April 1998

Saturday 4th April – Wombwell Ings – The Ings are extensive and there is much surface water across the common ground following the recent rain. There are few wildfowl now. A pair of wary Greylag stands with feeding Canada Geese. At least ten Sand Martins are swooping low over the water. Teal, Mallard, Gadwall and Mallard are down to a couple of pairs. The large Wigeon flock has diminished to about twenty individuals. Sadly there is a dead young Mute Swan on the far side of the water. A Ringed Plover flies in and stands alert on the mud, its plumage in a bright condition. Several Lapwings soar and swoop calling their haunting cry. On the far side of the ings a scruffy white mare is standing next to a hedge proudly licking her newly born foal – very newly born as the umbilical cord is still hanging from the mare. Her brown and white piebald foal lays quietly in the grass. Along the old road, Yellowhammers, Goldfinches and Greenfinches sing and feed in the Hawthorn and Blackthorn.

Sunday 5th April – Rotherham – Driving down Dropping Well Road, just to see where it goes, and I spot a car park. From there a path leads off into woods. Chiffchaffs call from the tree tops and a Green Woodpecker laughs. The ground is bright green with the foliage of Dog Mercury and Bluebells. The latter are just coming into flower. There are also large groups of White Dead Nettle with creamy lipped flowers. Hidden deep in grass a few Dog Violets are peeking through. There is also a clump of Greater Stitchwort, also known as Adder’s Meat – small white flowers with yellow stamen. A Jay flies silently from the woods across some waste ground and quickly vanishes into another group of trees. Ahead the sound of drumming and a Greater Spotted Woodpecker is at the top of a dead tree. A number of trees show the effects of lightening strikes with wounds in their barks running from the top to the base. A Treecreeper flits to the base of one of these trees and mouses its way upwards.

Blackburn Meadows – Coots and a pair of Mute Swans are nesting on the nature pools. A few Tufted Duck feed whilst Redshank keen the air and circle the water. A Sparrowhawk rises from the path and disappears over the banks. The blood-curdling cry of a Little Grebe rends the air.

Tuesday 7th April – Barnsley Canal – As I cross a low ridge created by coal spoil and cross towards a large Hawthorn thicket a rich varied song fills the air. On top of a bush is a male Blackcap in full flow. There are at least three on Willowbank now. Across the valley from the canal a Green Woodpecker is yaffling from the top of a telegraph pole, looking about himself after every call to see if there is a response – sadly there is none apparent, although later another Green Woodpecker flies out of bushes at the top of Willowbank by Smithies Lane, a mate? There are many songs filling the air now, Robins and Wrens dominate, but the gabbling call of the Chaffinch is common, a short chirruping call from Reed Buntings and a rasping Greenfinch. Two Grey Herons fly high across the valley, one croaking. The Mute Swans seem to have abandoned their sad looking nest mounds.

Wednesday 8th April – Barnsley Canal – A dirty grey morning. The whole valley is muddy from yesterday’s heavy rain although the river has drained away any excess on the valley bottom. Willow Tits buzz from the bushes. Crossing the common ground on the valley bottom there is a strange sound coming from a row of Hawthorns and Ashes. It seems to be a chucking noise but is confused in the overlay of Robin, Wren and Tit songs and calls. There are some birds on the far side of the hedgerow but I cannot see them until I reach the bushes. Looking across the meadow opposite and there is a large flock of Fieldfares, very jumpy. Back along the canal and at last there is the familiar falling notes I have been waiting for – my first Willow Warbler of the year. Eventually, I think there are three calling males. Towards the end of the canal there is a strong stench of Hydrogen Sulphide, but the source is not apparent.

Thursday 9th April – Off to Dorset for Easter. My friend André commented in the pub the other day that he would be hitching down to London today, so I offered to take him down. The M1 ranged from very wet with occasional rain to cloudbursts and was continuously busy. London was a nightmare! I headed west. The traffic reports were: “The M4 is blocked for miles, the M3 is very heavy and the M25 is a car park!” Heading west through Wiltshire the road crossed the Salisbury Plain, passing Stonehenge and many barrows. Into Dorset and the first Common Buzzard soaring over a small wood. I was glad to reach Sturminster Newton after 7 hours driving.

Good Friday 10th April – Sturminster Newton – It is a very cool, grey morning with a sharp wind. Walk the dogs down the path to the River Stour. The river is full but not flooded, but the ground is evidence of yesterday’s rain. The flood plain paths are too muddy for ordinary footwear. A Green Woodpecker calls in the distance. In the early afternoon Peter and I go off up the River Stour with Dill the Dog and Buster. A Green Woodpecker calls and flies ahead from tree to tree beside the river. Wild Arum (Cuckoo Pint or Lords and Ladies) are growing in a Bramble, there are many more up the edge of some woodland. An old cracked Willow droops by the Stour. Peter reminisced about the gin clear rivers of Wales as the brown alluvial river flowed by. A small stream runs down the other edge of the woodland. Marsh Marigolds and Wild Garlic (Jack-in-the Hedge) are coming into flower in the Stinging Nettles and Brambles along the edge of the stream. Iris foliage is growing in the water. Across the fields a Pheasant is croaking. The pale mauve Cuckoo Flowers bloom in the meadow. Twenty-one Mute Swans, four Canada Geese and a Barnacle Goose are on the banks of the river. We return up the side of the woods. Stinging Nettles, White and Purple Comfrey grow in profusion. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flies up to the top of an Ash. Back in the town a Starling stands on a chimney pot clattering his beak, squeaking and flicking his wings.

Saturday 11th April – Dorset – It is cold, very cold for April! As we drive over the hills towards Dorchester it starts snowing. It warms slightly as we reach the village of Abbotsbury. Past a massive Tithe Barn and church. Another tiny church has been built on the top of the hill above the village, on what looks like an old prehistoric site. Down through fields of sheep and lambs to the end of the long lagoon behind Chessil Bank. The wind was from the north-east and bitter. Huddled in some reeds, looking decidedly uninterested its surroundings are our target, a Purple Heron. Nearby a male Stonechat sits on a reed. Sandwich Terns swoop over the lagoon. Two Swallows flash low over the fields, locating the few insects that have ventured forth in the cold wind.

Weymouth – The next stop is Radipole Lake. Despite the rain an explosive song comes from some bushes immediately identifiable as a Cetti’s Warbler. We fail to locate the bird but further round the reserve there are more calling and we soon have a superb view of one sitting on a Bramble just beside us. Others are around and we eventually total five individuals. On the river beside the RSPB Centre are Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls. Four Cormorants sit on a wooden “fence” in the water. In another clump of reeds a couple of Coot chicks stand – bundles of black fluff with red heads. We then move on to Lodmoor RSPB reserve. The rain is getting worse. Out on the reserve are several pairs of Shelducks, Teal, Mallard and Mute Swans. On the far side are two Little Egrets, once a rarity but now almost commonplace on the south coast.

Easter Sunday 12th April – Dorset – It becomes stranger on the weather front. Early morning, a brilliant blue sky, blazing sun and a green world dusted with frost. The Stour rolls on to Hardy’s Mill where roars and boils through the race. A Grey Wagtail flits around the mill pool.

Poole – Near Badbury Rings the road passes between over a mile of Beech avenue. The old trees are reaching the end of their lives, so a new avenue has been planted further back. At Poole we throw an old tennis ball into the sea to get the dogs swimming. Beyond Brownsea Island rise the ruins of Corfe Castle. But the numbers of people and boats etc. makes birding a non-starter. We head towards Wareham but the traffic becomes too tedious. A turning looks vaguely familiar so we head inland. The road leads up onto Holden Heath, the area I found my first Nightjars. We wander around the heath for a while. Rooks, Blue Tits, Coal Tits and then a small bird scurries through the heather and gorse. Eventually it comes out and there is my first Dartford Warbler. On the way back through Okeford Fitzpaine it starts to snow again! We stop at the farm where Peter has his cold store to check things as he has been robbed twice recently. When he returns to the car he gesticulates towards an old wall opposite. All I can see are Jackdaws, but when I follow his instructions and look at the corner of the wall I see the beautiful Little Owl watching us.

Easter Monday 13th April – Dorset – Long wedges of frost across the fields in the shadows of trees. Tulips’ heads hanging in submission to Jack Frost. Time to go home. The drive along the A303 is easier and there is more time to notice the obvious age of this route. Along side the road are barrows – long, round and bell – for mile after mile. Field systems on hill sides and then the now rather sad site of Stonehenge. The fences and milling people destroy the magic of the place.

Thursday 16th April – Barnsley Canal – Tuesday’s snow, which tried to smother spring’s greenness in its icy cloak, has been defeated by the sun. On Willowbank a pair of Bullfinches investigate the buds of a Hawthorn. Above the male’s gentle rosy breast gleaming from the bush a small grey bird with a black head hops through the twigs. There is another below the Bullfinches. However, despite their similarities, a good look shows the higher bird to be a puffed-up male Blackcap and the lower a Willow Tit. Willow Warblers are calling along the canal. The area is a mixture of ice and mud. The female Mute Swan is building yet another nest mound on the canal. Dill the dog suddenly panics when she sees three drooping snowmen. She runs away and then barks nervously at them.

Sunday 20th April – Worsbrough Country Park – A Redpoll flock passes overhead, buzzing loudly. There are Cowslips in the meadows. A Canada Goose honks from a slight rise in the field but a Carrion Crow and Lapwings ignore him. By the bridge over the stream the air is pungent with the scent of Wild Garlic, beds of it growing either side of the path with delicate white flowers just opening. Three snails rest on a dead stalk, their colours ranging from black through shades of brown to orange. The air rings with bird song. A downed Willow has formed a dam in the stream with plant debris piled against it. Bright yellow Marsh Marigolds gleam like icons in the dull brown tangle of dead reeds in the willow swamp. Mallard, Coot and Tufted Duck populate the reservoir. A Common Snipe zigzags past. Two Swallows swoop low and suddenly a Common Tern dives in scooping matter from the water’s surface. A Cormorant and Heron stand on one of the nesting rafts in the middle of the reservoir. The relatively mild winter has helped the Wren population, indeed they are everywhere and noisily proving the fact. Now round the back of the park, the River Dove pours noisily over a weir. The woodlands are drier here and Bluebells and Wood Anemones (the Wind Flower) bloom. Below the old Worsbrough-Penistone line, now part of the Trans-Pennine way, is a scruffy bit of land dotted with small Hawthorns. It is a good site for Lesser Whitethroats but they are not apparent today. There are several large rings of St George’s Mushrooms, named because they appear around the Patron Saint of England’s day. A pound is quickly picked for dinner.

Tuesday 21st April – Barnsley Canal – Bright singing commands my attention. The chatty song is that of a Blackcap but he is hidden in the dense Hawthorn tree. I follow movement and a pair of Bullfinches briefly emerges. More movement and two female Blackcaps, with their glossy chestnut caps chase through, but the singer remains unseen. After many false starts, the pair of Mute Swans have now built a serious nest mound on the canal.

Wednesday 22nd April – Barnsley Canal – The Hawthorn row is topped by a singing Song Thrush. The bushes are wet after rain and a rather bedraggled looking Long-tailed Tit is searching for breakfast. A sharp tac-tac like pebbles being struck together indicate a foraging Blackcap. From the canal the avian choir on Willowbank is a melee of song. I have to keep an eye on Dill the Dog as she has come into season and is a cauldron of hormonal activity. The cob Mute Swan is now on the nest mound whilst the pen is feeding further down the canal. A different “song” is heard – a chattering reel of clicks, ticks and squeaks from a Starling.

Monday 27th April – Barnsley Canal – Two Bullfinches, as brightly clothed as dandies, slip through the brambles within a couple of feet of me. Down near the bridge two male and a female Bullfinches fly into the Hawthorns. High in an Ash tree a black tail emerges from a bundle of sticks – a Carrion Crow on its nest. The Mute Swan is also on the nest.

Tuesday 28th April – Barnsley Canal – Blackcap song is heard all down Willowbank and along the canal, intermingled with Willow Warbler, Wren, Robin, Chaffinch and Blackbird. A large Water Vole swims across the Duck Weed covered surface of the canal and dives. Its little legs are paddling furiously to remove itself from my presence. Neither Mute Swan is on the nest and there are no signs of any eggs. Along the path there is the broken shell of a Blackbird egg. It is not clear whether the egg has hatched and been dropped there by the parent or is the remains of a stolen meal. A small bird shoots vertically out of a bush and spins and pirouettes in the air, gabbling continuously – my first Whitethroat of the year. Its gleaming white throat feathers are ruffled – either with the exertion of its singing or just wet from the rain water that soaks everything.

Thursday 30th April – Barnsley Canal – There is a song that always seems to catch me out and I hear it again today. It is loud and rich and I cannot quite remember whose voice it is. Then I catch sight of the singer and am embarrassed that I have made this mistake again – a Dunnock. Possibly one of our most underrated birds. On the flat rough ground across the bottom of the valley a Blackbird is pinking in alarm – a Kestrel is giving him a bad day. Along the canal there are clouds of newly hatched mosquitoes and, not surprisingly, a pair of Barn Swallows (am I really going to get used to the new standardised names?) a swooping low for their breakfast. There are a large number of Ribwort Plantain with their black heads ringed with tiny cream flowerets. The first Garden Warbler of the year is singing from a Hawthorn and suddenly stops skulking and shows itself. Along the path lies the discarded egg shell of a Song Thrush.