December 1997


Tuesday 2nd December – Barnsley Canal – Aprés le deluge, the freeze-up. The canal area is ghostly in its coat of frost. The cold seems to have frozen the birds’ voices, only the odd laugh from a Green Woodpecker from the other side of the valley and the occasional cheep from a Blue Tit. There are still winter Thrushes around although there are few Haws left on the bushes.

West Yorkshire – Later in the day I take Dill the Dog down a part of the Kirklees Way – not far as it soon becomes very muddy and my suit and light shoes are hardly suitable for such conditions. Carrion Crows, Rooks and Jackdaws feed in the small fields next to young bullocks. A pair of Carrion Crows both have white primary coverts.

Friday 5th December – Barnsley Canal – It is still cold, but not the cheek pinching freeze of earlier in the week. Down Willowbank are large domes of skeletal Brambles, now leafless but it is still not possible to see through the dense tangle to its heart. Along the canal-side Hawthorns is a flock of 20 twittering Goldfinches. Under the Hawthorns are numerous Blackbirds, mainly first winter birds, chucking as they fly off. Small numbers of Fieldfares and even smaller numbers of Redwing are in the valley. The Grey Heron crosses the valley from Tinkers Pond, croaking primevally. The canal is greasy with a thin coating of ice.


Sunday 14th December – Wearside and Tyneside – A bright morning on the cliff tops at Whitburn Coastal Country Park. Off the cliffs are rocks and stacks, covered with seagulls – mainly Herring Gulls with a sprinkling of Great and Lesser Black-Backs. Fulmar Petrels swoop across the face of the cliffs, Jackdaws strut along the edge and the occasional Meadow Pipit pipes as it flits along the top. On the rocks below a small flock of Lapwings are standing around looking out of place – I always associate them with fields, not sea shores. A few Oystercatchers, Turnstones and Redshank explore the nooks and crannies of the eroded rock beds. Further along there is a patch that often has wintering Snow Buntings and sure enough, a flock of seven are busily scurrying around and pecking at the tiny grass seeds lying in the gravely soil. They are reasonably tame and allow good views of their variable states of winter plumage. At sea a few Guillemot are on the surface but little else. North of Whitburn, South and North Shields and Tynemouth are shrouded in mist and the foghorn mournfully sounds. At South Shields I visit the 4th Century Roman fort of Arbeia. An extensive site (regrettably closed) with a goodArbeia reconstruction of the west gatehouse. A short drive under the River Tyne and into Tynemouth. Here there is a ruined monastery and priory, sacked by the Danes in 800 CE and the burial place of three Kings of the North – Oswin of Deria (651), Osred of Northumberland (792) and Malcolm III of Scotland (1093). However, I am annoyed to see that no dogs are allowed on the site so in solidarity with Dill the Dog I refuse to go in!

Thursday 18th December - Calder Vale – Yesterday evening the world was pristine and white in a blanket of fresh snow. This morning, the wind blows, it is grey and raining heavily. I plod and Dill the Dog skips merrily through the mud at Calder Vale. The end of the meadow beside the canal is flooded, providing a fresh water bath for Black-headed Gulls that bob, duck and shake in the water. A Grey Heron sits hunched on the tow path, but departs with the approach of Dill the Dog and ends up standing hopefully next to one of the many small pools in the meadow. A Snipe circles overhead and a quartet of Grey Wagtails fly over calling loudly. Brown water is churning and rushing down the overflow channel next to the lock.

Friday 19th December – Barnsley Canal – The heavy rain has left much of the loop and marsh area ofrpm -ivh --force Smithy Green flooded. The route across and down Willowbank and the canal tow-path are viscous mud, clinging to my boots as I plod on. The Hawthorns are black skeletons against a grey sky, just faintly washed pale by the morning mist. All along the canal they are like ravished maidens at a port, deserted by the passing winter thrushes now they have yielded their fruit. Dill the Dog decides to go small mammal hunting, pouncing on tufts of grass every few yards, ears erect. Telling her to stop scaring the poor little things has little effect. A Green Woodpecker calls from the top of the hill and a Wren propels across the canal like a bullet.

Sunday 21st December – Anglers Country Park – The area is muddy – very muddy. To the south the clouds are crumpled and flashed with red, offset by a huge flame of burning gas off Anglersthe Royston coking plant. I approach from the foot of Cold Hiendley Reservoir and enter Haw Park. The serried ranks of conifers stand dark and silent. There is not much in the other plantations either. Suddenly a small flock of Goldcrests alight overhead and dash from tree to tree, piping only occasionally. Dill the Dog is in squirrel madness mode and is hurtling through the woods and round and round trying to find one. Eventually she chases one up a tree but it almost lazily leaps from branch to branch and is gone. One frustrated dog just looks on. I then follow the muddy path around a large field of brassica seedlings. A Jay lumbers over towards some woods. On Wintersett there are a few wildfowl – half a dozen Goosander, lots of Great Crested Grebes, sleeping Pochard, diving Tufted Ducks and Goldeneye. Two male Goldeneye in resplendent black and white uniforms are fighting and a Great Crested Grebe floats over to watch. Now to the south is a huge plume of steam rising hundreds of feet into the air. Cormorants are feeding in the Country Park lake. I notice less and less people are fly fishing these days – I am not surprised with the number of Cormorant and Great Crested Grebes! Constant whistling identifies the large Wigeon flock. I wander back down the side of Cold Hiendley and a Bullfinch calls gently from the thickets. A large flock of Wood Pigeons take off from the semi-cleared area. There is also an insistent call chipping from this area and I quickly locate a Great Spotted Woodpecker clinging to the top of a dead tree.

Monday 22nd December – Barnsley Canal – From today the days grow longer, although there is little sign of this morning. The canal is in darkness, the sky dark blue-steel. It is also initially silent. Then a Magpie squawks and a distant Moorhen on the loop clucks. Some way further on a Pheasant sounds off, surprising Dill the Dog who stares out across the rough common land from the canal tow-path. A Mallard flies low overhead, its wings whistling. All the paths are sticky mud or simply water, the air damp and cold. There is a sound from the electricity lines overhead that is hard to describe, old adjectives do not fit this modern syndrome.


Friday 26th December – Sturminster Newton, Dorset – After Christmas Day’s torrential rain it was hardly surprising that I slid down the path to the River Stour. Its banks have burst and the river is flowing brown with sediment. I plod over the marshy fields to Hardy’s Mill, where the mill pond is churning and boiling. The river is flowing both under and over the footbridge.

Whitesheet Hill - A brief visit to this great Down which looks out over Dorset and Somerset. The whole hill top, as is typical in this area, is a mass of earthworks. A causewayed enclosure is from the Neolithic, around 3000 BCE; burial mounds from the Bronze Age, between 1800 – 800 BCE and a large Iron Age hill fort which was probably occupied until Roman times. Peter finds several rings of Blewits, a large edible fungus. It is at the end of the season and many have been trampled by sheep but there are enough for a side dish at dinner. A flock of black-faced Dorset sheep come over and stamp their hooves at Dill the Dog. One is bold enough to nudge her with its nose but is scared off by me frantically trying to get my camera out of my pocket. Throughout, Dill the Dog sits looking a picture of embarrassed misery.

Saturday 27th December – Sturminster Newton – A pre-breakfast walk down to the Stour with the dogs finds the water levels have dropped. I can now cross over the delicate footbridge, Colber Bridge, with a plaque – “Erected by J, Conway 1841”. The fields are still swampy and muddy. There is a strange phenomenon – Buster the yellow Labrador has muddy paws but is otherwise quite clean, Dill the Dog is plastered with mud, all up her legs and underparts!

Weymouth – Peter and I go down to the coast. We start off at Lodmoor RSPB reserve which is bathed in winter sunshine. There are good numbers of birds - Shelduck bottoms in the air; Lapwings glinting like old bronze; Golden Plover hunched on a mud spit with Dunlin chasing around them, feeding; gulls, noisy as usual, scrambling for titbits from the visitors; three Snipe asleep in a clump of grass – one awakes and stretches languidly; Gadwall and Teal glide about the channels and pools. We next move into the town to Radipole reserve. Here we spend time searching the reedbeds for three of British birds great skulkers – a Bittern, Bearded Tits and Cetti’s Warbler. We hear calls from the last two but nary a glimpse of any.

Cerne Abbas – On the journey home we stop off at Cerne Abbas to view the Giant carved into the chalk downland above the village. He (and it is very, very obviously a he!) holds a club above his head. His origins are lost in legend and folklore. His name may be Helis or Helith. Disturbance of the earth indicates he may once have held some sort of cloth or skin in his free hand. There may also have been some letters or figures beneath him. Above him is yet another Iron Age fortress – The Trendle.

Monday 29th December – Poole Harbour – Sunday was written off with appalling hang-overs! This morning there was almost a frost but it fails to really harden the muddy paths. Peter and I decide to go to Poole Harbour. We travel via Dorchester (check the map and then ask about our navigational skills!!!) A slightly unexpected sighting was of a Green Woodpecker on a small leafless tree beside a dual-carriageway. At Poole there was a sharp wind whipping off the sea and a hint of rain. In the large expanse of the harbour are dozens of Red-breasted Mergansers – the males with their punk head styles. There are also Goldeneye, Wigeon, Shelduck and Cormorant all around. A lone Little Egret stands on the edge of Brownsea Island, where they have bred for the first time in this country last year. The hint of rain turns to reality and we head back up the valley of the River Piddle, through numerous hamlets and villages of thatched cottages, past the occasional manor house, often with their own church and always being overlooked by hills topped with forts, barrows and other earthworks.

Tuesday 30th December – Weymouth – Back to the coast and Radipole, but again despite our best efforts we fail to locate any of our skulkers. Bullfinches, Blackbirds, Robins, Chaffinches and Goldcrests all slip through the dense bushes edging the acres of reeds. Far up the reserve, almost over the housing estate at the end, a Marsh Harrier floats on the air. We scan the gulls outside the visitor centre and find the reported Mediterranean Gull but not the unseasonal Sandwich Tern. A sad sight is a Great Black-backed Gull trying to clean a large patch of filthy oil off its belly. At Lodmoor, the flocks of Lapwings and Golden Plovers are jittery, forming dancing motes in the sunshine as they soar higher and higher before descending to resettle – the whole performance to be repeated time and again. We see a hunting Kestrel but this is unlikely to cause the agitation. Eventually we spot a Peregrine Falcon cruising the marsh and the mystery is solved. Again there are a lot of wildfowl in the waterways – Wigeon, Teal, Gadwall, Mallard, Shoveler, Tufted Duck and Canada Geese. We wander down a path between a gorse and bramble covered bank and the water. A persistent, explosive song comes from the bushes and eventually we are rewarded with a brief view of a Cetti’s Warbler – a first for Peter.

Chessil Bank and Portland. – Chessil is miles of high pebble beach that protects the road and a large area of mud and water called the Fleets from the sea. On the mud Brent Geese, gulls and Dunlin feed, whilst Red-breasted Merganser dive in the water. At Portland we drive through villages built of the light grey limestone for which the peninsula is famous. At the Bill a strong wind blasts off the grey sea. Guillemots whirr past. Kittiwakes dance over the waves – the juveniles with their pretty W wing pattern. Sadly, more gulls here show signs of oiling.

Sturminster Newton – The night is clear so we show Jemima (aged two) the delicate crescent of Venus and a striped Jupiter with attendant moons through the telescope.

Wednesday 31st December – Cerne Abbas – I decide I am not going to improve my year list so we all head off to Cerne Abbas again for a walk. The mud is thick and cloying so we decide not to try to go up to the Giant but wander instead though Beech woods and over a pasture near the churchyard. The pasture has lumps and ridges all over it, possibly the remains of mediaeval buildings. By the churchyard is a plaque telling of how the Silver Well was created when St Augustine struck his staff into the earth and brought forth fresh, sweet water for shepherds tending their flocks nearby. There are streams all through the village channelled beside the roads, with many houses having little footbridges between the front door and the road.