It was certainly a relief to see the last of the snow and to be able to get out and about again. Not that I’ve been very far, but it’s surprising how much you can see within town if you keep your eyes open.
A brief walk along the Wharfe in Ilkley gave me a cheering view of a dipper fishing from a rock in midstream just by the swing bridge. Cheering – because this dark brown, robin-shaped bird with the distinctive white bib feeds entirely on invertebrates from the beds of streams and rivers and has, therefore, been in danger of starving as the waters froze. Also, dippers are a sure sign of the health of the river – and there it was, vigorously plunging in and out of the chilly torrent, unfazed by the constant passage of ramblers and dog-walkers across the bridge.
A mile or so upstream near the Old Bridge I spotted another water bird – this time behaving rather unusually. It was standing poised and motionless, but not by the water’s edge. This bird was in a small field and was staring intently at a bank atop of which is a thin hedge and then the road along which traffic and pedestrians were constantly passing. I crossed the field and walked along the road to its chosen bit of hedge. The heron tiptoed off a few paces, but soon returned to its former position – staring at the bank. It occurred to me that this bird too had probably suffered from the icing over of the river and changed its prey from fish to voles.
Indeed, during the bad weather at the beginning of last year a solitary bittern – a much rarer cousin of the grey that generally lives hidden from view in reed beds – appeared at the Otley Wetlands Reserve and survived for several weeks on the voles it caught there. Exciting news! This year – a bittern is there again, perhaps the same bird remembering last winter’s bounty.
And finally what must be the story of the year – and it happened on Christmas Day! One of our WNS friends and her husband were en route to Harrogate for Christmas lunch. They paused by the bridge in Otley to take some photographs of the frozen Wharfe. Under the bridge, a party of swans huddled together on a tiny bit of ice-free water – the rest was solid ice. A short way downstream where the weir crosses the river, a large tree stump is caught midway and, below this the current had maintained another area of unfrozen water. It was noon. As they stood looking at the scene an otter appeared over the shoulder of the stump. It slid into the water, swam and dived, and finally caught a fish. It then slithered across the ice to another bit of clear water and swam and dived there. They watched it entranced for twenty minutes before it lifted its head and shoulders out of the water, gave the on-lookers a long stare (almost like taking a bow, our friend said) and vanished. Wow!