes earlier.

The goosanders (in the foreground in my last photograph) don’t get involved.

The cob mute swan has defending his territory uppermost in his mind. He spends a lot of time looking up at the small waterfall where the overflow channel beneath the bridge on the Doncaster Road flows through from the Upper Lake. There’s another family of swans on that lake and I’m sure they’d expand into our resident cob’s territory if they got the chance.

Meanwhile the four cygnets of the Middle Lake family are looking increasingly like adults, with fewer and fewer grey patches. I’m afraid that he will soon want them to move on, so that he and the pen can start raising their next brood.

Breaking the Ice

10.30 a.m.: Most of the mallards and mute swans, along with a female goosander and a female wigeon, have gathered in a patch of open water on sunny side of the frozen Lower Lake at Nostell but increasing numbers of mallard are making their way to the corner near Sheep Bridge, where there’s a chance that visitors might feed them.

Not wanting to be left out, the resident swan family starts making its way over, keeping close to the shore where the ice is thinnest.

I think that it’s the male, the cob, that is taking the lead, pushing through the ice. He’s the larger of the pair and has a thicker a neck than the female.

Males have a larger knob on their bills than the females but I can’t see much of a difference between the two. Perhaps this is something that becomes more pronounced as spring, and the mating season, arrives.

Goosander Central

You could imagine The Lady of the Lake emerging with Excalibur from the Lower Lake at Nostell Priory this morning. There’s a mist hanging over it, which melts away as we walk along the shore. In the shade of the trees, ice still covers half of the surface but it’s covered by a film of water so that mallards can stand about in groups in the middle of the lake.

Most of the Middle Lake is ice-free and eight drake goosanders have gathered in the middle of it, probably accompanied by as many females, but it’s difficult to make a definitive count as at any time one or more of them is likely to be underwater.

As we stand on the top of the banking, trying to count them, I’m aware that the lake’s resident pink-footed goose has started swimming towards us. As I lower my binoculars, I’m astonished to find that it’s waddling along beside us. While we were counting goosanders it must have walked up the near vertical banking!

Kielder Water

View from the cafe at Leaplish, Kielder Water
View from the cafe at Leaplish, Kielder Water

The track edges on the middle section of our walk from Leaplish to Tower Knowle look like illustrations from a field guide with a greater variety of wild flowers than you’d find many nature reserves.

Kielder Water from the ferry.
Kielder Water from the ferry.

greater knapweedGreater knapweed with its stout stemmed, wine-glass sized purple thistle-like flowers is the most impressive but there’s such a variety of colour and shape: pink ragged robin; yellow vetches and buttercups and mauve cranesbills but my favourite today has to be the bog asphodel growing in drifts on a boggy slope. I’ve never seen so much of it growing together. It’s small, narrow-petalled palish yellow flowers looks like chain stitch flowers in an embroidery.

swallowsswallowSwallows are nesting under the eves of the visitor centre at Tower Knowle.

Watercolour Ripples


Nickel titanium yellow, gamboge genuine, permanent rose, cerulean blue, French ultramarine, indigo. I later added a touch of burnt umber for the oar.

I sometimes get the feeling that, rather than drawing a comic strip, I’m acting as production designer and storyboard artist for a big budget movie of The Life of Charles Waterton.

I’ve been watching period dramas such as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which is set in the same period and was filmed in Yorkshire on locations that included two Georgian streets in Wakefield which Waterton would have known.

The BBC Films 2012 version of Great Expectations included costumes and scenes that would have been perfect for my comic strip. At the climax of the film there’s a scene on the Thames which had me thinking about the dawn procession of boats across Walton Lake which was arranged for Waterton’s funeral.

In today’s illustration – a premonition of Waterton’s funeral – I tried to suggest dawn light on eddies in the water. The gradation of watercolour from lemon yellow to indigo called for some forward planning. My Winsor & Newton watercolour box didn’t have enough divisions in the palette for all the colours, so I moved on to another box for the French ultramarine and indigo.


Hawes High Street from the Bay Tree cafe.
Hawes High Street from the Bay Tree cafe.

oystcatcherThe level of the lake is up compared to last year but tide-marks of dry sedgy debris show that it can rise by another five or six feet. Oystercatchers call at the top, marshy end of the lake.

dipperA dipper perches on the bridge as we get back to the farm then flits off upstream.

kestrelOn the drive back to Hawes, I see a kestrel fly to the corner of a field barn to enter by a square opening, just below the roofline, which I guess must be an owl window.

Langsett September

A perfect September morning to walk around Langsett Reservoir; through the conifer plantations, across the river Little Don and up onto the moor.

grouseNot such a restful day for the red grouse and the brown trout though. The gamekeepers and beaters were getting in place (you might spot them moving through the trees on one of the shots of the river) to wave flags while walking across the moor whooping and hollering, accompanied by their dogs, driving the grouse towards the guns.

We hurried across the moor before they started and missed out on our coffee stop at the ruined farm known as North America, pausing instead by a lichen-covered rock overlooking the stream on the far side of the moor.

troutA student in full-length waders emerged from the stream. He explained that he was from the University of Hull, setting up a project to monitor the movements of brown trout by tagging them and installing a couple of electronic sensors, one where the stream runs into the lake, the other further upstream.


FujiFilm FinePix S6800Unfortunately my recordings of natural sounds – running water, bird calls and the wind in the heather – were interrupted by the sound of the plastic lens cap, which is attached to the camera by a loop, rattling in the breeze so I’ve added a music track.

My thanks to Silent Partner for making Days are Long available for use on my YouTube video.

If you’ve got a fast connection, Langsett looks good in HD.

Filmed with my FujiFilm FinePix S6800. The shots that I didn’t use my little ‘Spider’ tripod for needed image stabilisation in iMovie.

Link; Silent Partner on YouTube

Gadwall & Grebe

gadwall sketchesgadwall upendingI’M IN LUCK as one of the ducks that I’d like to get more familiar with is there just in front of the hide at Pugneys reserve lake; I sketch a pair of gadwall dabbling and occasionally upending.

gadwall dabbling

The male looks plain grey but when I get the binoculars on him the finely striped breast comes into focus. The female looks rather like a female mallard.

Tufted, Shoveller & Pochard

tufteds ducks


Most of the other ducks are resting. Pochard and tufted duck outnumber the gadwalls by about a hundred to one but all of them are resting, head tucked beneath the wing. Occasionally they’ll all move away from the willowy bank, perhaps because they become aware of a dog passing by on the nearby path.

tufted ducks

tufted duckThey’re not adopting the sort of pose that would be useful in a field guide but I do my best to get the head-tucked-in pose down on paper and to take in their general shape and proportion.

They turn around as they float so that isn’t as straightforward as you might think that it should be.

shovellersThe shoveller are more active and a small group of males and females crosses the lake, helpfully keeping that field guide pose as they move.


Inevitably my eye is drawn to the striking plumage of the drakes.



grebe winter plumageI’m not used to seeing the great-crested grebe at this time of year so I take notes about its appearance and check it against the book later.

Usually we see them out on the middle of a lake where they seem larger. This one, that diving close to the hide, didn’t seem much larger thangrebe diving the black-headed gull which was following it around probably with the intention of stealing any tiddler that it might catch.

grebe preeningThe grebe is a white as a penguin beneath when it turns to preen its breast between dives.

Heald Wood

A morning walk on the western shore of Lake Windermere, from Ferry House to Wray castle.