Friday 14 September 2012

Yet more Swale watching

The Monday of our stay in Swaledale was wetter than Wetty, the wet thing.

On bath night.

We drove across to Lancashire to visit the RSPB reserve at Leighton Moss. I had called in here the previous month when returning from Scotland, so thought a more leisurely visit would fill a damp day, skittering from cafe to hide to cafe to hide to cafe. And so we did.

We didn't see much in the way of spectacular birdage, but our waterproofs had a fantastic time, thanks.

The drive back was fairly special. Having had a whole day to practise raining, the clouds had really got the hang of it by evening, and were keen to impress. As we toured across the top of Ribblesdale and over to Wensleydale, the amount of water pouring off the hills was phenomenal. By the time we dropped down into Hawes, the River Ure was close to bursting its banks. Oddly, the water levels just over the next hill and into Swaledale were very modest, so there was no flooding on our doorstep.

We were glad of this the next morning as we wandered down to the Swale, for another attempt at finding Dippers. The sun was out, the air was fresh and Life felt gre... Wow! Look! Dippers!

Out in mid-stream, two Dippers were seemingly interacting with each other. Whether they were a breeding pair, I don't know, but other Dippers we saw were probably juvenile, their plumage not as well-defined.

They are dapper chaps, bobbing about (hence the name) and plunging into the flow to look for invertebrates amongst the pebbles on the river bottom.

There were some Pied Wagtails around too. This one could well have been a juvenile, with its much greyer plumage.

The plan for the day was a leisurely walk from the village of Muker, along the north bank of the Swale, crossing the river just below Keld and a return trip through the fields along the south bank.

We parked in Muker and bought sandwiches for lunch at the local shop. Whilst Our Lass paid a visit to the public convenience built beside the river, I idly scanned the vegetation on the bank, in the vain hope of spotting a dragon roosting in a patch of sun. Not a chance. However, a Kingfisher did put in a brief appearance, the only one I saw all week. It was a bit of a shame Our Lass missed it!

We set off through the small fields on the valley floor. Each one populated by its own stone barn.

Known locally as 'laithes', these late 18th or early 19th Century buildings housed cattle and the hay to feed them during the Winter. The muck collected inside was spread on the surrounding meadows in the Spring to nourish the next hay crop.

The field boundaries were all dry stone walls, and where the path crossed one, there would be an incredibly narrow gap to squeeze through. At least, we found them incredibly narrow!

Soon we were walking beside the River Swale, and living up to her billing as the ultimate wildlife good luck totem, Our Lass spotted our first dragon of the trip (it was four days into the holiday and I was having withdrawal symptoms). We watched it for several minutes, as it foraged over the vegetation, before it landed on a rock to bask and allowed us a closer look. A female Common Hawker, with narrow, reduced antehumeral stripes on top of the thorax and a yellow costa (leading edge) to each wing.

As Summer cools towards Autumn, each consecutive dragon sighting becomes that bit more special to me, knowing that their time is short and soon the year will be bereft of their vivid colours, the clatter of delicate wings and their hypnotic aerial mastery.


After a few miles, we found a sunny spot for lunch, on a slight rise as the path climbed the hillside. We could gaze right and left, up and down stream and across the valley to the hill known as Kisdon.

Looking downstream in upper Swaledale, the lower slopes of Kisdon on the right
Several hours later, we ambled, much more slowly, through the fields in the middle distance in the above photo. We met a couple walking in the opposite direction, who, noticing Very Wrong Len, asked what he was used for... 


"Dragons," quoth I, "but we've only seen one all day."

They then commented how they had seen one earlier too, and described the exact location where we had seen Mrs Common Hawker that morning.

She was obviously Upper Swaledale's most popular insect that day!

We finally made it back to Muker, where Our Lass stopped outside the Farmer's Arms pub and proclaimed that she wasn't walking another step. We struck a deal. As well as my own gear, I would carry her rucksack, walking poles and binoculars back to the car, whilst she would carry my wallet to the bar and purchase two pints of local ale. But only drink one of them before I returned, hopefully.


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