A blanket of snow is nature’s own biographer

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THERE is a silence that comes with falling snow; it brings a celebration to the young and a feeling of anxious resignation to the elderly; bringing chaos in its wake for the pedestrian, transport and commerce alike.

In contrast, snow is our finest biographer — no detail is missed from the surface of its wide manuscript, even recording the writing of the winds in intricate detail. Many a story can be read upon the pristine surface of a new fall.

The fox and the rabbit tracks are numerous in the areas I walk; one can take a census of their presence more accurate than at any other time. During this winter my sightings of both fox and rabbit have been plentiful. The rabbits have left their mark on the young saplings, where the bark has been eaten away above the snowline in their quest to survive. Many an allotment and garden has evidence of their presence. They used the deep frozen snow to gain access to feed upon the top of my winter jasmine, showing a remarkable resilience to survive in inclement weather conditions.

At the time of the deep snow we had open skies and a full moon casting its silvery light, highlighting the sharp contrast of snow and shadow.

One such evening on looking from my bedroom window across the moonlit snowfields, I watched a fox leaving the shadows of the hedgerow coming into the open field. It moved steadily through the shoulder-high snow, its tail like a rudder, moving with stealth at times in full moonlight other times, weaving in and out of the deeply cast shadows of the hawthorn bushes created by the brilliance of the moon. Its destination unknown as it disappeared like a ghost into the hedgerows that border the Borehole; only its tracks would tell the story of the success, or failure, of its mission on a bitterly cold December night.

Prior to the arrival of snow we had a rare visitor to the banks of the Wansbeck, arriving in October and remaining with us until its death in mid November. This was in the form of a young Squacco Heron whose origins are in the Mediterranean area of our world.

Norman Froud, a local man, told me he had seen a bird which looked like a small heron in the Bennett’s Walk area. I was also told of this bird by our excellent wildlife photographer John Kirkup, who had photographed it along the riverbank near Stob’s Ford.

All was quiet till November 8 when the news broke of its presence in general and the Wansbeck was inundated with twitchers. This is a term given to birdwatchers that travel far and wide to see a rare bird. For the next ten days the usual peace and tranquillity of this area was lost to cameras and telescopes, carried by many different dialects.

The squacco made its main territory in the Bennett’s Walk and Stobs Ford area during this period. It took advantage of the shallow waters and gravel beds and riverbank to feed upon the minnows that gather there and it looked in fine condition.

As November progressed the weather deteriorated, bringing rain and hail along with a rising river level. This restricted the access to its food source. On November 17, I met Andy McLevy, a keen and well informed local ornithologist, who told me it had been found dead along the banks of the Wansbeck. It was a possible victim of hypothermia after the cold nights of freezing mist of November 15-16. This latest record for Northumberland I am told is credited to John Kirkup for his original report and photograph of this bird.

So ends the story and life of a beautiful bird so far from home. It is one of the mysteries of bird migration, and a fate not unexpected of a Middle Eastern traveller at the onset of a bitter winter along a northern river.