January 1998

Thursday 1st January – Dorset – The weather is deteriorating rapidly. Peter and I drive to nearby Child Okeford and then up onto Hambledon Down. After a steep, strenuous climb, not helped by the slippery mud underfoot, we are on top and on a massive Iron Age fort with rows of ramparts down the hillside. The driving rain ceases but not the gale! As well as the fort there are numerous barrows along the down. Below us stretches out the Blackmore Vale, many fields beside the rivers Stour and Irewen having flooded. In the woods at the bottom of the downs are numerous Stinking Irises, with bright orange berries in triply split seed pods. A local tells us that many of the Beech trees are diseased. What looks like wetness descending from the forks in the tree down the trunk is a clear sign of the ravages. We drive on a little and then climb another hill – Hod Hill. On top another massive Iron Age fort, this one covering some twenty two hectares. The Romans took the fort and built their own fortress in just one corner. We think about following a bridle path down to Stourpaine but the morass of mud dissuades us quickly.

Sunday 4th January – Anglers Country Park – Up to the park before the threatened storms strike. A scan of the main park lake reveals lots of Canada Geese, Wigeon, sleeping Pochard, feeding Tufted Duck and Coot, good numbers of Coot, a single Goosander and a “red-head” Smew. However, the grey clouds are building and the wind bitter. It begins to rain and I decide to retreat – having been wet enough times this week already!

Sunday 11th January – Blackburn Meadows – The previous day was the warmest on record in many places from North Wales to Berlin. This morning it is still mild but there is a sharpness to the wind. At Blackburn Meadows’ pools a Coot is pulling a large twig across the water, early nest building? A few Black-headed Gulls sit on the edge of the water and a small flock of Tufted Duck are preening. The marshy area is under water and a male Shoveler watched me warily. As I move away a large flock of Teal rise and fall over the area. I team up with a local birder and go in search of a Firecrest but without success. A large flock of Redpoll, possibly two flocks, are moving around the area. They land on a tall Ash and we scan them but they all look like Lesser Redpoll. My companion tells me there is usually a Jack Snipe in the big field behind the crane factory, so off we go to see if we can find it. The field is more of a marsh but this does not deter Dill the Dog who charges through pools and across the mud. When we are about to give up, she hurtles through some grass and up comes the Jack Snipe (a lifer), which flies low and straight across the field before dropping back down into the grasses.

Monday 12th January – Barnsley Canal – Robins are singing from the top of Hawthorns around Willowbank. A pair of Little Grebe dive on the loop. Along the canal both Great and Blue Tits are calling from the top of the Hawthorn hedge. Blackbirds are singing from various part of the hill.

Wednesday 14th January – Barnsley Canal – To the north of the canal storm clouds are tinted orange by the sodium glare of street lights. As it lightens from the south the sky takes on a white tone which bleaches the willows making them ethereal against the darkening clouds. I am growing tired of constantly slipping and sloshing through mud. Moorhens are squabbling in the reed beds. A breeze picks up and then the clouds unload.

Saturday 17th January – Barnsley West – Firstly off to Silkstone Fall to collect some kindling for the fire. The woods are wet and apart from a small group of Tits moving through the trees there is nothing else sounding. Next a walk around Scout Dyke reservoir where a cold wind whips across the water. Only a couple of Coot are on the surface and a few Black-headed Gulls dance over it, before climbing in the wind to head off across the fields. It is the first time I have seen water pouring over the shute down to the water treatment plant below. A flock of Lapwings wink in the grey sky. A few Redwings and Fieldfare fly overhead. It is very much the same at Ingbirchworth Reservoir where a couple of years ago a bridge had emerged in the middle as the level fell lower and lower during the drought. Now, far from there being any sign of the bridge, the height level post has almost disappeared under the full reservoir.

Tuesday 20th January – Barnsley Canal – At last I am walking on a hard ground down the canal. A cold night that has frozen the mud, not deeply and the pools only have a thin layer of ice, but enough to crunch satisfyingly under my boot. The canal has a layer of grease ice that blurs the reflection of the moon. A Coot watches warily from the water whilst Moorhens rush for the reed beds. Despite the frozen ground, Dill the Dog manages to find a pool to leap into and still ends up muddy!

Sunday 25th January – Pugneys Country Park – The paths around the Park are a mixture of sheet ice and mud. Dill the Dog is alternatively charging through with her legs akimbo or getting muddier and muddier. There only a few Coot and Black-headed Gulls on the main lake. I check the Fishing Pond where a sleek black and white male Goldeneye slides swiftly across the water. A few Mallard are moving around in what seems a fairly random motion. I move on and cross the small stream that divides the Park from the fields that lead up to Sandal Castle. The fields are flooded and a large flock of mainly Black-headed Gulls with a few Common are standing on ice. A few Lapwings stand hunched-backed on the few areas of exposed soil. A splash up the stream and Dill the Dog is in! She hurtles off spraying muddy water everywhere. A few Great Tits chip from the Hawthorns lining the stream and the occasional Blackbird slips into the depths of the bushes. By the time I get round to the Nature Lake, Dill the Dog has managed to get herself mud coloured again. On the lake are flocks of Ruddy Duck, Pochard, Tufted Duck and lots of piping Teal. On two small artificial islets stand twenty eight Cormorants, with more gliding in across the main lake. There are lots of sleeping Mallard in front of the hide, who periodically awake and argue loudly. I notice that a lot of the bushes here have catkins hanging down – spring is coming! Shortly before I reach the car park I suggest, somewhat forcefully, to Dill the Dog that she may like to take another dip and clean off a bit. She obliges and leaves most of the mud behind.

Tuesday 27th January – Barnsley Canal – A cold but not freezing morning down the canal. Thirteen Fieldfares fly over heading north. Small flocks of Rooks head south-east. A Grey Heron stands on an old Magpie nest at the top of a Hawthorn near Tinkers Pond.

Wednesday 28th January – Barnsley Canal – A clear night has brought a sharp frost. Walking over frozen mud is easier although occasionally the mud cracks down into the slush underneath. It will take a few days of similar frost to permeate down and cleanse the soil. Towards the end of the canal there is a sheep trapped in the hawthorns by a large briar. It has obviously been trying to escape for some time as it has kicked a large groove into the bank. However, when I climb down to help it, the effect of my presence and the excited bouncing of Dill the Dog brings a super-sheep effort from the trapped beast and it breaks free and trots off across the meadow, eventually seeing its flock up the field and heads off to join them. A Green Woodpecker calls from a line of hawthorns, and there it is standing against the trunk of the bush. It takes umbrage at my watching and flies off towards the woods. Dill the Dog flushes a Common Snipe that lets out a brief call and zig-zags its way across the marshy ground and then soars and off across the valley. A flock of over thirty Fieldfare flies over, one being thoroughly harassed by a small bird, unidentifiable at that distance.