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A visit to North Yorkshire brings a beautiful bird chorus, curlews, siskins and High Force



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Taking advantage of the easing of restrictions we recently had a break at a friend’s cottage in picturesque North Yorkshire.

A long drive from Cambridge, but well worth the effort, not least for the change of landscape and wildlife. On the edge of the moors just a few miles north of the beautiful town of Richmond, the area contrasts with the flat arable fields so familiar at home.

A curlew in flight. Picture: Neil Bramwell
A curlew in flight. Picture: Neil Bramwell

In the lush meadows bounded by mile after mile of drystone walls, sheep and lambs grazed or dozed, accompanied by parties of rooks and jackdaws, the latter breeding mainly in their natural nesting sites in the holes of ancient boundary trees rather than in chimneys as they mostly do in Cambridge.

With little background traffic noise, the clear, rain-washed air was full of springtime birdsong, not just at dawn, but seemingly throughout the day too.

Blackbirds and wrens were prominent among the songsters, as back home, but several other species were commoner, notably song thrushes, chaffinches, and greenfinches.

Willow warblers were also much more frequent than around Cambridge and their ethereal cascades added extra spice to the chorus.

Every so often a curlew or two would fly past, heading towards their breeding grounds on the high moors and uttering their lilting calls.

Up in the highest branches of a nearby copse, I spotted a busy flock of small birds, which I took at first to be goldfinches. But their calls were quite different, being thinner and high-pitched.

A siskin. Picture: Neil Bramwell
A siskin. Picture: Neil Bramwell

These were siskins — dainty little finches that I do not often see in Cambridge. Here they were regular visitors to the garden, along with goldfinches and the occasional greenfinch.

One day we visited the famous waterfall of High Force in upper Teesdale, via the historic town of Barnard Castle with its ancient fortifications looming above the river. And yes, there is a Specsavers there in the high street!

High Force waterfall in upper Teesdale. Picture: Martin Walters
High Force waterfall in upper Teesdale. Picture: Martin Walters

High Force is quite majestic, and exactly as I remembered it from my last visit about 50 years ago.

Mind-boggling to think of all that water rushing over the rocks continuously since the last Ice-age!

A dipper. Picture: Neil Bramwell
A dipper. Picture: Neil Bramwell

In the shallow rapids beneath the roaring falls dippers bobbed and swam, returning now and then to their nest in a crevice alarmingly close to the main torrent. Safe from predators no doubt, but what a precarious location in which to rear a brood.

Among the damp rocks were bluebells still at their peak, alongside less familiar species such as sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) and water avens (Geum rivale).

Sweet cicely. Picture: Martin Walters
Sweet cicely. Picture: Martin Walters

Both these species are common in the north, but much rarer in the south. Sweet cicely is a pretty member of the carrot family that includes the commoner cow parsley and hogweed.

It has attractive fern-like leaves and a fragrant smell and is frequent alongside country roads and villages. An ancient introduction, it has long been cultivated, but is seldom seen in the south and east, preferring cooler, damper conditions further north.

On our return journey we stayed for a couple of nights in Scarborough where I was delighted to see one of my favourite seabirds at close quarters.

Kittiwakes on Grand Hotel, Scarborough. Picture: Martin Walters
Kittiwakes on Grand Hotel, Scarborough. Picture: Martin Walters

I had not realised that kittiwakes, mainly found breeding on rocky sea-cliffs, also breed in large numbers in Scarborough, especially prominent on the Grand Hotel, and under nearby Spa Bridge.

Their cackling and whinnying calls echoed around the town and their droppings stained the walls and ledges, much to the annoyance of many locals.

The birds are protected, and numbers of these charming gulls have fallen by 65 per cent since the late 1980s, but in Scarborough they have increased, with some 1,800 nests in the castle cliffs, about 300 on the Grand Hotel and another couple of hundred on the Spa Bridge.

In the last 20 years though they have declined in Orkney and Shetland by 87 per cent and on St Kilda by 96 per cent, probably due to reduction in sand-eel stocks through a combination of overfishing and climate change.

  • Martin Walters is a Cambridge-based writer and naturalist.

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