Monday 4th March 1996 – Pugney’s Country Park – A couple of weeks holiday with nothing planned. I was thinking about trying to find a White-billed Diver present in Lincolnshire. Then I got the appalling news on the Net that it had died after swallowing a fishing hook. As someone who used to go angling, I try to take a live and let live attitude, but I am sickened by the rubbish left by anglers, the disturbance and the damage to wildlife caused by discarded line, hooks, weights etc. Anyway, it is off to Pugney’s Country Park near Wakefield to find a Red-necked Grebe. I walk all the way the main lake, the Red-necked Grebe is supposed to be on a smaller lake round the other side. A small group of Long-tailed Tits are moving through the willow brush beside a small stream. On the pathway, a Carrion Crow is calling loudly and continuously until Dill the Dog decided to say “hello”, at which point it beats a hasty retreat. A male Reed Bunting sings the wires beside the football pitches. On the small fishing lake there are only a couple of Tufted Duck and some Coots. Moving further round I scan the main lake. A few Goldeneye males are performing their head-flicks for the attendant females. By the boat launch jetty a flock of Canada Geese are washing their plumage by rolling completely over in the water. I have seen ducks and grebes dive forward into the water to clean plumage and Tufted and Pochard roll partly over to preen, but I have never seen any water bird spin completely over in the water before. Eventually get round to the nature lake and into the hide. There are flocks of over 150 Pochard, 100 Tufted Duck, 30 Ruddy Duck, 50 Mallard and numerous Coot and Black-headed Gulls right in front of the hide. On two man-made structures stand 37 Cormorants, many with white bellies. Also some 25 Great Crested Grebes but no Red-necked. Watch everything for a while, especially a pair of Redshank probing a channel right in front of me, then read the daily reports on the wall. The Red-necked Grebe seems to prefer the far north-eastern corner of the lake, out of sight of the hide, of course. So it is back to the top of the lake, but still nothing. However, the viewing is poor because of the thick willows surrounding the lake. So it is a very quiet creep through the willows to the edge of the lake (try doing that with Dill the Dog!). And there it is a couple of metres in front of me. Splendid view of a Red-necked Grebe. The red neck is developing but still very pale and greyish, its back a lovely mottled grey and a good view of the black bill with its yellow base. I do not stay for too long as I do not want to disturb it so creep away. Back to the car and for those who wish to know such things Dill the Dog has already been in the main lake, through every mud pool but felt it necessary to just leap in one more just before the car park, thus ensuring a wet and smelly journey home.
Pennine Edges – By mid afternoon, decide to take another wander around. Off firstly to Dodworth scrape but absolutely nothing to be seen. Next stop Scout Dike reservoir. Although I have checked over the reservoir before, I have never walked around it, so off we go. Round the far side and find a bush with 7 Goldfinch and a Chaffinch. Out on the water is a lonely looking Great Crested Grebe and a flock of Canada Geese. Fortunately, I decided to check the geese out a bit more carefully and locate a Greylag and a Pink-footed Goose in them. A splendid Bullfinch flies to the top of a bush right in front of me and sits there meeping gently. At Ingbirchworth reservoir the gull roost is building. Lots of Black-headed Gulls, many with black heads. Also a few Common, Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. Take some side roads home through hidden valleys, with hamlets with names like Gunthwaite - pure Viking. The profusion of footpaths in the area have given me ideas for some wanderings soon - especially as it looks like woodpecker and owl country.
Tuesday 5th March – Sheffield – The constant comments about the size of the Waxwing invasion this year is beginning to get to me, because I have not seen a single individual so far. The other constant report is about the flock of 100 plus Waxwings on the Sheffield Inner Ring Road, not far from my office. So I head down to Sheffield, park in the Safeway car park, and start looking, and looking and walking and looking and looking. Not one anywhere. Decide to check the cemetery, which would be easier from the office so I drive up to the office, parked up and popped in. “What are you doing here - you’re on holiday!” “Looking for a flock of birds”. “Oh”, replies one of the secretaries, “We had a flock of strange birds in our garden the other day. They had crests - I thought they were Jays but they didn’t look right.” I show her picture of a Waxwing. “Oh, yes, that’s definitely them!” Ever seen a grown man cry? Still did not find one anywhere.
Pennines – This afternoon, we head out again towards the Pennine slopes. A wander through some farm land allows Dill the Dog to get muddy, leap in a stream and stick her nose into a number of holes, big and small. A Jay flies into a spruce plantation squawking loudly. Near the farm are a few Yellowhammers and Chaffinches, but little else. Driving along and notice two Jackdaws standing on a sheep’s back - which seems to ignore them. Over to Scout Dike again. Now two Pink-footed Geese and a Little Grebe on the reservoir, but nothing else new. In the fields a large flock of Lapwings alternately feeds and flies around. A large Hare sits feeding in a distant field, not very much like the Mad March Hare, just sitting quietly.
Wednesday 6th March – Rotherham – Taking a holiday at the beginning of March does not really show much planning. The weather is unreliable and the birding is even more hit or miss. We head off down to Wiston Meadows near the M1 motorway. These are some lowlands near the River Rother and are not a particularly notable birding site, but quite pleasant, nonetheless. A couple of Reed Buntings greet us getting out of the car but disappeared quickly on seeing Dill the Dog (OK, it was probably me that scared them off...) Wandering around produces a few Redwings, Chaffinches and Yellowhammers. Over the other side of the field a pair of Mallards and Carrion Crows were having a barny about something, with the duck giving up and fleeing. Across another field, a pair of Red-legged Partridge were feeding in a field of bright green shoots. I then drove up into Treeton, a small village on the outskirts of Sheffield. Looked at the church – St Helen’s, a Norman building from the mid 13th century built on the site of an earlier Saxon Church. Apparently, this is one of the few churches of the Hallamshire diocese mentioned in the Domesday Book. Opposite the church entrance are the old stocks in which miscreants were locked in by a wooden bar across their legs for all their neighbours to see and jeer. In front of the church is a memorial to soldiers who fell during the Boer Wars in South Africa. However, they all fell victim to enteric fever rather than enemy action - hard to say which is the more tragic, a bullet or a microbe.
Ingbirchworth – In the afternoon, walk around the reservoir. Again, little to see - a good number of gulls coming in to roost but nothing unusual. Otherwise a few Mallard and Teal. Drive up onto the Sheffield to Huddersfield road and realise the moors are alight. Fires everywhere as the gamekeepers burn off the old heather growth to encourage new growth – the ideal food for Red Grouse. I guess this means no walking on the moors for the time being!
Thursday 7th March – Sheffield – At last! I get up earlier enough to head down to Sheffield before 8:00am and find the Waxwing flock. Over 100 in small trees just above my head – no use using binoculars, they were too close. At about 8:00am they up and head off across the road junction. I nip up to the office to sort out a couple of letters and then up to Redmires Reservoirs. Redmires, on the edge of the moors, is actually in sunshine but with a cold wind blowing. The rest of the moors are cloud covered with blotches of sunshine here and there. Apart from some very noisy Canada Geese pairing off and a lone pair of Goldeneye, the reservoirs themselves are deserted. Down the woodland path, through a mixture of Larch, Spruce, Willow, Birch and Sweet Chestnut, the air is ringing with the calls of Great, Blue, Coal and Long-tailed Tits. Occasionally, a Chaffinch punctuates this cacophony with its loud pink pink alarm calls.
Friday 8th March – Broomhill – Considerable anger as I pass the hide and visitors’ centre at Broomhill Flash and see a burnt-out ruin. Apparently, there have been problems with solvent-sniffers in the area recently, and this is the second arson attack in a week. It severely stretches my socialist reasonings as I consider there is something to be said for knee-capping! Pretty cold on Wombwell Ings, lots of Goosanders. A couple of Dunlin and Ringed Plover in front of the hide. A local tells me of a Bean Goose with the Canada Goose flock and when I head back it obligingly pops up from a drainage channel to give good views.
Saturday 9th March – Pennine Moors – A grey day and slightly hung over! Head out towards the moors and am very surprised by the dusting of snow all over them. Very little bird movement - a few flocks of Fieldfare in the little valleys. Drop in on Gouthwaite Reservoir, a small reservoir hidden in the hills above Penistone. A fair number of Black-headed Gulls and juvenile Herring Gulls, but little else. Muddy enough for Dill the Dog who manages to upset a flock of sheep by simply being there – she looks quite surprised at their reaction.
Sunday 10th March – Worsbrough Country Park – I have not been to Worsbrough Country Park for some time now. It used to be my local patch. The marshy woods behind the reservoir are ringing with the songs and calls of Song Thrush, Chaffinch, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Robin, Greenfinch and Magpie. No sign of an early warblers though. Dill the Dog is manic mood and charging around all over the place, which puts an end to any chance of finding a Water Rail, this being one of the best sites around here.
Monday 11th March – Blackburn Meadows – It is getting colder and mistier. Down the M1 to Blackburn Meadows. At least it is not as muddy as last time. I am surprised by the number of Greenfinches around the area, must be 30 plus in all. They are usually a fairly secretive bird but small flocks sit in low Hawthorns chattering merrily. A Kingfisher flashes up to a post by a small stream running parallel to the canal. It waits a moment and then darts with turquoise brilliance onto a branch protruding from a bush. Again, a slight moment as it checks the water below and then off again like a sparkling missile down the stream and out of site. Further down on the river a pair of Dabchicks (Little Grebe) chase one another, then realise they are being watched and submerge quickly. A pair of Reed Bunting watches us from a bush, but the Blue Tits overhead ignore us completely, too intent on chasing, snatching a morsel from a twig and then chasing again. A flighty flock of Redwings spots Dill the Dog ahead of me and are off. Over the canal a parliament of 15 Magpies sit silently in a tall Ash.
Tuesday 12th March – Barnsley Canal – Lo and behold, winter returns with a vengeance. Several inches of snow overnight but had stopped by first light. Up early and down to the Canal. Dill the Dog and I have a row about how one walks on the lead without pulling in all directions. Eventually, she sees my point of view! Get down to the old river loop with minimal problems. A couple of Mallard and a Snipe launch into the air, disturbed by a sniffing nose. A small group of Black-headed Gulls is travelling south, looking brilliantly white against the steely sky. Walk along the valley bottom, a few Fieldfare and Redwings and a lot of Blue Tits. Back up onto the tow path towards the end of the canal. A Jay flies off into the woods screeching loudly. It has now started snowing that pin-head type of snow. Suddenly and for unfathomable reasons, Dill the Dog leaps into the canal and has a swim. Not surprisingly she is coughing when she emerges on the bank. She seems surprised at being called various uncomplimentary names. A pair of Tufted Duck are flying around overhead, seemingly uncertain as to whether to come down to the water or not. A large flock of Fieldfares rise from a hedgerow at right angles to the canal - I reckon about 80 strong. They fly into trees near the houses at the top of Willowbank. A flock of over 30 Redwings is moving along the hawthorn hedgerow by the tow path. Decide to continue along the valley to the supermarket to get a paper and something for breakfast – I fancy a fry-up even if my ulcers do not. Pop over to the large trout lake and am rewarded with 15 Goosander, a first for my canal area list. There are also a good number of Black-headed Gulls and a couple of Common Gulls - one with a winter head, streaked and one with a pure white head. A pair of Mute Swan come over to say hello, but I decide they may not take kindly to Dill the Dog greeting them so we move off smartly.
Home – The snow has brought around the birds to my little front garden. A pair of Coal Tits, Blue Tits. pair of Hedge Sparrows, Blackbirds, a pair of Collared Doves, House Sparrows and a Robin have all been on the feeders or table.
Grange Gate – In the afternoon, a quick trip down to the River Dearne and the maze of abandoned railways at Grange Gate. Across the wide open park area before the railway bridges there are up to 100 winter Thrushes – Fieldfare, Redwing and a few Mistle Thrush. They are suddenly spooked, not by Dill the Dog for a change, but by a large female Sparrowhawk that winds its way down the valley. Its size catches me out for a moment, but the “splayed fingers” at the wing tips rule out Peregrine. On the river, further down, a few Teal, Dabchicks and a single Redshank. A Great Tit does its best to pretend spring really is round the corner, despite all this snow, by singing out bravely from the top of a hawthorn.