Sparrows on the Shed

roofing felt x 60

This photograph looks rather like a scree-slope on a Lakeland fell but in fact each of these slate-like fragments is less than a millimetre across, smaller than the commas on this page. It’s a piece of roofing felt taken at 60x magnification through my microscope. The felt is bitumen-coated with a ‘green mineral’ finish, but it looks browner in my photograph. The flaky shapes and the colour make me guess that this is a green variety of Muscovite mica called fuchsite. The flakes (laminæ) of Muscovite are thin and surprisingly flexible, so they’re ideal as a coating on rolls of roofing felt.

There’s another mineral present; the rounded, glassy mineral near the bottom left-hand corner is a worn grain of sand, silica.

Fuchsite is rich in chromium but like other micas, as a form of silicate, it has a chemical composition based on aluminium, silica and oxygen (AlSi3O10). Micas are part of the group of minerals known as Phyllosilicates or sheet silicates, which take their name from phyllon, the Greek for leaf.

sparrows on the shedIt was sparrows pecking on our newly felted shed roof that prompted me to take a closer look at its composition. Why should sparrows feel the need to peck at flakes of mica?

Muscovite is 2-4 on the Mohs scale of hardness, depending whether you’re testing the softer ‘sides’ or the harder face of the flakes. This means that it’s somewhere between a finger-nail and a pocket-knife in hardness, so the sparrows might swallow it as a form of ‘gritting’. The flakes might be used in the bird’s gizzard to help grind down the seeds and grain that form its staple diet. Fuchsite is made of clayey minerals so it might also have medicinal properties that help with digestion, just as we’d take kaolin, a fine white clay that is another form of sheet sillicate.

sparrows on a wallSparrows will also peck at mortar on walls (right), which gives them access to more minerals; silica in the sand and the calcium carbonate in the cement.

When Paul and I put the new roofing felt I predicted that the sparrows would love it: “It’s like putting a new sheet of Tydsan in a budgie’s cage!”

Tydsan is the trade name of sheets of sandpaper, cut to size.

“Our budgies had to make do with newspaper in their cages!” Paul tells me.

Muddy Boots

Busht Beck

muddy bootsIt’s good for me to have a walks booklet to write at this time of year as I’m sure that I wouldn’t otherwise have set out on a six mile walk, crossing some unfamiliar corners of the countryside, and that would have been a pity because I’ve enjoyed the walk a lot, despite the muddy boots!

My ambition in life is to be able to drawn direct from nature but practically on a day like today, in locations that are a muddy half mile tramp from the nearest road, that’s impossible, so I go for the approach Wainwright used when he illustrated his famous guides to the Lakeland Fells; I take plenty of photographs which I can then draw at leisure indoors. Wainwright had to use black and white photographic prints, I can sit at the widescreen of my computer or load a few images onto a memory stick and draw them from our widescreen television downstairs. I feel I’m not being so unsociable with Barbara if I take my work downstairs; she can get on with whatever she’s doing and we can have some music on in the background. The average drawing takes me one CD album to complete.

With the ground so muddy and the paths so trampled, the hedges and woods so stark and bare, I find myself looking for other subjects to suggest how attractive the walk can be. Architectural details look good at any time of year and I also look for untrampled corners like mossy trees trunks and streams, or, even better, the two combined as on this bend on Bushy Beck (above) downstream from Ardsley Reservoir.

I took 83 photographs on this 6 mile walk. Any change of direction in the path, any stile or bridge is always worth recording, just in case I need it to illustrate a tricky point on the walk.

Shed Roof

garden shed
Our garden shed in its heyday, painted as a sample when I was working on illustrations for Dr Hessayon's Garden Expert guides.

Paul the gardener tells me that one year he and his father decided to record all the produce they harvested from their vegetable garden, which is about the size of a tennis court. The total weight of apples, onions, potatoes, carrots, cabbages, soft fruits and so on was three-quarters of a ton!

This morning we’re re-roofing my garden shed.

garden path“That should last us out!” he suggests.

Well, I hope it doesn’t last us out but I think it’s got a chance of lasting out the twenty-year old shed itself, which is looking rather battered and weatherworn where we’ve cut back the Ivy that engulfed it.

Spot the shed! – in this photograph of the back garden (right), the Ivy-covered shed is on the right. People would walk down the path and not notice that we had a shed until they walked back up and saw the side with the door in.

The Runtlings

Poplar plantation

Years ago, when I led a series of Calder Valley Walks as a further education class, these slopes between Ossett and Dewsbury were the western limits to our explorations. It wasn’t one of our regular routes and my memory of our occasional winter visits is of trying to locate an indistinct footpath that zigzagged aimlessly across a dark, muddy, misty, featureless ploughed field. I’m pleased to discover, coming back a decade later, that the wayward footpath has now been replaced by a new logical version which follows a ditch straight down the slope.

It’s amazing how much the landscape has changed since I was last here; the new footpath now leads to a plantation of poplars, planted with regimental precision, which have grown ten or fifteen feet tall since my last visit. I have memories of these as ‘whips’, freshly planted in plastic rabbit-guards. ‘It would be interesting to come back here, to see how it changes’, I suggested, looking at the newly landscaped slopes.

There’s new planting too on the banks of the Calder with an area of willows which I guess have been planted as bio-fuel. Old maps of the Calder valley show osier beds where willow was grown for basket making. The baskets were hand-made on an industrial scale by Burdekins, now located at Flushdyke near Spring Mill but today a furniture store. The bulk of their trade was for textile mills including large baskets for spindles of yarn and wheeled baskets for the rag recycling trade. Baskets for pigeons and pets were a sideline for them.

The name Runtlings may be Old English for ‘the meadow with the ditch’.

‘Ings’ can mean ‘meadow’, ‘hill’ or ‘place’. ‘Rene’ of ‘ryne’ is a ‘ditch’ or ‘channel’ and a ‘run’ is a ‘stream’. But I wonder if the name might derive from ‘hruna’; a tree trunk or log used as a conduit for water.

Drawings to follow! Please come back in a day or two . . .

Fieldfares in the Crab Apple

redwingredwingsWhen the snow returned yesterday morning almost an inch fell, although it wasn’t as cold as it was after last year’s snowfalls. When I’ve cleared the driveway it’s been powdery but yesterday afternoon it was just starting to turn slushy, so it was heavier and slushily sticky to clear from the paving slabs. Powdery snow leaves the driveway cleaner; slush leaves it damp and filthy.

golden hornetAs the snow fell, Blackbirds, Fieldfares and Redwings came to the Golden Hornet crab apple, the one that we pruned on Monday. The snow-covered little apples, golden until mid-autumn (left) but now frosted and brown, proved a big attraction. We counted eight Redwings and five Fieldfare around midday, although I guess that at times there were more.

redwingfieldfareMy pen and ink drawings from my 1979 Sketchbook of the Natural History of the Country Round Wakefield don’t do justice to these attractive winter thrushes. The Fieldfare’s light grey, chestnut and whitish plumage is striking against a snowy landscape, as is the chestnut red beneath the wings of the Redwing. I often have difficulty picking out the red of the Redwing when I see it in silhouette in bushes or in flight but it was very obvious today, at close quarters seen through the 10 x 50 binoculars that I keep by the studio window.

The shapes of the birds were different today; Blackbird, Redwing and Fieldfare all had a more rounded silhouette as they had their feathers fluffed out against the cold.

Salmon or Sea Trout?


mystery fish - a sea trout?Today I saw cormorant and goosanders on the Calder; the increasing number of ducks on the river is an indication of how water quality has improved. I was delighted to see this photograph (left) in an e-mail, taken on a mobile phone by local angler Keith Inglehearn, who had been fishing for pike in the River Calder at Horbury Bridge on 31 December.

“I caught the fish pictured on a whole mackerel and it weighed 6 pounds.” Keith tells me “It was returned carefully to the water and swam off strongly.”

To me this looks like a salmon so I contacted Kevin Sunderland, who has been monitoring their return into the Aire and Calder. Kevin tells me: “I’m no expert on these things but my initial thoughts are that the fish isn’t a salmon but is probably a sea trout. I base this solely on the fact that the tail does not appear to be forked as in a salmon.

“I went to Knottingley on 5th November to see what the effect the flooded river would have on Knottingley Weir. I believe that any fish below the weir would have got up. I went to Kirkthorpe on 15th November and witnessed numerous large fish attempting to ascend the weir, presumably the fish which had got up Knottingley a week previously. Maybe the fish which Keith caught was one of these.”

mystery fishI’m hoping that the experts at the Environment Agency will be able to help us identify the species. If Sea Trout can migrate up river and find their way up Kirkthorpe Weir at Wakefield it shouldn’t long before the Salmon follow them.

“It really is remarkable for the river to be holding fish like this.” says Keith, “I have lived around this area all my life and I have been an angler for the last 43 years. I remember very well what the state of the river and canal was like when I was a youngster!”

St Mary’s, Gawthorpe

St Mary's Chickenley, drawn in 1999

church porch and bell towerSt Mary’s Church, Gawthorpe, 102 years old this year, stood close to the western boundary of Ossett, between Chickenley Heath and Ossett Street Side. I drew it in 1999 shortly before the vicar, Rev. Paul Maybury, moved on to Holy Trinity, Ossett’s cathedral-sized parish church, which is 50 yards long with a spire, at 226 feet, almost rivalling that of Wakefield Cathedral, 3.5 miles to the east, which at 247 feet is the tallest in Yorkshire. Ossett’s spire tends to be more prominent when seen from the local countryside as the church stands at 357 feet above sea level – over 200 feet higher than Bichehill where the cathedral stands. St Mary’s never had a tower, just the belfry at its east end above the chancel arch.

It closed in 2002 and there were plans a couple of years ago to convert the building into luxury flats but the state of the housing market must have made that scheme impossible.

It was a shock to drive past today and see that demolition demolitionwas in progress. I know that the spirit of a church lies in its congregation and the building is just the place they meet but it’s also a monument to the craftsmen who built it so I feel that it’s a shame that it has proved impossible to find an alternative use for building.

Gawthorpe St Mary’s Cricket Club, founded in 1928, still play at Slazenger’s Sports Club, Horbury, but the pub where the committee met across the road from St Mary’s Church has also closed. The pub is an attractive stone building that is suitable for residential use so it isn’t boarded up like some pubs that have closed recently.

Demolition of St Mary’s, 6 January 2011

St Mary's, 6 January 2011A woman walking past with her dog told me that yesterday the pulpit was still in place but that has disappeared today. She remembers the church as a focus for the community with school services taking place there and her sister’s wedding.

As you can see the building was built to last. The church organfittings have been stripped out but presumably the stonework will go to architectural salvage. Hope they saved any stained glass. I wonder if the churchyard trees will be allowed to remain.

I was surprised to see the church organ amongst the rubble. You’d think it would have been worth advertising on e-Bay.

Strips of Sky

strips of sky

cloud in pen and wash

“It’s a shame that I can’t turn my chair around and look out of the window.” says Betty when we visit her in her first floor ward in the old building at Pinderfields. Sitting at the end of the bed all I can see is a strip of sky framed by one end of the vertical blinds. Inevitably the sky changes continuously as I paint and having such a limited field of view means that I can’t follow a particular cloud as it moves – morphing as it goes – from west to east.

clouds, brown inkWith the tail end of a cold I’m not in the alert responsive mode that you need to keep track of changing colour and changing forms simultaneously, so I go for my ArtPen loaded with brown ArtPen ink, blotting the lines with my waterbrush for a rudimentary pen and wash effect.

Spring Mill

Spring Mill DamIt’s surprising to find so much open space between suburban Ossett , one of its industrial estates and junction 40 of the M1. From Spring Mill Lane, now closed to traffic, there are views across the playing fields and the 9 hole Springmill Municipal Golf Course south across the Calder Valley to Woolley Edge and east to the scrubby scarp slope of Lupset. Most of the wildlife interest here lies in the narrow valley of Spring Mill Beck, landscaped in the 1970s or 1980s as a public open space and now popular with dog walkers.

Spring Mill

moorhensOn the pond – which I guess is what remains of the old mill dam – there were fifty Mallards, mainly drakes with a pair of Moorhens skulking along the bank.

Squirrel's dreyI wouldn’t have guessed that this bundle of twigs was a squirrel’s drey if I hadn’t seen one Grey Squirrel follow another into it. It must be a snug fit for them.

The male – often several males – pursue the female during courtship, which takes place in December and again in May.

long-tailed titIn the plantation beyond the dam Long-tailed Tits made their way through the branches while Blackbirds foraged in the leaf litter below. A flock of Goldfinches flitted about in bushes close to adjacent back gardens, perhaps attracted to bird-feeders there.

Cutting Back

backgardenIt’s a good time of year to cut back hedges and shrubs in the garden so that we’ll have a light, airy space ready to plant the veg beds in the spring.

shedOur garden shed has for years been so overgrown with Ivy and so overhung by Hawthorn that visually it’s become an extension of the hedge. It’s now looking more like a shed again, shedthe Ivy cut back to the level of the gutters so that they won’t get blocked with leaves again so easily. Cutting back the hedge reveals that the roofing felt has rotted away in places so I want to re-felt it before the spring.

Golden HornetWe chose the Golden Hornet crab apple as the ideal wildlife/decorative tree for a small garden. It is briefly covered with blossoms in the spring then in the late summer their are masses of golden apples, each half the size of a golf ball but these turn brown with the first frosts. pruned crab appleThis is usually when Blackbirds and other thrushes really start to take an interest in them. It’s now about twice the size that I’d originally imagined that it would grow to when I planted it about 20 years ago so today we’ve lopped off some of the branches to give it a more symmetrical goblet shape.

frost in the gardenEven in our small, sheltered garden there are differences in microclimate from one side to another. In the beds on the south-west side in the shade and shelter of a tall hedge, much of the soil remains frozen while on the sunnier north-east side, it has thawed out.