By a Brook in Winter - A fresh fall of snow overnight. I walk in a winter landscape: the green fields mantled white; the blackish branches of willow and ash, edged white, starkly outlined, against the morning light; mirrored in the dark brown-grey of the brook; the distant woods a purple haze against the blue-grey snow clouds above. My footsteps the only sound.
I’m startled by a Wren; it’s loud rattling alarm call burst forth, from a bush overhanging the brook. I didn’t move; he sang then - a loud clear warbling song 1 - amplified by the snow, it filled the space around me, until it was finally caught up and lost in the quiet song of the brook itself.
I watch in slow motion as he plunges, briefly, under the icy water then bobs up onto his perch preening vigorously; ruffling his feathers, scattering tiny rainbow droplets of water everywhere.
A Moorhen challenges me from a few yards away. She stands poised a little way up the bank, under a pollarded willow ... ‘her shapely black head with its brilliant orange and scarlet ornaments’ (Adventures among Birds W H Hudson) ... in relief against the snowy herbage. She slowly lifts a green web-toed foot then tentatively steps forward further up the bank ... Her footprints a trail of black in the snow.
At the edge of the wood early catkins - lambs tails - tremble and dance, sprinkling yellow gold-dust over the snowy branches. A small party of Long Tailed Tit tinkle through the delicate filigree of branches outlined against the winter sky. I count three, then from nowhere there were five, then seven, then twelve. It was mid-January - still Winter; yet on this rose coloured morning, the pink sun mirrored by their feathers, it was Spring.
A pair of Bullfinch light up a solitary Ash tree - soft glow light bulbs of carmine red and cinnamon pink. They call softly to each other. Their rumps white as the snow.
Walking into the wood, a Jay screams at my intrusion, then another and another, taking their cue from each other - ‘like the tearing of linen’ (Richard Jefferies). Leaving the Jay to argue amongst themselves I came out of the trees onto a causeway at the edge of a small lake. At the far end was a little church, on an island, mirrored in the waters of the lake2. There were a few Tufted Duck in the middle of the lake, some Pochard and a single male Goldeneye. The resident pair of Great Crested Grebe ‘tut-tutting’ - shaking their heads at one another - in pre-nuptial courtship. I follow the footpath around the edge of the lake. ‘Chip chip-chip, chip chip’ - Crossbill - six birds, circling, calling loudly, settled in the tops of a small stand of Scots Pines. I watch them awhile admist a gentle shower of pine cones.
Somewhere there are Siskin calling.
There is another small lake above this one; the outflow controlled by a sluice and small weir. There on the concrete sill of the weir his feet covered by the rushing water is a Dipper - feeding in the ice cold water as it bubbles up from the bottom of the weir. The turbulent water keeping the brook ice free.
It sings briefly as it flies back onto the sill, bobbing and winking ...
... The dipper or water-ousel is the most certain January singer, for even the hardest weather does not silence him. When the woods are hushed and white with snow, and the burn is pinched by frost, so that only a narrow dark channel of running water shows between the ice and snow at the side of it, there on some stone in the burn the dipper will stand and sing. It is water rippling over a stony bed that he frequents; the soft luxuriance of a chalk stream has no attraction for him. His song seems part of the sound of the rippling water, from which he is never away. “I hear thee where the waters run” may well be said of the dipper. His song is very sweet and lively; it has no marked beginning or close, but goes on indefinitely. It is as if ” beauty born of murmuring sound” had passed into the bird who was giving it back as song to the stream whence it had come. ...
It was another moment when the song of a single bird penetrates to the affections and abides thereafter in the memory.
A Charm of Birds - 1937 - Viscount Grey of Fallodon
Standing there, my thoughts, caught up by the rushing waters of the brook, drifted amongst other memories - of winter birds and walks by other rivers streams and marshy meadows ...
It was Sunday - a cold but sunny Sunday afternoon at the end of January. A fall of snow a few days ago had mostly thawed leaving the old water meadows of the river a puddling of pools which glinted in the afternoon sun. Lapwing huddled round their marshy edges facing into a fresh north easterly wind. A few Pied Wagtail tripping around between them picking at flies. A small green-yellow cloud of birds - a mixed flock of Greenfinch and Goldfinch - flew up from the rough grassland, spooked by a marauding Sparrowhawk. A Kestrel hovering nearby over the meadows a classic. A slight movement in the nearby hedge, caught out of the corner of my eye - an over-wintering Chiffchaff!
There was another place I used to walk in winter ...
The tide was on the way out exposing small areas of mud and scattered vegetation, with little creeks of running water and brackish pools. A darkish, dumpy wader feeding at the edge of one of the muddy pools, got up - ‘too-leet’ ‘too-leet’ ‘too-leet’ - his white rump showing clearly; a Green Sandpiper.
Here is the limit of the tidal reach; the river dammed to form a freshwater lake above. I walk across the stone causeway below the weir - a flash of yellow; a beautiful male Grey Wagtail bounds away to alight on the edge of the parapet.
Walking up through the ancient semi-natural woodland above the river there was a small stand of Beech, unusual among the oaks and occasional Scots pine and larch. The ground underneath carpeted with mast - a favourite of Brambling; there were one or two here today feeding with Chaffinch.
High up in one of the beeches a Nuthatch works his way sideways along a branch until he reaches the end - taking flight he hovers in front of the mast on the end of the branch; randomly flicking empty husks aside, to fall to the ground, before success; it flies off with a ripe kernel only to be back seconds later repeating the process.
Dropping back down to the dam I caught a movement in the reeds above - very difficult to see, but yes hiding, almost motionless, was a Bittern.
What a way to end a winter walk ...
Bird Notes – Winter (2019)
Barn owl along the back lanes between Bethel and Llanrug at 5 pm
Flushed what I think was a Jack Snipe from the damp marshy bit of the field the other side of the back garden fence. It flew off quietly in a zig zag pattern.
The Gorse in the hedgerow hereabouts is in full bloom it’s bright deep cadmium yellow colour lighting up the otherwise generally dull days of December
Hazel catkins well out in sheltered places. No Christmas primrose this year but a few daisies are scattering the field like tiny white stars.
A female Sparrowhawk along the back lanes early this morning. It followed the twists and turns of the road for a good quarter of a mile before lifting up into a lane side tree.
A Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming early yesterday morning - on a nearby telegraph pole! Sound doesn’t carry very far.
Later that night a Tawny Owl hooting from out the back.
Spring songs of some our locals can be heard SongThrush, Great Tit, Coal Tit
After a few days of cold snowy weather it’s nice to hear the birds starting their spring songs - Song Thrush, Great Tit and Chaffinch. Birds are beginning to pair up - Blackbird and Coal Tit having chases around the garden.
Red Kite over the fields mid morning
One of the pair of Raven was mobbing a Buzzard minding his own business. Didn’t seem to bother him and the Raven soon left off. Buzzard then did a spectacular stoop down into the pines. Closed wings. He disappeared into the trees so I didn’t see the outcome.
By a brook in winter; by a river, a stream - perchance to dream ... of Spring
’In this short quotation from Round About a Great Estate, Jefferies provides us with a simple but engaging description of a spring scene – alive, as usual, with colour, movement and sound. The place was real, being close to his childhood home in north Wiltshire, and the bridge is still there today. The farmer’s daughter, Cicely, is fictional’. — Simon Coleman
Two meadows distant from the lower woods of the Chace there is what seems from afar a remarkably wide hedge irregularly bordered with furze. But on entering a gateway in it you find a bridge over a brook, which for some distance flows with a hedge on either side. The low parapet of the bridge affords a seat—one of Cicely’s favourite haunts—whence in spring it is pleasant to look up the brook; for the banks sloping down from the bushes to the water are yellow with primroses, and hung over with willow boughs. As the brook is straight, the eye can see under these a long way up; and presently a kingfisher, bright with azure and ruddy hues, comes down the brook, flying but just above the surface on which his reflection travels too. He perches for a moment on a branch close to the bridge, but the next sees that he is not alone, and instantly retreats with a shrill cry. A moorhen ventures forth from under the arches, her favourite hiding-place, and feeds among the weeds by the shore, but at the least movement rushes back to shelter. A wood-pigeon comes over, flying slowly; he was going to alight on the ash tree yonder, but suddenly espying some one under the cover of the boughs increases his pace and rises higher. Two bright bold bullfinches pass; they have a nest somewhere in the thick hawthorn. A jay, crossing from the fir plantations, stays awhile in the hedge, and utters his loud harsh scream like the tearing of linen. For a few hours the winds are still and the sunshine broods warm over the mead. It is a delicious snatch of spring.
By a Brook in Spring - Richard Jefferies
All the places I’ve written about in this Post are real places, and the birds seen, real sightings - extracts from my birding journals.
The walk by the brook is mostly drawn from walks, by Biss Brook and Meadows near Trowbridge, Wiltshire; the water meadows of the Windrush at Sherborne Park in Gloucestershire, and Chester Meadows, bordering the river Dee on the borders between England and Wales.
The lake with the island church is Orchardlea in Somerset which I used to visit regularly in the mid ‘60s to do wildfowl counts and to study the pair of Great Crested Grebe resident there. The island church of St Mary once the family church of the big house is a Grade 1 listed building as is the causeway.
The dam and weir is Lopwell Dam on the river Tavy in Devon which is now a Local Nature Reserve consisting of several different habitats including saltmarsh, freshwater marsh and ancient semi-natural woodland.
Other inspiration has come from books ...
- Down the River by H E Bates
- Where the Windrush Flows by Mollie Harris
- The Cottage Book by Sir Edward Grey edited by Michael Waterhouse
- Adventures among Birds W H Hudson
The featured image is from an original painting of a snowy stream by Ann Mortimer. There’s a wonderful contrast between the snow and the dark browny grey water and a sense of distance with the wooded area and hills beyond in the background.
It’s perfect for this post of a winter walk by a brook.
Ann is a watercolour artist, who is fascinated with the translucency of the medium and its ability to depict light. She exhibits annually with the Society of Floral Painters and has had several articles and books published - the latest being Ready to Paint in 30 Minutes: ‘Flowers in Watercolour’.
Ann’s Watercolour flower paintings are a joy. Do go and have a look ... Here are some links to her Gallery and Shop ...
PLEASE NOTE: The featured image is from an original painting of a ‘snowy stream’ by Ann Mortimer, and is used here with her permission. It should not be copied, reproduced, or used in any way for commercial gain, or without express permission from the Artist.
Music is my other passion especially from the 50s and 60s. I like to have a little fun with my writing, so ‘on a whim’, may include odd song titles or lyrics, like Victorian Whimsies hidden in wooden jigsaws, in my posts.
“Purple Haze” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience
“Sunny Sunday Afternoon” by the Kinks
PS. Next post - ‘Birds in the Lane’ coming soon - I promise!!
- The diminutive wren has a remarkably loud voice considering its size; its vocalizations consist of a loud rattling call and warbling song. As ornithologist Stanley Cramp (1988) wrote, it sings "as if [the] bird [were] trying to burst [its] lungs.”
- The lake regularly hosts small numbers of common waterfowl, including breeding Little and Great Crested Grebe and Mute Swan, and wintering Tufted Duck and Pochard. Rarer species have occasionally been sighted: Ring-Necked Duck (male) - March 1997, and Great White Egret - September 2005.