Fast flowing water; Grey Heron and White Throated Dipper

We live to the south west of Cauldcleuch Head, a 619 metres high ridge which is near the start of the Scottish Watershed (see Peter Wright’s ‘Ribbon of Wilderness’). It is a significant goal for many hardy hikers to aim for, they hope to be rewarded with clear views described by Peter Wright as looking:

“north over Hawick and into the mid part of the Tweed valley are inviting. The Eildon Hills still stand sentinel, and the northern rim of of this wide basin is marked with the flowing lines of the Lammermuir Hills, pointing tantalisingly towards the North Sea. Looking south, the Lake District fells maintain a familiar presence on the skyline. The view back over Wauchope Forest to the start of the journey leads to the familiar outlines on Deadwater Fell and the Larriston Fells, which mark the border with England. And, to the west, the clutch of steeply rounded hills on either side of the A7 at Mosspaul offers an inviting prospect.”

Madly, at this point I must tell you that an enormous number of wind turbines are being planned to be sited close to Cauldcleuch Head and Wauchope Forest.

The burn which flows by our cottage is a tributary to the Liddel Water and it is fed by smaller tributaries which trickle down from the higher slopes. The Liddel flows past (and often floods) the village of Newcastleton, a clearance village built on the flood plain.

This river then runs through southern Scotland and northern England, for much of its course forming the border between the two countries, and was formerly one of the boundaries of the Debatable Lands.

Liddel Water’s source is beneath Peel Fell in Roxburghshire, in the Scottish Borders, where it is formed by the confluence of Caddroun Burn, Wormscleuch Burn and Peel Burn (burn is the Scots term for a stream). Soon afterwards, the nascent Liddel Water is fed by Dawston Burn near the village of Saughtree.

Our burn runs close to our cottage but we are high enough above it not to get flooded. When heavy rains fall, or deep snow thaws and sends masses of water tumbling down the fells, the roar of the burn is so loud you can’t hear ordinary conversation. The burn changes shape year on year. It has become wider, eroding the banks dramatically, since we first came here 5 years ago. Chunks of grassy banks fall into the burn and expose rocky areas which also break and fracture. New banks form, others disappear. The winding curves change their path, cutting through new ground and silting up previously fast flowing areas.

All high points will one day erode to be flat; mountains will be silt in the sea. The skin of the earth changes and leaves little evidence of what went before unless it is a sun scorched area which has not been swept by water for millions of years. This area is more water than land already. The Watershed significantly delineates the East or West water directions to either the Atlantic or the North Sea. There are many bogs and water courses which have been tamed a little by strategically placed ditches to retain what roads there are from being broken and swept away each winter. Still, the potholes are something to be seen (or rather, we wish we did not have to see them!) but they add to the stresses of travel each winter and spring before they are fixed.

The Liddel makes a southwesterly course, through Newcastleton and on to Kershopefoot, where the burn begins to mark the Anglo-Scottish border.

The Liddel Water then flows into the River Esk at Willow Pool, beneath the earthwork castle of Liddel Strength near Carwinley, Cumbria in north west England.

Having water on the doorstep provides me with two familiar birds to see most of the year round – the Grey Heron and Dipper.

Heron viewed from our kitchen window

When my middle aged son (raised in a city) first saw the Heron, he gasped with shock and thought it was a pre historic creature, along the lines of a pterodactyl!

These long-legged freshwater and coastal wading birds are of the family Ardeidae. They are classed as a medium to large bird. To my son it was huge! When my Canadian relatives visited they were so used to seeing many Great Blue Herons they were unimpressed with our single Grey Heron; but it is the largest heron in Europe.

The Grey Heron’s bill is long, thick and dagger like. Its legs are yellow. So often my dogs arrive and disturb its vigil by the water. Then it will lift off displaying its up to 175 cm wingspan. Once in flight, unlike other long necked birds like storks, ibises and cranes, it will fold back its neck and bow its wings.

The discovery of feathers trapped in ancient amber suggests that some species of dinosaur may have possessed down-like feathers. These are the type of feathers (Powder Down) which the Grey Heron boasts. They offer a fine thermal insulator and padding.

The Grey Heron is a partial migrant, some arriving to winter here from Scandinavia. When they do migrate it is at night. Recently we heard a few at night making an incredible noise; perhaps these had just flown in.

After breeding they will sensibly disperse so as not to crowd the feeding areas for the colony. Being carnivorous, they wait patiently for aquatic animals such as fish, crustaceans, reptiles, molluscs and aquatic insects.

Once high on a fell I can watch the Herons on the burn below me, without disturbing them. They will sit motionless on the edge of or standing in shallow water and wait until prey comes within range. Having seen prey the head is moved from side to side, so that the Heron can calculate the position of the prey in the water and compensate for refraction, and then the bill is used to spear the prey.

They do have other techniques, but this is the only one I have observed. For example, the Grey Heron have been known to use bait in order to lure prey to within striking distance.

Dipper perching on a rock in the Billhope Burn

Except for rare drought periods here, the burn is usually a fast flowing rocky upland water tributary. It is ideal for Dippers as there are plenty of rocks and boulders which are constantly being dragged down from the high fells by the strong, sometimes furious, flow. The bird is a passerine, part of the order of Passeriformes, also known as perching birds. It is the skilful art of perching which strikes the observer. If you or I tried to perch on the slippery rocks we would be there for only a fraction of a moment before we fell in the burn.

The White-throated Dipper is Norway’s national bird. It is no wonder they love it. This charismatic bird is such a joy to have around. The Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) is a strong looking, small plump aquatic bird with a short tail. The head of the adult (gularis and aquaticus) is brown, the back slate-grey mottled with black, looking black from a distance, and the wings and tail are brown. The throat and upper breast are white, followed by a band of warm chestnut which merges into black on the belly and flanks. The bill is almost black, the legs and irides brown.

Dippers are not supposed to like acidic water yet the burn which flows by our cottage is most likely acidic as it flows from peat bog areas high on the fells. Completely dependent on fresh fast-flowing water, accessible food and suitable nest sites these birds are susceptible to problems such as water pollution, acidification and changes to the overall habitat. I have noticed their numbers increasing on our burn since the sheep and cattle were removed from the higher glen.

Dippers breed early in the year, and will often have laid eggs before the end of February, but may do so as late as May. They may even rear two broods if conditions permit. I could imagine the severe flooding we had earlier in the year could have destroyed an earlier nest.

The male has a sweet wren-like song. During courtship the male sings whilst he runs and postures, exhibiting his snowy breast, and when displaying he will take long and high flights. The breeding pair build a dome shaped nest out of straw and moss, and place it in a crevice below a bridge, behind a waterfall or in a stone wall. All these locations and materials are plentiful here. Four or five eggs are laid and incubated for around 16 days. The young will have fledged after 20 to 24 days. I saw a family of four fly together recently, with the parents flying back and forth to them. It is always a relief to see a success story.

The Dippers can be seen foraging for aquatic invertebrates (mayfly and caddisfly larvae in particular, which are still hatching out on warmer November days). They can disappear as they hunt underwater, staying down for as long as 30 seconds if necessary. Dippers hunt by sight, and have a third white eye-lid known as a nictitating membrane, which protects the eye when they are submerged. Some say they hold their wings outstretched to stabilize their weight and walk along the bottom of the burn. Other ‘experts’ say this is rubbish, they simply swim underwater. I have no way of telling you who is right, but they certainly disappear underwater.

Dippers are named for their habit of ‘curtseying’ when perched. They constantly chirp happily, cheering me on my daily walks up the glen. Their distinctive white throat and breast against their dark brown-black plumage is so distinctive they can be spotted immediately, but their song alerts me first to their presence. I try to photograph them but rarely catch them as they soon fly on because my dogs are running nearby. My young labrador particularly likes to run in the burn behind them as they fly along teasingly.

In winter, Dippers tend to stay in their breeding areas, but when we get very harsh conditions here they are more likely to go off to the Solway coast. Just now I see them all the time but if another severe winter hits us, I will miss my happy friends.

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About borderslynn

Retired, living in the Scottish Borders after living most of my life in cities in England. I can now indulge my interest in all aspects of living close to nature in a wild landscape. I live on what was once the Iapetus Ocean which took millions of years to travel from the Southern Hemisphere to here in the Northern Hemisphere. That set me thinking and questioning and seeking answers.
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