Monday 8 April 2024

Down by the River 8th April 2024

A river that runs from the uplands of North Yorkshire is shallow where it passes under a small connecting bridge in the heart of the village, causing the clear water to riffle and chuckle as it tumbles over the stones in fussing cascades. Several feet high, the banks conceal the river from the surrounding dwellings and road that have arisen over the years and now mark the sinuous passage of the river.

The banks are freshly greened with emergent spring grass and Cow Parsley while duller green mounds of spade shaped Marsh Marigold leaves have yet to reveal their starbursts of golden, buttercup like flowers. Daffodils and Dandelions, already blooming in their respective shades of yellow, have pre-empted the marigolds and their scatter of bright blooms currently adorn the riverside. By the bridge a huge willow, its venerable boughs black with age leans at a precipitous angle across the river, drooping thread like stems of thin, elongated green leaves that trail finger like to caress the water.

I found a place to stand, slightly downstream from the bridge on a large rock at the rushing water's edge, remaining silent and still as the heron that sometimes comes here.  A bare earthen bank beside me was wet and dank, its loamy scent strong and the agitated swirling of water around the rock, the river's voice, distanced all other sound. 

A pair of Dippers have a nest below the bridge, built into the join between span and concrete support, where it is dark and sheltered with the river a constant companion a few feet below. Early nesters, the female is sitting on her eggs and they will hatch soon. Her mate is somewhere downriver, out of sight.

You would never know they were here.

I wait for close to an hour before I see the male flying towards me from down the river. Low over the water, he flies fast on whirring wings, heading steadily and silently towards the bridge, a chunky brown bird, slightly larger than a Starling, he passes below me on my perch on the rock. 

Pitching onto a stray branch caught up in the stones midstream, he turns to face me and it is now that the white of his chin and breast shows as an almost disembodied bib of white, contrasting with the otherwise brown plumage that seeks to merge with the dark colours of the river. 

An occasional flicker of white, much like the drawing of a blind, passes over his eyes. A blink, almost as if he is winking and that flashes against the brown of his head.This is a bird's way of cleaning its eyes, a nictitating membrane that passes over the eye to remove any unwanted particles. In most birds it is clear and hardly noticeable but in the case of the Dipper it is opaque, white and distinctive. Maybe it has a purpose other than cleansing but if it does I am unaware of what it is.

He waits patiently, for what I  do not know. Maybe he comes to check all is well or to re-assure his mate and guard her from interlopers. He is aware of me, but as I do not make any sudden movement feels unthreatened and soon settles to preen and maintain the essential waterproofing of his plumage. 

I continue to stand motionless. The Dipper commences to bounce slowly on flexing legs, a motion that is performed at various speeds reflecting mood and disposition. It often precedes a drop into the water to search for food.

The river is all the Dipper knows, a world of fast running water, providing an existence that rarely requires it to rise more than a foot or so above the water's surface. It is just as much at home in or below the water as above. The busy life of the surrounding village is for the most part unknown to the Dipper. 

The river continues its timeless passage, a course it has followed for centuries, long before the village grew up around it. The Dippers too have surely been here for equally long,  generations, pair after pair, raising their young on this part of the river.

Their presence and permanence a re-assurance in a human world that can be unsettling and troubling.

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