An unscheduled halt beside the site of long-gone industrial works near Helperby/Brafferton not far from Boroughbridge, produced some unexpected sights.
The former industrial site is now filled with water and attracts fisher-people but also a marvellous range of water fowl and other wild birds. I’m sure the surrounding vegetation also harbours various species of wild animals, but we did not see any, not even a startled rabbit, a grey squirrel or skulking vole.
Birds live on or near the lake, with many others finding refuge in the neighbouring trees and surrounding countryside. This is in spite of express trains thundering past every few minutes on the nearby main London-Edinburgh line plus a fairly busy road that passes the entrance.
None of this noise or swiftly moving traffic seems to worry the birds even though an express train thundering past renders normal conversation be-tween humans momentarily impossible. Despite this, we noticed several fish-ermen enduring the turbulence but enjoying the blissful silences as they sit in wait for their catches – the thundering trains did not disturb them either!
Upon arrival we were greeted by a pair of Canada Geese who hissed warnings not to get too close to their two handsome goslings. The small fami-ly was standing on a lakeside path so we simply halted and waited for them to realise we did not intend any harm. After a few seconds, the geese turned away and we continued our walk.
Canada Geese are widespread in England, Scotland and Wales as well as some parts of Northern Ireland. They are easily recognized by their light-brown body plumage along with a paler chest and a large white patch under the tail. Their black head and neck with a distinctive white chin provide an easy and useful confirmation of their identity, and their beaks, feet and legs are also black.
In some areas, they roost in huge flocks on rivers, lakes and mud banks but those were the only Canada Geese we noticed that day. As we continued our visit, the geese waddled down a narrow path towards the edge of the water but we never saw them again. They must have vanished into the tall lakeside reeds or taken refuge on their nest.
Almost immediately I noticed a duck swimming on the lake but I did not immediately recognize it. My first thought was that it might be one of the many variations of the mallard family, perhaps a domesticated version of the wild variety. However, closer inspection suggested this was not the case for I felt the bird was rather larger than the average mallard and its colouring was quite different albeit very distinctive.
As it was swimming, I could not see the entire bird but its under-parts appeared to be white with a white breast and white lower neck. There was al-so a white patch on the face near the base of the beak, but its upper parts, neck and head were a pleasing light grey colour.
I was baffled and realised I needed guidance from one of my reference books which, of course, I did not have with me. A small hand book of birds which we keep in our car boot did not help, so I had to wait until we returned home. Then I found the answer in the RSPB Handbook of British Birds (co-authored by a friend of ours).
I concluded that it was a juvenile Shelduck but I could not see its parents on the water. This youngster, who seemed to be entirely alone, had none of the striking colours of an adult and it was swimming very close to the shore where we were standing. I wondered whether it was accustomed to humans, in the form of fishermen, being present on its home territory.
Above the water, a flock of goldfinches was busy in the surrounding trees. Known as a charm of goldfinches when in such a group, they twittered and chattered in the trees, not disturbed by our presence but going about their day-to-day business of living and seeking food. Goldfinches are probably the most colourful of our finch family. They have a red patch around the beak, with white surrounds and then a black headband.
The body feathers contain a good deal of yellow which can appear as gold when viewed from a distance or when seen among foliage in bright sun-shine. When in flight, the rear edges of the wings are black with more black patches on the forewings which is interspersed with gold/yellow in the centres.
When groups or charms of goldfinches are in the vicinity their presence is often revealed by their pretty and delicate song,. This is often heard when the charm, as a group, flit from tree to tree, or bush to bush.
Surprising, this colourful and handsome bird is not a rarity but can be found in most parts of this country except perhaps the most northern parts of the Scottish Highlands. Charms of goldfinches will often visit parks and gar-dens in their search for food which is usually seeds gathered from a range of plants, both wild and cultivated. In summer, however, they will eat insects and other invertebrates and I am told they are also known to visit bird feeders especially if nyjer seeds are offered.
Another bird that was present in the trees and shrubs around that mod-est lake was the chiff-chaff, or to be truthful there were several. This member of the warbler family is a summer visitor to our islands but it is so like the wil-low warbler in appearance that these two are frequently mistaken for one an-other. Both have soft greenish-grey or greenish-brown upper plumage and a pale eye stripe.
However, there are two means of deciding which is which. They are very small birds, often compared by size to the blue tit, but the chiff-chaff is usually identified by its repetitive and loud call of chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff. The song of the willow warbler was once described to me as rather like a sixpence piece spinning on a plate, and being allowed to run down. Quite different from chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff.
The other means of identification is the colour of their legs. Those of the chiff-chaff are very dark, sometimes looking almost black but those of the willow warbler are very light brown. In both cases, the birds are difficult to spot among foliage and it is usually their songs that reveal their presence.
And as I compile these notes, I have not yet heard a cuckoo this year.
A few summers ago on a hot and sunny day, I was walking on the North York Moors with my son-in-law when he suddenly stopped and asked what the curious sounds were; popping noises were all around us.
They came from the pea-like black pods in a patch of dozens of gorse bushes. In the heat, they were exploding to throw tiny seeds all over the place and so the new addition to our family learned something about our curious moorland plant-life.