Nature Notes

By Denis O’Connor

Wharfedale Naturalists Society


OF the small number of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s 97 reserves that I have visited so far my favourite is Staveley, between Knaresborough and Boroughbridge, with its mixture of woodland, scrub, reedbeds and lagoons rather like an expanded version of Otley Wetland Nature Reserve but with the added advantage of several hides. One of these, a hexagonal structure built around straw bales and with massive picture windows is brilliant for sitting in comfort to watch a constantly changing panorama of ducks, geese and waders.

Like many great nature reserves one of its charms is its lack of predictability so that on an early December visit my son and I perused the lagoons in vain for the trio of otters we had watched for an hour in September, uselessly scanned the trees where at least three long-eared owls had roosted last winter and fruitlessly stayed until dusk hoping for a glimpse of the barn owl that had suddenly risen in front of us on a visit last year.

However, it did deliver an unexpected bonus from one of the smaller hides that overlooks reedbeds, channels and a selection of bird feeders which were attracting a constant stream of tree sparrows, goldfinches, greenfinches, great and blue tits while below them pheasants, taking refuge from the slaughter we could hear taking place in woods not far off, were hoovering up the scraps.

Creeping from the reeds into the same area were two of the reedbeds most inconspicuous residents, water rails (pictured), a species much more easily heard than seen and with a vocabulary of pig-like grunts, groans and squeals as well as staccato calls reminiscent of a moorhen and even whinnying trills like a dabchick, all very confusing.

Here the fallen seed was tempting them into the open for they are opportunistic feeders with a diet including small aquatic animals from insects to fish as well as seeds, berries and plant roots. In cold weather, with reedbeds frozen, they are more likely to venture into the open and have been known to turn to predation of larger creatures such as wrens, reed buntings and small rodents, dispatched after a swift dash and stab of the long bill.

On that visit the big hide also produced memorable moments including a kingfisher diving from a succession of perches directly in front of us and a manic stoat dashing from tussock to tussock and occasionally rearing on to hind legs to scan for an unwary grazing rabbit.