December 1996

Sunday 1st December – Wombwell Ings – Another damp, windy and dull day. Nothing unusual at Wombwell Ings. Three splendid male Goosander fly in from the Wath direction. The Kingfisher flashes down the transfer ditch.

Thursday 5th December – Thorpe Hesley – Walking down the old road near the M1 motorway and the air is ringing with the high pitched trillings of Goldcrests. A small number are flitting along the Hawthorn hedge. It reminds me that there have not been many Goldcrest flocks around this autumn.

Saturday 7th December – Wombwell Ings – A nearly hopeless day with a heavy fog over the entire region. At Wombwell Ings I can barely make out the far side of the water. There is nothing at all on the hide side of the Ings but through the mist I can discern maybe 20 Goosanders diving and chasing each other. The whistling of Wigeon is clear enough but the ducks are diving and chasing each other. Indeed, the bird I do see clearly is the transfer ditch Kingfisher, who keeps darting ahead of me until it decides it has gone far enough and swings out behind a bush on the far bank and shoots back down the channel. Visibility is slightly better at Broomhill Flash. The Flash has a large area of ice with a couple of open pools in it. One pool contains entirely diving ducks, Pochard and Tufted Ducks, and a couple of Mute Swans; the other pool, which is close to the bank, contains dabbling ducks, Mallard and Teal, and Coot.

Sunday 8th December – Anglers Country Park – Set off for Anglers and pass down Smithies Lane. All the bushes on Willowbank are covered with frost rime, almost monochromatic but just a hint of Hawthorn berry red. Anglers is quiet although there are a decent number of duck on, mainly Tufted, Pochard, Mallard, Gadwall and the odd Ruddy. A large number of Cormorants will not please the trout anglers. The Canada Goose flock is working its way across the sheep field. A Grey Heron glides in silently and alights in the middle of the field. Coming back into Barnsley, the hillsides that form the ridge along which part of the town lies is completely colourless and is just a grey silhouette against a rapidly greying sky. In the afternoon I take a walk down the disused Penistone-Sheffield railway. The path passes high over a deep valley of the River Don, the valley floor widely flooded. A bull moves cautiously around the large lake that has appeared in his feeding ground. Just beyond a Jay calls raucously from some trees lining the track. This puts up a large flock of Fieldfares. On the way back a pair of Yellowhammers watch from the top of a bush. Dill the Dog looks very pleased with her completely black under parts – inevitable walking a wet clinker path. She is less keen when she gets dumped in the bath later.

Monday 9th December – Westwood Country Park – Tramping through the mud at Westwood whilst walking Dill the Dog on the way to work. A fluttering in the young Alder plantation and a flock of Siskin move through.

Sunday 15th December – Dearne Valley – At least I can see Wombwell Ings this week. But it is still very damp and underfoot it is thick, cloying mud. The Ings are busy with duck, nearly 300 Wigeon, over 30 Teal and some Mallard. A splendid pair of male Goosander wing in speedily and skim across the surface before landing. Out on the rough common ground the flock of Canada Geese is feeding. Suddenly half of them leap into the air and head for Broomhill Flash. It takes only a few moments for the rest of them to join them. Head down down the other side of the old road onto the new wetlands and I realise just how big this area is going to be. The legendary Wath Ings lays at one end and between there and the Dearne Link Road is a maze of waterways and lakes. There are at least 100 Fieldfare on the mud churned up by the earth-movers by one pool and many more are in the Hawthorn hedges beside the water and across the Dearne. I am still not sure what Dill the Dog did – one minute she was trotting along in front of me, I think I paused to check a fly-over and there she was, dripping wet. She soon got herself another coating of mud, so it was back into the Dearne to wash off before returning to the car.

Tuesday 17th December – Barnsley Canal – A heavy fog over Willowbank and the Barnsley Canal. The area is full of winter thrushes. Fieldfares fly to the top of the tallest tree and stand watching like sentinels. Redwings scurry through the Hawthorns,busy and flighty. Blackbirds move off noisily and even a Song Thrush, which will usually slip down and out of the back of a bush silently, scolds Dill the Dog as she passes. Magpies are churring and chucking but are hidden in the mists. Mallard rise up from the canal quacking as Moorhens scurry into the reed beds. A Grey Heron glides silently over the canal and disappears into the mist towards the River Dearne.

Saturday 21st December – Wombwell Ings – An uneventful visit to Wombwell Ings. The usual suspects are around along with three Dunlin. By late afternoon the temperature has dropped considerably as I visit the canal. The flood waters have receded by there is still a large acreage of land under water. Five white birds in the distance intrigue me but turn out to be domestic geese! The Hawthorns are still alive with Redwings.

Sunday 22nd December – South Sheffield – The street is white with frost, but the clear skies which made for a freezing night will allow the sun through to clear the roads soon. Firstly off to Crystal Peaks in the Mosborough Townships – a ghastly series of new estates in South-east Sheffield. There has been a Hoopoo here all week, but highly predictably it cannot be found when I am there.

Rother Valley Country Park – So off to the Rother Valley Country Park. The main lake has large numbers of Goosander. But I am here for a “red-head” Smew. No sign of it so I wander off around the lake. Dill the Dog tries her charge through puddles routine but has her legs flying in every direction when she hits solid ice. She still manages to get into a lake though and rolls happily in the frosty grass. Completely mad! On the far side of the main lake I again scan the water and eventually see the Smew. It is diving regularly so I get a few good views. As usual these days the Hawthorns are full of Redwings along with Long-tailed Tits and Willow Tits, although the latter can be heard buzzing but not seen.

Barnsley Canal – In the afternoon a hour down the canal before it gets dark. At the top of Willowbank five Bullfinches fly up from some low brambles and sit in a Hawthorn. The two males are resplendent in their bright pink waistcoats and black caps! On the canal everything seems pretty quiet except for Redwings dashing here, there and everywhere. Towards the end of the canal (it has been filled in for a considerable distance to the north of the valley) I notice a few Fieldfares on the open field of rough grasses. As I look I realise there are more than a few and start scanning them. It is difficult to count them as they are moving around but I reckon half the flock is at least one hundred individuals. At two hundred plus, this is the largest flock I have recorded in the area.

Thursday 26th December – Wales – Very cold, 4°C in Barnsley and is still sub-zero in south-west Wales. I am past Cardiff before I see the first Buzzard. Call into Kenfig Pools Nature Reserve where Penduline Tits have been reported but no-one knows where they are at that moment – and the area is a wide expanse of grass covered sand dunes and thickets. I decide that this could well be a thankless task so continue on to the west . I reach St Ishmaels in the early afternoon so Peter and I are able to take Dill the Dog and Buster down to the Gann at Dale before dusk. The large lagoon is almost entirely frozen and all the wildfowl have switched their allegiance to the river; lots of gulls, Curlews, Oystercatchers and twenty Little Grebe – obviously the local population has been frozen off every pond.

Friday 27th December – Pembrokeshire – Early start at Sandy Haven. The silence is only broken by the keening cry of the Curlews. It is a big tide and in – nothing but water in all directions and only three Shelduck floating in the middle of the channel. A Grey Heron glides overhead which starts the gulls calling. On to Neyland, which is also quiet (a feature of this report!) – Black-headed, Herring, Lesser and Greater Black-backed Gulls are either asleep or preening on two shingle banks. Ringed Plover, Redshank, Dunlin, Oystercatchers and Turnstones feed on the small patches of beach that remained exposed. Out in the harbour, a large raft of Shelduck is also asleep awaiting the mud to reappear. Dill the Dog and Buster are now pretty frustrated by all this inactivity so off to the Deer Park at Martin’s Haven. Although the dogs are happier, I am surprised again at the lack of avian life! A Common Buzzard floats lazily over the point and a few Starlings head apparently meaningfully in all directions. Occasionally a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls drift past at sea. Just as I get back to the car park, a Peregrine Falcon passes overhead towards the cliffs. At least Marloes Mere is livelier – a large flock of Teal along with decent numbers of Shoveler, Widgeon, Mallard and a pair of Gadwall. A large flock of Black-headed Gulls comes in to bathe in the Mere, which upsets the ducks who move rapidly away to another part of the water. Golden Plover and Lapwing flocks wheel overhead. Back at the Gann a flock of over one hundred Wigeon are just off shore. Up the river a Little Egret preens. As I return down past the lagoon there is a Grey Heron squabbling with a Little Egret – a quick check back up the river shows the latter to be a second bird. In the afternoon, Peter and I take the dogs up onto the cliff above Sandy Haven. Large Chaffinch flocks are gleaning the fields and hedgerows. As we returned a raptor flies up with something dangling from its claws. It looks like the prey has long legs – a Redshank maybe? We are so fascinated by its catch we fail to really identify the the raptor itself, but we guess it is probably a Sparrowhawk. We then go up to the Western Cleddau - the western leg of the River Cleddau which empties into the sea at Milford Haven. A muddy but pleasant walk along the river. Dill the Dog notes she had not jumped into this particular river before so in she goes. It must be below freezing point on the bank but she shows no sign of being cold all!

Saturday 28th December – Pembrokeshire – BirdLine reports an American Wigeon at Lawrenny Quay. The site is on the estuary of the Cleddau. There were large flocks of Wigeon on the water but the brilliant sunshine makes it impossible to see anything but silhouettes. After moving to various points in attempts to get different angles, we give it all up as a bad job. Just as we are about to leave a Greater Spotted Woodpecker speeds overhead. We now head for Llys-y-fran Country Park from where a Smew had been reported. The large reservoir is over 100 feet deep and the path around it is (allegedly) seven and a half miles long. We and another couple of birders set off round. There are plenty of wild fowl on the water, including Goosander, Goldeneye, Tufted Duck, Pochard, Great Crested Grebe, Mallard, Teal and Wigeon but no Smew. The woods surrounding the lake are productive with Nuthatches and Marsh Tits being nice sightings. The latter are especially good ticks for me as they are very difficult around South Yorkshire. A Peregrine glides rapidly over the fields. We reach a post saying that we have walked six and half miles and there is one mile to go. This is the longest mile I have ever walked! It is another long mile to the top of the dam which is easily another three quarters of a mile from the visitors centre where we have parked. From Llys-y-fran we head into the Preseli Hills but see little and so on to Fishguard. A Kittiwake passes at sea but there is little in the harbour. A young gull dives onto something in the sea just off the beach. It then flips over and lays upside down on the water, wings akimbo. At first we cannot work out what has happened – has someone shot it or is it trapped in netting or fishing line? But there is no sign of either. Eventually it rights itself and floats on the water looking very bedraggled and sorry for itself. We guessed that the water is much shallower than it looks and the inexperienced bird has simply crashed into the bottom and knocked itself temporarily senseless.

Sunday 29th December – Pembrokeshire – We decide to have a look at Angle Bay, west of Pembroke. We check on Neyland on the way through but nothing unusual. Angle bay is a large circular sea bay with a large Texaco refinery at one end. We check at the beach and find a dark-bellied Brent Goose. There are a few waders including a Bar-tailed Godwit, Dunlin and Turnstones. Out in the bay are flocks of Wigeon, Mallard, Shelduck and Shoveler. Far out are good numbers of Great Crested Grebe. We are about to head back when two duck swim around the point and scoping them shows a pair of female Scaup. On to Amroth to scan the sea. Last year there had been in excess of four thousand Common Scoter on the sea – this year maybe a couple of hundred. Of course, it may be jumping to conclusions but is the lack of Scoter linked to the Sea Empress spillage? There is also a Red-throated Diver on the sea. Finally off to Black Mill Pool – a large converted water mill on the river. I have had no joy all year finding a Dipper so it was a good year tick to see one leaping into the water on a weir. No slipping gently into the stream for this bird – it literally leaps, wings out into the fast flowing water. There is also a Cormorant in a pool which will hardly please the local salmon fishermen. This being the Eastern Cleddau, Dill the Dog has to go in as usual. However, she also manages to find the only unfrozen patch of thick, black mud and so gets ordered back into the water again to clean herself off.

Monday 30th December – The Gann – A quiet day. The lagoon at the Gann is again heavily frozen. A single Sanderling is running along the beach – slightly unusual as the beach is rather more rocky than one would expect a Sanderling to prefer. A Greenshank is probing the mud on the river bank. As I arrive back at the car I notice a grebe off shore. It is clearly smaller than a Great Crested but is not small enough to be a Black-necked or Slavonian. Eventually I decide it is definitely a Red-necked.

Tuesday 31st December – Marloes – Again very quiet, especially on the Deer Park. It is hardly surprising the Choughs were missing, the ground is rock hard. At Marloes Mere there are only a couple of duck on the mere, but just as I am about the leave a raptor drifts towards the water from the fields. It swings around and reveals a white band on its rump – a Hen Harrier. As it glides over the mere, dozens of duck pour out of the reed beds in frantic flight across the water. At Sandy Haven two Little Egrets are squabbling about who has what bit of mud!