Saturday 1st March – Blackburn Meadows – The wind is still blowing but at least it is dry this morning. At Blackburn Meadows there are a few duck on the lakes – Mallard, Teal and a Gadwall. As I walk around the perimeter of the lakes a pair of Grey Partridge are flushed. It is not their morning as they persistently alight some way in front of me and are flushed again. They head off down to the reclaimed land but I am also heading that way so they are last seen scurrying over the top of the rise, heads down with frequent backward glances – probably more at Dill the Dog than me. A female Goosander comes in from the west like an Exocet, heading for the lakes. On the area still being reclaimed a pair of nerds in camo gear carrying guns are stalking – on the skyline! They are uneasy because I keep watching them through my binos and fortunately they move off away from the nature reserve. The canal is full and a father and his kids taking a rest from their cycling against the arm of the lock gates. The lad points at Dill the Dog and says “Look, Dad, a Dalmatian”. His father knows better but I realise that Dill the Dog has even more brown spots than ever, so to young eyes the mistake is easy. Dill the Dog is very unhappy about the anglers’ big green umbrellas, under which they shelter from the wind. She looks earnestly at each angler as she passes to make sure they are not being eaten by the big green monsters.
Sunday 2nd March – Wombwell Ings –Still high winds but lots of sunshine. Wombwell Ings is spreading out over the meadow. There are still ten Goosander present – the males resplendent in their breeding plumages and chasing the females who show absolutely no interest at all. There are nine Dunlin feeding furiously in the mud and a flock of 40 plus Golden Plover wheeling around overhead. There are much fewer duck now, maybe a dozen each of Pochard, Wigeon and Teal. Three Redshank are feeding on the far side. A Pied Wagtail flies its dipping flight across the mud.
Elsecar – a village south of Barnsley. It retains a lot of old terraces of houses built in a glowing yellow-brown sandstone. Larger houses at different angles line the winding road. Unfortunately too many newer houses have been built in the spaces between the older stock and, although built of similar material, do not have they same patina as the old. The church bells are pealing out well-known hymns – not altogether perfectly! Behind the road is a canal with a large stone lock. Water is pouring down a chute off the side of the canal and reappearing in the lock. Above the lock Mallard quack insistently on seeing a possible donator of food but they have to balance the opportunity of getting close and pressing their (unfortunately hopeless) claim and avoiding the attentions of Dill the Dog. A Grey Wagtails flits over the water seeking a stone to perch on whilst checking for invertebrates.
Friday 7th March – Willowbank – Day off work so start off by deciding Dill the Dog is far too smelly and it is into the bath with her and then off down the canal to dry off. There are quite a few horses kept on Willowbank and we wandered down Smithies Lane, that borders Willowbank and runs down and across the canal and River Dearne. It is a busy road as it connects the Huddersfield Road with the Wakefield Road. Anyway, half way down there was a horse standing in the middle of the road, completely unconcerned about the traffic hold up it was causing – just musing on the meaning of life. Anyway, I headed off along the canal and a little bird was sitting upright on a hawthorn bush ahead. Treecreeper? It flitted across the canal into a large old Willow. I watched for a while and it appeared on the trunk – yes, Treecreeper. A first for the canal area for me. Odd because there are none of the sort of woodland I usually associate with Treecreepers, more bramble and hawthorn scrub. A Green Woodpecker was around distantly but I did not see it. I did see a flock of thrushes which I wondered about until they took off and the flashing white underwings meant Mistles.
Home – During the morning a Coal Tit turned up at the peanut feeder and the young Blackbird was on the table pecking at a rather rock hard flour and dripping cake I over-cooked! His bill is slowly turning to the bright yellow of an adult from the dull ivory colour earlier in the year.
Saturday 8th March – Whitburn – A long walk along the Whitburn Coastal Park near Sunderland in north-east England. It was a fine and sunny morning, but the birding was hardly dynamic. Fulmar Petrels are everywhere – booking their nesting places on the high cliffs, skimming across the sea far below and even some bobbing on the water. High above more than half a dozen Sky Larks are singing – a real exultation. This is repeated all along the cliff tops. Other Sky Larks are on the rough grass near the path, some allowing me to approach quite close before shooting into the air – their take-off is like a jet plane, a short low run and then a steep rise. Kittiwakes, Jackdaws and Feral Pigeons are also taking up places on the cliffs. Cormorants in breeding plumage, with the white patch on their thighs gleaming in the sun, are performing mating rituals on top of a large limestone stack just off shore. Further along on the rocky beaches Oystercatchers and Redshanks are feeding. Common, Black-headed, Herring and a single Greater Black-backed Gull are the representatives of the Larus family. A pair of Razorbills fly off the sea-facing side of the stack and head out to sea. Over the road is a long gallery that turn out to be the Marsden Lime Kilns, built in 1870. It is hardly surprising as the cliffs are all limestone, very eroded, even corroded. Towards South Shields, the base rock is visible. This is Yellow Sand, a sandstone which was part of a huge equatorial desert in the Permian Period. This desert lay below sea level and around 250 million years ago the sea broke through from the north and turned the area into a great inland tropical sea. It was in this sea that the limestone was laid down. It is a popular area for dog walkers, which gets Dill the Dog excited, although she was not impressed being barked at by a large Alsatian called Keegan!
Friday 14th March – Worsbrough Country Park – A bit of rain overnight has dampened everywhere and the clouds threaten more. Off to Worsbrough Country Park, which was a regular haunt when I first moved to Barnsley, but rarely visited these days. Lots of Mallard on the Reservoir, males in splendid breeding condition. There are also at least six Great Crested Grebes, Coots, Moorhens, a pair of Tufted Duck and four Cormorant standing on the raft in the middle. A Grey Heron skulks under a Willow at the back of the mud spit. To my surprise a Redwing was feeding on the path – I have not seen one for some weeks now and had assumed they had all headed back north. Just after seeing the Redwing, I heard my first Chiffchaff of the year. I could not actually locate it in the dense woodlands in the swampy area behind the reservoir, but found another one in similar swampy woods further on. These sightings were the second earliest by a day, 1995 being on 13th March. Five bright Bullfinches were pulling at fresh leaf buds on Elders. On the very top of the tallest Phragmites reed near the hide a male Reed Bunting looked like king of all he could survey. The woods are almost deafening with bird song – Robins, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Long-tailed Tits, Blackbirds, Dunnocks, Chiffchaffs, Magpies, Mistle Thrushes and Greenfinches all competing for air time. The May (Hawthorn) is in bloom – spring has sprung!
Monday 17th March – Rockley Furnace – Check out the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker site at Rockley Furnace. The dead Alder is still the same but the holes at the top show no signs of having been visited recently – it is a bit early in the year. I watch for a while whilst Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits forage and race each other through the trees. Dill the Dog gets bored so we move off down the stream. A Treecreeper mouses its way up a trunk beside the water. Chaffinches are pinking loudly in the woods. Near the ancient blast furnace where Wood Anemones are coming into flower – the Wind Flower as is appropriately named by blooming in March. Still no signs of the woodpeckers so I move off.
Barrow – The landscaping on the old pit site here is completed and over a thousand trees have already been planted. I chat to an old chap walking his dog who tells me that another seventy thousand are to be planted right over the huge featureless hill. There is now a track over the top so I wander over. Only Skylarks can be heard and occasionally seen. I head back round and up the rapidly overgrowing road that used to lead to the colliery – the site of many a conflict during the great Miners’ Strike of 1984. A Jay is calling and then appears from the small trees growing beside the road and flies heavily across the field to the mature trees near Worsbrough village church. A cock Pheasant can see me from nearly the other side of the field and heads off rapidly for cover. I check a large tree in the middle of the field and the odd looking lump I had noticed reveals itself to be a Little Owl. I just get the scope onto it and catch a glimpse of its angry looking glare when it flits up the tree and I fail to locate it. All the time Green Woodpeckers are yaffling from the open woodland around the church. I reckon that there are four calling in all. I then head down the hill towards Worsbrough Country Park to check out another Lesser Spotted Woodpecker site I recall from some years ago, but my memory is not so good and I cannot even find the tree, never mind the woodpeckers.
Tuesday 18th March – Wombwell Ings –Windy and dull with rain promised. I set off early to Wombwell Ings. Birding is quiet around South Yorkshire at the moment. There is still a large flock of Wigeon scattered over the common land around the ings, a couple of Greylag Geese in the small Canada Goose flock, two pairs of Goosander and few other ducks but nothing to really grab my attention. The same applies to Broomhill Flash.
Blackburn Meadows – In the afternoon I check out Blackburn Meadows but again little is happening and the wind is getting stronger. A couple of Grey Heron sit hunched beside the sewage sludge pits but the Wheatears I was hoping for on the covered-over rubbish tip do not materialise.
Wednesday 19th March – Anglers Country Park – The Country Park lake is bleak in the strong wind with a scattering of Coot, a few Gadwall and Wigeon which have just been scared off the grass by a dog. Four Redshank are feeding on the Pol and there is also a Little Ringed Plover. The latter is very elusive and I only confirm identification when it flits across the water and shows no sign of wing bars. I cross the car park and go over to Wintersett reservoir. There appears to be even less here but I catch sight of a small flock of Sand Martins over the water. They soon move off. At least three Chiffchaffs are calling from the woods bordering the water. A large Bumble Bee is visiting the pollen laden Pussy Willow. From some old industrial ruin overlooking the lower Cold Hiendley lake I spot a Jay flapping across the water. A pair of Great Crested Grebes is displaying away down the bottom of the lake.
Fairburn Ings – Down the lane there are Greenfinches calling from bushes and gardens. Large numbers of Black-headed Gulls are noisily squabbling all over the lakes. A few Goldeneye and a fair number of Tufted Duck are diving on Village Bay. A new hide has been built overlooking the east end lake. From here there are a pair of Great Crested Grebe right in front in a clump of reeds. At first the smaller female swims around the noticeably larger male. He then rises upright out of the water and then arches his neck until his bill touches the water. He then “plays dead” by laying along the water with his chin just a fraction above the surface. The female swims around to face him head on and they both start vigorous head shaking. He then starts to pick up twigs and dead reeds and make a pile beside himself. They both move around a while and then the female starts to add dead reeds to the pile. They then just continue to move very slowly around the area. I leave them and head up onto the high bank that separates the River Aire from the Ings. Dill the Dog thinks her moment of glory has arrived when something brown cartwheels across path and she manages to catch it. She still seems quite pleased with herself when it turns out to be only a large dead leaf. There is little to see from the hides on the bank so I head back. A large flock twitters overhead and I am not absolutely sure that they are the Siskin I take them for – Redpoll still seems a possibility. A short drive takes me down to the Flashes at the far west end of the site. Here lots of wildfowl are feeding on the shallow open waters – Gadwall, Mallard, Shelduck, Goldeneye, Tufted Duck, Shoveler and Ruddy Duck. A group of eleven Goosander is asleep near bushes standing in the water. All over the site are Canada Geese in small flocks or pairs.
Thursday 20th March – South Yorkshire – Again the weather threatens showers. I start at Blackburn Meadows but very quiet, a single female Goosander on the pools and the usual small numbers of duck and Black-headed Gulls. Next stop is Wath Ings. The development of the wetlands, now apparently called Oldmoor Wetlands, is continuing. This has resulted in the original ings being almost devoid of birds. It is hardly surprising with huge terra-forming machinery rumbling across the landscape. However, a Chiffchaff is hopping around a tree next to the road. At Wombwell Ings just up the road a pair of Red-legged Partridge scurry up the wheat field. With the shoots of wheat being only a few inches high they have nowhere to hide but soon decide there is enough distance between us to resume feeding. A Redshank is also feeding nearby. More Redshanks are on the ings. There are still at least sixty Wigeon around the site, they will soon be gone. A flock of fifteen Golden Plover flash around the water but depart without landing. Many have their breeding black bellies. Another four were on the mud feeding with the Lapwings. Ten Goosander are also still present. In the afternoon I head up to the already terra-formed Barrow site. As I walk down the track to the path crossing the hill I hear yet another variation on a Great Tit call – this one was “zip-wee-bleep”. As the other day across the top of the hill is lifeless.
I continue round the track and on the far side by Blacker Hill there laid out on a bank is an arch and blocked-in window from above the door of a church – the inscription around the arch read “Primitive Methodist Church”. I continue round until I reach High Royd Farm. Just before the farm a couple of Redwings are feeding in a meadow. Passing by a tree just over the farm wall, something flies out toward the run-down barn – a Little Owl glaring at me. It does not like my proximity so it takes off across the farm buildings and out of sight. I continue up a path beside Short Wood when I see a number of Yellowhammers on the edge of a newly harrowed field. As I begin to scan them I realise there is quite a large flock of finches. I drop down and set up the scope and begin to scan them. They are mainly Chaffinches with the cocks’ bright pink chests standing out. Next numerically are the glorious Yellowhammers and then several Reed Buntings – again the cocks standing out with their bold black heads. Then I see a head I do not immediately recognise – it seems to have two dark lines down the crown. The bird moves around and I see the orange breast – my first Barnsley sighting of a Brambling. I watch the flock for a while but they are very flighty and keep moving into a dip in the field and out of sight. Down through Worsbrough village and down to Rockley Furnace to check if any Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers are around, but no. Then back along beside the motorway and through the Country Park back to the car. Just as I reach it, a flock of some thirty five Fieldfares fly over – travelling south?
Friday 21st March – Hebble and Calder Navigation – I walk up the canal at Calder Grove on the way to work. Off to the south is a large area of crushed waste from a disused colliery. The site is now covered by stands of young Alders. In one clump a flock of Lesser Redpolls feed and chirp. I view them through the binos and suddenly notice one is much greyer and has clear, bright white wing bars – a Mealy Redpoll.
Saturday 22nd March – Wombwell Ings – It remains quiet. Just a few wild fowl including five Goosander, three Shelduck and over seventy Wigeon. Some Snipe are skulking in the ditches.
Sunday 23rd March – Ackworth – First stop on the way to Fairburn Ings is at an inverted mushroom shaped water tower near Ackworth. This is a regular Corn Bunting site and two were singing their jangling little call.
Fairburn – Fairburn remains a bit unfortunate for me. I miss a Mediterranean Gull that I later learned was sitting on a raft right in front of me and the Glaucous Gulls I need on my life list had gone over to a tip behind the Ings which is closed to the public.
New Swillington Ings – A large area of lakes and river south-east of Leeds. A couple of Barnsley birders are there and point out a nice male Ring–necked Duck. For the first time I notice the sides of the Ring-necked are a greyish colour in contrast to the Tufted Duck’s white sides. There are also Oystercatchers, Lapwings, Black-headed Gulls and wildfowl including Gadwall, Shelduck, a Goldeneye and Goosander. Then one of my colleagues casually mentions he could not find the Water Pipit. That makes my ears prick up. However, I had already dipped on the Glaucous Gulls, so how was my luck. In fact it is good, as the Water Pipit is located about fifteen minutes later. Although it is some distance away, the pipit is clearly larger than a Meadow Pipit and quite a grey colour. Its vent area and wing-bars are much whiter than a Rock Pipit.
Friday 28th March – Anglers Country Park – An early morning start at Anglers and the strong, biting cold wind is a shock to the system. Very little on the main lakes but a couple of sleeping waders are on the Pol. They are clearly smaller than the Redshanks that are probing the mud. Although I cannot see their bills they can only be Little Stints. A few hirundines disappear over the visitor’s centre and although I cannot see them in the bright rising sun, they must be Sand Martins.
Sunday 30th March – South Yorkshire – Begin at Northern College, at Stainborough, west of Barnsley. The gardens have one of the world’s finest Rhododendron collections, but few are in flower yet. There is also an important tree collection. Jackdaws are sitting around the ruined church, checking out nesting sites. A Starling disappears under the eaves of one of the stone built accommodation blocks. In the gardens, Greenfinches are wheezing everywhere. One individual sits high in a tree, his breast glowing green-gold in the morning sun. He tilts his head to check where Dill the Dog is off to. By the mock castle stand high trees and at the very top are the birds I have come to find – Hawfinches. The sun glints of the magnificent bill of a male and another two are hopping around the branches. Heading back through the woodlands a Bullfinch calls and then appears in an evergreen. Just above me a Blue Tit is searching the buds of a tree when it is chased off by a noisy Nuthatch which continues to peep loudly whilst checking the branches itself. I check the Rockley Furnace woods for the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker but still no joy. At Blackburn Meadows, there are still about a dozen Tufted Duck but little else. A Stock Dove is bathing in the shallows of the pond. A pair of Grey Herons flap heavily away from the marsh.
Monday 31st March – Edderthorpe – A strange place. A low-lying meadow that has an area of water at the far end most of the year. By last autumn this had dried completely. Yet now, not only is the flash full of water, much of the meadow is under water as well. Across the meadow, Coots are feeding on the grass and meadow plants under the water and pairs of Mallard and Teal sit asleep. In the middle of the meadow there is a nervous flock of nearly three hundred Golden Plovers – many in summer plumage. A Black-tailed Godwit, also in its brick-red breeding plumage, stands in a clump of grass. Several pairs of Redshanks are feeding, often being disturbed by single birds that are chased off by the dominant male. A flock of ten Whooper Swan is feeding on a winter wheat field to the south. To the north is the high “cliff” of the spoil heap of the closed Grimethorpe Colliery. Silver Birch scrub is colonising the area, with large reed beds in the drainage pools at the base of the heap. These have a few Reed Buntings but are not yet alive with the grumbling and reeling calls of Reed and Sedge Warblers. In the distance by the main flash are a small flock of Wigeon and single Ringed Plover and Corn Bunting. Walking back towards the road, the ever-present calls change from the keening cry of Lapwings and Redshanks to the melody of Skylarks.