Words & pictures by Mat Bingham.
Winter is a relatively quiet time on the river as the animals focus on survival. The Grey Wagtails have migrated south, the Kingfishers are not yet ready to start announcing their presence to each other and claim breeding territories. Only the Robin sings at dawn as I walk along the river in the winter chill. I use the lull in the year to further explore my new surroundings.
The saturated ground means the Soar frequently runs high even after short periods of rainfall. The river often bursts its banks, rubbish strewn in the trees indicates the high watermark. The Kingfishers must find it hard to fish in the fast flowing murky water. Despite this I counted five different individuals within two miles of our village on one walk.
The skyline is dominated by the power station at Ratcliffe-on-Soar, I often find myself looking at it as I walk. It has a strange beauty, the cooling towers relentlessly giving off steam, creating clouds that drift away into the distance. On some nights I can see the cotton wool plumes 15 miles away as I drive home from work on the motorway.
Inspired by the book Nightwalk by Chris Yates I decided to further explore the river near the power station at night. Visiting the river after dusk, it takes on a different appearance, the silt laden water of the day I’m familiar with changes colour to silver in the moonlight. In the dark, my eyes are only really able to pick up movement. I set up my tripod and camera to photograph the power station, the click of the shutter spooks a Barn Owl, which drifts across in front of me. It’s too dark to grab a shot of him but I make a mental note to come back another day to see if I can find him hunting in the scrub.
I take a series of pictures and decide to move further along the river. There is a fox standing like a sentinel next to a canal boat. The lights are on in the boat, I wonder if the owner is aware of the visitor sat next to his window. Perhaps the owner feeds the fox through the cold winter months. As I approach, the fox takes flight.
Later in the week the weather forecast is for clear spells and frost so I decide to head out again to the power station. The air is crisp and there is no wind, perfect conditions. I set up my camera and frame the river with the cooling towers in the background. I am comfortable using my camera in the darkness my hands are familiar with the controls even if I cannot see them.
The tranquil river reflects the night sky, the scene interrupted occasionally by either a passing train or car. I notice a dark patch in the water, which appears to be moving against the current. I can’t make out what it is and decide to turn on my head torch. The beam picks up two eyes reflecting the light back at me. It’s a dog otter, probably out for the night hunting. We make brief eye contact for a few seconds then he slips below the water. In the dark I am not able to follow the telltale trail of bubbles on the surface as he swims away. I have seen evidence of otters along the river before, spraint, footprints and the remains of their lunch, crayfish claws and fish bones but this is my first real encounter. I decide to call it a night and head for home to warm up and have some tea.
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