This is the first of what will probably be a very occasional series of posts, mostly forming a lifelong, personal wildlife memoire. Sightings that are personally meaningful, or scientifically important or which simply have a fun story attached to their finding. One day it may merge with others into a collection in book form, but for now and the foreseeable future it’s some slightly longer-form writing about personal encounters with wildlife – animal or vegetable in nature. I hope you find it interesting, I believe it will at least be informative because I will be adding some “sciency” notes to the pictures and thoughts.
* Some faithful readers may have seen an earlier version of this tale a few years ago … this is much better.
ON NOT DIPPING A DIPPER
I have lived for almost twenty-five years just five minutes walk away from the banks of the 1200km long St-Lawrence River, one of the world’s “mighty” rivers which is already some two miles wide as it passes me on its way towards the Atlantic. This tale, however, is about a river at the other end of the scale of riverine things. One that I have known since I was five years old, or thereabouts. It’s also about my “first” life bird.
The River Barle is only 39 km long – that’s a mere 24 miles in English distances. A good day’s walk for a fit person. It twists and turns a lot and is never wider than the width of the average suburban main road. The whole river and the Barle Valley it defines have both been designated as biological Sites of Special Scientific Interest (more about this at the end of the article for those who like that sort of thing). It is a bit more than 15 years since I last saw it and that was on a visit to my very aged (she lived to 103) favourite Aunt who lived beside the river. There wasn’t much opportunity for wandering along the riverside and watching birds on that occasion.
The river rises 1400ft up on Exmoor in south-west England and ends about 1100ft lower when it joins the Little Exe River at the “Black Pool”. The Black Pool was a common destination for a walk when staying with relatives as a child and was believed to be bottomless which, of course, it was not but hence its name. Just a gentle confluence of two rather insignificant rivers.
Apart from its natural beauty, often running through ancient woodland, the Barle is famous for its salmon and trout fishing. We used to visit it along the stretch from Dulverton to Brushford when the fishing rights were owned by the Carnarvon Arms Hotel. Long ago the hotel closed and was converted to luxurious country apartments but back then it was filled with tweedy guests down for the fishing. In 2018 the fishing rights came up for sale at a price of around £250,000 … no mean sum as the purchaser didn’t actually get any land for his money, just the rights to cast a fly.
A lovely place indeed, but what about the bird?
My birding life-list started with the observation of a small brown bird on the Barle in August of, I believe, 1957. The other end of this life, anyway. This wonderful bird purely by chance became number one on a birding life list that even today is, to be honest, not nearly as lengthy as I might like – there have always always been flowers or an insects to distract me from the serious work of birding.
I was probably a horrible child. This is to be expected as, frankly, decades of observation of the species tell me that the default setting on children is to be at least a bit horrible and I see no reason to assume I was anything different in this respect. I grew up in a smoky, northern industrial city and spent 50 weeks of each year eagerly looking forward to the annual family holiday when we would visit my grandparents and the aunts who lived in a small village on the southern edge of Exmoor in the west country. The village is Brushford and it really is small. We went there every summer , usually in August. It remains one of the nicest places on the planet for me, at least in memory. No televisions or internet connections back then but I always enjoyed looking at wildlife and had made this interest well known in the family – as a consequence, during that 1957 holiday I was given a three volume paperback field guide to British birds to keep me quiet. A mistake.
Field guides were a rare thing back then and certainly were not the colourful books we have today. Undoubtedly, this set of blue, paperback books by James Fisher were far too advanced for even the brightest eight year old but I thought they were wonderful. Still do for that matter. I long ago lost the originals but with the aid of the internet and a second hand book dealer I have replaced them in my collection. The illustrations are black and white drawings, but of excellent quality, the text is informative and each bird description is accompanied by a feature I have never seen bettered. This was a circular diagram representing the twelve months of the year with areas marked off to indicate spring, arrival, mating, nesting, fledging of young, autumn migration and so on thus enabling the reader to know exactly what to expect and when. Brilliant books for a nerdy kid and I studied them intensely.
But reading only goes so far when you are full of energy, so inevitably came the moment when I informed by father that I wanted to go bird watching. My father was always keen to do things with me, but he was a chemical engineer and such people are generally deficient in knowledge of matters biological. Hence, although he agreed to take me “bird watching” the fact of the matter is that we neither of us knew what this actually involved other than, presumably, watching birds. We did everything wrong from today’s perspective – I recollect we set out in the middle of a hot August afternoon when few birds would be likely to be about and we had no binoculars, though I did take a notebook … being the sort of kid that took a notebook everywhere just in case, as you do.
A narrow lane ran from almost opposite the house , across some fields to a bridge over the River Barle where we could get down to the fields by the river and follow well worn footpaths. The Barle at this stretch joins in a mile or two with the River Exe at the (supposedly) bottomless ‘Black Pool’ and contained, as it still does, some famous salmon fishing opportunities that were jealously guarded by rich guys in tweed jackets. I think I remember that after much tramping along the footpaths we saw some ducks which I imagine were Mallards and we enjoyed Swallows overhead taking insects on the wing but I don’t think there was much else around. I wouldn’t expect there to have been but we were certainly not skilled observers so may well have missed several opportunities. We got tired, it was hot, my father was undoubtedly bored but I couldn’t help feeling there was probably more to this game than we had discovered and so we decided to stop in the shade of a riverside tree to see what came by before heading home for tea and cakes (isn’t this all terribly Famous Five and Enid Blyton?).
The Barle at this stretch runs rapidly over a stony and pebble filled bottom and is rarely more than a couple of feet deep, with rapid rills and occasional small pools that held brown trout. There were numerous larger stones sticking above the gin-clear water and there, on top of one of these, was a small brown bird bobbing up and down on its little legs. I can see myself thinking “well, it’s a bird but a pretty boring one and I have no idea of its name” when it suddenly hopped into the water and started walking about on the bottom of the river where I could clearly see it, trailing bubbles as it went. Up it popped onto its stone again and then back into the water. Out and back, out and back until it surfaced with a caddis fly larva in its beak and ate it with relish.
Utterly entrancing. Birds are supposed to fly, but this one walks under water. Sheer, unalloyed magic and if not quite the only thing I remember from those far distant days, certainly the most vivid and the most important.
Back home, a cup of tea, some cake and out came Mr Fisher’s field guide. The bird’s identity was nailed – we had been watching a White-throated, or European Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) doing what Dippers do, dipping.
A short digression here. Dipping is what birders say they have done if they have failed to see an expected bird. So to ‘dip a Dipper’ is to not see a Dipper where you expected or hoped to see one. Well, I had Not-dipped a Dipper and was a happy and contented child. Recently, I happened upon a short video of a Dipper (on YouTube, of course) that was filmed within a mile or so of the place where I saw “my” Dipper and was again, fascinated by this little brown bird. It is really a good thing to know that despite all that has happened to the world, these birds are still able to make a living along that stretch of water. One day I might go back and see for myself though I had better do it soon at my age.
One final thing. I thought I had seen the bird walking on the river bottom, but I now know that I had not as the laws of specific gravity and relative density apply to these birds as they do to anything else. In fact Dippers ‘fly’ under the water using their wing muscles and only occasionally gripping pebbles with their feet in order to remain submerged. Effective, anyway. To confound things even further, the bird’s name comes from its bobbing or dipping activity when standing on the riverbank, not from the dips it takes in the water.
From such small things does a career and a lifetime interest grow. “What do you want for Christmas?” “Animal books”. “What do you want for your birthday?” “Animal books”. “Where shall we go for the day?” “The countryside, up on the moors”. So here I am, over sixty years later, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology plus a few other letters after my name, past-President of Bird Protection Quebec and with enough spare time to put this down in a computer file knowing that few are likely to read it … but it pleases me to remember.
All children should be taken birding and helped to see what is around them. Every child who finds his or her “Dipper” cannot fail to care about such things for the rest of their lives and hopefully, be prepared to protect wild creatures and the places they live.
ON DIPPERS in general
There are five species of Dipper in the world but the one that is found in the United Kingdom is the White-throated Dipper, also known as the European Dipper or just “the” Dipper. Its scientific name is Cinclus cinclus. The specimen in the photograph below was encountered in heavy rain on the west coast of Scotland
The other species for you to look out for, because I know many readers are on other continents, are the Rufous-throated Dipper in the southern Andes of South America, the White-capped Dipper in the more northern Andes, the American Dipper in western North America, and the Brown Dipper in Asia. The famous John Muir wrote of the American Dipper that: “His music is that of the streams refined and spiritualized. The deep booming notes of the falls are in it, the trills of rapids, the gurgling of margin eddies, the low whispering of level reaches, and the sweet tinkle of separate drops oozing from the end of mosses and falling into tranquil pools.” That description would fit the European Dipper and its habitat quite well also.
The first detailed description I could find of the white-throated dipper, dates back to c.1183. Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis), a twelfth-century cleric, historian and traveller was an observer of wildlife alongside his more routine duties. He described the dipper accurately, but had a tendency to believe anything he was told and decided they were an aberrant variety of the common kingfisher.
The Dipper is no ordinary bird. Norway has made it their national bird. The Dipper, who spends most of its time on the ground near waterfalls, was thought in the past to be in close contact with the underlings, the fey folk living underground. These underlings were said to be hostile towards heavy-footed humans who tread on their homes. They thought that the Dipper could work with the underlings and so take revenge on anyone who disturbed their nest or young ones. Hence the Dipper was a bird who should be left alone and avoided at all cost.
RIVER BARLE – SITE OF SPECIAL SCIENTIFIC INTEREST
I mentioned at the beginning that the Barle is a designated SSSI within the Exmoor National Park. The following description from the Park authorities set out the reasons – really this is a special place.
The following is somewhat bio-technical … only continue if you are one of those people who like these details. Mostly it’s a list but as I like lists this is offered regardless – venture in at your own peril.
The Barle Valley contains extensive tracts of ancient upland Sessile Oak woodland which exhibit variations in structure and species composition as a result of difference in past management, geology and topography. There is a wide range of vascular plants including many ancient woodland indicators. The diversity of the site is increased substantially by areas of valley mire, heathland and acid grassland. The richness of lichens and bryophytes is of exceptional national importance and is significant internationally. There is also an outstanding assemblage of breeding woodland birds and high invertebrate interest including nationally vulnerable and scarce species.
The site lies on Devonian sandstones, siltstones and slates from the Pickwell Down Beds and Morte slates which have been deeply incised by the meandering course of the River Barle to form a valley of asymmetric profile. Steeply eroded slopes have thin soils with frequent rock outcrops and boulder scree while flat alluvial terraces have formed through deposition of river sediment in the narrow valley bottom. Soils are from the Manod series being well drained, fine, loamy or silty. The soils over sandstones are thin, leached and predominantly acid increasing in base status over shales, and in nutrients were flushed by river water. Woodland ranges in altitude between 150 and 300m on the valley slopes. These grade into heathland and grassland on Whiterocks Downs and Ashway Side which in turn rise to 360m. Annual precipitation reaches 1500mm.
The majority of woodland is dominated by Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea). This is predominantly of ancient origin and was formerly coppiced with some stands singled to grow on as high forest. Downy Birch Betula pubescens is abundant on the most acid soils over steep sandstone slopes. The field layer comprises highly calcifuge species such as Bilberry Vaccinium myrtillus and Wavy Hair-grass Deschampsia flexuosa. Holly Ilex aquifolium forms a sparse shrub layer in many stands of this type. The range of vascular plants is restricted but rich bryophyte communities thrive under these conditions. On the deeper soils of the lower slopes Oak occurs with Hazel Corylus avellana and occasional Rowan Sorbus aucuparia. The field layer is more diverse including Creeping Soft-grass Holcus mollis, Common Bent Argostis capillaris, Wood Sorrel Oxalis acetosella, Bracken Pteridium aquilinum, Bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta and Dryopteris species as local dominants. Frequent members of this community include Enchanter’s Nightshade Circaea lutetiana, Creeping Jenny Lysimachia nummularia and Common Cow-wheat Melampyrum pratense. Beech Fagus sylvatica has invaded this woodland type to varying degrees. Ash Fraxinus excelsior and Hazel become much more abundant over the base- rich shales.
The well developed shrub layer here includes Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna and Blackthorn Prunus spinosa. The field layer is much more diverse. Eighty five woodland vascular plant species have been recorded including thirty one ancient woodland indicators from a single compartment. Creeping Soft-grass, Dog’s Mercury Mercurialis perennis, Bluebell, Lesser Celandine Ranunculus ficaria and Common Dog- violet Viola riviniana are dominant members of the community. Species of note include Moschatel Adoxa moschatellina, Wood Anenome Anenome nemorosa, Pignut Conopodium majus, Climbing Corydalis Corydalis claviculata, Early-purple Orchid Orchis mascula, Greater Butterfly-orchid Plantanthera chlorantha, Sanicle Sanicula europaea and Meadow saxifrage Saxifraga granulata which is rare and local in Somerset.
Dense groves of Hazel form ribbons along the alluvial terraces with a field layer dominated by Great Wood-rush Luzula sylvatica and Greater Stitchwort Stellaria holostea. Small stands of Alder Alnus glutinosa occur on water-logged flushes with a ground flora of Tufted Hair-grass Deschampsia cespitosa, Greater Tussock-sedge Carex paniculata, Bog-moss Sphagnum spp and the moss Rhizomnium punctatum.
Acid grasslands scattered along slopes and in coombes are dominated by Common Bent and Crested Dog’s-tail Cynosurus cristatus. Frequent members of this community include Heath Bedstraw Galium saxatile, Common Sorrel Rumex acetosa and Ribwort Plantain Plantago lanceolata. The meadows are one of the few sites for Great Burnet Sanguisorba officinalis on Exmoor. Springs emerging from the base of sandstone slopes generate nutrient poor acid mires dominated by Sphagnum and Polytrichum moss carpets, containing a community of Marsh Pennywort Hydrocotyle vulgaris, Marsh Violet Viola palustris, Meadow Thistle Cirsium dissectum and locally, Bog Asphodel Narthecium ossifragum and Lemon-scented Fern Oreopteris limbosperma.
Ashway Side and Whiterocks Down support mosaics of acid grassland and heathland dominated by Purple Moor-grass Molinia caerulea and Heather Calluna vulgaris on the plateau, while Bracken dominates the slopes with Hawthorn and Gorse Ulex europaeus scrub scattered throughout. In wet areas Carnation Sedge Carex panicea and Lousewort Pedicularis sylvatica are frequent associates while in drier parts Bell Heather Erica cinerea and Heath Milkwort Polygala serpyllifolia can be found.
The lichen flora is exceptional both for its luxuriance and in the number of rare species. One hundred and sixty five taxa of epiphytic lichens are present containing a remarkably large proportion of ancient woodland indicators giving the Barle a very high index of ecological continuity. Ash and Hazel carry a Lobarion community which is particularly rich on old boundary pollards and on trees growing on the river terraces. Species include Lobarion pulmonaria, L. laetevirens and L. scrobiculata the latter two being rare ancient woodland species. Other examples, extremely rare in South West England include Pseudocyphellaria crocata, Parmeliella jamessi, P. taylorensia and Nephroma parile. Birch-Oak woodland carries a Parmelietum community characteristic of leached, wet, upland woods. Rare members include Heteroderma obscurata and Sphaerophorus globosus. Alder stands host the rare oceanic lichen Menegazzia tenebratawhile Hazel possess smooth bark communities including the rare hyper-oceanic lichen Graphina ruiziana. In well lit situations in upper branches an Usneetum community is well developed including Usnea articulata, a species largely confined to South West England.
Sandstone outcrops on north-facing slopes under Birch-Oak woods have an extremely rich covering of oceanic bryophytes. Typical species include Bazzania trilobata, Scapania gracilis and Plagiochila spinulosaamongst which are species very rare in Somerset and the South West such as Lepidoza pinnata, Dicranum denudatum, Porella pinnata and Diphyscium foliosum. The ground layer is locally dominated by cushions of Dicranum majus, Plagiothecium undulatum and Rhytidiadelphus loreus.
The site contains an outstanding assemblage of woodland breeding birds including particularly high densities of Wood Warbler Phylloscopus sibilatrix, Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus and Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca. The River Barle provides an important habitat for Kingfisher Alcedo atthis, Dipper Cinclus cinclus and Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea, while scrub and heath have breeding Stonechat Saxicola torquata and Whinchat Saxicola rubetra.
Twenty species of butterfly have been recorded in the valley including the nationally scarce Marsh Fritillary Eurodryas aurinia and nationally vulnerable High Brown Fritillary Argynnis adippe. This species, in common with three other species of Fritillary in the valley use the plentiful supply of violet leaves under Bracken as a larval food plant. The nationally scarce dipteran Sciapus longulus has recently been recorded here.
Both Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus and Red Deer Cervus elaphus graze areas of wood pasture. The presence of Otters Lutra lutra on the Barle has been regularly recorded. A colony of Dormice Muscardinus avellanarius inhabits at least one of the Hazel coppices.