Friday 3rd March – Barnsley Canal – The bright, cloudless mornings continue. This is the coldest yet. The ground is iron hard, the ridges of frozen rutted mud dig into my soles and threaten my fragile ankles. A pair of Bullfinches fly out of the Hawthorn hedge and off up the canal. Dawn chorus is in full concert on Willowbank. Two Cormorants fly up the valley. A pair of Goosander are swimming up the river close to Smithies Lane.
Saturday 4th March – Silkstone Fall – It snowed around tea-time yesterday for an hour of so. This froze overnight so there is now a thin, crunchy layer of snow everywhere. The woods are very quiet, just the occasional squeak from a Blue Tit.
Wednesday 8th March – Barnsley Canal, Old Mill – Despite the rain and relatively mild temperature, some 10°C, there is still a thick layer of ice on the canal. A Moorhen steps deliberately across the ice, green legs planted delicately. A Green Woodpecker calls from across the valley. Water is pouring out of a gully hidden in the undergrowth. It is draining off of the retail park high above here. There is a mist laying over the ice where the old aqueduct joined this branch of the canal. A pair of Mallard slip as they waddle off across the frozen surface.
Thursday 9th March – Home – A grey day dawns, damp and uninviting. But in the garden there is a flash of colour as the Great Spotted Woodpecker visits the peanut feeder. Its black and white plumage and bright scarlet head brighten the gloom. Something is hopping around the Acers. It is a female Blackcap. It could be an overwintering bird, although I have not seen it around during the winter, or a very early returning migrant. I suspect it may have overwintered further south and now is moving north with the longer days. The recent cold spell certainly would mean it was not the warmth of Spring that was calling it!
Saturday 11th March – Champany Hill – Yesterday afternoon I walked Dill the Dog through the woods at Silkstone Fall in the pouring rain. At the top of the path that runs parallel to the Penistone railway line, I noticed a crossing I had not observed before. On the other side, a path led up to a public footpath and I resolved to investigate it soon. So today I thought I may as well go and have a look. The skies are overcast but it is dry. The footpath leads up to Champany Hill reservoir – an underground reservoir which is a large flat mound with airshafts emerging from ground. A nice house, Reservoir House, stands beside it. Chaffinches are calling from the trees and Carrion Crows stomp across the ploughed fields. A track leads down from the hill, past Champany Hill Farm to the road between Silkstone Common and Dodworth at Ben Bank. From the road, the land drops away down to the old Worsbrough to Penistone line and then rises again to the wooded hill that hides Stainborough Castle, the folly behind the great house that now is Northern College. I follow the road past Ben Bank Farm to Home Farm where white domestic geese are arguing with a Canada Goose beside the pond. Here a footpath leads back towards Champany Hill. There is a cheery hello from a woman in the farmyard and several Jack Russells come to investigate Dill the Dog. “Don’t worry,” says the woman, “They will only lick her to death!”
The path runs up beside a field and then over a stile to another field. This field is full of what I guess is beet. I see something flapping in the field like a wing and as I get closer I can see it is one of a number of dead Wood Pigeons placed out as decoys. I am almost on top of a camouflage net before I see it. A head pops up. “Good morning,” I say, “Sorry to disturb things.” “You’re not disturbing anything,” he replies, “Haven’t seen a pigeon all morning. I seen them over here all week but as soon as I set up, nothing!” I wish him luck and press on. The path crosses a couple more fields. It is heavy going through the clinging mud. A female Pheasant explodes out of the low leafy cover and across the field. Dill the Dog watches with just a flicker of interest. A Lapwing is displaying overhead. The path re-enters Silkstone Fall woods and back over the railway. Bluebell leaves are emerging – a rich green against the dull brown leaf litter.
Huddersfield Road – Driving up from The Old Post Office (now a pub) at Haigh towards Swithen House when a Common Buzzard soar across the top of the hill. “Oh look,” says Kay, “There’s another!” And sure enough a second rises from the fields to the west. Common Buzzards are increasing in numbers around here. They were once practically absent from the area. There are plenty of decent woodlands in which they can build their nests.
Home - By late morning it is snowing again and it does so until dusk. But it is fairly light and there is just a thin coating.
Saturday 18th March – Oxspring – There is a bitter easterly wind blowing across the Trans-Pennine Trail at Oxspring. The village is just south of Penistone and the trail is the old Penistone to Sheffield line. Oxspring is made up from two manors, Oxspring and Roughbirchworth. The modern village is probably on the Roughbirchworth side of the River Don. There is reputed to be an Iron Age fort up on the ridge above the village. It was known as the Roman Fort. (Clearly an old and common mistake. In Brighton, Hollingbury Camp was always called the Roman Castle in my youth. I used to imagine the Roman legionnaires standing on its ramparts looking out over the valleys below. It was some years before I discovered it had been an Iron Age fort.) The manors are listed in the Domesday Book. In 1306 Robert de Oxspring had granted part of a water mill used in the preparation of cloth to Henry de Rockley, and further references appear in the records from the 16th century onwards. The manors were bought in in 1547 by Godfrey Bosville of Gunthwaite Hall whose family came from Normandy and had been Knight Treasurers of William the Conqueror’s army. The bird life along the trail is lively – Blue and Great Tits singing, a very noisy rookery, House Sparrows and Robins in the hedges at the bottom of gardens, a brilliant male Yellowhammer in bushes, a Kestrel over a ploughed field and a pair of Partridges which fly off the from the trail into nearby fields. A new housing estate has sprung up since I was last here. Dill the Dog is lively after a bad bout of arthritis in the week, which anti-inflammatory drugs have cured in a remarkably short time. However, she insists on dawdling behind, sniffing, and at one stage loses me altogether and is standing looking worried on the trail after I have left it. Back through the village and down a path called Willow Lane. At the bottom there is Willow Bridge; a splendid old footbridge, maybe three foot wide, and steeply arched.
Tuesday 21st March – Fleets Dam – The Vernal Equinox has passed. The days are now longer than the nights. It seems to have been a long grey winter. Indeed, it is reported that March has been the coldest month of the entire winter, a very rare occurance. There is a sharp coldness this morning. Fish in the lake have probably had a bad night – there are three Cormorant, eight Goosander, three Grey Herons, three Great Crested Grebe and a Kingfisher present. Long-tailed Tits squeak through the trees. A Treecreeper mouses silently up a trunk. A noisy pair of Canada Geese fly over. A Dunnock sings lustily. Two Mallard and a Coot glide around the edge of the water.
Thursday 23rd March – Home – Despite the cold weather, frog spawn has appeared in one of the ponds. The other is covered with a thin coating of ice! At long last it looks like an area of low pressure will move in from the Atlantic. Whilst this will mean wet weather, the temperature should rise and gardening can commence.
Saturday 25th March – Dearne Valley Park – Bright sunshine greet the day. Goldfinches are singing along with Great and Blue Tits. Magpies are busying themselves gathering nesting material. A Black Swan glides across the fishing lake. There is a nice little mosaic depicting a miner’s lamp indicating the Dearne Valley Way. It was designed by the young people of Bank End Youth Club.
Home – The sun means that finally my lettuce seedlings can be transplanted into the garden. I sow more peas and Broad Beans. I also sow a row of beetroot. The aquarium is brought up from the cellar and some frog spawn brought indoors to develop.
Sunday 26th March – Dearne Valley, Manvers – The clocks go forward so it is “later” than usual for Dill the Dog’s morning walk. A large lake has been created on the long stretch of land between Wath Ings (now Old Moor RSPB reserve) and the outskirts of Mexborough. The land was all formally part of the huge Manvers complex – coal mining. A large part is now factories and call centres, with more being built. The flat land leading to the lake is compacted clay and thus it does not take much rain to leave it sodden and covered in pools of water. Sky Larks are singing overhead. Pairs of wild fowl, Canada Geese and Mallard, wander around, avoiding the many dogs. On the lake, Great Crested Grebe are preening. Many more Mallard and Canada Geese are pairing off. There is still a pair of Goosander gliding majestically across the water. A Dunnock sings his simple but lovely song from the top of a gorse bush. Black-headed Gulls, with black heads again, fly over. Dill the Dog investigates a concrete ramp running into the lake. I assume she will just paddle a bit, but no, she wanders to the hidden underwater edge of the ramp and falls off into the lake. For a moment it looks like I am going to have to go in to get her out as her back legs are struggling to raise her back onto the ramp, but she manages it. A Mute Swan makes a lot of noise and disturbance flapping his wings in the water as he bathes.
Monday 27th March – Willowbank – Because of the start of British Summer Time, the morning is darker again. However, it is much warmer and considerable rain has fallen. The first summer visitor makes its presence heard – a distant chiff chaff, the onomatopoeic call of the Chiffchaff.
Home – The opening of the back door results in a boiling flurry in the pond. A brown head remains on the surface, watching. There is considerably more frogs’ spawn in the ponds now. A tub on miniature daffodils is in flower, as are crocuses and snowdrops still. The winter sown broad beans and peas have not fared as well as hoped, the former through pigeon damage, despite the netting and the latter simply have not germinated very well.
Friday 31st March – Willowbank – It is grey and wet in the half-light of dawn. A Blackbird is silhouetted against the steely sky. Its song is bright and effusive though. Wrens and Great Tits are also in song. The canal is flooded by the recent rains. A pair of Canada Geese fly up the valley cackling loudly. Summer warblers are in short supply – just a single Chiffchaff calling.