What birds had I seen today, I was asked by a local couple. They had found a handful of fieldfare on Helsington Barrows. I was returning from the spot but had missed them. We spoke of garden birds, of blackbirds and the January hungry gap. Blackbirds had gorged on their rowan berries back in early autumn, perhaps as early as August. He had seen a blackbird eating twenty rowan berries, then crashing into their windows in intoxicated flight. He must have seen my scepticism and they assured me it is so. Drunken blackbirds?
From behind the Scots Pines the full moon rises radiant on a cold, clear night. Scintillae of light sparkle somewhere in the freezing air, somewhere between the moon and me there are spiculae, ice-particles only my camera can see. Then she appears in a corona of blue. The moon looks down upon us with serene gaze. I am curious of her mysteries.
At midnight, she illuminates stairs to the skylight where I open the window and look out upon her.
Snow-cloud gathered to the east and blotted out the fells. Slowly, gently the snow came in the afternoon. Snowflakes floated in the air, snowflakes so light and airy they rose and fell in a swirl.
Stay at home is the Government's urgent plea as the NHS comes under unprecedented pressure during the pandemic. There are ice warnings so stay at home makes sound sense. Stay at home and find a project. Mine today is weather-watching and to see what I might photograph from home.
One spring, I came upon a young jay that had fallen from the nest. And watched the brood learning to fly. This winter, I often hear a jay in these same trees as I walk to Scout Scar.
A jay visits our gardens. With lockdown 3 here is a challenge.
Photograph the garden jay in good light, all aspects and details of plumage.
Is it the same jay who comes to the garden?
The breeding season is not far off. Will this bird find a mate and raise young here in our gardens?
Find where he spends the night.
New Year's Day and the panorama from Scout Scar is beautiful. And beguiling. The flow of cloud, of light and shadow, makes it difficult to be sure of what you're seeing.
Cloud or fell? The word cloud means both crag, fell and atmosphere - all in the mix.
To the North, sunlight confers a warm glow on the fells. The woods below Scout Scar show in warm colour, with a hatching of shadows to distinguish the crown of individual trees in the canopy. Snow on the distant fells, the ground hard and a keen frost.
At home in sequential lockdowns during 2020, we take much pleasure in the beauty of sunrise and sunset, in moonlight and in rainbows. And we share the joy they bring with our neighbours. Our horizons shrink, our freedoms are curtailed but the natural world has grandeur and splendour and it is there for everyone.
So at sunrise and sundown I'm eager to see what these winter days may bring.
2020 is declared A White Christmas.
On Christmas Eve there’s an icy wind from the North. The muddy track to Scout Scar begins to freeze. By Christmas Day puddles are iced over, the ground is hard but the wind has dropped so no wind-chill factor. And on both days there is sunshine and snow on the fells- hurray!
Christmas Eve: let us go, in wonder, into the realm of the imagination.
The Boreal forest was deep in snow. Rime-ice sunlit on birch trees. Herald of spring, a black-bellied dipper splashed in a stream with ice-fretwork. A male appeared, mated with her and was gone in an instant. Sunlit ice prisms floated in the air, translucent lozenges of ice, scintillating diamond dust.
The Spring Equinox 2006. I was in Arctic Finland and north-eastern Norway.
The wail of ambulance sirens fades as I turn my back on the town and climb toward Scout Scar escarpment. Amidst the rain and December gloom there comes a day of wondrous light and I stand poised on the threshold of another world. Here is treasure trove, something of inestimable worth, and now to make it mine .
A morning of brilliance and louring cloud. Ravens glided and soared above Scout Scar escarpment, riding the up-draught. A dome of blue above, to the north a mass of inky cloud. Moments of light rain on the wind and a day of rainbows.
I love to see winter trees caught in sunlight against a dark fell. And the warm and subtle colours of winter woods.
Ist December 2020, the first day of meteorological winter. And dawn was glorious. Carpe diem, seize the day. Seize the dawn, I say. Darkness over the town, with pin-points of light. And s spectacle of ever-changing colour and pattern. To the west. windows flamed with reflected brilliance- as if houses were on fire.
‘Most people are now largely illiterate when it comes to agriculture and ecology.’ So writes James Rebanks, English Pastoral, an inheritance. Life on a Lake District hill farm through three generations, a picture of a farming community and its strong bonds. English Pastoral, an inheritance. not an idyll, although there is beauty and wonder. An inheritance, something to nurture for future generations. It’s an important book- set in Cumbria with far wider resonance.
So, are we literate. can we read agricultural landscape and ecology?
A day of breath-taking beauty, calm and still, White mist lingers in valleys and, to the east, toward the Howgills, the tops peep through- like slivers of dark cloud. How welcome the sun after such a wet October and gloomy November days. The second lockdown of 2020 and I can walk only here, but here is marvellous. We may only meet outdoors but it's so warm and bright we relax into companionability, as we did in spring. So, at Thanks Giving, I celebrate the beauty of the natural world, and friendship.
The rainbow is an emblem of hope and optimism. Always has been. Non sine sole reads the motto of Elizabeth 1st in her rainbow portrait.
Non sine sole where there's a rainbow you'll find the sun.
The rainbow has become an emblem of the Covid 19 pandemic. Yes, let's be hopeful. Hope underpinned with good sense and compliance. All of us, all the time.
Out on Scout Scar I find three rainbows. And I overhear conversations on Covid non-compliance and the anger it causes.
Above Torver Beck we followed a track below an embankment topped with a hedge of hawthorn. A sheltering hedge, old trees gone to wild, sculpted by age, by wind and weather. Men walked this way to quarry the green and black slate about Coniston back in the 13th century. A hedge is liminal, the boundary where we venture forth from the safety of farm and pastoral for the open fell and the unknown.
Hearing fieldfare and redwing, we found them in the top of a leafless tree , amongst ash keys. On a cloudy November day winter thrush appear darkly. No sun to illumine them but look closely and you can make out the grey head, the light grey rump and dark tail, the disposition of the wings when the bird is at rest.
On Cunswick Fell there are plentiful haws on hawthorn, with red arils on yew and holly berries.
The last hazel leaves fall to leave branches thick with green catkins, dormant and ready for winter.
Frost and a dawn of soft, warm colour.
I know where to find berried shrubs on Scout Scar and I'm always alert for winter thrush. The whitebeam crop has failed this year, so hawthorn will be the attraction. A bird's white belly gleamed in the sun. A lone fieldfare. Its throat and breast cloaked in warm pattern, a flush of pure gold then radiant white. You might think plumage would absorb light but this luminous heart of white shone forth The head grey, the under-side of the tail shows dark.
A sole fieldfare on a hawthorn, no more all morning. The sun was warm and the day rather misty
If numbers of blackbirds appear in gardens this autumn they may well be migrants from Norway, Sweden and Finland. Come to compete for food with native blackbirds here throughout the year. .
A bright eye-ring and black plumage distinguish the male blackbird. Follow this sequence of images and you'll see some with characteristic bright yellow bill, others- like this male, have a darker bill. I think this is a first-winter male.
This blackbird has squashed the berry he's about to eat. Others appear to swallow them whole.
Lockdown is an opportunity to discover more about a bird we think we know.
Change is in the air. Overnight frost, and fog, says the weather forecast. After the wettest October on record.
Welcome the sun after so much rain and gloom. The low November sun highlights limestone on the escarpment edge. Below, the woods are rich in autumn colour. A jay calls unseen. Raven in weird and witchy call. Sounds of a pheasant-shoot rise from the woods, all week they echo over Scout Scar. Mist lingers in the Lyth Valley, over woods, over flood-waters and the mosses. It is beautiful and strange.
Jan Wiltshire is a nature writer living in Cumbria. She also explores islands and coast and the wildlife experience. (See Home and My Books.)