On the border of winter and spring

We had a quiet walk around part of Pitsford Water Nature Reserve today on what was a very bright and cloudless afternoon. There was some warmth in the sun and in sheltered spots it felt later in the year than the end of February. However, out in the open there was a chilly breeze, particularly across the reservoir, that took us back into winter.

Even the wildlife was a mixture between the two seasons. Along some of the tree-lined rides were some remaining winter thrushes feeding on the ground, the redwings and fieldfares ‘seeping’ and ‘chuckling’ as they flew off before our approach. Out on the water there were diminishing flocks of wintering wildfowl including wigeon, pochard and goldeneye. However, sharing the water were tentatively displaying great crested grebes and there were some springtime calls from a range of passerines in the surrounding woodland. A song thrush called loudly from within a thick hawthorn, and great tits sang amongst mixed flocks of other tits. I saw my first willow tit in a couple of years as well as the first tree sparrows of 2022 in their usual spot on the entrance to the reserve.

Finally, today it did seem that spring is just around the corner and the season is starting to turn, even if there is still plenty of time for cold days to take us back to winter again.

Our nocturnal garden visitor…

It was only in the last 6 months of living in my previous house, where I’d been for over 20 years, that I started to get badgers coming into the garden. It was a joy to have these amazing animals visiting on a regular basis and I was a little sad to leave them behind when we moved to Northamptonshire.

I did have a little hope that we might have badgers visiting the garden at our new house but so far none have appeared on our camera trap. Instead, we’ve had a much wider list of mammals over the past year with a semi-regular fox, a daily squirrel, six species of bat in the warmer months, as well as mice, voles and moles. However, the stars so far have to have been the hedgehogs.

From spring onwards, we had started to see their dropping around the garden but it took a while to actually see one. We put food out for them and left out the camera trap. We soon captured videos of them coming wandering around the patio and eventually saw one as we looked out of the window one evening. Front then on, we saw them almost nightly and up to three at a time. They often quarrelled over food and we could sometimes even hear them snorting at each other when we went to bed at night.

As summer turned into autumn, a small hedgehog started to appear, one of the year’s young. We saw the hoglet grow and after a time it was difficult to tell him (or her) apart from others. He eventually disappeared with the others as the colder weather came in.

A little while later, we saw a very small hoglet in the garden, much smaller than the previous small one we had been seeing. Being November, it was possible that this little one had been abandoned by its mother before it had weaned. We saw it for a couple of nights and were concerned but when we saw it out in the daylight, seemingly desperately hungry, trying to eat the empty food bowl, we had to act.

We picked it up and put into a box with straw and a warm hot water bottle and blanket, to keep it safe while we found a rescue centre. We found that the centres closest to us were full, so we had to drive 45 minutes to the nearest one with any space. We left him (he was confirmed as a boy) there with quite a few others and hoped for the best. We heard he had survived the first few days, which gave us hope, but after a few weeks we learned that he had not made it after all.

We had been told we would get him back to release in the garden when he got better but this wasn’t to be. However, we were offered another youngster instead to set fee. We went to pick him up and bought a second hedgehog house (we already had one which is hopefully in use) and a feeding station (to stop the cats eating all the food). Arriving home we waited until night had arrived before releasing him outside his new home and waited for him to go inside.

Over the last few weeks we have regularly seen him as he gets to know his new home. With the relatively warm winter, he’s unlikely to hibernate, and is out foraging most evenings, taking food we leave out for him.

It was great to get a happy ending to first year of hedgehog watching and feeding in our garden – and hopefully we get even more in the garden this year.

Freezing and freeing sunset

For the first time in ages, possibly even this year (apart from a Friday or two), we went for a post-work walk down at our favourite spot below Hanging Houghton.

A sudden return to cold weather came during the day with some sleet showers in mid-afternoon following a sunny start. I began my morning listening to a song thrush calling from a nearby garden but that moment was soon pushed away by the working day.

Heading out for the walk it was time to put on the heavy coat and big woolly hat. Getting out of the car after the short ten-minute drive, I was very glad I had. The freezing wind blows mostly unimpeded in that spot once out of the cover of the trees. The walk was cut short at about half the usual distance as the cold began to bite and the peace was disturbed as a rumbling 747 trundled slowly across the sky.

Nearly back at the car, we stopped to stand on the little bridge over which the dirt farm track crosses a stream, watching the orange glow of the sunset beneath the darkening blue above. This time it was a mistle thrush calling from a nearby stand of trees, heard clearly over the lightly babbling water. One of the usual local buzzards broke the spell momentarily but then a sudden dart appeared, racing towards us. A kingfisher flew beneath the arch of the bridge and away behind us into the darkness around the first meander.

Quite a lovely moment of release to end a working day…

Walking from our doorstep

It’s now almost exactly a year to the day since we moved into our house in a Northamptonshire village. Over the twelve months we’ve been for plenty of walks around the county, both locally and further afield. However, we thought that walks from the house were limited to a couple of footpaths that didn’t really lead anywhere. We were very wrong and it’s just a pity it’s taken so long to realise.

There’s actually a permissive path leading from the village down into the neighbouring valley and joins a newly established footpath up to the next small settlement. Neither of these routes are on the Ordnance Survey mapping, so we were largely unaware about of them. We knew there was a permissive path but not really where it was or where it went, but after reading some arguments about it on the village Facebook page, we decided to check it out. It turns out the path is a real asset to the village and connects to a wider network of public rights of way.

On what was a very blustery late morning, we headed out well wrapped up but we soon warmed up. The walk was about 5.5 miles in total across open pasture and ploughed fields, along hedgerows and on some quiet country lanes. It’s reasonably rolling in these parts so there were a few inclines to climb but nothing too steep. There were good views all around as we headed down the slopes and reached new crests. I even managed to put some of my new badger surveying skills into practice but more on that later.

While this was a relatively short walk, we expected it to rain at any moment, it looks like we can extend it in various directions and create 10 mile and possibly 15 mile walks when the weather is nicer.

The route is a real find and no doubt we’ll be doing it as regularly as some of our other local walks as the spring arrives.

Amazed by the Nene Washes

I’ve been to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s Welney reserve a few times, including late last year and the Ouse Washes on which it sits have been spectacular when I have visited in autumn and winter. However, I’m not sure I have ever really heard of the Nene Washes before but today has changed that as we spent a few late morning/early afternoon hours there.

Both ‘Washes’ are huge winter flood storage areas for their neighbouring rivers with the Nene site extending to 1,522 hectares, bounded by large embankments to keep the water from flooding the surrounding flat and low-lying fenland. The RSPB manages a portion of the site, amounting to around 280 hectares and it was this part of the Washes we visited today.

Walking routes from the car park are limited to heading east or west on the southern embankment overlooking the Washes. It gives great views over the site, from an elevated position, although it was particularly windy today making the use of a telescope and binoculars quite challenging.

We started off heading in the direction of a group of people looking into some fields and found them watching three short-eared owls. Two were hunkered down in a small hawthorn tree beside an old barn while the third was more in the open, perched on some logs in the middle of a neighbouring field. After watching them for a while we headed west and were soon told of a particularly special bird that had been seen to fly over and into a small, waterlogged copse. We quickly made our way down and it wasn’t long until we saw it on the woodland edge – a glossy ibis!!! I thought it might have been the first time I’d ever seen one; checking later, I had seen one before when in Botswana, but this was definitely a first sighting in the UK for me, of what is a comparative rarity.

After watching a the ibis for a little while and wandering a little further west to see what other birdlife was in the flooded fields, we headed back east towards the car. Walking east beyond the car park we had great views of perhaps the most lapwings and golden plovers I’ve ever seen – several thousand of each have been recorded there in the last few days. They were constantly being spooked by birds of prey and lifting in great clouds. Long broken flocks of lapwings headed along the Washes leaving behind the golden plovers which circled, rose and dived, shimmering as they caught the sun on their wings.

Of the raptors, we saw five marsh harriers in one binocular view, causing other flocks of birds to lift, including big groups of wigeon. There were also buzzards, red kites (of which we saw plenty more on the way from Northamptonshire) and a stooping and chasing kestrel.

Our main reason for going was to get a chance of seeing common cranes. It’s now well over two years since I last saw any, on my final trip to Sweden before the pandemic hit. For me, they are some of the most wilderness evoking birds, particularly their calls crying out across the landscape. There are very few in the UK compared to Sweden, where I have seen many thousands coming in to roost at the start of their autumn migration. I also frequently see pairs in the countryside when I visit family out in the Swedish countryside and hear when I sit in the summerhouse garden. Today we had very distant views of them out across the Washes landscape and heard them call momentarily before the strong wind whipped the sounds away. We saw at least 25 in a loose group; the wind was just too much to get a stable enough view to count more.

This really was a fantastic first visit to the Nene Washes and hopefully more visits will come.

Summer Leys in Winter

We’re very lucky to have a lot of wetland nature reserves close to us in Northamptonshire; they’re great locations which for winter wildlife. After visiting our nearest sites of Pitsford Water and Ravensthorpe Reservoir over the last couple of weeks, we went a little further afield to Summer Leys today. The national nature reserve, run by Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust is a large, flooded former gravel pit about 25 minutes from us. It is located alongside the River Nene, south of Wellingborough and is one of a large network of lakes by the river as it passes through the county.

Parking in the Wildlife Trust’s car park, there is a good circular walk around the whole site and it took us around two hours today. We weren’t racing around, instead, we took our time to stop at most of the viewpoints over the water and we had lunch on a bench at the far end. We also stopped in the various hides, which were all on the second half of the walk (taking a clockwise way around).

It was a quite a dark and gloomy day and it didn’t take long to get quite cold when we stopped but not too cold to shorten our stay. The large open lake, with little bays here and there, is the winter home to a large selection of waterbirds. There were good numbers of duck, with mallard, gadwall, wigeon, teal, tufted duck, goldeneye and pochard all present in varying numbers, as well as small flocks of greylag and Canada geese and some mute swans. We had views of limited numbers little and great egrets, and a grey heron or two, plus quite a few cormorants on the low islands in the centre of the lake.

The most spectacular view on our walk was of a large flock of lapwings and smaller flock of golden plovers which settled on one of the small central islands. There were more lapwings at the reserve than I can remember seeing anywhere for a long time; they seemed to be everywhere. Every so often they would lift as they were spooked by something, with the flock on the central island being particularly large. We didn’t get a good view of what was causing them to lift, but they frequently rose in alarm, circling above together or splitting and taking dramatic evasive action. The lapwings were always the first to return to ground while the golden plover stayed in the air, often much higher, waiting for things to calm down again.

The bird feeding station was also very good with loads of tits, finches and reed buntings coming in and out to take the food put out for them. Someone told us they had seen a brambling but we had no luck. However, the good close views of bullfinches made up for it, with more in one place than I have seen for quite some time. Just around the corner, after hearing them several times on the walk, we saw a green woodpecker feeding on the ground in the open grass between the path and the lake.

In all we saw nearly 50 species during our easy walk around the reserve, almost as many as we saw in the much longer walk around Pitsford, which has a lot more variation in its habitats. It won’t be long until many of these species move on as the winter visitors move back north, and then replaced as summer visitors move in. However, there should be time yet to visit more of the wetland sites nearby and slightly further away before the winter is over.

A little piece of English history

As most readers of my blog will realise, I am more one for natural rather than human history. However, over the last few weeks a little piece of both national and immediately local history has come to light which has taken more of my interest than usual.

One morning between Christmas and New Year, I looked over our lawn to see that part of the wall facing the road had come down in the storm during the previous night. Like so many of the older houses in our village, we have a drystone wall boundary although ours looked a lot more rickety than most. Since we moved into the house nearly a year ago, we have carefully taken off some of the ivy that was overgrowing it and made some of the stones on the top a little more secure. Looking at the wall on the Google Streetview image, which was taken in 2015, it was completely overgrown with bramble and ivy, so it appeared to be in better shape than it had been in previous years. However, after several storms and heavy rains over the last few months, it seem it couldn’t stand up any longer, or at least one section of it.

We spent the following week getting quotes for works and eventually appointed the local waller and shepherd, Tim, who actually drives down our village lane each day to tend his sheep. He started the work a week and a half ago and, with a few hours each day, is already showing good progress. He’s not just repairing the missing gap but rebuilding much of the whole 10 metre run, including putting a cock and hen coping on it. The section of the wall done to date already looks much better than the section it replaces, so the whole wall is going to be much stronger and a lot less rickety.

Now onto the history…

While taking some of the stones down, to then rebuild the wall, Tim found pieces of an old clay smoking pipe including parts of the bowl. After an initial view from Tim and some research, the pipe has been dated to a time around 1650 to 1680. This may be interesting enough to some, but then comes the wider historical link to the stones in the wall and the English Civil War.

Naseby is a village around 12 miles to the north of our own, and is on some of my usual cycling routes around the area. It was the setting for the Battle of Naseby in 1645, one of the defining engagements of the war and perhaps the most famous. Even closer to us, around two miles away, is Holdenby House, pronounced locally as Holmby, which was the site of what was to become a major royal palace of both James I and Charles I. After the Civil War it was the prison of Charles I between February and June 1647 before he was seized and taken off to New Market (to be later executed in 1649 in Whitehall). Parliament later sold the palace to Captain Adam Baynes, who demolished the majority of the building, leaving behind one wing, which remains in itself a major country house. The stone resulting from the demolition, potentially used to pay soldiers from the war, was distributed around the area and used in construction of buildings and walls.

All of the above dates point to not only our wall being built in the 17th Century (the house is from circa 1860) but also being made, in part at least, from stone taken from a former royal palace. Looking at some of the stone in the wall, Tim believes that some of the local ironstone and non-local sandstone is very similar in size and shape to other Holdenby stone he has come across in walls he has worked on.

As I said, I’m not one for human history really, but links from my own drystone wall and a major palace and Civil War battle, might just make me look a bit more, at least at the history of our new home and surrounding area. It’s pretty amazing what findings objects such as little as a piece of old smoking pipe can lead to.

First signs of spring

The weather yesterday morning was absolutely lovely for what is approaching the latter end of January. It wasn’t warm, far from it, but the bright sun and the clear skies made the world around me a lot happier and colourful. For the first time this year, in fact for several months, I got my bike out and went for an easy pedal around the area. This part of Northamptonshire really is a pleasant place to cycle, there isn’t much traffic on the small country lanes and there’s plenty of choice in avoiding the busier, more major roads. The countryside is hiller than I was used to in my former cycling area in Cheshire but they add more challenge and interest, once my legs have got back into the swing of things. There is also quite a lot to look at as I pedal my way past, whether it be the great array of country houses and village churches, the scenery in general and, of course, the wildlife, of which there is nearly always something to be seen.

By the time of arrived home, surprisingly less frozen than I was expecting, the skies were starting to cloud up and by the time we went out for a walk in the afternoon, a dark, overcast murk had descended. This was a bit more like it for January, these last two weeks of which month, along with the first two of February, being statistically the coldest of the winter; and it really did feel cold with the sun behind the clouds. We went for a walk along the Brampton Valley Way, the former Northampton to Market Harborough railway line, which is a great place for wandering, running or cycling, with various points of access along its 14 miles. We decided to join at Hanging Houghton and northwards but only went about a mile before turning back. However, during that short walk, despite the gloom and presence of winter-visiting redwings and fieldfares, it did seem like there were some of the first signs of spring in the wildlife. A pair of buzzards were calling to each other within the way-side woods, pairs of red kite circled above the village and a woodpecker could be heard hammering, a little tentatively perhaps, on a nearby tree. These sights and sounds were coupled with us seeing blue tits prospecting our garden bird box earlier in the day, to give the impression that the new season might not be far away. However, I had to remind myself just how long we could have yet to go in winter. Iin two week’s time, it will be a year since we moved into our new house; it was a snowy and icy day and that weather stayed around for the rest of the week and it certainly wasn’t the last time we saw that kind of weather.

Sunday morning at Ravensthorpe Reservoir

Less than a 10 minute drive from our house is Ravensthorpe Reservoir, one of several all in a short distance from our Northamptonshire home. The 100-acre water body is dissected at its northern end by a causeway across which a country road passes, and this linked with the path around the larger southern part of the reservoir form a good circular walk. There is a small car park at the north-eastern end of the causeway but it is also possible to park on the road-side at the other end, as we did today.

We walked clockwise around the water, across the causeway first. You have to be a bit careful of traffic walking along the road and it’s better to walk on the righthand, southern, side no matter which way you are walking, due to the bend of the road. You soon come to the water’s edge and today, in the watery sun, on the calm surface, we saw two great crested grebes already starting courtship, albeit only half-heartedly and briefly. On the opposite side of the road, the much smaller northern portion of the reservoir gave us good views of a group of goldeneye, both males and females, on the surface and diving down into the water.

Turning right at the junction at the northern end of the causeway, we soon came to the car park and the off-road track around the rest of the reservoir. The track is very muddy for much of the rest of the route and we were glad we had put on our wellies – a family coming the other way probably wished they had too. The path down to the dam is all within woodland cover with some limited views of the water; there are just a few points where you can get to the water’s edge. As we approached the dam we came to the raised walkway over the spillway which helps to regulate the reservoirs water levels. It’s quite a picturesque spot with the Victorian engineering clear to be seen.

Passing through a metal gate, the path then travels across the top of the dam, with the waterworks below, eventually coming to the fishing lodge. The dam provides a view across the whole reservoir south of the causeway and is a good place for grey wagtails and as well as the wider range of waterfowl. Today, we had a reasonable number of birds on the walk, including greylag, Canada and pink-footed geese, mallard, gadwall and tufted duck, as well as coot and moorhen. We had 27 species in total, without looking too hard.

The last leg of the walk on the western side of the water provided a range of woodland and farmland birds but the views were the main reason for stopping frequently to look across the water. The sky was slightly hazy in places but the deep blue breaks in the cloud opened up and the sun was even slightly warm at times. It certainly didn’t feel like spring this morning but it did provide the first early sign that it will be coming.