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Dawn at Brockholes Nature Reserve

After a half hour drive on nearly deserted city roads the initial shock of a 3am start is beginning to wear off. As we put on our boots and gather up camera and binoculars the light of the full moon is competing with the glow of the unrisen sun to create a half light and the sounds of the birdsong are clearly audible above the noise of the nearby motorway. It’s a short walk along one of the reserve paths to check on the nesting great crested grebe sitting stoically in the cold on her semi-submerged platform. Dedication personified. From here we enter the woodlands and as the sounds of nature take over from those of the grinding wheels of commerce we are, in turn, transported to another world. One of natural tranquillity and rich earthy smells emanating from the abundant woodland floor.

We can pick out the repetitive but beautiful call of a song thrush and just about make out its silhouette, perched on a nearby sapling and as we watch a subtle movement catches Gill’s eye. She calls out, quietly, deer! There are two young female roe deer just twenty yards from us. All four of us have stopped in our tracks and we stare at each other waiting for somebody to make a move. After a couple of breath taking minutes the deer decide we are far enough away not to pose any immediate threat and they melt quietly into the undergrowth. Jumping over fallen branches soundlessly and seemingly without effort they make their way through the familiar terrain as we clomp clumsily on along the path in our heavy boots, like aliens in a foreign world.

It’s still too dark in the woods for bird watching but we have fun trying to identify the numerous calls and songs. The familiar wren is ever present with its strikingly loud song that nearly always incorporates a giveaway trill mid call. It’s a wonder that such a tiny creature can create such a powerful cacophony? At less than a quarter of their size it drowns out the blackbirds and song thrushes it shares this place with and seems to shout out its territorial demands with an unlikely authority.

As we leave this enchanted place the sun is threatening to rise over the river, opposite the still bright moon which glows pale and surreal through the high branches of the trees.

Setting moon

It’s cold, very cold and despite the promise of a warm spring day later on; we are glad of hats and gloves as the faintest of breezes wafts the chilled air off the waters of the Ribble. The river is busy with black headed gulls, oyster catchers and the odd redshank. Herons are already standing sentinel, looking for their first fish or eel but the sand martins that occupy the riverbank mud walls are nowhere to be seen. I’m thinking that it’s probably too early but just as that thought crosses my mind the first ones appear swooping and darting above the river, leaving their nest holes to feed on the early flies.

Chilled bird watcher

A fiery red crescent is growing out of the distant skyline giving the impression that the eastern horizon is being engulfed by a terrible inferno.

Here comes the sun

I can’t wait to feel the first warm rays on my back as we turn away from the water and make our way towards the car park area where it’s very likely we will be able to spot one of my favourite mammals. We climb quietly up the river bank and peer, commando style, over the top of the rise and sure enough there are two brown hares cavorting on one of the paths just close by. They pick up our scent immediately and retreat to a safer distance but not before we catch a tantalisingly brief view of their antics. They are spotted on the reserve at all times of the day but if you want to be sure of a good sighting it’s best to come early.

Brown hare in car park. Photo by Emma Jayne Sharples

By now the odd car is arriving on the reserve. We are not alone any more and the feeling that we are somehow privy to a wonderful secret is slipping away. It’s time for something to eat and a brisk walk to restore some warmth to chilled fingers and toes. Our visit isn’t over but the main objective of experiencing the new day is. We have shared something very special that only a dawn walk can provide. There is a real sense of adventure about starting out in the dark and a wonderful reward in watching the birth of a new day at this spectacular time of year. Was it worth setting the alarm for three in the morning? What do you think?

Early morning light

Blackcaps and Bluebells or “What’s in a name?”

I’ve always liked those short pithy adages that sum up a huge experience or offer profound advice in a few thought provoking words. Things like; “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. That particular one often comes to mind when I sit down to try and write something. The barriers to doing so many things in life can usually be brought down by making that first brave and daunting step. I thought I would have a go at writing my own saying to sum up what I did last week. It’s a bit rubbish and I doubt it’s destined to feature in the top ten memes of the twenty first century but here it is anyway:

“If you can’t sell your house and buy a boat, take a walk in a Bluebell wood.”

I have always taken a passing interest in birds and wildlife but working at Brockholes Nature Reserve here in Lancashire has fuelled that curiosity and given me a thirst for more knowledge. In particular I was keen to get to know the reserve better first hand and with that in mind and a certainty that getting close to nature is a sure fire way of putting things in perspective Gill and I decided to spend a day there. What could be more fun than poking around in the woods and gazing out over the River Ribble and the numerous lakes in the hope of spotting some of the rarer delights of the reserve and trying to identify them.

Brockholes floating village

It wasn’t long before we were staring hopelessly up into the now quite dense spring foliage of the trees desperately trying to pin down the source of a loud and stunningly beautiful bird song. It doesn’t help that in my case being deaf in one ear means that I have no sense of audio direction. Most of the time I wasn’t even looking in the right tree. We did eventually spot a small bird with a black cap as the source of the warbling and identified it as the unimaginatively named Blackcap. This led me off on a train of thought about all the people that spot birds and other wildlife and claim to have no idea what they have seen. Like the small seagull with the black head for example. That will be the Black Headed Gull actually. Or the dainty little white butterfly that I was watching just the other day. When I looked it up later on the internet it turned out to be called a Small White. I should have guessed. You see you probably know a lot more than you think.

Small bird with black cap. (Photo Wikipedia)

That theme doesn’t always run true though. The next bird we identified, the Garden Warbler wasn’t in a garden at all. A much better name for it would have been The Tall Trees by the River Warbler. Nice song though. After a couple of hours of exploration we made our way back to report our findings and add them to the sightings board in the visitor centre. There, one of the regular bird experts, Bill Aspin, undermined our growing confidence in song recognition by playing us a recording of a Willow Warbler (not always in Willow Trees I should point out) which was impersonating a Chiff Chaff. Oh well, still lots to learn I suppose. We paused to recuperate over a sandwich and a cuppa in the floating restaurant on the lake.

Re-fuelled we made our way along the reed bed walk and peered deeply in the reeds in the hope of spotting a Reed Warbler (makes sense) or maybe a Reed Bunting. What we did see was both a Large Red Damselfly and a Blue-Tailed Damselfly both of which live up to their names admirably.

Large Red Damselfly. (Photo Gill Pearson)

This was all beginning to make sense now and a small brown bird with a white throat turned out, predictably, to be called a Whitethroat. Everything was falling into place until we spotted a Kestrel and a pair of Linnets and and I realised the flaw in my new found theory of how to guess the name of everything. Then there was a pair of Great Crested Grebes building a nest on Ribble Pool. They break all the rules; Grebe meant absolutely nothing to me but the great crests on their heads made some sense. It’s all very confusing. When I say they were nest building by the way that isn’t quite accurate. One of them, gender not established, was busily swimming all over the lake gathering reeds and twigs and laboriously bringing them back to add the the structure while it’s partner slept peacefully nearby. Occasionally the sleepy one would raise it’s head and open an eye as if to say, “you’re doing fine, just another couple of hundred sticks should do it”. I could sense a row brewing so we moved on and left them to it.

Grebes with great crests (Photo Gill Pearson)

Now we were in the Bluebell Woods.

Lots of bell shaped blue flowers. (Photo Gill Pearson)

In every direction there were thousands of small, blue, bell-shaped flowers. Who would have imagined. As we were watching a delightful little Bank Vole (a vole that lives in a bank) amongst some fallen logs a couple of visitors came by. Seeing our binoculars they jumped to the false conclusion that we knew a thing or two. They were wondering if we could throw any light on the identity of a small song bird they had seen. It was a pale brownish grey with a black cap they said. We tried not to sound too smug as we confirmed for them that what they had seen was almost certainly a Blackcap. They didn’t look particularly impressed and I think they may have thought we had just made the name up.

So there we go. A fabulous day of diversion therapy in a beautiful place. Oh, and if you were wondering; Brock is the old word for Badger. On the fringes of the reserve there are Badger sets and of course Badgers make holes don’t they. Which brings me back to adages and the particular one; “What’s in a name?” Quite a lot it seems.

Towpath temptations

The lack of progress of our plan to live on a narrow boat has been pretty depressing when combined with the dark winter months and without actually discussing it we have refrained from walks along the local towpaths. In the same way that you might avoid walking past endless confectionery shops during a self-imposed abstention from sweet eating during lent, we have avoided the temptation of bumping into sickeningly contented and blissfully happy live-aboards enjoying the lifestyle that we so envy but can’t yet have. But you can’t avoid temptation forever.

Peaceful Lancaster Canal

Signs of Spring

It may have been a bunch of daffodils or snowdrops that did it but something lifted my spirits and gave me the urge to get back out there and start dreaming again. Come to think of it, it may have been those loveable thespians Timothy West and Prunella Scales who were back on the telly, bumping into various obstacles on the Leeds and Liverpool canal and oozing love and contentment as they casually destroyed locks and jetties on a borrowed narrow boat. Better TV might have been to view the owners of said boat watching the program Goggle Box style and weeping quietly into their Pinot Grigio as their pride and joy bounces from one side of the canal to the other.

Whatever it was that spurred me on, it resulted in a lovely walk along the Lancaster canal. It’s not the busiest of canals at any time of year so in the depths of winter we knew we would be unlikely to bump into many occupied craft. As it happened we only saw three boats and whilst they all looked beautiful and homely I was relieved to see that none of them bore a For Sale sign or sign of life so we were safe. Safe from conversations about living on a boat that inevitably end with the well-meaning but frustrating advice to ‘just get on with it’ without any acknowledgement of the fact that getting on with it costs money that we don’t currently have. Fortunately there were plenty of distractions of the feathered, flowery and woody variety to keep us more than occupied spotting early signs of spring, or more accurately, the end of winter.

A male goosander taunted us by waiting patiently for us to get within about twenty yards of him and then just as I raised the camera he would take to the air and fly just far enough along the canal to be out of photographic range before repeating the process.

Not so close up goosander

Being teased by a Goosander

I got bored in the end and turned my attention to a much more obliging swan who seemed to think that I was a photographer from the avian equivalent of match.com or something as he paraded up and down like an over inflated gigolo.

What a splendid chap and didn’t he know it.

As far as we could see he was wasting his time as there wasn’t another swan anywhere in sight; unlike the female mallard that seemed to be enjoying being diligently followed by not one but two hopeful suitors. I’m not sure how she was going to make her mind up because it looked to me as if she was being pursued by identical twins. We had a really close up view of a moorhen next and what a stunning bird it is.

Look at those feet! (Photo from http://www.nerjarob.com/)

There is a perception amongst those not interested in such things that all British birds are small brown jobbies. Well this beauty is brown, black, white, red and bluish grey with huge striped yellow feet. I mean how exotic do you want?

We joined the arm of the canal that links it to the river Ribble and the rest of the national network.

Deep scary locks

A set of deep locks takes boaters down onto the branch and under the main road to wind through the suburbs of Preston.

Under the road

Canals in these situations are a haven for wildlife and it was a delight to see grey wagtail and long tailed tits busy amongst the budding trees and catkins. We took to a woodland path alongside the railway to get back to the Lancaster itself and make it a circular walk avoiding a stretch of boring tarmac. The trees are all like coiled springs at this time of year, just waiting for another couple of degrees of warmth and another hour or two of daylight to spur them into a frenzy of leaf production.

‘Now you see me’ nest.

Just a few more weeks and the stark outline of naked branches will be transformed into a rich vibrant green canopy hiding the nesting birds and providing food and shelter for a wide variety of life. The abundance of summer will be here before we know it and those that live all year on the canals will be joined by the weekenders and the holiday boaters. Fingers crossed we will be joining them.

 

Long Tailed Tits and narrow waisted trousers

The problem with being of slim build is that there is nowhere to hide an ever expanding waistline. I’m currently shaped like one of those fishing floats that are long and thin with a large bulge in the middle. It took a wedding in the autumn to force me to pull my head out of the sand when I realised that none of my trousers that were remotely suitable for such an occasion could actually be buttoned around my waist. Two months on and I am finally getting round to doing something about it.

Now that I am able to walk a reasonable distance again without any significant pain there is no excuse so it was out again this morning for my regular two mile march around the streets and into the countryside as the sun struggled to get out of bed. The route I took today is about fifty percent main road, thirty percent housing estate and twenty percent country lane. It’s fine for getting a little bit of exercise but not brilliant for scenery or bird watching so I don’t usually bother to take a camera or binoculars. It’s more a case of head down and quick march while I mentally run through my wardrobe of narrow waisted trousers and try to summon up the purpose to walk faster and harder. This morning was different though and an abject lesson in stopping to smell the metaphorical roses and regret leaving the binoculars at home.

For a start it was cold but blissfully calm after several days of windy weather and the sky was magically lit by a reluctant winter sun. We may have turned the seasonal corner now that we have passed the solstice but the sun is like a sulky teenager at this time of year. It unenthusiastically peers over the horizon and attempts to perform its daily duties whilst barely leaving its bed. It doesn’t get up any earlier either for the next few weeks; it just goes to bed a bit later but those extra few minutes of daylight are already filling me with anticipation of what is round the corner. There were other early signs of a change too; a Robin and a Dunnock were singing enthusiastically as if nobody had mentioned to them that spring is still a good few months away.

What a cutie. The Long Tailed Tit. (Photo by Craig Smith)

Along the short stretch of country lane a Long Tailed Tit caught my eye as it flew into the bushes next to me and as I looked around for more (they usually come in small flocks) my eye was caught by the frenetic and constant movement of a pair of Gold Crests.

The Gold Crest. (Photo by Tairi and uve Pixdaus.com)

These are stunning little birds with their brilliant black and yellow head stripe and they are a joy to watch as they acrobatically search for small grubs and eggs in the nooks and crannies of trees and shrubs. They are constantly on the move prompting the question of whether they might not need quite so much food if they ever sat still for a minute or two. They are actually quite common, similar in winter numbers to Robins but being Britain’s smallest bird and rarely appearing out in the open, lots of people have never seen one. The final birdy treat was provided by a Blue Tit that flew past my face so close that I actually heard its wing beats.

The last stretch of the walk is through a housing estate and back to the main road. It didn’t mean there was nothing to see though. Starlings, Blackbirds, Gulls and a flock of Gold Finches all added colour and sound to the otherwise dull scenery while the sky continued to flaunt its silvery winter splendour.

Winter sky and a chance to find out where the birds nest.

Oh and I nearly forgot; I saw sixty seven pigeons as well.

As I walked the final stretch to home my thoughts turned back to those frantically busy Gold Crests and I realised where I might be going wrong. I’ve never seen an overweight Gold Crest you see and come to think of it; I’ve never seen one slumped in a chair drinking beer either. I’m not planning to start doing acrobatics in the bushes but maybe less beer and more walking might go some way to alleviating the problem of a wardrobe full of trousers that don’t fit me.

Problems, perspective and Pigeons

A little bit of perspective.

Gill has been getting arty with the camera

After my self-indulgent moan about not being able to buy our narrow boat right now I was reminded of how trivial a problem that is when I read a friend’s blog. His subject deals with life after the loss of a loved one, his partner and mother of his young children in fact, and reading it made me realise that perhaps I was getting things a little out of perspective. It’s worth a read by the way.

It’s easy to do though isn’t it?

“There’s always somebody in the world worse off than you”, people say to you. Of course there is. It doesn’t matter how bad your circumstances are there will be somebody somewhere in a more difficult situation. Pondering this might put some perspective on your own problems but it doesn’t make them go away. What it actually does is make you realise that not only do you have a problem that is less enormous than somebody else’s but that you should also feel guilty about your problem because it is inadequate. So now you have two problems!

It was also pointed out to me that struggling to sell a property is only a problem if you have a property to sell in the first place. Very good point. That really is perspective isn’t it? So, time to move on to other subjects I think.

There is something that I need to get off my chest. I suppose it’s a bit of a confession or at least, an admission. I’ve kept it quiet for a while but I feel that the time is now right to open up and share with you. I’ve become a bird watcher. So has Gill. As you know we have been feeding the birds in the garden all year but now we have taken it to another level. We have been visiting wild places at strange times of the day armed with binoculars, ham sandwiches and a flask of tea. I’ve always had a passing interest in birds ever since I used to nick their eggs as a boy but I’ve never actually gone bird watching before. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a twitcher at this point although we did go looking for Waxwings in Preston the other day because I’ve never seen one. We looked for them on the Rowan trees in Morrisons car park but we were disappointed and had to settle for a cut price bottle of Gordon’s Gin instead.

The fabulous but illusive Waxwing. (Photo by Janet Stocks)

I suppose there was a certain inevitability about it once I started working at Brockholes nature reserve.

Not a bad place to work really. (Photo by Gill)

Conversations with the bird enthusiasts there about what they had seen left me intrigued and wanting to go and look for myself. By happy coincidence Gill acquired a bit of unexpected cash at around this time and very kindly bought me a new pair of binoculars. She also borrowed them and enjoyed herself so much she bought herself a pair. Added to these things we found we could go bird watching without walking too far which fitted perfectly with my gradual recovery from Plantar Fasciitis. Before we knew it we were sitting in draughty hides misidentifying all manner of small feathery things and discovering that 99% of all birds are actually pigeons.

Indoor Pigeon. Handy for bird watching in poor weather conditions.

For all I have a basic knowledge and we are both learning fast we are still capable of providing much entertainment amongst real birdwatchers by mixing up our Dunlins and our Sanderlings or getting told off for talking too loudly in the hides. Also, Gill’s hat is pink, which is not the colour for any self-respecting ornithologist to be seen in and I suspect we aren’t always being taken seriously. We don’t really look the part. The real bird watchers are all in green.

A rare sighting of the fabulous pink hatted smiler.

They even have green binoculars. You wouldn’t think there would be much danger of injury from such a sedate pastime as bird watching but tripping over a well camouflaged birder is a genuine hazard. I spent five minutes scanning a small bush for thrushes the other day when it picked up a tripod and walked away! Some of them are harder to spot than the birds.

Anyway, it’s all a bit of good clean fun and the perfect accompaniment to life on a narrow boat but we are trying not to think about that at the moment. For now we will be doing our observing from dry land but it should be a good excuse to write nonsense on this blog which is something I haven’t been doing enough of lately. You have been warned.

Moaning Minnie

Good grief! It’s been nearly three months since I last posted on here. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to, more a case of having nothing worth writing about. I still haven’t really, but as the year draws to a close I thought an update might be in order and besides, I need to have a bit of a moan. I’ll understand if you don’t want to read any further of course.

Back in October Gill and I spent several days touring marina brokerages looking at narrow boats and getting, firstly very giddy indeed and then secondly terribly frustrated. We found several boats of interest and within out theoretical price range and then we found ‘the one’. Pilgrim was a beautiful 57 foot traditional narrow boat which had obviously been cherished by its previous owners. We both fell for it instantly and had we had the funds in place I think we would have bought it. Unfortunately our boat buying funds are tied up in the bungalow that we are trying to sell and that is where the frustration comes in. With no real interest despite several price drops our hands our tied. We came home from viewing Pilgrim full of excitement but after a rather dangerous conversation involving bridging loans we came to our senses, got really fed up and decided to stop looking at boats until the property sells.

The cosy lounge area of Pilgrim

For the last two months it has felt as if we are in limbo. The irony of the phrase ‘treading water’ whilst waiting to buy a boat has not escaped me but that is what it feels like. I am constantly wrestling with the exciting anticipation of the time when we will actually be able to go ahead with our plans and the incessant nagging guilt that we are wasting precious moments of our lives. A friend of mine once explained life as a period of years allotted to us that we simply had to fill up with stuff. What we filled it up with didn’t matter, he said, so long as it made us happy. Right now I can’t help feeling that we are letting ourselves down.

We are very lucky in that we have managed to acquire something that many people of our age are still dreaming of. We have a plethora of spare time but it’s hard work filling it with what feels like second best. To be fair to myself it has been complicated by my on going suffering with plantar fasciitis which has meant I haven’t been able to do much walking. Thankfully  that is now on the mend and we are out and about increasingly and enjoying a new found interest in bird watching. (If you are a sufferer you might want to check out this exercise routine which has finally borne fruit.) But it still feels like we are killing time. Every time I see memes along the lines of ‘seize the day’, ‘strike while the iron is hot’ and ‘don’t put off till tomorrow that which you can do today’ I feel incredibly frustrated but also ungrateful at the same time. We are lucky, we are rich with time and memories and life is easy and my Catholic upbringing tells me I should be thankful for what I have and stop moaning. But I’m still moaning.

Here’s a pair of Cormorants killing time.

I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions but maybe this year I should try and start 2017 with a definite plan to focus on the now and leave fate and the future to themselves. Oh and I’ll try to stop moaning. Thanks for listening, I feel a bit better now.

Yours

Moaning Minnie

Salthill Quarry – Clitheroe

As we retrieved binoculars and camera from the boot of the car the stale musty smell of refuse hung in the air, accompanied by the grinding metallic sounds of heavy machinery manipulating the discarded detritus of modern life. We were just about a hundred metres from a refuse and recycling plant and about fifty metres from a 360 million year old wonderland. This is Salthill Quarry, a nature reserve on the outskirts of Clitheroe.

The reserve is managed by Lancashire Wildlife Trust and is a prime example of nature thriving alongside industrial activity. The smell from the re-cycling plant might be offensive to my nose but it doesn’t seem to have any effect on the wide variety of butterflies, moths and insects that inhabit the woods and meadows of this delightful place. As the name says it is the site of an old quarry but long before the rocks were blasted apart by the quarrymen’s dynamite (the drill holes are still visible) they were laid down under ancient seas and the thousands upon thousands of Crinoid fossils (Sea Lillies) are plain to see on just about every exposed rock surface.

Crinoids

Crinoids

The area is a mixture of dense woodland, towering rock faces and delightful wildflower meadows and embankments which encircle the small industrial estate. It is divided in two by the road that services the various businesses but a good path with information points takes you comfortably around the whole reserve in a couple of hours. It’s a strange environment because one minute you might be completely entranced by the many species of butterflies that are busy amongst the wild flowers and the next you are reminded of where you are by the sound of a power tool or heavy machinery. Fortunately the industrial activity and factory buildings fade into the background because the combination of birdsong, insect life, flowers and fascinating geology dominate your senses.

Information board

Information board

We were just too late in the season to find any rare Bee Orchids which are often found here but the variety and abundance of wild flowers more than made up for that. Speckled Wood butterflies are everywhere, as are the six spotted Burnett moths gliding lazily from flower to flower.

Speckled Wood butterfly

Speckled Wood butterfly

The signage explaining what to look out for in different locations is backed up by numbered posts that carry quick scan codes which will reveal additional data when scanned with a smart phone.

For many visitors the highlight will be the profusion of crinoid fossils that cover the rocks. In many places it isn’t a matter of looking for a fossil in the rock, more a case of looking for a patch of rock that doesn’t hold a fossil. I ran my fingers over the copies of these strange sea creatures which can still be found living in our seas today and tried to take in that figure of 360 million years. It’s strange to be in contact with the ancient past in that way. One of those moments that puts our fleeting presence into some kind of perspective and leaves you feeling small and insignificant.

We picnicked amongst a dazzling blaze of colourful flowers accompanies by the buzz of bees and the beautiful tunes of a Song Thrush. We were intrigued by a strange growth on a young wild rose bush but had to wait until we got home to discover its origins. Apparently it’s called a mossy rose gall but also goes by the name of Robin’s pincushion. It is the home of a wasp called Diplolepis rosae the larvae of which modify a new leaf bud chemically causing it to distort and from the protective ‘nest’. Fascinating.

Robin's Pincushion

Robin’s Pincushion

Pendle Hill

Pendle Hill

More dense woodland led out to another open area littered with fossils, flowers and huge rocks scoured by glacial activity. There seemed to be no end to the variety of things to explore in this small but captivating reserve.

Sculpture seat by Jon Fenton

Sculpture seat by Jon Fenton

We made our way back to the car scouring the grassy banks still hoping for a glimpse the elusive Bee Orchid but it wasn’t to be. That treasure will have to wait for the next visit.

Clitheroe is famous for many things including its sausages and its cement but I would suggest that perhaps its best kept secret is actually Salthill Quarry. It’s a little haven of wild tranquility surrounding a busy hub of industrial bustle, conveniently reminding us how incredibly important such wild spaces are when we spend so much of our time divorced from nature.