Say what you like about bankers but their penchant for taking the occasional long weekend means that we’ve just returned from three very enjoyable days in the Peak District. Our base of operations was a cottage on the outskirts of Wirksworth (currently on the market for £1.25 million if you’re interested) and it goes without saying that we spent most of that time doing plenty of walking and birding. In fact things got off to a great start before we’d even arrived having spotted two Cuckoos whilst driving along the M50. The first bird was only seen in flight but the second sat on an overhead cable as we powered beneath. Not a bad way to spice up a long drive and probably my best views of this species for at least the last couple of years. As an added bonus there was also an incredible clarity of light throughout the evening resulting in visibility the likes of which I’ve rarely experienced. Views across the surrounding landscape spread for miles and even those landmarks at close quarters looked more vibrant and real than usual. A strange sensation that can really only be understood once experienced first hand.
With this being a Bank Holiday weekend the chances of such remarkable weather continuing were always unlikely and it was with no real surprise that we woke on Saturday to a resolutely overcast sky. It was nevertheless still bright and with the inviting shimmer of Carsington Water just a couple of fields away we set off to walk its nine mile perimeter. For those history buffs amongst you this was the last major reservoir constructed in the twentieth century, finally opening in 1992 after lengthy planning and construction delays. The most significant of these came in 1984 when the newly constructed dam partially collapsed leading to its complete removal and reconstruction from 1989 onwards! Thankfully it looks like it was a case of second time lucky and the intervening years have seen this inland sea become something of a wildlife hotspot. Indeed we’d only been alongside for a couple of minutes when we spotted this Reed Warbler singing, unusually, out in the open.
Keeping it company was at least one Sedge Warbler and a similarly vocal Whitethroat whilst the surrounding trees were full of singing Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers. Out on the water Tufted Ducks and plenty of Great Crested Grebes were about as varied as the waterfowl got but it was nice to see a couple of Oystercatchers and a Lapwing on one of several islands which dot the northern reaches. A couple of large hides were a nice surprise and if Ospreys decide to nest on one of the numerous posts supplied for that very purpose they will provide spectacular views indeed. Today though it was all about the commoner species with Reed Buntings, nesting Coots and even a pair of Barnacle Geese providing the main attractions.
In fact it wasn’t until we’d reached the visitor centre (an impressive and well appointed complex) that things really took off following an unusual call. Stopping to listen we soon picked up a male Tree Sparrow which then proceeded to lead us straight to the nest box in which its hungry young family were waiting. At least three tiny little mouths emerged to be fed and we got to enjoy both parents comings and goings at close range despite the number of cyclists speeding past.
Beneath the trees conditions were so dull that it was incredibly tricky to get anything sharp but I wanted to persevere as the setting was far more natural than the feeders where views of this rare bird are more regularly obtained. I think that added effort was worth it though I didn’t pass on the opportunity to get something a little closer on the feeders as well.
More to the point spending that extra time in the trees meant that we were in the right place at the right time to witness two male Redstarts battling beak and claw less than a couple of metres behind us. Neither stuck around for more than a couple of seconds but they are always a pleasure to see. I did however think that a similar fate was going to afflict the Barnacle Geese when one of the pair took flight just as we arrived within reasonable viewing distance. Thankfully the second individual seemed a little more settled and was happy to pose in the murk.
Another unexpected find came in the shape of this Rabbit kitten which came crawling out of its burrow right next to where we were stood. Despite placing it back inside on several occasions it still seemed intent on making a break for freedom, an exceedingly unwise course of action given its clear vulnerability to predators. Eventually it ran out of energy so fingers crossed the mother came back to sort things out before it was too late.
With plenty of day trippers about the House Sparrows were busy rounding up crumbs and also taking advantage of a plentiful supply of spiders. Some clearly had young to be fed but I was puzzled by one individual which seemed to be exhibiting begging behaviour in my direction. With wings fluttering I couldn’t work out if it was trying to illicit a free handout or if it was just a warning to keep my distance.
Pushing on I may have crossed the dam with a little more wariness had I been aware of its chequered history at the time but instead was left to marvel at its sheer size. Both length and girth are very much on the large side, the latter due in no small part to that earlier collapse. Better safe than sorry I suppose. Unfortunately it proved hard to photograph from the ground but did provide a good vantage point from which we saw seven Turnstones and another four Barnacle Geese, two of which had small goslings with them.
The remaining four miles or so took us through a good combination of woodland and meadows though it was only when the sun finally broke through that we saw our first butterflies of the day. Orange-tip, Green-veined White and Speckled Wood were the main culprits whilst a chorus of Whitethroats and Willow Warblers continued to prevail. I should also mention the flowers that, as with elsewhere this month, offered an absolute riot of colour. I wont go into too much detail for fear of exposing my lack of knowledge in this area yet further but couldn’t resist sharing this almost perfect glade of Bluebells leading down to the waters edge.
Back at the house we could definitely feel the effects of having covered so many miles on hard surfaces but at least we had Eurovision to look forward to. The less said about Britain’s entry this year the better I think.