Drift Ice

There’s a thin layer of slushy ice on a sheltered section of the canal, in the shade and shelter of the sandstone escarpment of Hartley Bank Woods, but some shards of thicker ice have been blown alongside the concrete canal bank and gathered in shards as they’ve piled up against a clump of grass at the water’s edge.

This is probably reed canary-grassPhalaris arundinacea, which sometimes gets the nickname ‘canal grass’. I’ve even heard it described as ‘designer phragmites’, an alternative to the common reed, Phragmites australis, where space is at a premium!

Rain soon followed this morning’s snow: there’s faint rainbow near the centre of this photograph.

A cormorant flies up from the marshy field known as the Strands. What open water there is here appears to be entirely ice-covered. The small lagoon by Beeston Bridge at the foot of the Balk is also frozen solid so the resident moorhens have lined up on the river’s embankment to peck amongst the rough grasses there. It’s probably marginally warmer over by the river.



Call of the Wild

11.45 a.m.: As I clear the snow from our driveway I hear an approaching cachophony: an unfamiliar sound . . .  A little dog? A radio? The hooter of a child’s pedal car?

Soon a skein of eighty grey geese appears, three or four hundred feet above the rooftops. It’s a different sound to the argumentative sounding Canadas that we’re more familiar with; slightly deeper and, I think, a wilder kind of call.

They’re heading in the same direction as the skein we saw at breakfast time the other day: south east; so perhaps towards the Humber or the Old Moor RSPB reserve?

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.

Little Egret

egret4.30 p.m.: A little egret flies up from the marsh on the Strands, a field between the river and the canal. It’s a bulkier bird than the black-headed gulls which are also flying over the marsh but its wingspan is about the same; the striking difference is that the egret is completely white: no black wing-tips, no grey back. It’s the first time that I’ve seen a little egret on my home patch in the valley.

Askham Bog

Slender tufted sedge, Carex acuta
Slender tufted sedge, Carex acuta

longhorn moth green veined white11 a.m.: Orange tips and green veined white butterflies are attracted to the flowers of jack-by-the-hedge which grows in swathes along the edge of the swampy woodland at Askham Bog Yorkshire Wildlife Trust reserve, southwest of York.

Its white flowers have also attracted a longhorn moth Adela reaumurella, a metallic green micro moth, less than a centimetre in length. My photograph shows a female; the male’s antennae are twice as long, three times the length of its forewing.


Slender tufted sedge, Carex acuta (above), has sharp corners on its triangular stems. In my photograph, the male flower spikes are the dangling ochre tassels while the female spikes, below them in the flower head, have two styles growing from each ovary, like the forked tongue of a serpent.

Askham Bog has the largest colony of gingerbread sedge, Carex elongata, in England. In autumn the floppy tussocks of this sedge and its spikes of seeds turn reddish brown. Is that how it gets its name? Is it the colour of gingerbread? Or did it once have some use as a food or herbal remedy?

The colony is in Far Wood, east of the reserve’s boardwalk so wellies are recommended if you go in search of the sedge.

Water Plants

amphibious bistort

water violet

The pink flowers of amphibious bistort, Persicaria amphibium (above), are still in bud. It’s floating leaves are pointed at the tip and blunt at the base.

Despite its name water violet, Hottonia palustris, is a relative of the primrose. In my photograph you can see the stigma of the flower in the yellow centre of the foreground flower. In primroses this is what botanists refer to as ‘pin eyed’. Water violet has finely divided fern-like leaves beneath the surface of the water.


Dog violet
Dog violet
Marsh violet
Marsh violet

Dog violets grow alongside the duckboards and a few marsh violets, Viola palustris, which have paler flowers with dark veins. Marsh violet has long creeping rhizomes so when we spotted one, we soon found a few more scattered around nearby amongst the marsh plants.

Royal Fern

royal fernRoyal fern, Osmunda regalis, is just starting to unfurls its fronds. This is one of the tallest of European ferns, growing to several metres.


Askham Bog Yorkshire Wildlife Trust Reserve.

Lapwing Meadow

lapwingteal2The flood has subsided since I drew the Strands, a field between the river and the canal, a month or two ago. Two pairs teal are disturbed as we walk by; a heron stalks patiently amongst the rushes; and a pair of lapwing seem to be considering nesting on an open stretch of the field exposed by the retreating water. There’s another single lapwing not far away.

tealChiff-chaff and willow warbler are singing from trees and bushes alongside the canal.

heronA hirundine flies over the canal; we don’t get a brilliant view but we don’t spot any tail streamers and it then starts making a chirruping call which we’re familiar with from previous years: house martinit’s our first house martin of the year.

The Bittern Hide

Reedbeds seen from the Bittern Hide
Reedbeds seen from the Bittern Hide, 11.40 a.m., 40ºF, 6ºC. The Reedbed hide is just visible in the background.

swanRSPB Old Moor, 10.40 a.m., 39ºF, 4ºC, Reedbed Hide: We passed through a snow shower on the way here but as we walk to the Reedbed Hide there are only a few sleety spots in the wind.

Two mute swans are upending by the reeds as they make their way to their nest site, a mound of reeds.

grebetufted duckA great crested grebe motors over towards the swans, calling as he nears them (judging by the large cheek frills, this is the male). It’s a surprisingly loud call for what I think of as one of the quietest of wildfowl. My bird book describes the grebe’s spring calls as ‘a series of guttural far-reaching “rah-rah-rah” notes’. But, instead of skirmishing with the swans, as we thought he might do, he dives near them. Perhaps when he saw how large they are in close up he decided not to escalate the situation.

Mid-lagoon, two male and one female tufted ducks are diving.

The Strands

The Strands‘It’s taking a long time to drain off.’ says a dog walker as I drawn the Strands, a field between the river and the canal, ‘I came down on Boxing Day and the path by the old railway was half underwater. It’s underwater again today.’

mute swanI thought that I’d heard a horse clip-clopping across the field but it was a mute swan taking off at the top end of the lagoon. I think the noise must have been its wing-tips clattering as they hit the water.

Wakefield’s Old Park

  • Stanley Hall.

This walk, which starts and finishes at Wakefield cathedral and passes Pinderfields, the Old Park and the Chantry Chapel. There are a number of Robin Hood connections, including a sculpture of his sparring partner George-a-Green, the Jolly Pinder of Wakefield. On 25 January 1316 the maidservant of Robert Hode, was fined two pence for taking dry wood and green vegetation from the Old Park. This walk must pass very near the scene of the crime!

More about Robert Hode and the early Robin Hood ballads in my Walks in Robin Hood’s Wakefield, available in local bookshops, visitor centres and some farm shops. Also available online, post free in the UK, from Willow Island Editions, price £2.99.

The walk passes the site of St Swithen’s chantry chapel. Walk it while you can because there are plans for a relief road which it is proposed will go through the Old Park, later the site of Parkhill Colliery, linking with the roundabout near Wakefield Hospice at Stanley Hall.

Wader Scrape

wader scrapeWader scrape hide, 1.30 pm, 59ºF, 15ºC, breezy with occasional showers

‘Here come five pandas!’ quips one birdwatcher, and he’s right, the belted Galloway cattle that form part of the little herd here have same pattern and the panda’s barrel-like rotundness. The herd move from island to island across the lagoon, like a scene from a wildlife documentary.

I’m surprised how deep the channel between the two nearest island is; the cattle launch themselves splashily from the edge and swim across.

Purple Loosestrife

purple loosestrifeThe purple loosestrife is now at its best at the RSPB Old Moor reserve.

Two photographers in search of dragonflies apologise for trawling across my field of view, requesting that I don’t include them in the picture.

A shame, they would have added some scale. The loosestrife is shoulder high.

jointed rushJointed Rush

I think of rushes as being like the hard rush and soft rush; spiky and cylindrical, like a clump of green porcupine quills, but this is a rush too; jointed rush, Juncus articulatus, gets its name because the hollow stem is divided by internal ‘joints’.

It has clusters of star-shaped brown flowers which develop into egg-shaped fruits.


seedheadYellow Rattle

This dry seedhead was growing on a grassy path edge. It reminds me of bluebell but we’re not in woodland – or old hedgerows – here and when I check it out in the book I’m able to confirm that it’s yellow rattle, Rhinanthus minor, which is semi-parasitic on the roots of grasses.

It is a  member of the figwort family, Scrophulariaceae.

Each rounded capsule has a short beak at its tip. As it rattles in a breeze it distributes its winged seeds.

Bands of Blue and Green

pondI felt that I was getting a bit fussy as I painted the loosestrife so I went for a simpler approach with this nearby pond. With the quickest of pencil outlines I went straight on to the rapidly changing sky and its matching reflection, followed by bands of the lightest greens in each area to indicate distant trees, meadow, reedbed and reedbed reflections, plus the nearest willows.

With every bit of paper assigned a tone I could them add mid-tones of foliage and finally the darkest patches, adding a few of the brown branches of the willows.