Monday, 1 January 2018

Winter Birds of the Ryburn Valley

When I moved to the Calder Valley six years ago, I lived in a valley-within-a-valley, the Ryburn Valley - so named for the River Ryburn, which flows down from the wooded franges of Blackstone Edge, through the moor-bordered hills of Rishworth, Ripponden and Triangle, onto its confluence with the Calder at Sowerby Bridge.  Although I left the Ryburn Valley in 2015, the window of my flat still overlooks its hilly edges, and my walks so often take me among its hills, woods and waters.


 One of the first birds I noticed on moving to the River Ryburn in 2012 was a green woodpecker, bobbling above a stream that trickled down the hills above the woods at Milner Royd. Like a lithe, red-hatted jester, it seemed to jump between the stones that jutted from the water, before shooting up the hill into obscurity amid a blur of grasses and high hedgerows. 

 I knew you writes Hampshire poet Denise Bennett, by your / green carpenter's apron,/ your red-crested head - / and watching you chisel bark / with all the care of a craftsman*.
Bewick claims they are the largest woodpeckers of the British kinds, stating that as adults, they are thirteen inches in length. He explains that the smoothly-feathered green bird, documented by Linnaeus in 1758, is seen more frequently on the ground than the other kinds, particularly where there are ant-hills. It inserts its long tongue into the holes through which the ants issue, and draws out these insects in abundance. Sometimes, with its feet and bill, it makes a breach in the nest, and devours them at its ease, together with their eggs. The young ones climb up and down the trees before they are able to fly; they roost very early, and repose in their holes till day.

The green woodpecker, Picus viridis, has achieved a certain familiarity due to its appearance on international postage stamps, and as the insignia of the traditional English brand Woodpecker cider.
The species has been known as Rain Bird and Weathercock, since their presence has been thought to imply oncoming rain. Another name is Laughing Betsey, owing to its laugh-like call, which has also given rise to titles such as uffle, hefful, hickle, icwell, eccle and - a personifying development - Jack Eikle. Yuckel is a further variation, as is Yappingale, and perhaps even more imitatively, Yaffingale - which may be familiar as the source of the name Yaffles. Stiff, stern but loveable, Professor Yaffles, with his spectacles perched atop his beak, is the wise old bookend in Bagpuss, the children’s television series in which assorted puppets and ornaments - not least the eponymous cloth cat himself - interacted among the shelves of a cluttered toyshop. Based on a green woodpecker, Yaffles was soon an established part of modern English folklore, as recognizable and iconic as the animals of Beatrix Potter or those among the stories of Winnie the Pooh.

Walking across the valley at this time of year, one is even likelier to see robins, thrushes, coal-tits and blue-tits - predictable, yet among the loveliest sights of a winter morning, jeweled nuggets of cerulean beauty dappling the web-like fretworks of the trees. Perhaps most usual of all among the winter sights are crows. Intermingling, is the jackdaw (Corvus monedula) who, as Cowper fancied in 1822, 
by his coat
And by the hoarseness of his note,
Might be supposed a crow;
A great frequenter of the church,
Where, bishop-like, he finds a perch,
And dormitory too.


Like black daggers slashing through white linen, the crows of Calderdale puncture snowdrifts upon the craggy uplands of the moors; they bounce from bough to bow, or crookedly hobble over dribbling becks and take their places on the wickerwork scaffolds of winter’s leafless trees. Smaller are the blackbirds, whose trilling song sounds like a fanfare urging the year to commence. With their apple-pip eyes and svelte, swarthy bodies, they skip across the frost, or dot the gardens pecking for worms, rummaging through primulas and clumps of daffodil. Immortalized by Paul McCartney and the Beatles, the blackbird is an age-old feature of the English ornithological stage. The females softly brownish, the males jet-black, blackbirds have become so embedded in our collective vision that to see one hardly raises an eyebrow; likewise they are so used to our presence, so confident in their numbers and time-honoured prominence on our landscape, that they seem blithely unconcerned by us. For Seamus Heaney, something in the cautious, ponderous, guarded but resolute blackbird was a mirror of his own uncertain self, his own human reserve, and demonstrative of a fleetingly transfigured but innate kinship:
The automatic lock
Clunks shut, the blackbird’s panic
Is shortlived, for a second
I’ve a bird’s eye view of myself

The higher reaches of the Valley are characterized by hardiness - by stoical heathers, rough hill scrub, rabbit paths wedged into millstone grit. Acid soils promote Ericas and other dwarf-shrubs, which feed the larvae of many lepidoptera. In turn, caterpillars - along with the ants and beetles that thrive on sandstone and acidic soils, are taken by many birds feeding up at the onset of the winter, such as the wrens sprinkled like skittering mice among the tree trunks. Although not as often seen as some, owing to its small size and shy, nimble nature, the wren - Troglodytes troglodytes - is actually Britain’s most numerous bird, with some 8,600,000 pairs breeding annually, mostly in deciduous woodlands and moors, making the Ryburn Valley an excellent location. Small, scurrying, and an obvious target for rats and other predators, wrens nevertheless possess something of the toughness that the winter moorscape ruggedly implies. The poor wren, says Lady Macbeth, trying to rouse her husband into violence, the most diminutive of birds, will fight, Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.
Wordsworth, examining the unassuming creatures’ nesting habits, wrote how:
AMONG the dwellings framed by birds
In field or forest with nice care,
Is none that with the little Wren's
In snugness may compare.

No door the tenement requires,
And seldom needs a laboured roof;
Yet is it to the fiercest sun
Impervious, and storm-proof.

So warm, so beautiful withal,
In perfect fitness for its aim,
That to the Kind by special grace
Their instinct surely came.

And when for their abodes they seek
An opportune recess,
The hermit has no finer eye
For shadowy quietness.

 

They are principally ground-dwelling, their dome-shaped nests at the bases of trees, within easy reach of a largely insectivorous diet. Worms and arthropods are firm favourites, and at times the wren will branch out into spiders. Berries, seeds and even amphibians might feature also, and some birds have even been observed to venture into water to find fish.

Water is, of course, another of our region’s dominant elements. Not only is the valley cleaved by the river to which it owes its name, but it is glistening with canals and reservoirs imbruing the surrounding prospects like the branches of a tree. Dippers bounce upon the cold blue surfaces, gulls swoop and squawk along the lapping shores and skirt the borders of the motorway. 

 



 Further towards town, the geese are veteran residents. Flocking on the banks and nesting under the bridge, they are part of the furniture, sometimes waddling over roads and halt the traffic on the way to Ripponden. Canada geese soar overhead, or dip and dodge their ways across the stony streams at Sowerby and Luddenden.



The water birds, including mergansers, muscovies and cormorants, live among each other quite peaceably, and considering the area’s biodiversity, with different animal communities often living in fairly close proximity. 

 

 


Avian life is both adaptable and beneficial to the wider eco-system. In fields of cows and sheep, a stonechat may be seen, perched atop a fence-post or flitting between trees; fieldfares will crowd the telegraph wires. Mammals fertilize the soil and embed seeds; flies which could impede their health are eaten by the birds.You will also come effortlessly across more well-known birds like sparrows, dunnocks, bullfinches and bluetits.



One late autumn morning, just south of the Ryburn, I watched a kestrel circling a field, narrowing its movements into an almost stock-still hover, until it hung with silent menace twenty feet above the ground. Eventually, the bird descended. A kestrel will dispatch with merciful rapidity, diving in to snatch rodents and invertebrates, occasionally reptiles and spiders. Those seen here are Falco tinnunculus, and must consume the equivalent of around six voles each day to live. Every day is a struggle to survive, and yet the falcon I saw, suspended in air like a gun waiting to be fired, seemed stylishly lethal. It hunted with poise and deadly elegance. Yet an injured bird will seem vulnerable, and tame. In his 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave, Barnsley-born author Barry Hines depicts the juvenile world of Yorkshire schoolboy Billy Casper, whose lonely life is briefly illuminated by the presence of a hawk. Early in the book, we follow Billy into the barn where he has been nursing the bird, feeding her and confiding about home:
Rufous brown, Flecked breast, dark bars across her back and wings. Wings pointed, crossed over her rump and barred tail. Billy clicked his tongue, and chanted softly, 'Kes, Kes, Kes, Kes.' The hawk looked at him and listened, her fine head held high on strong shoulders, her brown eyes round and alert.
'Did you hear her, Kes, making her mouth again?...Gobby old cow. Do this, do that, I've to do everything in this house...Well they can shit. I'm fed up o' being chased about...There's allus somebody after me.'
Hines’ novel is an important examination of relationships between human and non-human, stretching deeper than the practical, the everyday: it is through the wordless kestrel that the schoolboy is able to communicate, not only with the world around him, but with himself. Across intangible barriers, an inner language is uncovered, new perceptions dawn. The stoical mystery of the hawks, their medieval triumph and aerial invincibility, lend to it the stuff of legend, of heroism, of a Biblical magnificence. It is hardly surprising that, almost a century before Billy’s journey of self-discovery, Gerard Manley Hopkins was to write:
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! . . .


The valley is a microcosm of symbiosis and natural cycles, and not only in terms of animal interaction and predation. Plant life, also, is enhanced by the presence of our winter visitors. In the lower reaches of the valley, where hillsides splay out into factory forecourts and delivery yards, where the railway tracks are interspersed with wildflowers, and where canal boats bob beside the towpath overhung with mistletoe, rosehips and winter jasmine, you are likely to encounter finches, slotting in and out of bushes and berry-bearing trees. Prolific seed-dispersers, these glossy little birds brighten up a dark afternoon like confectionery, dancing between rowan trees and roses. Greenfinches are the most regular, and even when the birds elusively slip through trees beyond the eye, their twittery song is a winter serenade. Says the poet Francis Duggan,
I know the singer of the song though him I cannot see
His voice I knew in my younger years lives in my memory
The green he wears it blends in well with the foliage of the blackwood tree
The Ryburn Valley is a haven for winter birds. A walk along the canal may present you with a rich and colourful gallery of birds, from shy and surreptitious wrens, to water birds and ducks, from sleek, split-second predators, to soft, ethereal flutters of dazzling colour, like airy messengers of spring.


February 2014 (* - Denise Bennett: Green Woodpecker, Equinox poetry journal March 2005)

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