Monday, 28 December 2009

A Cormorant for Christmas


On a journey along the Standon Lane earlier this afternoon, a large black bird sitting high in an old oak by the lane caught my eye. As we came closer I was surprised to see that it was a cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo . Cormorants are no great rarity in the area - we have high populations in the Greater Lee Valley, along the chain of lakes that lead north from London at Rye House, Amwell and on the flood plain at Ware. However it is quite unusual to see one in the Rib Valley, or at the very least a first for me. The bird sat overlooking the fishing lake by Standon Lordship where no doubt it had been feeding earlier.
 

Saturday, 19 December 2009

A 'Snow Day' in Barwick


By accident of geography and climate, snow in North East Hertfordshire is somewhat of a rarity and therefore something that isn't coped with particularly well by south-east England's commuting public and their public services. In the last 10 years a day or two's snow a year might be typical but by no means guaranteed and even then we are not talking 'proper snow', just an inch or two, a depth of fall that is usually enough to cause complete and utter chaos.

Take the legendary snowfall at the end of January 2003 when 80mm (3 inches, for heaven's sake!) of snow fell, starting in the early afternoon. Such was the country's inability to cope, that thousands were trapped on the M11 overnight as the un-gritted roads became sheet ice and even local traffic became grid-locked. My own story involved a trip from Welwyn to home in Barwick which is a distance of 12 miles and no more than 25 minutes on a normal day. With snow starting to fall at 3.30 in the afternoon I had departed the office before 4pm, eventually arriving home at 11.30!


Ever since, when snow is significant enough to cover the ground, I have taken the decision to stay at home. Our rural location and un-gritted lanes are enough of an excuse to not struggle into a chilly office but instead enjoy the the beauty of the snow covered landscape around my home or indulge in a bit of sledging with the kids.

Today was a Snow Day. Last night the flakes started to fall, driven into a blizzard by strong winds as we sat in Standon's 11th Century Church at our daughter's school carol concert. By this morning the wind had dropped and the sky was blue, the land coated with a couple of inches of pure brilliant white icing. Togs on and camera in hand I headed out to explore the morning and took an extended walk around the bounds of the village, hoping for a wildlife encounter or two.
 The road was iced over so I quickly sought the safety of the snow and headed into the field and up to the Badger's Eye Plantation, taking in the snow covered panaroma to my north and east. As I came towards the corner a buzzard lifted before me from its look out on an oak tree, sweeping away and around the top of the wood. I followed its path and reaching the top myself, headed into the plantation and between the snow caked trees. A hare spooked in front of me and headed for the wood margin. Again I followed and broke through to fields to the west, still in shadow from the morning sun. Descending the gentle hill on the tree line I looked back to see my hare break from the undergrowth and stride across the snowfield at pace.

I'd reached the bottom now and walked with a flock of tits as it moved from tree to tree along the lane, tssk-tssk accompanying the soft crunch of my footfall. Crossing the lane I now followed another hedge line north adjacent to Plashes Wood, making height away from the valley and feeling the cold nip on my cheeks. I was heading now for the newly dug pond that I had discovered yesterday that will be a focus of attention in coming months as the bare ground is colonised by the local flora and a new habitat is created in the local wildlife landscape.

The shadows of trees patterned the snow on the pristene white field and as I paused I noticed another buzzard, again keeping sentinel on a large oak tree. It launched from its branch and beat its large wings to gain motion, turning in a short arc and away across the field below me.

I turned away, just in time to see a kestrel skim low across my eyeline, its scimitar wings catching the sun, the shades of brown, cream and slate grey of its plummage vibrant in the sharp air. I crept on through the snow, next coming across a muntjac deer tiptoeing across the field's corner on the otherside of the hedge. As I followed it headed into the wood, accompanied by a male pheasant, both disappearing amongst the dusted trees. I was now approaching Hanging Wood with its badger sett and earthworks that lead back down to the River Rib below. A new path has been cut behind the tree-line in recent months, set neatly to the width of a Land Rover, and this provided an easy, cloistered walk down the escarpment.


At the bottom, four fallow deer moved away from my sight, briefly pausing before descending the steep bank to the Standon Lane. A calling nuthatch caught my ear and I spied it spotlighted in the smallest of clearings below the stand of Scotts Pines that rise high in the skyline, dominating the lower reaches of the wood and above the meandering lane and stream towards Latchford.

The final leg of my circuit now, down the lane into Barwick, drawn by the warmth of the Rayburn and the prospect of an afternoon watching the cricket from South Africa on the well padded comfort of the sofa. I like Snow Days.