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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

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.

The call of the wild

The sound of the rain and sleet on the roof coupled with the wind whistling through the trees and a temperature of just over four centigrade is doing nothing to make me wish I was outside today. Then again, there are many thousands of people in Britain today who will be heading out there in the name of sport, adventure and challenge which makes me wonder what it is about the outdoors, nature and physical exercise that is so enduringly appealing. It seems to me that the more we isolate ourselves from the natural world with our air conditioned cars, centrally heated homes and second hand wilderness delivered through the TV and internet and the more interested in the outdoors we become.

Maybe I have a warped perspective because of my own involvement with cycling, walking and working for a wildlife charity but I get the distinct impression that interest in the outdoors is booming. According to the Outdoor Foundation in America participation in outdoor activities is steady or very slightly declining. Having said that, a whopping 49% of Americans took part in some kind of outdoor recreation in 2014 and according to a Sport England 2014 survey that figure was 59% in the UK. Whatever the trend, that is a huge amount of interest and it raises the question of why are so many people keen to get outdoors at a time when we have never had a more comfortable or entertaining indoor alternative.

My hunch, and it’s only a hunch, is that we haven’t actually evolved anywhere near as far as we sometimes think we have. ‘Modern civilization’ as we call it is still a very, very new concept and only represents the tiniest part of mankind’s presence on the earth. Our new found sophistication is a bit like your first school blazer in that it will take a while to grow into it. Intellectually we can rationalise our great achievement in creating a safe, warm and secure environment in our towns and cities. We can marvel at the cleverness of the many different forms of entertainment we have created; from 3D movies to interactive computer games but the reality is that they are no substitute for the wonders of the great outdoors. Our heads may be ready for driverless cars and flights into space but our bodies and souls still crave the feel of warm sun on our faces or the sound of a blackbird singing at dusk.

This isn’t a rant against modern life by the way. I’m not suggesting for a minute that we should abandon our smart inventions and eschew the comforts of twenty first century living. I just think we need to have some perspective and appreciation of how important the outdoors and nature still is and how ingrained in us it must be. We have spent hundreds of thousands of years as a species living an outdoor life and a mere few hundred escaping it. It isn’t surprising that the lure of the wild draws us to walk in the countryside, to marvel at the beauty of nature or to find peace and solace in a magical sunset.

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Dawn over Staithes harbour, North Yorkshire, England

My worry is that each generation will grow more isolated from these things and I hope passionately that we won’t let that happen. One of the most rewarding parts of my new job is talking to children and their parents as they explore the world of nature on the Brockholes reserve. The innate fascination that children have with all things wild reminds me that we are a long way from evolving into urban creatures for whom the natural world is irrelevant and it gives me hope. When we do finally get those self-drive cars that we are now promised I really hope we will use them to transport ourselves to the countryside where we can abandon them for a few precious hours while we reconnect with our deeply embedded roots.