February 1999

Thursday 4th February – Westwood Country Park, North Sheffield – A bitter north wind shakes the trees. The trees are mainly Beeches, not very old, standing on a landscape of bowls and tumuli. The area has clearly been fashioned by man and was probably a pit, either for coal or iron, but the years have removed any sign apart from the shape. There is not any sign of any avifauna at all, they are sensibly keeping their heads down in the blast of the gale.

Sunday 7th February – Halifax – The town of Halifax sprawls out of the Calder Valley up the cloughs and moors. I park by Holmfield Mills, the name “Smith, Bulmer & Co” preserved in the darkened sandstone façade. They have gone and a new generation of entrepreneurs has arrived, graphical designers and printers. The hill behind the mills is sodden with water running down the path despite the sharp frost. A few Elders and Hawthorns are scraggy and bleak.

Monday 8th February – Caldervale – There is a slight flurry of snow, but it does not settle. In the hedgerow, catkins dangle yellow and the emerald green of young Hawthorn leaves is bright against the dull wood of a winter thicket.

Tuesday 9th February – Dalton Bank, Huddersfield – A newly laid path winds up the steep hillside above the Colne Valley. Above Rooks sail the cold northerly in a cobalt sky. In the valley spreads the Zeneca chemical plant (in the top ten most polluting plants in Britain.) The hillside is covered with young Conifers and Oaks. The repetitive song of a Great Tit comes from the wood. The path turns up through the trees to the ridge above, but work beckons so I will leave that exploration for a Spring day.

Sunday 14th February – North Yorkshire – Pick up Jo from Thornton Dale (at least that is the name of the village entering from the west, from the east it is Thornton-le-Dale!) We head up into the Dalby Forest. There is still a layer of wet, slushy snow laying. It is also starting to rain – not what we were led to expect from the weather forecast. At the Feeding Station there are huge wire baskets of peanuts, mounds of seed on stumps and a table and large lumps of raw suet hanging from the trees. Coal, Blue and Great Tits are numerous. Indeed neither of us had seen so many Coal Tits in one place. Robins, Chaffinches and a Dunnock are also feeding. On the main road we see a copper-black Pheasant, a beautiful melanistic bird.

Fylingdales – High on the moors the sleety rain continues to fall from a steely grey sky. The land is all Ministry of Defence – a large sign states it is “a prohibited area as defined by the Official Secrets Act”. We wonder if this means it does not really exist? However, a massive concrete bunker rising over one hundred feet into the air certainly exists. It looks like something out of a Quake computer game – reality meets fiction. We wander down a track on the other side of the road towards Fen Bog and send Dill the Dog to search the heather for Red Grouse, but she would rather roll and slide on her belly through the rough plants. A Great Black-backed Gull lazily flies over.

Whitby – Even in the depths of winter, Whitby is a seaside tourist trap. We wander down the dock-side towards the harbour entrance. Jo decides we are going to feed the gulls and even I have to admit it is seriously good fun throwing pellets of bread at passing gulls and watching them catch it. A Rock Pipit hops about on the sea defences by the harbour entrance, giving great views. More are landing on the small ledges on the harbour arm wall. Two sandstone towers built in 1831 stand either side of the harbour entrance, their walls sculpted by the sea storms over the years. There are Fulmars on the cliffs above the beach and out at sea. Jo spots a flight of birds crossing the harbour entrance and landing in the south bay. They are difficult to see from this distance but the confusing mixture of white and dark brown plumages means Eider. The harbour wall here is made up of a stone level and above a boardwalk. Dill the Dog is very unimpressed with boards and walks along with her claws spread wide and her back lowered. We check the Cormorants in the harbour and one has the white head markings of the continental sinensis race. Mute Swans are flying up and down the harbour, slapping the water loudly with their feet when landing.

Scaling Dam – A reservoir out on the North York Moors towards Teesside. It is bleak and little is moving. We watch and note the various stages of plumage of juvenile Common Gulls, along with a bullying adult. We feed the crusts of lunch to a Mallard flock that is around the car park.

The Moors – A valley of patchwork fields lay beneath the ridge carrying the Pickering road. The edges of the fields are dark drystone walls, delineated with an edging of snow. A church stands on the other side of the valley with a graveyard of blackened stones. The wind still blows icily as a Sparrowhawk drifts across a copse. There are tall stones of indeterminate age marking paths and boundaries. One has an old inscription declaring it to be a road, but now is off into the heather and bog.

Dalby Forest – Back at the feeding station there are even greater numbers. A pair of Siskin feed on the peanut tower. A Nuthatch visits the table before returning to the trees up and down which it scurries. A Great Spotted Woodpecker pays a brief visit, the lack of any red on the crown indicating a female. The predominant colour is yellow, shining in a grey afternoon. The pale yellows of Blue and Great Tits, the bright yellow of Siskins and the blaze of green-yellow of Greenfinches. However, this does not diminish the subtle brown shades of the Coal Tits, offset against their black and white heads. We drive round the forest and pass a farm that has an old trailer loaded with jars of pickles and jams. We buy pickled onions, pickled mixed vegetables and pumpkin and orange marmalade, putting the money in a iron box attached to the gatepost. The road branches off towards Snainton. I see a tatty looking object in a field and think firstly it is a poor attempt at a scarecrow and then maybe. “It is!” Jo exclaims and we agree it really is a Grey Heron. There are lots of Pheasants in the fields, one even jumps into a garden in the village. Across the forest, there are many colours – reds, browns and the deep grey-greens of winter.

Tuesday 16th February – Greetham – A cold wind blows down the Calder valley. Three Goosander, a male and two females dive down stream. The bright sun sparkles on the rushing water.

Sunday 21st February– Caldervale – Heading north out of Barnsley towards the glowing arch of a rainbow against a iron sky. News comes on the radio that the Pennine passes to the west, Woodhead and Snake are near impassable. The wind lashes the slight rain as I head up the Calder & Hebble Navigation. It grows darker by the minute as the sleety rain advances. Even Dill the Dog, screwing her eyes up at lashing downpour, is pleased to be heading back. Only some raucous Rooks and Black-headed Gulls are out of cover, dancing in the violent airs.