December 1999

Saturday 4th December – Barnsley Canal – There is about half an inch of wet, semi-frozen snow on my windscreen. The whole area around the Dearne valley is saturated. A Wren scolds and a pair of Bullfinches flies off up Willowbank. Black-headed Gulls and Jackdaws wade through the flooded fields by the river. A Grey Heron lifts off and heads up the valley. A horse is tethered by a chain on Willowbank. It has trampled a large disc in the muddy grass.

Sunday 5th December – Pugney’s Country Park – A cold night has resulted in much frost and ice. It has not penetrated deeply though, the saturated ground is still soft under foot. A pair of Mute Swans with three cygnets glides serenely around the fishing lake. A small flock of Pochard sleep, others dive for food. There are Goldeneye and a juvenile Great Northern Diver on the main lake.

Saturday 11th December – Edderthorpe – A slight mist hangs over the flashes. A steely grey sky lightens slowly in the late dawn of winter. A pair of Whooper Swans stand in the shallow water of the flooded meadow. Another pair of Whoopers are with a Mute Swan on the end flash. Long-tailed Tits squeak through the bushes and a Robin sings. Wigeon are gliding across the still water whistling occasionally. A restless flock of Lapwings and Golden Plovers stands in the muddy water margins. A young Blackbird gorges on Haws. Redwings, Dunnocks and Reed Buntings also travel the Hawthorn hedge.

Sunday 12th December – Bretton Woods – A grey overcast sky, steady drizzle and slick mud underfoot – Oh for the days of summer now! The woods are nearly silent, just the occasional half-hearted chirp from a Great Tit or Chaffinch. The bird nesting boxes are in need of attention. The owl box’s base is adrift and packed nest lining hangs out. There are various fungi growing in the marshy ground and on tree stumps. A shining coppery male Common Pheasant flies up from a patch of bracken. Oddly even this bird is silent. The cooling towers of the East Yorkshire power stations steam lazily on the misty horizon.

Monday 13th December – Marr – A rookery in trees just before the A1 is already full of Rooks who are just sitting by the few nests that have survived the recent high winds.

Home – Despite the constant drizzle, the bird table is full of Goldfinches and House Sparrows. They are occasionally dispersed by a Collared Dove, but soon return after the larger bird’s departure. A Robin hops along the base of the Privet hedge. A couple of Chaffinches and a Song Thrush are searching the back garden (although, garden is not the word that most people would use for this space!) but they do not venture around to the feeders at the front of the house.

Tuesday 14th December – Blacktoft Sands – Fieldfares abound in the pastures on the outskirts of the villages between Scunthorpe and Goole. The lagoons at Blacktoft are near silent and very empty. There is also very little unfrozen water despite the bright sunshine. Apart from industrial noise in the distance, often the only sound is the creaking of boards as the hide warms up. A Kestrel hovers in the distance. From the third hide a couple of sleeping Shoveler and Gadwall can be seen. A Cormorant preens on a notice board at the edge of the River Ouse, way across the reed beds.

Wednesday 15th December – North Lincolnshire– A thin strip of sickly yellow light along the horizon is topped by layers of grey clouds of various shades. The driving snow has been left behind in South Yorkshire. Rooks gather on the winter wheat, in rookeries and a group harry a Grey Heron as it flaps slowly down a ditch. Large flocks of Lapwings slowly traverse the sky with smaller numbers of Golden Plovers darting through like arrows. Black-headed Gulls congregate in a field where the plough turns the rich, dark, wet Lincolnshire soil.

Sunday 19th December – East Sussex – There had been a snowfall yesterday evening, which froze hard during the night. Ice cracks and crunches underfoot. The Race Course is white and shining in the afternoon sun. The light at Tidemills beach between Newhaven and Seaford is sharp and almost rings like crystal. The westerly wind is bitter. Flocks of gulls float on a quiet sea. The heat haze and wind creates a strange wild horizon, the sea broken and twisted. At night the moon is brilliant and, out of the baleful glare of the street lights, it casts sharp black shadows on the snow.

Monday 20th December – Seaford Head – It is a steep walk up onto Seaford Head and my pumping heart bears witness to my lack of regular exercise. It did not snow here but the overnight cold has frozen the ground solid. Out of the brilliant sunshine it is bitterly cold in the northerly wind. Cormorants sit on a sharp ridge of chalk cliff, which gleams white in the bright light. From the Head, the Seven Sisters undulate eastwards. At sea a few gulls flap languidly westwards. A large raft of gulls sits on the sea. Jackdaws skim the cliff edge.

Cuckmere Haven – A Redshank flies off, piping loudly, as I get out of the car. On the meander of the River Cuck a Grey Heron stands hunched on the bank. A Little Egret shines white from a hedgerow that runs alongside the road approaching the Exeat Bridge. Pied Wagtails search the car park for crumbs. Down the wide valley carved by the meandering river there are large numbers of Wigeon grazing. Little Grebes, Mallard, Shoveler, Shelduck and Mute Swans are on the river. A group of Cormorants worship the sun, wings outstretched. Hawthorn scrub contains good numbers of young Blackbirds. Sheep nibble Bramble leaves. A turquoise flash of a Kingfisher flying upriver. Dill the Dog decides it is time to get wet and is surprised to slide across a frozen shallow pool. She soon breaks through into the cold water beneath, which delights her, crazy animal! A few Redshank and an Oystercatcher search the frozen shallow lagoons. The scrub along the levee between the main river and the old meanders contains Chaffinches, Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers.

Wednesday 22nd December – Southease – A narrow lane leads across the River Ouse flood plain to the village of Southease. The river is now constrained by high levees, so it no longer carves out the valley through the South Downs. It is flowing swiftly inland as it is tidal here. Moorhens scurry from the green pastures into the safety of the reed beds lining a wide ditch by the road. Southease church has a round tower, indicating its Saxon origins. Sadly, it is locked, a sign that it was built in the Dark Ages and has returned to them, a millennium later. Fieldfares call as they descend onto a brightly berried Holly. They clearly upset a Mistle Thrush who rasps at them. A Sparrowhawk flies low over drainage ditches.

Christmas Eve, Friday 24th December – Chichester Gravel Pits – A grey morning although the wild winds of the previous night have dropped. Gulls preen on the waters, Cormorants on the water-ski jumps. Coots argue, as usual. A small group of Tufted Duck and a single Ruddy Duck sleep. A passing birder tells me there has been a Black-throated Diver further down. We head off to the far end of the lake and scan the water. Suddenly there it is, only thirty metres or so from the bank. It is completely nonplussed by our presence, even when Dill the Dog goes into the water.

Pagham Harbour – Ferry Pool produces an Avocet sifting the mud with its fine de-curved beak, Teal, Shelduck, Redshank, Common Pheasant and large flocks of Lapwings rippling overhead. Curlews, Rooks, Jackdaws, Black-headed Gulls and Rabbits feed on the adjoining fields. The tide is rushing in and filling the harbour. Red-breasted Merganser (several males and females are asleep, a male is dunking himself and preening), a Scaup, Grey Plover (very good numbers), Knot (a large flock swirling around seeking a high tide roost), Brent Geese (only a small number, the main flocks will be inland on winter wheat) and Shelduck are all taking their places to await the re-emergence of the mudflats.

Christmas Day, Saturday 25th December – Ditchling Common – The recent rains have made everywhere soggy and muddy. Charms of Goldfinches feed on thistle heads. A Yellowhammer shines in a grey Hawthorn bush, bereft of berries. Wood Pigeons soar out from the nearby woods.

Ditchling Beacon – Dark grey clouds are gathering and extinguishing what seems the rarely seen sun. Caburn and Firle, Newtimber, Devils Dyke and Chanctonbury and Ashdown and the North Downs are all dull in mist. There is extensive flooding along the course of the River Ouse across the Weald.

Boxing Day, Sunday 26th December – Shoreham – There is something magical about the old road-bridge across the River Adur at Shoreham. The road itself is carried by a characterless modern concrete structure. The wooden original has an organic look, it was once alive. A few Teal edge up the muddy water margin. Redshank probe the worm-rich mud. Black-headed, Herring, Common, Great and Lesser Black-backed Gulls stand on the banks or bathe in the gently flowing water. The tide is not far off turning. The airfield contains several hundred Lapwings and Starlings. A taxiing light aircraft hardly causes a ripple through the flock. The Gothic chapel of Lancing College dominates the west side of the valley. Above the bridge, a Dabchick dives.

Monday 27th December – Brighton – Dawn, the sky above is a grey-blue, yellow and orange to the east. Robins sing tentatively. Herring Gulls circle Hollingdean, crying noisily. Wrens churr all around the undergrowth. The surface of the sodden soil is lightly frozen. A Wood Pigeon coos from one of the few mature trees left by the Storm of ’87.

Tuesday 28th December – Saddlescombe – A bridle path rises steeply up Summer Down from the farmstead at Saddlescombe towards Devil’s Dyke. It runs parallel to the modern road, which is actually lower than the bridle path, which would seem to indicate the road is older. On the other side of the valley Newtimber Hill rises. A nearly re-greened quarry bites a large chunk out of the Down side. It provides shelter for russet and white cattle. Across the deep valley of Devil’s Dyke, the ramparts of the large Iron Age hill fort run up to the summit. The skies are grey but sun glints off the distant North Downs. A hot-air balloon sails across The Weald. The precipitous sides of Devil’s Dyke are scarred by paths, slippages and warrens towards the top. A path leads around the southern side of the dyke, through old, twisted and gnarly Hawthorns overgrown with thick vines of Ivy. The Ivy berries have yet to ripen from green to black.

Brighton – Above a row of shops in Preston Drove are wonderful gables. They have ornate wooden friezes and, in the space above the window are Art Deco plaster panels – ornate patterns and, in one case, a heron in reeds. Sleeping pigeons huddle in the corners of the gables.

Wednesday 29th December – Brighton – It is what is euphemistically called “bracing” on the Palace Pier. It is also loud with rather intrusive piped pop music. Juvenile gulls, mainly Common and Herring, fly low over the amusement arcades and rides, keeping watch for any dropped morsels of doughnut, burger, chips or maybe even candyfloss. The seafront to the east of the pier is a magnificent vista of Georgian houses, rippling with the gentle curve of dominant architectural design of the early 19th Century. The concrete of the 1960s has spoilt the view to the west.