Sunday, 18 December 2016

Winter, Walking and Watching

17th Dec.  I remember a time when I walked, often long distances, admired the scenery, but if I’m honest didn’t take in too much of my surroundings.  Watching (and listening) is paramount now and has been for some years and for me there is no better time to do this than on clear winter days such as today has been.  The walking element is still important to me, but is far more focused on the natural world around me these days.

To the hide.
Today’s walk began at Holywell Village and of course led to the area of the pond.  Temperatures had dropped considerably from yesterday’s mildness and the light was sharp and clear in the late morning sunlight.  The tree lined pathway to the hide was far busier than usual with small passerines including Tree Sparrow.  The reason why became clear when we met trust volunteers in the hide who had just topped up the feeders.  We saw the first of a number of Reed Buntings outside of the hide and the family of Mute Swans were beneath the windows.  The coldness of the hide overcame any temptation to settle too long here and we made for the public hide having heard the call of Water Rail and overhead the call of Fieldfare.  The pond was relatively quiet and only three Wigeon appeared to remain, and no Teal were seen today.  Gulls, Black Headed, Common, Herring and Greater Black Backed, flocked on the surface of the water along with wildfowl which included Greylag Goose, Tufted Duck, Goldeneye, Mallard and Gadwall.  A solitary Grey Heron stood on the island.
Pink-footed Geese
All was silent apart from the distant call of a Curlew as we headed out into the open fields.  Two skeins of geese then flew overhead, the first may have been Greylag, the second definitely thirty-five Pink-footed Geese, their calls clearly heard.  Then Sam picked up the call of Grey Partridge which we failed to sight as we scanned the ploughed field.  A Kestrel hovered and a Sparrowhawk flew northwards from the dene.  I had just been joking about my failure to sight a single Yellowhammer in the UK throughout 2016, at least in part as my outings have been hampered at times, when a Yellowhammer flew across the field and into the hedge.  It was a relief to get this on my list and it was followed by at least two more in quick succession.  It’s good sometimes to have to wait for such sightings of common birds then you don’t take them for granted, of course the Yellowhammer is far less common now than it once was.  Such was my pleasure in watching this species today I’ve included a few lines form a John Clare poem.  Perhaps it is a bit unseasonal as the poem is about nesting Yellowhammers.  John Clare certainly used his eyes and ears when watching the natural world around him and cared about it deeply and I have my friends Hilary and Kelsey to thank for introducing me to his poems.

Five eggs, pen-scribbled o'er with ink their shells
Resembling writing scrawls which fancy reads
As nature's poesy and pastoral spells—
They are the yellowhammer's and she dwells
Most poet-like where brooks and flowery weeds
As sweet as Castaly to fancy seems
And that old molehill like as Parnass' hill
On which her partner haply sits and dreams
O'er all her joys of song—so leave it still
A happy home of sunshine, flowers and streams.

The pathway to the dene differed greatly from the solidly frozen walkway we had followed on our previous visit and it was deep mud and waterlogged in places.  We were soon watching more passerines in the hedge including Chaffinches and Reed Buntings.  The sun shone dazzlingly through the now leafless trees and made our sighting of the flock of Brambling difficult viewing.  There appeared to be a slightly larger flock than on our previous visit, but the birds were very flighty and it was difficult to estimate numbers, although we thought about thirty.  A Dipper sang as we watched the Brambling and other woodland birds including Long Tailed Tits and Nuthatch.  We eventually made a descent into the dene where the light was already beginning to lessen and the colour was predominantly that of winter, umbers and browns.  The walk to Seaton Sluice offered little in the way of birdlife once we had left the flock of Brambling and other woodland birds behind us.

Dene path

After a very late lunch we walked to the headland.  It was difficult to believe it was December as there was no hint of a breeze and the sea was flat calm, emphasised by the very stable passage of a small fishing boat leaving harbour.  As we are approaching the shortest day of the year the sun was dropping low in the sky, but there was still a good amount of light and in contrast to the dene quite a range of colour.  The deep blue of the sea was cut at the horizon from the much paler blue of the sky, just as if someone had drawn a curved line with a pencil where the colour changed.  What small amount of cloud there was over the sea and coastline was patchy, thin and mauve in colour, but looking south the thin layers of cloud behind the lighthouse was becoming a deeper shade of orange as the minutes went by.    We were stood on rock slightly below the top of the cliff so we were protected from any sound coming from the passing traffic.  With no wind there was silence apart from a lapping tide below us, with a larger wave occasionally raising the sound level and pounding on the cliff to the north.  The surf made varying patterns as it ebbed and flowed over the almost flat table like rock surfaces.  Even the small flock of Oystercatchers stood motionless and without calling until two or three lifted, flew south and made their familiar call.  A lone Curlew and a number of gulls passed over the sea, again apparently silently.  Small pools of seawater trapped on the rock reflected an almost silver light.  Sam pointed out the steps apparently carved into the rock which came to a sudden stop where the cliff dropped steeply to rock below.  I had never noticed these steps before and wonder how old they are.  It would seem that there have been changes in the structure of the cliff for them to end so sharply with a sudden deep drop at the edge.  Perhaps the steps were put in at the time the Deleval’s altered the course of the harbour?


Sam in action

 As we walked back to the village it felt a little like returning from a long trip.  The sun wasn’t far off setting as we travelled home and I was thinking that there would be a good sunset to view this evening.  Temperatures were dropping.  Perhaps some may be surprised, but my bird of the day was without doubt the long awaited Yellowhammer!

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