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Country diary: monarchs of the canal make a modest midweek treat


We’ve had one or two blazing frosts, but in the main our winter landscapes have been the colour of mud. The Leeds-Liverpool canal reflects a boiled-linen sky through a filter called murk or glum or urgh. We take our brightness where we can find it.

Mainly it’s in the brave whites of the birds in the woods: the backsides of bullfinches and jays, the flashing wings of great-spotted woodpeckers (I watch two engage in a baffling territorial joust just where the woodland floor dips to the canalside: a five-second ruckus of white, black and red, a flurry of beech leaves, and the loser barely escapes a dunking in the still green water).

The goosanders are monarchs of the canal and the adjacent River Aire. The male’s white breast and belly look crisply laundered – I’m always amazed by the cleanliness of birds, especially in these months of meltwater and mud puddle – and his hobbyhorse head is sleek and bottle-green; the female wears her head feathers in an unbrushed bed-head crest.

Their long and sawtoothed bills are hooked at the tip. And they’re big birds, notably bigger than the mallards they drift past – when one dives, I get a real sense of weight and muscular power (which you never get from, say, a little grebe or tufted duck, with their reflexive now-you-see-me vanishing acts). At one point the drake hoicks a foot out of the water to preen his neck plumage, and a new colour enters the drab canal palette: it’s the same traffic-cone orange as a puffin’s feet.

They’re not rare birds around here, these days, and many stop with us all year round. For me, they’re in that tier of birds that feel like a midweek treat – just novel enough to make me go “ooh, a goosander” when I’d never say “ooh, a song thrush” or “ooh, a moorhen”. The waterways here have a few of these: file alongside the grey wagtails, the wintering dipper, those woodpeckers, the goldcrests in the trees. The kingfishers are no less common, but they, of course, have a certain unignorable star quality. Then there’s the stoical heron on the seething weir, which merits an “ooh” when it’s not there. As I say, we take what we can find.

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