April 1996

Friday 5th April – St Ishmaels, Dyfed – Off to SW Wales for the Easter weekend. As soon as I was south west of Birmingham Common Buzzards started appearing above groups of trees. Right the way through Wales this continued, with usually two circling slowly in the sky but sometimes up to five. Just after getting on to the Llandeilo by-pass, I noticed a rather small Buzzard above us. Even at 70 mph I could easily see a deeply forked tail and there was my first Red Kite for several years – this also saved me a long detour to the slaughter house in mid-Wales which is the usual site to find Kites. I reached St Ishmaels in mid afternoon. Whilst having a cup of tea (and trying to stop Dill the Dog and Buster, the Golden Lab, from wrecking the house in their excitement in seeing each other) I glanced out of the kitchen window. On the peanut holder was a pretty little Blue Tit. Down came a male Greenfinch and stood on a nearby twig shouting loudly at the Blue Tit. Did this scare off the Blue Tit? Did the Blue Tit just ignore the Greenfinch? No, it flitted across to the twig and actually “nutted” the Greenfinch and then returned to the peanuts. The Greenfinch beat a hasty retreat.

Dale – Piled the dogs into the car and headed off to Dale. There was a warning on the beach that stated it had been cleaned but that oil from the Sea Empress could still be present. The first bird I saw was a Whitethroat sitting on the gorse bushes – the first warbler of the year! As we walked along the causeway between the beach and the lagoon, it was clear that the huge boulders that protect the causeway against winter storms was stained with oil residue. Fortunately the tide was in so there was no reason for the dogs to cross the boulders. There were still two long, bright red oil booms across the Gann. The river looked clean and a Little Egret was feeding on the banks, so hopefully the area had not been badly soiled. In the bay was a Common Scoter. I do not know whether it was good news that one of the most affected species was still there, or bad in that it should not be here but off on its breeding grounds.

Saturday 6th April – Dale – Up (none too early and hung-over) the next morning and back down to the Dale before breakfast to walk the dogs. Over the bay a couple of Sandwich Terns were fishing, but were the fry they were catching contaminated? Watching from the bridge over the river some way upstream, the Little Egret was on the salt march. Nearby a pair of Shelduck were wandering, possibly seeking a burrow to nest. A Chiffchaff calling from some trees. I glanced at a small patch of reeds and saw a small brown bird just looking at me. A double take confirmed it was a Reed Warbler, one of the earliest I have recorded.

Walwyn’s Castle – In the afternoon, I went over to Walwyn’s Castle. As I mentioned before in Welsh reports, this is a beautiful little (8 hectares apparently) reserve, with a steep hillside of Oak and Ash leading down to a lake, dammed off with an area of dense willow scrub below the dam banking. The other side is a gentle slope of mainly Blackthorn. As soon as I entered the top of the woodland I could hear Chiffchaffs, and ended up picking out a minimum of six calling. From the lake, Canada Geese were muttering with occasional loud outbursts of squabbling. The trees contained Blue, Great, Coal and Willow Tits – and there was a pair of Long-tailed Tits in the scrub-land. Another Whitethroat and Wrens arguing loudly, Robins and a Blackbird singing loudly filled the air with song. Around the back of the Blackthorns the path leads up to the road. On the banking supporting a varied hedge were several types of ferns, all rich green in the dankness. On the banking by the road were large clumps of snowdrops still in flower. Several butterflies had been brought out of hibernation by the warmth of the sun, something almost forgotten during this prolonged winter. Bumble Bees have also emerged, buzzing noisily in long grass. Back at the top of the woods, the noise of Canada Geese had subsided but the distant cawing around a large rookery was still very audible. A flash of white and a Treecreeper did what they are named for, looking like a large mouse. On top of a branch on the neighbouring tree a Nuthatch was probing the mosses. Some of the old oaks have long horizontal limbs that are covered with mosses of all hues of greens and ferns.

Sunday 7th April – Marloes – On Sunday a quick trip up to Marloes Mere but very little was around. Indeed, all I could see were a few Canada Geese and some Shoveler on the waters. It was one of those moments when a raptor overhead would have been interesting to see how many duck were actually on the mere but deep in the hidden channels and rushes. A trip to Neyland docks were equally unproductive so it was back to Walwyn’s Castle. Much the same as yesterday but the Nuthatch was now a pair. I then headed up the high cliffs to the north of St Ann’s head where the tanker grounded. Here the rock faces in inaccessible inlets were badly stained with oil, with some running onto the rocks below to form a mucky green, iridescent emulsion. Lots of Jackdaws on the fields, some whirling in the light winds and the odd Fulmar gliding around the cliff edges. But also too many people – the sun had brought out the tourists, good news for the trade in the area but bad news for my birding.

Monday 8th April – Martin’s Haven - My friend Peter had the day off so we set off for the Deer Park at Martin’s Haven. Of course, being Bank Holiday Monday in the UK means bad weather, and it was misty, windy and drizzling. However, as we trudged across the heathland towards the outcrop of rock which faces Skomer Island we picked out a pair of Chough feeding on a grassy area below. Looking out towards Skomer was not the easiest of tasks in the wind with the scope vibrating continuously. However, we did spot a few Guillemots and Razorbills on the island rock faces, and huge numbers of Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Yet again the cliff bottoms in the coves beneath us were badly stained with oil. As we wandered around the park two exciting fly overs. Firstly, the first Swallow of the summer and this was followed by a magnificent view of a pair of Peregrine Falcons swirling in the winds overhead. Finally, we reached the road to the car park, Peter spotted a splendid male Stonechat high on the top of the Deer Park on gorse.

Walwyn’s Castle – We headed off to Walwyn’s Castle as the Nuthatches are something of a bogey bird for Peter. So of course, no chance! But we did get House Martins, a Goldcrest and a flash-by pair of Bullfinches. Looking at the little stream leading out of the dame, Peter pondered on why there was never anything in the water. At that precise moment a toad emerged from under the bank and wandered across the stream. By now the weather was deteriorating and I had a long drive home so we headed back for dinner. And before anyone asks, yes, Dill the Dog jumped in the lagoon at Dale, the lake at Walwyn’s Castle and discovered the interesting patterns on one’s coat that can be accomplished by rolling in rabbit droppings.

Sunday 14th April – Anglers Country Park – Spring almost made it weather-wise in the early part of last week, but ended up with snow on Friday and a cold wind and dull skies today. However, this has not deterred the spring migration. In the village of Cold Hiendley Swallows are sitting of wires looking at the old hay barn opposite, weighing up the potential nesting sites. At Anglers Country Park a small area of grassland is alive with feeding birds – Pied Wagtails, Meadow Pipits and Reed Buntings are generally residents, but White Wagtail and Yellow Wagtail are migrants. On the Pol a small group of Tufted Duck splash down in front of the hide. They suspect I am there and watched the hide carefully whilst swimming around each other. I am not the problem for them, that is the two Mute Swans that decide to land on the Pol with their feet out, skiing across the surface towards the Tufted Duck. That soon moves them! Little Ringed Plovers – more summer visitors – chase one another around the shingle islets, calling loudly. Redshanks and Lapwings move between the Pol and the nearby sheep field. In the woods some of the Pussy Willow trees are in full bloom with masses of yellow-pollened flowers as dense as leaves, which are yet to emerge. A Willow Warbler or two are calling from the trees, yet another sign the migrants are here. Down beside Cold Hiendley reservoir at least five Bullfinches flit quietly between bushes below the remains of an old railway embankment. A pair of Grey Partridge try to creep quietly away but soon panic and take to wing.

Monday 15th April – Sheffield – In woods near Sheffield, despite disturbances heavy logging during the winter and the winter itself, the Wood Ant mounds are alive again. One looked like it had a patch of oil or tar on it. Closer examination revealed hundreds of black ants all clinging together in a raft.

Tuesday 16th April – Willowbank – Seven o’clock in the morning and wandering around Willowbank and the canal. Blue Tits are everywhere – chasing each other, calling from the tops of bushes, feeding in other bushes. A male Bullfinch sits right at the top of a Hawthorn calling softly – very different to its usual secretive ways. Heading down Willowbank towards the canal I hear in quick succession both Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler. At last the warblers have got here. Along the canal and I can hear drumming somewhere. Eventually locate a Great Spotted Woodpecker on a telegraph pole, but he quickly flies off up the canal towards the deeper woods. As I wander back up Willowbank a Whitethroat emerges from a thick Hawthorn hedge. An evening stroll along the same route and now hear three Willow Warblers. There are also a couple of brilliantly coloured Yellowhammers watching over their territories.

Saturday 20th April – Blackburn Meadows – Migrants are being reported on the WWW reports - Firecrest at Blackburn Meadows, Wood Lark at Midhope and Ring Ouzels in at Ewden. So which site? In the end I decide that the moors tend to mean a lot of standing and driving around and Dill the Dog really needs a decent walk, so Blackburn Meadows gets the vote. Walking down the canal tow path, listening to bird song from every direction. High pitched piping of Long-tailed Tits, descending warble of the Willow Warblers, cyclic squeak of Great Tits and the full blown songs of Blackbirds, Wrens and Robins. A single male Linnet is sitting atop a tree calling gently. A Dunnock in full breeding plumage – so many subtle shades of blue-grey and browns – singing from a small bush. Greenfinches wheezing from clumps of Hawthorn. And it is actually mild – over 12°C! On the other side of the path is a large ditch. A Stickleback floats motionless in mid-water and then glides under some vegetation. The leaf buds on the Hawthorns are just at bursting point with feathery emeralds splitting out. The Pussy Willow is still coated with bright yellow pollen. Another willow has longer and far more subtle flowers, silver-green – an elfin colour. Coming back on the other side of the river, a Whitethroat watches from the bushes and then silently slips away - obviously not in song yet. A Kingfisher flies from the canal to the river – a turquoise dart. Overhead Skylarks are singing and a few House Martins swooping after insects. On an old land-fill site three Wheatears are sunning themselves. On the nature reserve, a Lapwing, Redshank and two Little ringed Plover are feeding on the water’s edge. In another pond, a Mute Swan has raised a large nest and appears to be incubating. But no Firecrest...

Langsett – In the afternoon, a visit to Langsett and the moors. Langsett Reservoir is still very low, clear signs of another summer of water shortages. Head down into the gnarled, old woodland near the pumping station. A Curlew flies off a ploughed field, its call ringing around the air. In the woods are lots of Chaffinches, Blue and Great Tits. Some summer visitors have arrived with Willow Warblers calling but none of the wood’s speciality – Pied Flycatchers. However, they were reported in Northern France and the Channel Islands only a week ago, so it is still early. On to Midhope, where a Wood Lark has been reported but no sign. Again, Curlews are heard and a few seen gliding across the moorland. Red Grouse are also calling. I scan a distant wall for the resident Merlin but no sign. Another birder joins me and says the Merlin is “four posts down from the fat post”. Again I scan the wall without finding it, until I realise the post he meant is higher than the rest - the Merlin is on the post. Another exciting sighting is my first ever Mountain Hare. I first noticed what looked like a ghost Hare loping across the moor. Scanning it showed a large Hare with its summer coat returning but still tinged and edged with white.

Sunday 21st April – Anglers Country Park – I never go on twitches, do I? Well, this was not a twitch anyway! Off to Anglers Country Park – a normal Sunday jaunt – but there is a report of a Lesser Scaup being sighted there. Getting out of the car my ears are immediately both assaulted and enchanted by Skylark song. There must be at least half a dozen all singing at full volume. On the Pol are Redshank and Little Ringed Plovers. In the sheep field, oddly, a splendid Black-tailed Godwit. Willow Warblers sing in the scrub and a Linnet sings from a fence. One of the true heralds of summer, the Cuckoo was first heard and then seen flying across the lake. On the lake Gadwall, Goldeneye, Pochard and Tufted Duck – but no Lesser Scaup; and no matter how hard we worked on the Tufted Duck, we were never going to turn one into a Lesser Scaup. Someone says it has been visiting Walton House lake in the daytime. Off across the fields towards Walton. This used to be a closed area with barbed wire everywhere but now Wakefield Council have marked a path through the woods to the lake. The woods are absolutely ringing with Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Robin, Wren and Tit song. On the hillside above the lake a few of us scan. All Tufted again, except.... But no, the oddly marked duck may not be the same as the other Tufted but we again are not going to make it into a Lesser Scaup. Back across the fields to the main reservoir. I wander off and check Wintersett – nothing. Someone says they saw it on the Country Park only an hour ago. I check the piece of wasteland beside Cold Hiendley – lots of Willow Warblers and a Whitethroat or two. I think I heard a Lesser Whitethroat but only once and cannot see anything like one. Back to the Country Park where disgruntled and frustrated birders are milling around. No! it definitely has not been on the Country Park in the last hour. It may have gone across to Pugney’s, or maybe Newmillerdam. It could be at Notton Priory and it will never be found in the closed off lakes there. This is all too much for me, so I retreat with a quick visit to the far end of Cold Hiendley but still nothing but Tufted Duck.

Saturday 27th April – Calder Grove – Just a quick visit to the Calder and Hebden Navigation, a canal running along side the River Calder. A Whitethroat is leaping into the air, singing loudly, hovers for a moment and then glides back down to its perch. It then looks around to see if any females have noticed this performance. Little else around, the ever present Willow Warblers singing everywhere and heard the scratching song of a Sedge Warbler but could not locate it. Dill the Dog added another chapter to her masterpiece, “Rivers, canals and other waters I have jumped in” by going for a splash in the Calder (she has already been in the canal). Watched two narrow boats, gaudily painted, edging into a lock as they travel upstream. The sluice gates were then opened and the water slowly rose. Not a method of travel for someone in a hurry, but all the better for the relaxed pace.

Sunday 28th April – The Moors – Up at 5.15 am and off to the moor valleys. Have a number of target species in mind. At Broomhead, lots of twittering Blue Tits and and excitable Redpoll flock over the trees but no sign of the Woodcock I had come to find. At this time of year they can be found “roding” over the forest tops – but not today. On to Ewden Beck for Wood Warbler – very localised in the north of England and this is one of the reliable sites. I hear the trilling song as soon as I got out of the car, but it is several minutes before I locate one on a big old Beech tree. On to Midhope but there is little around; a few Curlews calling across the moors and Red Grouse leaping into the air and calling. At the little old woods above Langsett I go looking for Pied Flycatchers. None here last week but now a resplendent male is in the trees. A Treecreeper mouses its way up the trunk nearby. Dill the Dog goes chasing something in the undergrowth and a wide-eyed and rather angry Tawny Owl pops up onto a tree and glares at me. Finally on to Stainborough and the Northern College. The carefully cultivated gardens contain many rare species of tree and one of the world's major rhododendron collections. It also contains Hawfinches, again another species very localised in northern England. Finding them is usually standing around until a quiet ticking is heard from the treetops. However, I find four different individuals without any trouble at all – their huge fruit-stone crunching bills clearly identifying them even in silhouette. One is moving around a tree enough to give decent views of the subtle colour in its plumage.

Little Don Valley – In the afternoon, back up to the Little Don Valley. The conifer plantations are quiet with just the occasional Blue Tit calling. The path emerges at the bottom of the steep valley carved by the river. I climbed up the side again to check the fields at the top – but nothing. Descending again through the dried, brown bracken and a Tree Pipit flies up from an old Oak and then parachutes back down into the branches singing – the first target bird for this visit. Moving along by the path at the top of the valley side, the Oak woods become a little more dense, interspersed with Yews and other conifers. Start looking for the second target – Redstart. Quickly locate a female watching me from an Oak and a few metres later the male, glorious in his black and red plumage flits down the hillside. In one of the conifers, Long-tailed Tits and a Goldcrest are feeding and piping. I then dropped out of the valley into the junction of Little Don and Mickeden Beck. First headed up the Little Don towards the open moors. The valley is very steep and cut on the other side of the river but more gentle slope with open fields on my side. Meet a couple of birders I know who, like me are looking for Ring Ouzel They tell me there is a Raven in the area and we then spot a large corvid right out over the moors but it drops below a ridge before anyone can get a scope on it. They head a little way up Mickleden Beck. Here the beck loops from one side of the small valley to the other. I am heading up a bluff on the far side when a couple of dark thrushes fly past and into a tree by the river junction. Ring Ouzel, just like an ordinary blackbird but with a pure white crescent across its upper breast. It sits on top of the bush for a while then descends into the bracken. I head back down the valley but do not find the other two targets, Dipper and Goshawk.