Sunday 1st February – Rotherham – Working all weekend near Rotherham. Behind the hotel the sides of the Don valley rise. It is covered with Silver Birch and Bracken. None of the trees seem older than about fifteen years, which begs the question what was there before. At the top of the slope there are signs of old quarrying, but little else. The bird life is sparse, a Sparrowhawk drifts over the hillside and a Jay lumbers between trees, but little else. At the bottom of the hillside is a smallholding. There is a field of large pigs and a long polythene building housing some white goats that stand and stare at me.
Monday 2nd February – Barnsley Canal – A slight frost down the canal but not enough to really harden the ground. As I cross the low concrete barrier over the canal, a Water Vole swims away but then stops and ignores me to nibble some delicacy, but Dill the Dog is too much and it dives with a splosh. Over the other side a bird flops through the air a bit like a Jay, but when it lands on the trunk of a tree it is revealed as a Great Spotted Woodpecker. A Mistle Thrush sings from the Hawthorn hedge. On the return leg the Great Spotted Woodpecker is drumming on a dead tree.
Tuesday 3rd February – Barnsley Canal – Throughout my walk down the canal this morning the cackling call of a Green Woodpecker echoes across the valley. These calls are punctuated by the harsh cries of Magpies. Coots and Moorhens cruise the canal – in pairs. Wrens are ticking from the dead reed beds and the stunted hawthorns at the water’s edge. In the rough meadow of the flood plain there are molehills everywhere. In one patch there are over eighty mounds, about twenty metres further on there is another fifty mounds.
Sunday 8th February – Rother Valley Country Park – Down the motorway to the park, south of Sheffield. Initially there seems to be little on the large nature lake so I set off to the boating lake. Again, not a lot around so I head up the side of the lake so that I can get up on to the abandoned railway line to cross the River Rother. At the end of the lake are large towers that are something to do with water skiing, but I have never worked out exactly what is their purpose, other than convenient vantage points for roosting Black-headed Gulls. Dill the Dog decides it is time to get wet, having been rolling in mud all morning, and is in the lake. I cross the old bridge and drop down beside the river. A few Mallard and a lone Little Grebe are on the water. Round the football pitches and a large flock of Canada Geese lift off to the nearby small lake. There are a couple of Greylags and a dark-bellied Brent Goose with them. About seventy Redwings leave the tops of the Larches lining the pitches and fly to the middle of the open area. I check the small lake where there are Black-headed and Herring Gulls squabbling. As I pass a stream coming off the surrounding fields a Kingfisher shoots past flashing turquoise and chestnut, piping loudly. There are far more waterfowl at this end of the nature lake. A good number of Goosander, Teal and Wigeon are milling around the bottom corner. A birder mentions there is a Red-breasted Merganser (a local rarity) among them and after some searching I find it. The wind has increased in force and the wind-chill factor is now painful. I keep searching past the sleeping Pochard and occasional Shoveler and Gadwall for the Smew that has been reported. Eventually, I sight something at the far end of the lake but as soon as I get the scope focused on it the bird takes flight and heads towards me. As it moves down the lake I realise there is something pale chasing it. They become clear quickly, a red-head and a beautiful male – a White Nun. I then head back to the boating lake as there is supposed to be a Red-necked Grebe on. But I fail to find it, but watch the large feral flock which contains Greylags, a Pink-foot and several examples of the smaller Canada Goose race. Then the bitter wind defeats me and I retreat.
Friday 13th February – Barnsley Canal – The canal is full of bird song. Robins, Mistle and Song Thrushes, Blue and Great Tits and a lone Greenfinch are all declaring their territories. A Sparrowhawk glides low across the canal. There are flocks of Fieldfares, about twenty birds in each, are moving around the area. They are very flighty and several flocks are rising high and heading north.
Saturday 14th February – Barnsley East – St Valentine’s Day and romance is in the air – although there seems little romance in the scuffling copulation of Blackbirds on the roadside at Wombwell Ings. Chaffinches and Blue Tits are chasing their respective partners through the trees. I follow the field edge path beside the River Dearne towards the new Old Moor Wetlands. The wetlands are still rather sterile, as hardly any grass has grown on the new dykes and banks, never mind any other plants. There are some young Alders in the corner on top of which are some small brown jobbies. I check them carefully and eventually am convinced they are Twite – a species that eluded me last year. At Broomhill the new hide has now been installed. Four Shelduck are floating about the flash along with usual collection of wild fowl. Goosanders are still present but they look agitated and will soon be leaving for the North Yorkshire rivers to breed.
Sunday 15th February – Worsbrough – I awake to a loud pre-dawn chorus of several Blackbirds and Robins. The songs are soothing and I wait until they stop just as it begins to get light before rising. High above Worsbrough Reservoir a single large gull circles lazily on an updraft before gliding off. On the reservoir the various wooden rails and posts are occupied by Grey Herons instead of the usual Black-headed Gulls. Along the paths, Hawthorns are already coming into blossom – a plant also known as May after the month in which it traditionally flowers. I check the old tree behind the farm and the resident Little Owl is sitting on a low branch. At Rockley Forge I can hear drumming and eventually a Great Spotted Woodpecker flies out of the trees and alights on a telegraph pole beside Rockley Farm. The woods are loud with calls from Jackdaws, Chaffinches, Great and Blue Tits, Wrens and Robins.
Monday 16th February – Norfolk – Off to Titchwell Marsh, arriving at about midday. Immediately notice a rather brisk wind, not welcomed! There have been reports of a Penduline Tit in the reed beds but the dancing Phragmites do not seem promising. From the first hide there are lots of wildfowl on show – Teal, Shoveler, Mallard, Gadwall, Wigeon, Tufted Duck etc. There are also some waders – Greenshank, Redshank, Dunlin and a lone Avocet. I push on to the beach and scan the sea. There is a small group of Common Scoter with a Long-tailed Duck attached to the end of the flock. A lone Goldeneye and Great Crested Grebe are also just off shore. However, the wind is whipping up the dry sand and I quickly get tired of sand in my ears, mouth and scope, so I head back inland. A long search of the area behind the sea defence sand bank fails to produce any Shore Larks. An equally long search of the marsh also brings no sighting of the Green-winged Teal or Black-winged Stilt. It then starts to rain and a strategic withdrawal is in order.
Tuesday 17th February – Kent and Sussex – I manage an early start and arrive at Dungerness in Kent just after dawn. Dill the Dog is furious when I leave her behind as there are no dogs allowed on the reserve, but that’s life! I check the first large lagoon and immediately find a pair of Red-necked Grebes. Something is flitting about in a bush by the water. I locate a Robin but I am convinced there was something else there. Suddenly it flits up above the bush and lands on the top – a newly ringed Chiffchaff – first of the year. Around the far side of the reserve there are areas of stunted willow scrub and gorse where there are good numbers of Yellowhammers and Goldcrests, but yet again a reported Penduline Tit is not to be found.
Heading west I check a water filled gravel pit and there is a large flock of albifrons Greater White-fronted Geese. These I am somewhat bemused to admit, were lifers! A little further on near the Cinque Port of Rye I check another pit and find a lovely pair of Smew. Unfortunately I spook them when I get out of the car and they fly across to the other side of the water and proceed to dive where the sun is glancing blindingly off the water.
Then on to Beachy Head where birds are few and far between. Dill the Dog has a wonderful time chasing rabbits but suddenly comes down the path looking very sorry for herself and sits by me with one paw raised. I check the pad and find a small Hawthorn twig with a large thorn rammed up between her pads. It comes out cleanly and she is right as rain again. As I cross “High and Over” above the beautiful meanders of the River Cuck, there are road signs with a nice picture of a badger and warnings to take care, “Badgers Crossing”!
Wednesday 18th February – West Sussex – Off to Pagham Harbour. At the back of the Fiddlers Ferry pool is a large flock of Brent Geese – all dark-bellied bernicla race. I walk down the path beside the harbour (which is a vast area of mud flats with tidal creeks meandering through them). Sky Larks are singing high above, the first I have heard this year and brightens an already warm, spring-like day. Across on the flats there are good numbers of Grey Plovers and huge numbers of Dunlin. Black-tailed Godwits, Redshank and some Turnstones near the beach make up the only other wader presence. On a shingle spit at the entrance of the harbour sit a couple of sleeping Red-breasted Merganser.
Friday 20th February – Barnsley East – Although it is admittedly extraordinarily mild for the time of year, after an hour in the hide at Wombwell Ings my fingers are well and truly cold. However, my wait is finally rewarded when the two Water Pipits I am seeking fly in and feed in front of me. There are also four Ringed Plover and three Pintails on the Ings.
Sunday 22nd February – Home – Over recent days a pair of Goldfinches have been visiting the bird table in my front garden. Their clown faces and the brilliant flash of yellow on their wings brighten the whole garden. This afternoon a pair of Wood Pigeons alight on the table. They seem huge compared to the usual visitors. The mauve pink breasts, slate grey backs and the vivid white flash on their necks are a beautiful sight. Their powerful yellow beaks attack the seeds at their feet.
Monday 23rd February – Barnsley Canal - The volume of song is growing around Willowbank. Blackbirds, Robins, Song and Mistle Thrushes, Blue, Great and Willow Tits, Dunnocks, Greenfinches and Goldfinches all contribute. A pair of Reed Buntings are chasing each other through the reed beds.