One of my favourite nature activities during the final two months of the year is an amble along the banks of the river Wharfe, starting from either Otley or Ilkley town centre. Within minutes it is possible to escape the busy streets, join a riverside path and start making wildlife observations.
This year the autumn display of the riverside trees has lasted well into November. Dramatic reflections can still be seen in the river on sunny days, as a myriad of colours, textures and forms are picked out from the opposite bank.
Many bird species are now active in the canopy, one of the most conspicuous and confiding being the cute-as-a-button long-tailed tit. Gangs of these little gems – with their distinctive pink, white and black plumage and unfeasibly elongated tail feathers – make their way along the riverbank, searching for tiny insects and calling softly as they travel.
Occasionally, it is possible to pick out an even smaller bird among the flock, with a predominantly yellow-brown hue. If you are lucky, this diminutive member of the kinglet family will venture close enough for you to see the striking, yellow head-stripe that gives the goldcrest its name. It is the smallest of all British birds, measuring a mere three and a half inches from beak to tail.
Attention is inevitably drawn to the river Wharfe, which reveals itself in a variety of forms according to the underlying topography. In some places the water glides silently along on its journey to the North Sea; elsewhere it babbles over rock and shingle, creating a distinctive sound that has a comforting quality.
The more turbulent stretches of the river are favoured by insect-eating birds such as grey wagtails and dippers, specialists in locating flying insects and their larvae among the rocks and pebbles. The dipper even ventures under the water to find food on the bed of the river.
The highlight of any riverside stroll, however, is a sighting of that most elusive of waterbirds, the kingfisher. This species is actually best located by its voice – a high-pitched, drawn-out piping note which gives advance notice that an electric blue missile is about to pass by. Occasionally, if you keep very still, a kingfisher will alight on a waterside branch and allow you a closer look at its iridescent feathers, as it peers into the water below in the hope of spotting its next meal.