Bird Watching - Why fishing is not the only delight on Derbyshire’s rivers

PUBLISHED: 00:00 15 May 2020

Perched adult female Kingfisher (C) Phil Scarlett/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Perched adult female Kingfisher (C) Phil Scarlett/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Phil Scarlett Photography (PJS Wildlife)

Andrew Griffiths confesses that catching fish is only a small part of why he loves fly fishing.

Flyfishing (C) Krister Wulff/wcpmedia/Getty Images/iStockphotoFlyfishing (C) Krister Wulff/wcpmedia/Getty Images/iStockphoto

As an angler, the good thing about developing a taste for the natural history of the river is that it gives you something to do when you are not catching fish. This can form a productive part of the fishing process itself – for instance, if you are waiting for a hatch it passes the time if you start to take an interest in which side of the trees the lichen is growing.

However, sometimes you find that you can get so engrossed in what is going on in that small, intricately linked environment, that the trout you are trying to catch, which let’s face it is the reason you are standing there 
in the middle of the river in the first place, just become a relatively small part of something much bigger.

I do find myself in that place a lot of the time these days, which is my excuse for not catching many fish. One of the things that first led me there was watching the birds.

There’s something exotic about river birds. Depending on the season, the predominant colours around rivers are greens, olives and browns. Not drab as such, but they aren’t colours that scream at you from paint charts either. But this reserve gets lost when it comes to the birds. I see all of these at least once on a fishing outing on my river:

A grey heron in flight (c) Dgwildlife/Getty Images/iStockphotoA grey heron in flight (c) Dgwildlife/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The heron is a bird that looks as if it belongs somewhere in the Serengeti rather than the inclement Derbyshire rivers where I do most of my fishing. At rest it is scrunched as a wrinkle, as when it sits at its station at the bottom of the weir. But when its vigilance is tested, its strike is as sharp as a Scarfe sketch and its ambition huge, as I saw when I watched one spend a good 15 minutes trying to swallow a 12-inch trout as it stalked autumn’s likely spawning beds.

My saluki once disturbed one on the canal. It flew off with big, ragged wing beats, staying close to the water, as my saluki gave chase on the towpath beside. As they disappeared into the distance, the hound all but in pouncing range, I couldn’t understand why the heron didn’t just lift up and away. But as, with some nagging concern, I watched my dog cross the county line, I decided that each was just celebrating its own perfect meeting of function and design. And who could blame them?

The kingfisher is another splash of colour that can rip through the day. The metallic bluebottle streak as it flies low to the river, the high pitched piping ‘peeps’ alerting your eye to tune in. They will often flash within feet of my rod tip.

The smaller stream I fish is rarely visited. The eponymous crack willow all seem to be of an age and cracking at once and are coming down across the path and the river, further cutting it off from dog walkers and all but the most intrepid fly fisher. I can lose myself in there, in this maelstrom of willow leaves.

I’m just hoping the Environment Agency doesn’t get wind of it and come along with its chainsaws.

The other day, a kingfisher was screeching downstream and clearly thought it had the river to itself and didn’t expect to find me standing in the middle of it. Cartoon-like, it skidded on the air, turned and flashed its crimson underbelly before zooming back off upstream.

I wondered if it was the one that lived just above the small pool? A strange pool this, one that looks as if it should be jumping with trout but in many years of fishing I can count on one hand how many I’ve taken there off the top. I wonder if it is because the kingfisher nests there? Have they learned not to come to the surface? Can fish learn like that? Do they stay in one place or section of the river like that? That’s one of the things I stop and stare and wonder about, while I am waiting for a hatch. Wondering about something like that can easily take over from fishing.

Dipper on a rock with nesting material in its beak (c) AbiWarner/Getty Images/iStockphotoDipper on a rock with nesting material in its beak (c) AbiWarner/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The dipper is my absolute favourite though. Black-brown from a distance, with a daub of riffle, this busy little bird is the eternal optimist of the river. I watched four of them recently. Were they a family unit, I wondered? It was closing in on autumn and a period of heavy rain had just broken a drought. There was a steep fall of water coming down into my small river in spate, from, I later found out, a grid that had choked up and flooded the road above.

There was obviously a good supply of food to be had here, and the four dippers flurried around where it entered the 
river, and fluttered and pecked up and down what had become a mini waterfall.

They are often the last birds to see, and the first too, as they begin to pair up before winter is over and spring is still an idea.

Then there is the grey wagtail, the textbook bird for the budding fly fisher/naturalist. It will sit on the edge of the river, bobbing that tail, then dart out to catch flies and back again. Sometimes it hovers almost as well as a fly catcher, to hang in the air and fill its beak. If you watch its habits carefully it will even tell the new fly fisher when the flies are hatching. You’ll find it in chapter one for new fly fishers, alongside checking spiders’ webs.

I’ve missed the wren. And it is easily done, that. A pert ball in the tangle of the brambles on the unrulier bank, cock-tailed, half-glimpsed, seen, and then gone.

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