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Birds with Feathers

Between the Bridges, I spotted my first Great Crested Grebe today. That is a result.

Ten years of living Between the Bridges has made me realise that I have been chasing after the wrong birds. The birds without feathers, just like the bars they used to inhabit, come and go with the changes of the wind. Sparrows Wharf, Shears Yard, Dimitris have all migrated, leaving behind them hazy faded memories of strutting, gallivanting, and carousing. But to what effect; what is there to show for it? A depleted bank account?

The feathered variety is much more rewarding. They ask for nothing in return; there is no diminishing return. They provide unilateral satisfaction.

How long have you lived by the riverside? How many different birds have you seen? Do you even bother to look?

Not that we should, but putting to one side the common garden birds, let’s focus on the water…

Graceful, elegant and serene Swans. A couple of years ago we had six cygnets (see picture) on the River Aire; the nest was by Leeds Bridge. This year a couple seem to be getting it together, although one of them (juveniles are a dirty brown colour) looks a little young for that sort of thing to me! Have you seen these mute swans take off in flight or land back on the water? They seem to create the power and noise of a jumbo jet. There are rumours of a Black Swan by Leeds Bridge; but these are Australian in origin; I wonder if it has fallen out with the Earl of Harewood?

Grey Wagtails have been annual residents throughout; and are possibly the most consistently uplifting of all. They have a delightful splash of yellow on their underparts. We are lucky to have them in Leeds; normally you would expect to see them further up into the Dales where there are rocks and boulders in the rivers or streams on which they can perch and then fly off from to catch passing insects. And the tail really does wag! In fact it wags more than that of your average wagtail; this is because it has the longest tail of all wagtails. Listen out for its sharp repetitive call and look for the smooth rising and falling flight path.

“Kingfisher!” That cry can frequently be heard emanating from my apartment. I have even learnt to hear them coming. They have been resident throughout but there is little more exhilarating than the sight of that brilliant flash of azure blue skidding along the water. Look out for them early in the morning, particularly when the light is good and the River Aire is still.

There are many more regulars to get excited about too. The Grey Heron lurks at night in the Victoria Quays lagoon. The Common Tern flies like Concorde; the Black Headed Gull an Airbus. Mallards and Moorhens nest every year; the battle to save their chicks is a tough one!

And then we have a few rarer visitors. This winter, for the second winter in a row, we have Goosander. I have seen two males and four females. They are the largest sawbills in Britain. They have a long, low appearance in the water. The male has very white underparts and the female a distinctive, slightly crested, red brown head and neck. I saw the female lay itself out completely flat in the water in what was clearly an act of supine submissiveness to attract the male.

If I had been able to achieve this reaction in those old bars, then they would probably still be in business and I wouldn’t know the difference between a mallard and a mongoose!