It’s always a huge pleasure to drive down to Barnard Castle, particularly at this time of year when the hills are heaving with birds. I spent three hours on Friday driving slowly around the roads by Langdon Beck, watching lapwings, redshank, dunlin, snipe, blackcock, grouse, curlews, oystercatchers, golden plovers, wheatears and skylarks. Some fields had all of the above, and the incessant sound of calls and whistles made the world worthwhile.
I noticed that several of the wader species were keen to land on dykes and fence posts, where they preened and called with great confidence. I very rarely see my waders landing on fence posts, and when I do, they are extremely nervous and unwilling to do anything more than pause for a few seconds. I wonder if these birds in Teesdale have such confidence because they live on well keepered land where predation is less of a concern. In fact, all of the birds I saw had an air of confidence that is very rarely shown by my birds on the Chayne. Even the redshank which are usually (in my experience) so jumpy allowed me to walk to within a few yards, where I sat and watched a pair go through a complicated display routine.
The cock bird was taking the initiative throughout the display, walking solemnly around and around the hen with his wings up as if frozen in some moment of tremendous delight. He kept up a continuous shrill mumble, holding his grey tail spread wide and flat like the flights of a dart. She feigned disinterest, but I couldn’t help noticing that her tail was also flared out as she walked. In a series of scuttling dashes, she led him around a system of mole hills without ever looking back at the bizarre figure that eagerly followed close behind, wings raised and ready to go at the drop of a hat.
Further up the same hill, an endearing little golden plover stood meekly by the side of the track, blinking his large wet eyes at me. Every few seconds he would whistle sadly, then scamper forward and rootle into the grass. Behind him, hidden by a rise in the ground and some dry, twisted thistle stumps were more plovers. Their calls made a gloomy backdrop to the indignant cackling of grouse on the hill above and the incessant, looping display flight of a curlew. I watched this one bird (below) for some time as it alternated between periods of frantic, enthusiastic foraging and then baleful motionlessness.
Perhaps the highlight of the entire visit was the sight of a fully inflated blackcock as it chased a cock pheasant for almost three hundred yards across an open field. Being that much faster than his swarthy assailant, the cock pheasant scarcely had to get out of first gear to keep ahead of the blackcock, but what the grouse lacked in speed, he made up for with tenacity. Three or four times the cock pheasant slowed down as if he was relieved to be away from that malignant grouse, only to turn around and find the determined shape still hot on his heels. The blackcock ran with his wings up, flying short distances to keep up with the pheasant when it looked like the gaudy foreigner was getting too far ahead, and although they didn’t come to blows, there was no doubt who was in charge.
Having seen confrontations between blackcock and pheasants before, it is usually the case that the blackcock comes off on top. I did once see a blackcock attack two fighting cock pheasants and rather than run away, both pheasants turned on him at once and gave him a good kicking. It was a fair lesson in humility, and very funny to see.
On the way out of Teesdale, I stopped in to visit Lindsay Waddell, whose articles I have been reading in the Shooting Times since as long as I can remember. Lindsay is the head keeper for all of the land that I had been looking at, and it is due to his skill and hard work that I had enjoyed such an interesting few hours walking and driving around the hills. I could have stayed to listen to his stories about birds, shooting and moorland for hours, but being on a tight schedule (and already lagging considerably far behind it) I set off again further south.