Ian Atkinson has contributed some pieces about the canal. We hope you enjoy them.
If anyone else has information about the canal, both historical and modern or a story related to it, please contact us.
Robins can become particularly abundant in winter, their numbers swollen by migrants from further north, and there was a puffed-out russet chest every few paces today, feeding in the foliage and cleaning up the breadcrumbs the ducks’ bills couldn’t reach.
Millions of birds arrive in Britain every year to take advantage of our relatively mild weather. The goldeneye is a diving duck that breeds in the high-latitudes and a couple of pairs usually turn up on the canal to feed on fish and crustaceans. With his bold black and white plumage and striking golden eyes, the drake is a handsome specimen.
A few years ago I was walking by Cavendish Dock and watched as a fisherman fought what he thought was a feisty fish but turned out to be a beautiful female goldeneye that had taken his bait. She was a different looking bird altogether, with her lovely rust-coloured head and striking white eyes. Luckily she hadn’t swallowed the hook, which was easily removed and she flew off, shaken bot not stirred.
A walk along the canal often turns up a surprise, and today the sight of three red-legged partridge was a welcome one. The introduction to Britain, from France in 1770, of the red-legged partridge or, ‘the frenchman’, as it became known, was not a popular decision. It was thought that they would displace our native grey partridge, and, more importantly, they tasted bland.
Fieldfare and Redwing are here in abundance now and today a flock of around a hundred foraging birds, mainly redwings, was spread across the first field after the railway bridge. Despite their number they would have been easily missed but for the chacking calls of the fieldfare and the contrasting ‘tseep’ of the redwing.
The fieldfare is a large, robust thrush with eye-catching plumage. About a million arrive here most years and are a treat to watch, especially on a wild and windy day as a flock takes flight from a tree to barge its way to the next food-stop.
The smaller redwing arrives in similar numbers, migrating mainly at night. Their night-time calls can often be heard during the autumn. Together the two species form flocks that range across the countryside to feed, leaving in the spring when it’s safe to go back to their breeding grounds in the far north.
But by far the most exciting thing about today’s walk was the sound of a Cetti’s warbler singing from the depths of a thicket. There are around two-thousand breeding pairs of Cetti’s warbler in the UK but most nest in Norfolk and they are an uncommon occurrence in these parts. I’ve heard a few before, but I still haven’t managed to see one. I tried from every angle and perspective today but to no avail, and eventually had to walk away and let the sound fade in the distance.
At the rate I’ve been going, by the time of the next diary entry the migrant robins, the goldeneye, the fieldfare and redwing will be preparing to leave, and our early nesters, the mallard, robin and starling will probably be sitting on eggs. The rookeries are already hives of industry. Spring is on its way, and soon the swallows will be back, the swifts, the martins and warblers. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait.
With the migratory birds now making their way south it’s time for our resident species to start preparing for the harder weather to come. Walking along the canal today I came across a large party of long-tailed tits picking its way through the bushes on both sides of the path, feeding as they went, communicating constantly with their lovely soft calls, crossing and re-crossing the path, in front and behind, bewildering any attempt to count them.
I remember as a teenager, working as a volunteer fieldworker for the BTO’s Atlas of Breeding Birds, finding the nests of these beautiful little birds, wonderfully intricate structures of mosses and wool bound together with spiders’ webs and lichen and lined with a couple of thousand downy feathers. The entrance hole was always close to the top and was not stiffened at its edge, like the wren’s, but was left slack, and after the fledging of up to fifteen youngsters the nest appeared to have exploded and left the blackthorn bush or bramble thicket strewn with moss and feathers.
Due to their tiny size, long-tailed tit numbers are prone to plummet during very cold weather and have been known to fall by up to eighty-percent after the harshest winters. To deal with this, long-tailed tits have developed some unusual strategies. Long-tailed tits have developed a supporting network of family members that are known to help out with feeding duties at a nearby nest, particularly if their own breeding has failed. This family cooperation continues after the breeding season has finished. To conserve warmth, long-tailed tits roost communally, in a large fluffy ball.
With its long tail and tiny features this must surely be the bird that earned its family the name ‘titmouse’.
Despite weighing in at barely more than a quarter of an ounce (7grams) the long-tailed tit is not our smallest resident bird.
At 5 grams the goldcrest is less than half the weight of a wren. Like long-tailed tits, goldcrests spend the autumn and winter ranging over the countryside foraging for food, but are far more difficult to find than long-tailed tits. Their faint calls are too high-pitched for an ageing birder like me and these days I have to rely on stealth and keen observation.
Today I was lucky enough to get a good look at a goldcrest that had joined a flock of assorted small birds to feed in the bushes between the canal and the back of Booths.
That’s the beauty of the canal and its environs. There’s always something to see whatever the weather. Autumn and winter can seem barren and lifeless. Migrant birds have left, but our resident birds are still here and will soon be joined by millions of birds pushed south by bad weather, like waxwings, fieldfare and redwing.
Nuthatches and Jays are busily storing food in preparation for the lean months and the coast resounds with the piping calls of curlew and redshank. What more could you want?
Whether poised motionless by the water’s edge or flying laboriously on those enormous wings, herons are a regular and welcome sight along the canal. I can’t think of anywhere else that herons will happily hunt in such close proximity to so many people. Recently I watched a young bird catch and swallow a fish directly across the canal from where I was standing, seemingly oblivious to my presence.
The heron has been the subject of the longest running single-species survey in the world, mainly due to the ease with which their breeding sites can be located. Considering they are the largest predatory bird in Britain their nests are quite small, but herons are communal breeders and build their nests early in the season, before the leaf canopy has grown back, making them very easy to spot.
Even when the greenery has grown back, once breeding is under way heronries are noisy gatherings. Both adults and young have harsh calls, and if you happen to be hard of hearing, or have a stiff neck and can’t look up, they’re still easy to find, because when defecating, the young simply point their posteriors out of the nest and fire, covering the ground below (see photo, taken in the grounds of Conishead Priory, beneath a heronry consisting of only two nests!).
Despite their disgusting taste, (‘I have eaten heron and found it to be a loathsome experience’ said one diner), herons were a favourite for the table almost into the 20th century. At the Archbishop of York’s banquet in 1465 there were 400 herons on the menu. The favourite method of hunting for herons was with peregrine falcons and goshawk; brutal I know, but what a sight that must have been!
Though they mainly eat fish, herons are very adaptable when it comes to diet and methods of hunting. Herons will eat everything from beetles to stoats. They have been seen to snatch birds from bird tables and steal fish from cormorants. They can swim like a duck, dive like a grebe, and have even been seen diving into the sea half a mile from shore, from the air, like a gannet.
So next time you see a heron enjoying the good life on the canal, perched statue-like, digesting a bellyful of easy pickings, remember that when times are tough, there’s no need to worry, they are very resourceful birds.
I know that some had doubted their presence on the canal so it was great to see the photos of the otter in the Evening mail last week. We’ve seen them a couple of times; one surfaced through a mass of weed in the middle of the canal and looked like a Rastafarian. Their presence is symbolic of a healthy eco-system and a canal well-stocked with fish.
Baby swallows are everywhere at the moment, gorging on flying insects and building up their weight. It’s easy to tell which are this year’s young as they lack the long tail-streamers of the adults and look a lot less confident in the air. They’ll need to improve their aerial skills before the autumn when they will have to evade the attentions of the marauding Eleanora’s Falcon, a devastating predator that lives across the Mediterranean region and North Africa and specialises in taking young swallows and martins. It even delays its own breeding to coincide with the swallows’ migration, nesting later than any other bird of prey in the region.
The foxgloves are all but finished and it’s now the pink spikes of Rosebay Willowherb which proliferate along the sides of the towpath, particularly on the stretch between the rolling bridge and canal foot. Though considered a weed its displays can be very impressive. Often the first plant to colonise disturbed areas of ground, once established it can dominate large tracts of land and particularly likes canal banks and railway cuttings.
The contract for the construction of the Ulverston Canal (not including the entrance lock) was awarded to Pinkerton and Murray in 1793, but they were also involved in the completion of the northern end of the Lancaster Canal, and they quit the Ulverston contract in August 1795 having bitten off more than they could chew and being unable to pay the wages.
I was born and raised in Carnforth and spent much of my childhood up and down the Lancaster Canal. I’d hazard a guess that it was the impressive series of locks at Tewitfield that broke the bank. Today, although a stroll up and down Tewitfield locks is a pleasant enough experience, the more recent construction of the northern end of the M6 alongside the canal has turned it into an almost deafening one at any time of the day or night.
Songster That’s Charming Ulverston
In his 1951 book Birds and Men ornithologist Max Nicholson describes the song of the goldfinch as being ‘expressive of the joy of living’, and hearing these expressions of joy jingling around the town today, it’s hard to believe that less than a hundred years ago the goldfinch had to be rescued from the very real threat of extinction.
This dapper little finch suffered a double curse; beautiful plumage, (one colloquial name is ‘seven coloured linnet’), and an enchanting song, and in Victorian times they were harvested in huge numbers to be kept as cage-birds; one hundred and thirty-two thousand from just one site, near Worthing, Sussex, each and every year. That equates to almost a quarter of the total number breeding in Britain and Ireland today.
So, while its cousins the hawfinch and the bullfinch were trapped and summarily executed as undesirables for their perceived impact on fruit orchards, the goldfinch, (an innocent eater of weed-seeds), was sentenced to life without parole for its very desirability. The method of capture was to paint known perches with bird lime, a sticky substance obtained from mistletoe berries. The birds were simply glued to the tree.
In 1889 the Society for the Protection of Birds was formed, by a group of people determined to prevent the country’s few remaining great-crested grebes from following the rest of their kind onto the hats and coats of the wealthy. (They had huge success, as a walk around Barrow’s Cavendish Dock today shows).
As for the goldfinch, by the early nineteen-hundreds it had all but disappeared from large areas of the country and the Society, now with a Royal Charter, set about pulling it back from the brink. After years of campaigning, in 1933 it became illegal to sell the birds. It would take another twenty years before trapping was banned, but thankfully it was, and the goldfinch has never looked back.
If you haven’t heard them already, keep your ears peeled wherever you are; along the canal or even in the town centre. They’re everywhere; in trees and bushes, on aerials and overhead cables, all over town.
Collective nouns relating to the bird world can be very evocative; a parliament of owls; a murder of crows, but surely none are more fitting than a ‘charm of goldfinches’.
The Mute Swan
I’ve been an avid birder from childhood, and since moving to Ulverston a few years ago the canal has become my local patch. There’s plenty to see all year both on and around this much loved and quite unique stretch of water.
At this time of year the canal and its environs are at their most verdant and abound with new life. Parent birds are busily feeding their newly-fledged youngsters in the trees and bushes along the towpath. Baby robins, blackbirds, wrens, tits and wagtails perch in the trees and bushes, fluttering their new wings and demanding food.
For summer visitors like the willow warbler, chiffchaff and swallow, it’s a race against time to have their tiny fledglings ready for their first, incredible flight to sub-Saharan Africa in the autumn.
For the mute swan, however, the breeding season is a much more leisurely business. Where it takes the willow warbler less than three weeks to lay and hatch its eggs, the mute swan takes up to three weeks to complete the laying process, and a further 6 weeks to hatch its brood.
There are usually two mute swan nests on the canal. This year I had found the first by the middle of April, the female, (the pen) having constructed her huge nest behind the wall at Canal Head, in full view of passers-by a few yards from the A590, as far from water as I have ever seen one.
I should add that to say I ‘found’ the nest might be an overstatement when referring to a huge mound of vegetation six-feet in diameter, on top of which sits the largest waterfowl in the world, brilliant white, weighing in at a mighty 30lbs, and with a wingspan of 8 feet.
No, I have to say that mute swan nests rarely take much finding.
Except, that is, for this years’ second nest. Until last week I was convinced that there was only one pair of mute swans nesting on the canal this year, but I was wrong. The second nest is at the other end of the canal, and on the other side, but is incredibly hard to spot behind the trunk of what I think is a willow tree (can anyone confirm?).
In fact, the sitting bird can only be seen from about 50 yards away as you approach, and disappears from view as you get closer.
Of course, now that I know where it is it stands out and I can’t believe I hadn’t seen it earlier. Ironically now, due to the burst of growth in the last six weeks, it’s the first nest which is hard to spot as it is now almost completely obscured from view by grass and brambles.