I'm lucky enough to live 2.5 miles from my workplace, and I can walk there along National Cycle Route 66 – the Aire Valley Towpath. The first half mile is built up, and there's a noisy, smelly road to endure, but then I step away from the traffic onto the canal towpath and into nature. It matters to me that I do what I can to keep my carbon footprint low to protect the nature that I love. The RSPB is doing its bit too - Show the Love.
Over the course of the year, I can watch the seasons change. Right now I'm seeing buds appear on the trees and the birds are starting to think about nesting. Goosanders have been on the canal since November, and are now paired up. Pretty soon they will disappear to nesting sites on rivers further north, and I will look forward to their return again in November.
Pair of goosanders
I've named the first section of my walk "The Bird Zone". At this time of year birdsong starts to build, lifting my spirits as the sound of traffic fades. Along here I see and hear goldcrests, chaffinches, bullfinches, blue tits and great tits, wrens and goldfinches. In the water – in the summer – I see tench and pike, perch and roach.
The next section, below Spring Garden Lock, is nicknamed Moorhen Meander. It isn't strictly a meander, but it works for me. There is usually a pair of moorhens along here. A couple of years ago, they raised three broods among the reeds. That aren't the prettiest of babies.
I get my chicks on Route 66.
I often see a kingfisher on this section, perched on a branch across the canal, watching the water. Sometimes there's a grey heron here too. Fishing must be good!
A liitle further on, I reach Bream Bottom. This sheltered corner of the canal is home to a small shoal of bream that can easily be seen on a bright day when the sunlight penetrates the still water. There is a busy population of blue tits in the trees here, and some of the residents in the flats that overlook the canal put out feeders on their balconies, a great boost for the birds here. There are greenfinches, robins, chiffchaffs, great tits, blackbirds and dunnocks aplenty in the bushes and trees here.
Beyond the bridge, round the next bend, is Goldfinch Alley. It's no more an alley than Moorhen Meander is a meander, but there are always plenty of goldfinches! There's often a flock of long tailed tits, and I've seen blackcaps here, singing from the top of the hawthorns. At the moment the local song thrush is singing well, and a blackbird joins in when he can. Just last week, I saw this beautiful dunnock trilling among the catkins.
Dunnock among the catkins. Spring is upon us!
The mute swans are usually here, or hereabouts. The resident pair got together two years ago. In their first year they didn't manage to breed, but last year they succeeded in nesting over on the river. Of the four eggs that hatched, only one cygnet has survived to adulthood – and will soon be chased off to independence as the adults nest again. These swans get lots of attention from passers by, and are probably the most photographed birds in Leeds!
Nesting last spring
I'm in the city centre by now, and there's another road to negotiate, but there's one last treat before I arrive at the office. Along the river behind Asda House I often see cormorants, either fishing in the river or perched on top of the buildings opposite, drying their wings or just watching the world.
Cormorant drying its wings
The final bend in the river, between late March and September, provides a home to a small colony of sand martins. They nest in holes in the river wall. I love watching them swooping for insects over the river. I'm looking forward to the first ones arriving in the next few weeks!
Sand martin on its doorstep
Over the course of the year, I see so much on my commute. I haven't even mentioned the insects and the plant life. Every day is different. What might I see tomorrow?
Nature has always inspired creativity for me. From my first school poetry attempts describing seasonal changes, to university studies into natural plant dyes. I have always returned to wildlife for guidance and influence. In my growing connectivity to the RSPB and a beloved interest in the animals they protect, I have rekindled a joy for observational drawing and painting. Looking for details in different species to create a better likeness, is expanding my awareness and knowledge of the birds i see everyday and some i have yet to discover.
Watercolours can be hard to master, but anyone with a little time and a paintbrush can create (however abstract) some resemblance of a tree, a feather, an insect.
In the process of creating something that has come from the environment around us, we can hope to understand more the importance that they have in our lives and our connection to nature as a whole.
As I want to improve my skills more I will be continuing to study and spend more time around some of the ‘characters’ at the RSPB reserves, but for now I wanted to share with you a few of our star visitors, and then maybe can create some nature inspired art of your own.
kingfisher - alcedo atthis One of the most recognisable British birds you’ll spot at Fairburn Ings, or if you’re me, you’ll see a very striking flash of blue as it shoots past your vision and then disappears. Most often it can be seen when peeping through the kingfisher screen along Riverbank trail
willow tit - poecile montanus
This easily overlooked bird is on the RSPB red list after a decline of 95% in 20 years but at Fairburn Ings it can be spotted at the feeders right outside the visitors centre
Features - white/grey body, black head with light brown feathers
green woodpecker - picus viridis
Mostly sighted around Riverbank trail and Coal Tips trail, hunting for its favourite yellow meadow ants.
spoonbill - platalea leucorodia
Recently a more regular visitor, last year spoonbills bred at Fairburn Ings, the first successful breeding on an RSPB reserve and a first for Yorkshire. There was excitement all round to see the 3 baby ‘teaspoons’ Hopefully this year we may spot them again, especially after last year's success on the Moat and aptly named Spoonbill flash
magpie - pica pica
A usually common British bird with an intelligent and sometimes arrogant personality. I couldn't create the stars of Fairburn Ings without including the resident magpie Max, whom is well known for strutting freely around the visitor centre trying to steal everyone's lunch
We’d love to hear from you if you’ve had any artistic creations inspired from the reserves and the wildlife at home there.
Coming soon will be my collection of equally exciting stars from St Aidan’s reserve and more news and sightings from the Aire valley as a whole.
The sun shone for my visit to St Aidan’s this week. The place just sparkled!
I started my walk with a stroll along the Hillside. Great tits, blue tits and long tailed tits accompanied me as I crunched through the icy puddles, warming their voices ready for spring. The great tits are already practising their ‘teacher, teacher’ calls. Emerging from the still-bare trees I found a flock of greylag geese grazing in the field, but in between honks, the air was sprinkled with skylark song. Other reported Hillside & Pasture birds this week include pink-footed geese and fieldfares.
Unusually, this fieldfare was alone in a tree, behind the dragline
Carrying on down towards the reedbeds, I watched a carrion crow chasing a female marsh harrier away. She flew off towards Bowers lake for a bit of peaceful hunting. A male marsh harrier has been spotted this week too – along with red kites, a sparrowhawk and buzzards over Ridge & Furrow and the Visitor centre. Bowers currently features wigeon, teal and great crested grebes – and an occasional visit from a great white egret that has been sharing its time with Fairburn.
Female marsh harrier – RSPB Images: Ben Hall
Walking down towards the crossroads gave me views of reed buntings and stonechats. They didn’t seem to mind the work going on behind them to build a predator fence along the edge of the Ridge & Furrow. To my right the coots were starting to get noisy and territorial. They have quite spectacular fights at breeding time! A great crested grebe, developing breeding plumage, kept out of the way. I looked out for the kingfisher at the crossroads, but no luck for me today.
Great crested grebe, all dressed up and nowhere to go.
Continuing on along the Causeway, I noticed the male goldeneye is still single and showing off on Main lake. I hope he manages to find a mate soon, what with Valentine’s Day rapidly approaching!
Male goldeneye looking coy
On Lemonroyd, goosanders, shovelers, gadwalls and mute swans politely shared the water. Great crested grebes have been seen pairing off there, so it’s worth having a look to see if you can spot them doing their mating dance.
These mute swans on Main lake looked like love’s young dream – although an almighty clatter of wings alerted me to another swan who certainly didn’t want to share the space, as he chased off a potential rival. Other sightings on Main lake this week include curlew - listen out for them calling their own names, ringed and golden plover, pochard, pintail, shelduck, wigeon and teal, as well as oystercatchers and dunlin which are more commonly seen on the coast.
Down by Shan House Bridge and along the path towards Astley, siskins, redpolls, goldfinches and a variety of tits flitted through the trees, making the most of what seed there is left. Astley is currently home to coots and moorhens, gadwall and pochard and lapwings.
And so I headed back for a welcome cuppa at the Visitor centre. Spring is starting to push its way through. I noticed the very beginnings of the coming season’s pussy willow alongside the path.
A peep of pussy willow