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Country diary: the lakes are busier now, but it takes a dog to chase the birds away

The sky cleared about 40 minutes before sunset. Shall we go out? Let’s go out. We’d had nothing all day but an insistent, mithering drizzle. Bundled baby and buggy into our borrowed car. Hit the A636.

The metallic late light held long enough for us to walk a slow quarter-circle of the lake. Lapwings dozed in a queue along the jetty; three goldfinches, crisply backlit high in an alder, seemed to be sharpening their beaks on the bare branches. Above all, there were gulls, mostly black-headed, in a pre-roost multitude on the grassy shore, on the gold-black water, and overhead, freewheeling endlessly in from the west, from the river and the municipal tip. A loping Weimaraner, off its lead, scared up a few hundred: they spilled yawping across the open water, a headlong tumble of elbowing white bodies in the dusk.

I’m back the next morning, scrunching through a hard frost. This was my first regular birdwatching place. I don’t get here much these days. It’s not what it was, but then what is? I was 15 or 16, I think.

Humberhead Peatlands national nature reserve

Humberhead Peatlands national nature reserve. ‘The day is bright, sharp and startling.’ Photograph: Ian Paterson/

Before my time, the lakes used to be an opencast mine and a gravel quarry. Everywhere used to be something like that, here in the gouged landscapes west of the Humberhead Levels. Now the big lake hosts windsurfers and groups of schoolchildren learning to kayak, and the small lake is a nature reserve, overlooked by private woodland, butted into by a shingle spit where little ring plovers – the perky familiars of the repurposed quarry – used to nest when I was a kid. It’s overgrown now.

The day is bright, sharp and startling and there’s a cinematic clarity to the motte and ruin of the old castle on the eastern skyline, about a mile away. The small lake is peopled with a Lowry crowd scene of coots, with here and there the poster-paint daub of a drake (a pochard’s head, a shoveler’s flank).

I take a path through chiming birches back to the big lake and the car. A shadow cuts obliquely across the trees, 15 feet up. It takes me a minute to pick it out among the birch fretwork: a treecreeper, inching upwards towards the sun.


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