Ear To The Ground nature notes with Steve Blacksmith - Moor tour revealed treasures

The Meadow Pipit pictured by Steve Blacksmith on his walk back across the moor after watching Le Tour
The Meadow Pipit pictured by Steve Blacksmith on his walk back across the moor after watching Le Tour

After the thrill of watching the Tour de France whizz past in a cloud of dust on a fast section where the crowds were less thronging and there were just a sprinkling of us fledgling cycling fanatics along the country verges, we walked home across a patch of moorland.

The day being warm, and having plenty of time, we decided to strike off across the moor, leaving the path behind, in the hope of maybe catching sight of a snake or a lizard.

It’s not a great idea to do this in poor weather. It’s more tiring than on the path, and it’s easy to get lost. We didn’t see either of the reptiles, but did see something darting among the heather twigs.

It was a fully fledged Meadow Pipit, not yet able to fly. They leave the nest early, spread out and call to their parents to be fed. This way, being ground nesters, at least some of the brood is likely to survive the many predators that are on the look out for them. Not many people have seen a Merlin locally, and we didn’t see one that day. This small falcon is scarce, but is seen occasionally on the tops where its habitual prey is Meadow Pipits.

The pipit in my picture, apart from not being able to fly, is obviously a juvenile from the yellow skin on each side of its beak. This is the remains of the gape they stretch up with in the nest to the parents returning with beaks full of food.

Another day, we were up on Highbrown Knoll above Pecket Well. As I have never seen an Emperor Moth, that classic large moth of heather moors in our area which has four large eye-spots on its wings, we were out in the hope of finding one. It has been found at Pexwood, Todmorden, recently, but I thought the moor above Pecket Well was a possibility. I was out of luck, but I was proved right that they might be there, as we found a caterpillar of the Emperor hurrying through the grass. A proper lepidopterist has told me we were a bit late – the moth mainly appears May to June.

My eyes being constantly down looking for a moth that might have been among the herbage, it was my partner who called out “look at that”. It was a large brown bird we had put up, not far in front of us.

My first thought was that it must be a Buzzard, but then we saw it was a Marsh Harrier. It had the pale crown indicating a female or first year male. The nearest these breed is in the marshes at Blacktoft Sands, near the estuary of the Humber, though they are on the west coast as well.

They are seen with increasing regularity on our hills. The one we saw flew slowly off and settled again, being in the midst of moult, with lots of feathers missing from its wings and tail. This or another Marsh Harrier with a full set of feathers has now been seen by other birders. We also saw Ravens that day out on the moor, two gliding in and flopping down next to a third for a meeting on the ground, conversing in their deep “pruck” sounds. Nineteen Meadow Pipits made it the most numerous creature of the day, the next being Small Heath Butterflies, of which we counted seven in the bright sunshine.

Onward still looking for an Emperor Moth (the males fly by day) we walked part of the way on a path marked on the map “Limer’s Gate”. What we call roads now where once referred to as gates. The limers were the carriers of lime from the Dales for Calder Valley farmers to sweeten their acidic soil. This would have been especially important in the days when more cereals and other human food were grown here. The coming of the canals put the pack horse trains out of business..

On reaching the white-painted trig point at the highest end of Highbrown Knoll our eyes were drawn to carvings we found on the rocks; those cup-marks that ancient tribes made for no known reason on some of our summits. Alongside them, apart from the weathered “basins” which often hold water, and which geologists say are natural, we saw odd shapes of arrows carved, some pointing directly toward each other, and vague designs nearly eroded away, and probably only visible in low afternoon sunshine. We were puzzled and quietened at the thought of those mysterious generations to whom these marks meant something, and by a woman in a dress with black hair, breeze-blown across her face, walking past as if we weren’t there.