Will our wildlife weatherthe storms?

FLYING VISIT? A peregrine falcon, like this one pictured on a ledge at Malham Cove, seems to have spent an afternoon in the garden

FLYING VISIT? A peregrine falcon, like this one pictured on a ledge at Malham Cove, seems to have spent an afternoon in the garden

First published in Countryman's Diary by

AS I compile these notes, two weeks or so ahead of publication and shortly before the end of 2012, the surrounding countryside remains saturated following constant rain. The ground is waterlogged so there is nowhere for the water to drain away. To add to the problems, many land and road drains are blocked.

Rivers and streams are full to overflowing and even short excursions from our village reveal flat, low-lying fields that look like miniature lakes, several now supporting a variety of aquatic bird life. I’ve seen farms and other buildings surrounded by water.

Here and there in my part of the countryside, springs have emerged from the ground to create miniature waterfalls down some local hillsides while the general news from around the country is that many houses, roads, villages and towns are still coping with floodwater after several days.

Our thoughts and prayers go to those who remain affected in this way; some communities having been dangerously flooded.

Because this column chronicles country life, I am wondering just what effect, whether temporary or permanent, all this water has had upon our wild creatures. There can be no doubt that some have lost their homes and even entire territories, and it follows they would have had difficulty finding food and shelter. If a wild creature cannot find such necessities, it simply moves to another location – but such locations must have been difficult to find in our waterlogged countryside. As I pen these notes, however, the situation might have improved but I dare not try to forecast the weather.

In wondering how, say, our wild birds have coped, I have noticed an increased number of visitors to our bird feeders. Our three feeders have been constantly busy during the previous weeks – busier than usual, I would suggest. We’ve had the usual garden birds but other visitors have included a cock pheasant, wood pigeons, collared doves and a flock of nine long-tailed tits.

A robin has learned how to cope with the seed feeder, and blackbirds have been more numerous – but there is no sign of a thrush or a starling, nor indeed of winter visitors such as redwing or fieldfare.

However, we have noticed other visitors who do not come to take the nuts and seeds. They come to take the little birds.

In pondering the impact of water standing in fields and woods, I wonder if the traditional feeding grounds of birds of prey such as the kestrel and sparrowhawk have now forced these predators to hunt elsewhere?

Both species have been paying rather more attention than usual to our garden with its bird feeders – are we providing a happy hunting ground for predators by encouraging their prey to come here to feed?

But we’ve not merely had sparrowhawks visiting us or kestrels hovering overhead.

Not long ago, a patrolling raven passed over our house but he did not call and, likewise, we have witnessed frequent flights by buzzards who appear to be quartering the landscape but to my knowledge none has attempted to take small birds from our garden feeders.

Certainly, buzzards are more plentiful hereabouts than they were some ten or 15 years ago.

Among the rarer birds of prey, a goshawk once paid a visit and sat on our garden wall long enough for me to find my binoculars and a reference book, just to be sure what I was looking it. It remained for about 20 minutes and a neighbour who had popped in for a cup of tea, also watched this astonishing visitor who seemed quite content to remain there for a few minutes.

On one occasion only a few weeks ago, I felt sure a male hen harrier passed overhead in a very leisurely manner but he did not call and so I cannot be totally sure of my identification – but less than a week before writing these notes, there was a sudden commotion among our garden birds.

They vanished in an instant and I did not know what had caused this.

Then, in the briefest of moments, I saw what appeared to be a wood pigeon apparently tumbling with a flurry of wings from our cherry tree. My sighting of this occurrence lasted only the tiniest fraction of a second but then the “pigeon” recovered and perched on the handle of our lawn roller. I then had a good view – but this was no pigeon. It was a middlesized handsome bird of prey and for a moment or two, I was unsure what I was seeing.

I wondered if the goshawk had paid a return visit, but soon rejected that in favour of a female sparrowhawk – the colouring appeared to be somewhat similar and I knew it was not a kestrel, but also too large to be a merlin. But it was too small to be a buzzard or kite.

Its distinctive grey back and white chin/throat suggested a hobby falcon but I have never seen one in this locality – but that white chin along with a distinctive white upper parts of its breast suggested something else. And then it was gone.

I am convinced it was a peregrine falcon. They are known to inhabit the Whitestone Cliffs near Sutton Bank which, for a bird blessed with such a fast flight, is only a matter of minutes away from where I live. The white chin and upper breast provided the clue, and its grey plumage may have led me to believe it was a wood pigeon in trouble. Thinking more, of course, a peregrine is quite capable of taking a pigeon and, thinking even further back, I have come across small discarded feathers near one of our bird feeders.

They looked like blue-tit feathers.

Peregrines are noted for their speed especially when diving. They can reach 180 miles an hour (290 kmh) and sometimes produce a whistling sound as they hurtle towards their prey below – I am always reminded of wartime bombs by such a noise. Such is the force of their impact upon their prey than they can break the back of even large birds in flight such as grouse, ducks or even geese.

This visitor did not remain long enough for me to get a very clear view or to take a photograph, but I suspect he or she will return. And I do know that a lot of householders in our village do place feeders in their gardens for visiting birds – but probably not intended to benefit of peregrine falcons.

My notes about Cod Beck and the derivation of its name (D&S Times Dec 14) have resulted in an interesting note from a reader living at Borrowby. He has always believed that the name Cod Beck is from the same source as Caldbeck in Cumbria, noted as the home of the huntsman, John Peel.

His Dictionary of Lake District Place Names suggests it comes from the Old Norse Kaldr Bekkr, meaning cold stream, and recorded as aquam de Caldbec in 1228.

He has encountered a similar name in Normandy, France, also once populated by Norse people. That town is Caudebec-en-Caux on the River Seine between Honfleur and Rouen.

However, my Place-names of the North Riding suggests Cod Beck was originally known as Cotesbec, becoming Codbek flu in 1577, cot referring to a house or hut, as in Cotterdale. To add fuel to the discussion, the same source suggests there was a river called Colebecke near Malton that later become Coldic (1154-63) and eventually Cowldyke. This was said to have meant a coalblack river. Not far away from the location of Cowldyke is the River Dove, which is also said to mean black.

So what is the true derivation of Cod Beck? It’s a good question.

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