The Early Birder and the British Bird of Paradise

An early start 

“Enjoy your lie in on Sunday morning”, my mother-in-law suggested as we left our kids with her in Crook and set-off for Wakefield. (The kids would be returned on Monday: don’t worry, we weren’t dumping them for good!) But here we were, on Sunday morning, the final fling of the Easter break, back from Wakefield, at home in Silverdale, and I was up and out with the first of the light. Not wasting a moment. The forecast was for cold, but clear and dry weather, and I wanted to savour the arrival of spring before returning to work the following day.

Back in the dark days of winter, when we planned our trips to York and Wakefield, they were something to look forward to, an incentive to get us through the winter gloom. But, in the event, with the sun shining and the advent of spring, I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay at home. I was keen to explore, but what I really wanted to explore was my own backyard. Of course, despite my reservations,I did enjoy both trips, but now that we were home again, I was glad of an opportunity for a bit of a leg-stretcher on the home-patch.

I must have missed the start of the dawn-chorus, early though I was, but the birds were still singing with gusto as I walked across the fields and down through the golf course, where the fairway was silvered with frost.

I was heading for Leighton Moss. From Lillian’s hide the cacophony of the black-headed gulls, screeching and squabbling, put an abrupt end to the early morning peace.

I walked across the causeway to the public hide, where I was expecting to hear the same row from black-headed gulls; but whilst there were a few about – I watched three perched on posts in front of the hide having a proper ding-dong argument – they weren’t present in anything like the numbers I had expected. It looked like there was a pair of black-backed gulls on the small island in the mere and I wondered if that was why the black-headed gulls were concentrated around Lillian’s. A couple of lapwings were wheeling and stunting over the mere. I watched them for a while before sauntering around to Lower Hide.

Reflected sky 

There’s a viewpoint on the causeway where a low bridge crosses a channel. There’s often things to see here – deer, stoats, water-rails, fish leaping, once, perhaps almost an otter. The view east from here has become a firm favourite of mine, but with the sun beginning to climb into the sky, the better view on this occasion was to be had looking west.


Bulrushes catch the sunrise.

Frosted alder leaf 

Frosted alder leaf.

Great crested grebe 

I sat in lower hide for quite some time, drinking tea and taking things in. When I arrived, a great crested grebe was showing directly in front of the hide, but frustratingly, by the time I had my camera ready, it had disappeared into a clump of reeds. From there it made occasional sallies into the emerging horsetails around the fringes of the mere. I took loads of photos, but despite its relative proximity, none of them were as good as I had hoped. This is probably the best, in part because the grebe has something in its beak, almost certainly a small fish.

Whilst I waited for the grebe, I watched geese and black-headed gulls fly-over. There were pochard swimming out on the mere and blue-tits clinging acrobatically to reed-heads. The principle entertainment was provided by an extremely determined and aggressive coot defending its territory. It tolerated the grebe, but mallards were pursued and dismissed. And this pair of gadwalls…


…made a sharp exit…

A sharp exit 

…when the coot challenged them.

A determined coot 

Eventually a second grebe emerged from the reeds – I hadn’t realised that there was a pair there. Perhaps I’d unknowingly watched them taking it in turns to come out and fish. I remember, years ago, watching grebes dancing their amazing mating ritual on a lake in northern Germany, something I’d love to see again. I wonder whether I’m too late this year? I suppose I might have sat and watched a while longer, in the hope that these grebes might feel inclined to dance, but the cold was really getting to me, despite the fact that I’d brought several layers of clothing for exactly this eventuality. It was bitter.

Stepping out of the hide and into the sunshine made an immediate difference however. The frost was gone. These cowslips were still looking a little sad and droopy,…


…but not half as bad as they had when I’d passed them earlier.

Willow catkins

Willow catkins.

An unopened catkin? 

Could this be an unopened catkin? Rather handsome I thought.

It was breakfast time. Time to head home. Or, at least, that had been my original plan. But, the sun was shining. What little cloud there had been, had completely disappeared. The trees and birds and stones and streams were revelling in the spring. What was the hurry? Time, then, to go a little further. To take a circuitous route home. I walked around the ‘back’ of the reserve. The trees were awash with bird-song, and I stopped frequently to try to check my tentative identifications.

Blue tit amongst ash flowers 

Blue tit amongst ash flowers.

I took a lot of photos too. Most of them came out a little like this…

The one that got away. 

..where the poor old autofocus thought I wanted a photo of branches, rather then the chiff-chaff….

Ah...a chiffchaff 

…which was chiffchaffing away in the background.

I have a few favourite trees, old friends whom I like to drop in on from time to time: the climbing-beech in Eaves Wood, the coppiced willow on another path in Leighton Moss, the cloven ash by Silverdale Moss. This huge gnarly horse chestnut is a fairly recent addition to the circle.

The huge, gnarly horse chestnut 

I wonder whether it was pollarded when the Moss was farmland, perhaps a century ago? Anyway, it’s coming into leaf right now, just as it will have done at this sort of time over the course of that century….

Coming into leaf 

On this sort of day, I find the light and the colours irresistible.



Storrs Lane follows the edge of the reserve. From there I had a great view of a male marsh harrier quartering the reedbeds, occasionally dropping out of sight. It was close enough for me to see his pale beige on his head and the leading edge of his wings, but not close enough to get a really sharp photo.

A path from Storrs Lane leads into Trowbarrow Quarry…

Trowbarrow quarry 

In the woods on the edge of the quarry I had a stunning view of a pair of nuthatches – I got a photo, but only of a behind – the nuthatch turned away at the crucial moment.

I watched two marsh harriers fly high overhead. They are, I now realise, quite distinctive from below, particularly the males, with a pale body and the undersides to the wings chiefly white, but tipped with black. Later, I would see them again, this time from quite a distance, flying over Haweswater Moss.

The birches in the quarry were coming into leaf, and the leaves were catching the light superbly.

Birch leaves 

As I faffed about, trying to capture the effect….

More birch leaves 

…..a shadow passing close to my feet had me glancing up to catch a glimpse of a jay. Jays are relatively common birds in the woods around home. But glimpses are mostly all that I catch. I frequently hear jays and quite often see jays, but I’ve rarely ever had a chance to actually look at a jay. They are extremely shy and secretive birds. But this jay landed in a tree quite close by. I could see it, and even got photos – although there were a few twigs partially obscuring the view. When it shifted it’s weight and then took to the wing I fully expected that it would be away, but to my amazement, it flew down to the ground…


Here’s a cropped version.


It’s a stunning bird, not at all like any of it’s corvid cousins to look at (at least not the British ones). Usually it’s the white rump and the grey-pink colouring which stands out, but with a chance to see a stationary bird, the other distinctive features are the black moustache, the freckled head and the blue and white striped covert feathers.

The jay hopped out of sight behind a rock, but then posed in a nearby tree. Like the grebe it has something in its beak – I think nesting materials.


“…not altogether unworthy of being called the British Bird of Paradise”



Eventually, the jay hopped back down to the ground, flew somewhere out of sight in the trees to my right and then flew back overhead and away, soon followed by three more jays.


I hadn’t exactly been holding my breath, but I had that feeling, of tension released, of a spell broken.

A track from Trowbarrow leads down to Moss Lane, and where Moss Lane ends, a path around Haweswater begins. My fingers had finally defrosted. The day was even beginning to feel a little warm. From the duckboards by the lake I watched the marsh harriers and, high above them, a pair of buzzards.

Near to where the toothwort grows (now looking quite desiccated and past their best) a strikingly musical song caught my attention. I’m making glacial progress with my project to learn birdsong, but although it’s slow, it is progress, and I knew this song wasn’t one of my limited repertoire. Scanning the branches overhead I spotted the minstrel – a blackcap. The blackcap soon departed, sadly, but beneath the tree it had perched in there was a a sheltered spot, out of the wind, but in the sunshine, where I settled down to finish my mammoth flask of tea. I chatted to a couple of other walkers who passed. Buzzards flew overhead. There was a symphony of birdsong all around.


In an article in the Independent, Michael McCarthy identified the date of this walk, April the 15th, as the start of spring in the South.

This is the date when conventionally, the cuckoo could first be heard in the Thames valley, and it also works, more or less, for first hearing a nightingale (if you’re in the right place) and first seeing a swallow.

I’ve never heard a cuckoo in this area, although I often hear them in the Lakes, nightingales don’t venture this far north and I didn’t see any swallows during this walk, despite having seen them the day before at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. But I had to smile later on when I found that someone had arrived at this blog after searching for ‘Gaitbarrows Nightingale’ and finding a previous walk during which I was regaled by a blackcap – sometimes known as the northern nightingale.

Walking past a small copse en route to Eaves Wood I heard another song which I couldn’t be absolutely sure I recognised, but I thought it might be a another nuthatch. And….


…it was!

Several things I’ve read recently have reminded me of the value of stillness and connectedness – of getting to know one area intimately.

My vicinity affords many good walks; and though for so many years I have walked almost every day, and sometimes for several days together, I have not yet exhausted them. An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this any afternoon. Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey. There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you.

from Walking Henry David Thoreau

If you feel inspired to explore this vicinity, you might be interested in these guided walks…


Click on the photo to go to the flickr page where larger versions are available. This should work with all of the photos.

The Early Birder and the British Bird of Paradise

10 thoughts on “The Early Birder and the British Bird of Paradise

  1. I do appreciate your birdie photos even though I’m a complete ignoramus. I can recognise a Stellar’s Jay though, with its bright blue plumage. Might even have a photo of one somewhere, but if I do I bet it’s on a slide…

    1. beatingthebounds says:

      It’s uncanny – it’s almost as if you’d met and knew TBH :-).
      In fact when I got home (around noon) she was still in bed. In her defence she was propped-up doing some work on her laptop.
      But to answer your question: generally, no – the idea of an early morning walk doesn’t appeal to her at all. I can remember a few occasions when you haven’t been too impressed with my keenness to get off in the morning either.
      Actually though, she has been known to manage an early start: when we went to Indonesia, we did two walks to watch the sunrise from volcanos and one pre-dawn boat trip. She wasn’t grumpy at all about woken early either! Heh – heh.

      1. That was the old me, I’m a changed man these days, keen to get out and everything. That Styhead Tarn moment is in the past, I’ve moved on (5am with brew in the cold & snow – I ask you!)

        1. beatingthebounds says:

          Yep – that was the one I was thinking of. At least I made a brew. I was frozen. I wonder whether I’ve ever owned a warm sleeping bag. Umm – no!

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