February 1996

Saturday 3rd February – Broomhill – Much of the snow has now melted away, although large patches still remain. The lack of sun, iron-grey skies and a temperature rarely creeping up more than a degree or two above zero leaves the ground still fairly hard. Both Wombwell Ings and Broomhill Flash are not fully frozen and the small areas of open water play host to Wigeon, Teal, Mallard, a small number of Shoveler, a couple of Pochard and (on Wombwell Ings) two magnificent male Goosander and five females. On both waters large flocks of gulls stand on the ice, many asleep. They are mainly Black-headed but a few Herring and Great Black-backs as well. One Herring Gull is in mid-moult, its adult plumage across the back but still some of the brown chequers on its wings. Around the area are hundreds of Fieldfares. Many are feeding on the Ings mud, others are on the fields and yet more in the Hawthorns below the dyke. I cannot remember a winter with so many Fieldfares around. I expect to see a few hundred each year across the whole area - this winter there are several hundred at each of a number of sites.

Sunday 4th February – Dodworth – Still cold. Little around the old Dodworth Colliery area, except about a dozen Yellowhammers – a bright yellow and cocky sight against the grey and white surrounding us. Even less on the frozen Ingbirchworth Reservoir. Decide this is not going to be a birding day, so pick up a friend and we head off to the Asian supermarket in Dewsbury.

Wednesday 7th February – Barnsley Canal – Another covering of snow, but we seem to have escaped compared with the rest of the country which has ground to a halt. I am supposed to be doing an Industrial Tribunal but it comes to a sudden halt when the bench learns that one of the “players” in the case is a deceased colleague and they decide it would be improper of them to hear the case. I was all fired up and ready to go, so in no mood to go back to the office and paperwork. Hence, off down the canal. I thought there were serious numbers of Fieldfares last week but it is now quite incredible. There are flocks rising and shooting off in all directions. At times there are three layers of birds above me, all going in different directions. I reckon there must be about 300 on Willowbank, a similar number along the first part of the canal and I have frankly no idea how many spread out across the river valley. Crossing a stile by a small drainage ditch off the hill, a Snipe is startled up. It clearly has decided this is the best place to be and circles me whilst I stand there with the binoculars trained on it. Beside the ditch the snow is impressed with dozens on Coot footprints. A flock of large birds is going down the valley but I cannot get a decent view. I do not think they were Gulls, they would have to be Great Black-backs if they were. Possibly geese, Greylags? Or even Swans. By the frozen ponds is a small flock of a dozen Greenfinches, some wheezing away merrily. Great Tits are still giving out their territorial call. Near the top of Willowbank again and I stop having caught something out the corner of my eye. A Sparrowhawk rises from a Hawthorn and lazily moves away across the hillside. As soon as it has gone, Redwings and Fieldfares appear apparently from the centre of the Hawthorn - all had been keeping their heads down whilst the raptor was around. The snow around here is covered with rabbit paw prints.

Saturday 18th February – Hoyland Nether – Yesterday brought the dreadful news that a super-tanker has run aground off St Ann’s Head, just round the corner from the Welsh birding spots I have visited in recent years. It seems that there is still a danger it will break up and dump thousands of gallons of crude on some of Britain’s most important wildlife beaches. The weather both down there in Wales and up here is high winds and blustery showers – not exactly good birding weather. A wander around some woods near Hoyland Nether brings nothing. Driving around and pass an old rambling farm. The main building against the road has been added to over the years. Although the construction materials remained the same – grey-gold gritstone – it is clear that different sections are of different ages. One wall has some huge stones forming lintels of a blocked up door. Over to the old Dodworth Colliery site. Six Yellowhammers are sitting in a bush looking like fat, ripe pears from a distance. Above Sky Larks are singing against a steel grey sky with a rainbow to the north-east.

Wednesday 21st February – Thorpe Hesley – My three o’clock appointment did not turn up so I head off early. Stop in a narrow lane just before the Rotherham/M1 junction. There is a pub at the end of the lane. An Ordnance Survey map seems to indicate that this was the far west end of the village of Thorpe Hesley, now over the other side of the motorway. Beyond the end of the road is a huge slag heap from an old colliery. The trees around the entrance road to the slag heap have Chaffinches calling and chasing. In another tree, a Coal Tit is feeding and calling simultaneously. At the end of a very muddy track is a lake but nothing on it.

Thursday 22nd February – Barnsley Canal – Decide to work from home today. I have a report to do comparing the old rotas, bonus schemes etc. of domestic staff at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital with management’s new scheme. Now we all know it is designed to save money, it is now a case of working out who loses and who gains and what is the balance of power. But first, off down the canal. Wet ice and mud make walking rather precarious, well, for me anyway, Dill the Dog charges on regardless, her white belly greying rapidly to black. Cross the canal and look over the river valley. A flock of about 20 Teal take exception to my presence and shoot into the air. They are followed by the Mallard and then Moorhens make a run for the reed beds. Somehow seems sad at the complete lack of trust - not unsurprising, but nonetheless sad. The Fieldfare flocks have dwindled to a few individuals. This is also not surprising. The Hawthorns were laden with berries three weeks ago, but few remain now, hence the flocks will have moved on to pastures anew. From a single bush comes three songs - a Greenfinch wheezes at the top, a Robin lower down and even further down a Dunnock warbles gently.

Saturday 24th February – Blackburn Meadows – Check BirdLine North-east and get a report of Arctic Redpolls at Blackburn Meadows Nature Reserve between Sheffield and Rotherham. Never heard of the place, but a quick look at the map shows it is in the Tinsley valley by the M1 motorway. Off we go and wind through tall, grime covered walls with gate ways into oil and mud covered yards. Breakers of cars, industrial machinery and goodness knows what else. Eventually reach the canal and head off along a muddy track. A male Bullfinch with its bright rosy breast watches us from a tree on the opposite bank. The occasional Black-headed Gull flies buoyantly along the canal, most of them with their black heads back for the breeding season. A Grey Heron flaps slowly overhead. Eventually we reach a large weir where the River Don and the canal meet. Large pipes and railways pass overhead. Everywhere are the crumbled remains of steel works and other engineering plants – all victims of Thatcher’s “economic miracle”. Suddenly a twittering overhead and there they are – about 35 Redpoll. They land in a straggly bush some 30 metres away. There is that period of total panic as I struggle to get the scope tripod up before the flock move off. I just manage it and focus on the flock. One bird looks very pale and I move onto another bird to compare - then they are gone - off away towards the great cooling towers. Clearly no way to follow so I stump off disappointed. Eventually we reach a series of locks which brings the footpath out into Tinsley. Dill the Dog puts up a pair of Mallard. As we head back along the path, I decide that she needs to get some of the mud off. I point at the river and she reluctantly goes in for a quick swim. She comes out, shakes and then charges off in all directions like a thing possessed. We reach the fence where the scrub begins that the Redpolls were. Head in towards an open gate with large “Keep Out” signs on it. Just wander inside and have a scan – nothing. Dill the Dog is still on her post-swim charge about and suddenly puts up a flock of small brown birds – Redpolls. Although they are very flighty I get decent views this time. A number are quite pale but one is really white. It then obligingly preens its wings and exposes its rump – pure white, not a streak anywhere. It has a very small amount of streaking on its upper flanks but it is good enough for me – that is an Arctic Redpoll and a lifer. A couple more views and a good comparison with a clearly darker Lesser Redpoll and then they are off over the river towards Templeborough Steel works. Head back along the canal tow-path and Dill the Dog makes sure she gets her mud pack back on. At one point a large Alsatian comes bounding down to a fence over the other side of a ditch. Dill the Dog puts on every possible air and grace and reduces the poor dog into a barking frenzy. Back at the car park and check the Fieldguide – yes, still happy with the Arctic Redpoll identification. Over the canal is a new nature reserve, so we check it out. Two nice ponds which, when all the saplings grow up around them, will look pretty good. Only a few Black-headed Gulls, Coot and a single Pied Wagtail. Then back off through the industrial murk-land, very satisfied.

Sunday 25th February – Anglers Country Park – Lay in bed first thing deciding whether to go to Nottingham to find the Cedar Waxwing. Decide it would be sensible to check BirdLine first. It turns out that the 400 strong flock of Bohemians and the Cedar are still in Nottingham but “very mobile”. Apparently, yesterday they ranged from the north to the south of the city. Not knowing Nottingham very well, I decide this would be a long trip and a good chance of not catching up with the flock. So, decide to head off to Anglers instead where there is a report of a Slavonian Grebe. Get outside and discover it has snowed, thawed, frozen and snowed overnight. Although the layer of snow is minuscule, the layer of ice on the windscreen is not! Eventually, the car is defrosted and I head for Anglers. The first bird I see getting onto the site is a singing Skylark – snow or no snow, spring is still a-coming. Walk around the Country Park lake, not a lot on – 250 Wigeon, 3 Goldeneye, a few Tufted Duck and Pochard. The air temperature around Anglers is probably several degrees above zero, but it the only place that can have a chill-factor in dead still air. As it is there is a very slight breeze blowing and it is cold! Head off to Wintersett Reservoir. The ground is half frozen so it is like walking on a crackly mush. Reach the bridge over the overflow channel between Wintersett and Cold Hiendley. At the far end of Cold Hiendley is a white-cheeked, black-capped Grebe – looks like the Slavonian. On Wintersett there is a decent flock of Goosander – 35 females and 15 males. There are also some Great Crested Grebe with two individuals in their courtship dance. Goldeneye males are also swimming around and flicking their heads back in display. Overhead a Grey Heron grunts past being harassed by Black-headed Gulls. Back at the car park, a couple of birders tell me the Slavonian Grebe is on Anglers. A puzzle! I wander around and sure enough there it is – and it is clearly smaller than the Cold Hiendley bird. Was that one just a smaller Great Crested seen at a great distance? I also discover there is a report of Red-breasted Mergansers on Wintersett. Now why, oh why did I not look more closely at that smaller female Goosander I had noticed. Driving back I stop at the woods at the far end of Wintersett and go through to the water’s edge and scan the Goosanders again. Every female looks the same size and very Goosander-like. It is being careless as I was today that lets good birds slip away.