It’s 8.00am on a fine May morning and a small group of Wharfedale Naturalists are gathered at Lindley Reservoir in the Washburn Valley to take a ramble upstream to Dob Park, enjoying the birdsong and anything else interesting that turns up as we go. As we set off, the water in the reservoir is absolutely calm reflecting the surrounding trees and hills in a perfect photo-opportunity; a few minutes later, a breeze gets up and the spell is broken.
Our route is particularly good for birds and flowers, and it’s useful to have in our company several experts on both. As a child, I learned to recognise and name stitchwort and violets, and these names have sufficed – until now. This morning I learn to tell the difference between greater stitchwort – the starry white flower with petals in half-joined pairs and shorter green sepals and the lesser stitchwort which blooms a little later and has smaller flowers and equally long sepals. I also discover that my ‘violet’ is in fact common dog violet, the spur behind the flower being pale and notched, unlike the wood violet with darker unnotched spur. I feel rather smug at having doubled my botanical knowledge with very little effort!
Meanwhile the birdsong is wonderful: the newly arrived warblers are all vigourously proclaiming their territorial rights, and we pause often to recognise chiffchaff, willow warbler, blackcap and garden warbler. The last two are sometimes difficult to distinguish – the blackcap having a shorter burst of song which rises to a crescendo of musical excitement and the garden warbler a more sustained and level song, often tantalisingly delivered from mid-bush. As the season progresses, identification becomes even trickier as the two birds sometimes copy bits of each other’s repetoire, but this morning we are all confident.
We watch a pair of great-crested grebe patrolling the water together. These handsome birds always nest here but the artificial rise and fall in the water levels cause their nests to be constantly under threat of swamping or being left high and dry. One year six nests at different points along the waterside bore sad witness to their persistence in the face of repeated failure and, one might say, their inability to learn from experience. No sign today of the usual waders like sandpiper and ringed plover – perhaps the water level is too high.
As we leave the reservoir and begin to follow the pretty tree-fringed river, someone picks out the rather understated song of a redstart and we scan the trees to try and discover the singer. The male redstart is a handsome bird with grey back, orange chest, a dramatic black mask and a long tail the underside of which is a rusty red. As he perches on a high twig or bare branch to sing he quivers this fine tail to give a shimmer of colour which the browner female no doubt finds irresistible. The Washburn is a good location to see these birds but they are also displaying now along the Wharfe; Strid Woods is another good place to find them.
Talking of song – I had an email from one of our members to say he heard a cuckoo on Ilkley Moor on 24th April. I wonder if any of our readers can beat that.