March 1999

Monday 1st March – Elland – Heavy rains in recent days is now draining off of the moors and rushing down the Calder Valley. The islands in the river between Greetland and Elland have all but disappeared. The tops of bushes stand above the water, bent by the flow. Black-headed Gulls fly up river towards the moorland reservoirs where they will roost. Suddenly they pause and start circling high above and drift back downstream again. Then they form up into loose lines and resume their journeys. A pair of Mallard fly swiftly downstream.

Tuesday 2nd March – Barnsley – The weather is cold, windy and raining. But the hedgerows have determined that winter has finished with blossoming Blackthorn, catkins and leaves emerging on Hawthorn.

Saturday 6th March – Barnsley – However, the hedgerows are wrong. I awaken to a thick coating of snow. A small area of ground in the lea of the bird table is covered with Goldfinches feeding on spilt seed. I clear off the top of the table and put out some more seed. At least a dozen Goldfinches, a small number of House Sparrows and a pair of Blackbirds visit to feed. Blue, Great and Coal Tits are visiting the sunflower seed feeder continuously. One of the House Sparrows has white outer tail feathers. I walk down to Willowbank with a very excited Dill the Dog. She keeps sticking her nose into things so she has a near permanent blob of snow on it. Willowbank is quiet in the still falling snow. Occasionally a Great Tit start wheeling his song and the sound of ducks rise from the loop far below. Small flocks of gulls fly in a meandering way up the valley.

Sunday 7th March – Wombwell – The snow has been replaced by cold rain driven by a bitter northerly wind. I wander up the disused road towards the Darfield junction. An old crumbling wall is covered in Ivy. Tight clusters of red-green berries are swelling into shining blackness. A small group of Mistle Thrushes fly around, calling harshly. The quarry has guano marks on the faces, probably roosting Kestrels. Now only a couple of Blue Tits move through the bushes. A Robin sings lustily from low in some Hawthorns. By the disused railway a Yellowhammer starts his song hesitantly, but gathers pace and brightens the greyness. Scanning the Ings shows a large flock of grazing Wigeon and over thirty Goosander on the water.

Saturday 13th March – Worsbrough Country Park – A dawn mist lies over the Dove Valley. A Pied Wagtail stands jauntily on the gable end of the house on the disused railway. The track itself is now part of the Trans-Pennine Trail. Robins and Blackbirds are greeting the dawn with song. There are Mallard, Ruddy Duck, Pochard, Goldeneye, Teal, Tufted Duck and Great Crested Grebe on the reservoir. Shaggy-coated, long-horned Highland Cattle ruminate in the field. A pair of Mallard stands atop a steaming manure heap. The swampy woods at the back of the reservoir are loud with song – Chaffinches, Robins, Blackbirds, Wrens, Blue and Great Tits. Fat Wood Pigeons sit high in the trees. White rumps flash as a pair of Bullfinches move silently through Hawthorns. Bright green leaves of Wild Garlic are crowded on the woodland floor. A large area of reed bed is being developed in the flooded Willow scrub by management of the growth. A pair of Reed Buntings are eyeing the site. A Common Snipe flies up from in front of the hide. Many more Reed Buntings are chasing over the Phragmites beds. A male Bullfinch glows pink as he pulls off Hawthorn leaf buds. Every twig has a drop of rain hanging like a transparent moonstone. A flash of turquoise as a Kingfisher flies down the rill next to the old waggon road. A Robin lands on a low branch beside the path, his beak thrust forward, daring me to encroach on his territory.

Sunday 14th March – Blackburn Meadows – Bright sunshine and blue skies, an almost forgotten scenario. Water still rushes over the lock gates of the Sheffield Canal. On the first pond, Coots are motionless, apparently defending their area of water. Tufted Duck preen. The short but trilling song of the Dunnock floats across the Broom thicket. An even shorter call comes from a Reed Bunting, whilst Sky Larks sing above. Underlaying these songs is a distant call of a Little Grebe. The silver fluffy buds of Pussy Willow are opening, in a few cases they are fully out into bright yellow pollen covered blossoms

Wednesday 17th March – Dearne Valley – Heading back up the Dearne Valley towards Smithies. The canal runs for a short distance from where it has been filled as it passed under the Pontefract Road to where again it has been filled under the Eldon Street North gyratory and ASDA. The River Dearne runs parallel to the canal here. The valley is a mixture of brown and yellows – dead grass, bare branches offset by the bright yellow blossoms of Gorse and the subtler yellow shade of Goat Willow. A horse is being put out to grass. A large spike is driven into the ground and a chain tethers the beast. It whinnies and charges round in circles. Along the canal at Willowbank a Green Woodpecker laughs incessantly. The water is clear by the concrete dam and a pair of Great Diving Beetles are locked in procreation, diving together for the shelter of water plants. I return to the canal in the afternoon. It is now quite warm which has brought out the bees from hibernation. Across from Willowbank Lapwings are displaying above the fields. Green shoots rise in the reed beds. The young Mute Swan is still in the same section of canal. There is a nodule of black skin on each wing, which looks strange, possibly the reason why it appears unable to fly. Mallards are squabbling on Fleets Dam lake.

Thursday 18th March – Caldervale – There is a large boating lake next to the M1 motorway at Caldervale. A pair of Great Crested Grebes were displaying as I drove north.

Hessle – A quick visit to the woods that are almost underneath the Humber Road Bridge. Chaffinches and Great Tits called. A patch of Violets were in blossom.

Blacktoft Sands RSPB Reserve – Darkening skies and a rising wind. Little Grebe, Pochard, Tufted Duck and Shelduck are feeding on the pools. An Oystercatcher calls from in front of hide. Isolated pairs of Greylag shelter in the margins of the reed beds, whilst small flocks of Teal arrow across the tops. More Shelduck are coming in to roost on the small mud islands. A “Wind Hover” – a Kestrel – sits atop a Willow scanning the reeds and grass below. Pairs of Redshank twist and turn as they fly past.

Friday 19th March – Barnsley Canal – The dawn chorus is a crescendo. Blackbirds, Song Thrush, Blue, Great and Willow Tits, Robins, Wrens, Dunnocks and Chaffinches are all at full flow. Two Great Spotted Woodpeckers are drumming at the bottom of Willowbank. One seems to use telephone poles exclusively, which give a louder, more resonant sound. Then, at the top of Willowbank on the other side of the railway track, the sound that means Spring has arrived – my first Chiffchaff of the year.

Saturday 20th March – Edderthorpe – Wrens, Robins and Chaffinches are singing along the track. A Willow Tit buzzes from a Hawthorn. There are good numbers of Wigeon, Mallard, Teal and Tufted Duck but only a single female Goosander on the flash. Moorhens and Lapwings feed on the mud, whilst more of the latter are displaying and peewitting over the fields. A Kingfisher shoots across the water and alights on the boundary fence. Grey Herons flap lazily around the area. Dill the Dog flushes a single Grey Partridge. Sky Larks sing above the wide-open expanse of grassed hillside created from one of the Grimethorpe Colliery spoil heaps. A piping Oystercatcher flies overhead.

Sunday 21st March – Anglers Country Park – A strong and cold wind blasts across the reservoirs. The large concentration of wildfowl has dispersed, leaving the resident Tufted Duck, Great Crested Grebe, Mallard, Teal, Coot and Mute Swans. Frogs are coupled in the pools next to the Pol. Goldeneye are still present on Wintersett.

Monday 22nd March – Barnsley Canal – The two Great Spotted Woodpeckers are still in competition at the bottom of Willowbank. One uses a tall Ash, the other a wooden telephone pole. A normally skulking Wren is singing from the top of a Hawthorn. Fourteen Magpies are on the ground with Wood Pigeons in a field. The presence of straw suggests some feed for either cattle or horses has been placed or dropped here. Along the canal the occasional plops of Water Voles can be heard as they dive into the water from the bank. A Great Tit is making a fair imitation of a Willow Tit call, one of the latter responding from nearby.

Friday 26th March – Ditchling Common, East Sussex – It is grey and quite cool on The Weald of Sussex, compared to the bright blue skies and sunshine in Yorkshire. Blackbirds, Blue and Great Tits are singing. One Blackbird pinks an alarm call incessantly. White Anemones – the “Wind Flower” are coming into blossom. A pair of Mute Swans, a few Mallard and Canada Geese move around the pond.

Saturday 27th March – Ovingdean – A quick to the church in this little village just off the main coast road to the east of Brighton. There has been a report of a Cattle Egret in the area. The grave of Magnus Volk is in the churchyard. He was an engineer who experimented with electric traction and his electric trams still travel the Brighton seafront. There are few birds around, but as we leave I catch sight of a white bird moving through a rough pasture – the Cattle Egret.

Seven Sisters – Birling Gap is a few houses and a restaurant in a gap in the towering white chalk cliffs as the South Downs meet the English Channel. The cliff is still fifty feet high and a lifeboat used to be winched up and down to the beach for rescues. Dill the Dog refuses to take a dip in the sea and gets thrown in eventually. Further up the cliffs is a small wood. A Green Woodpecker calls but remains hidden. Beyond the wood is Belle Tout – once a watch-out for the coastguard, now a residence. It has just been placed on a cradle and moved over thirty metres back from the edge of the cliff that is crumbling away. A few miles on the huge collapse of the cliff at Beachy Head is visible. It is clear that much more of it will fall in the next few years.

Sunday 28th March – Pagham – A few waders and wildfowl are on the Ferry Pool. A Spotted Redshank is feeding in the water. A number of Black-tailed Godwits are changing into summer plumage. One has been ringed. (l red r yellow)

Church Norton – Some woodlands are being cleared beside the church. There is some dispute about this as it is part of the nature reserve and a good environment for birds. However, the trees are damaging some Norman earthworks, which I must admit I did not know were even there. Again, few birds are around. A Chiffchaff is calling. Red-breasted Mergansers are in the harbour and at sea. A few Brent Geese are feeding on the far side of the harbour. Large clumps of purple leaves grow on the shingle – I assume they are Sea-Kale, but have been unable to confirm this as not a single plant guide I checked mentioned this.

Hamsey – A tiny hamlet and a church on a loop of the River Ouse. A Kestrel soars over the fields. There are several brick-built Pill Boxes – Second World War defences on the edges of the water meadows. Cuckoo Flowers bloom, a delicate pale purple.

Monday 29th March – Stanmer – A flock of Redwings fly out of the woods and across the Downs. Chiffchaffs are calling from the new growth trees. Trees blown down in the storm of 1987 are now rotting, moss-covered trunks. Great discs of chalky soil, created from the uprooted bases of the downed giants, lay around, grass and ivy covered. There are a few patches where the vortices of the storm were weaker and great old Beeches still stand. But there are swathes of woodland where no tree is over 12 years old. The ground is covered with green of Dog Mercury and the arrow-shaped leaves of Wild Arum. Piles of white chalk and flints indicate Badgers setts. Dill the Dog is unwise to poke her nose too far down the wide necked holes. A dead fox lies nearby, no visible sign of the reason for its demise. Many tree stumps are festooned with the blown-out husks of last year’s Puffballs.

Wednesday 31st March – The Chilterns – West Wycombe – A small village mainly owned by the National Trust. The village is astride the busy A40, Oxford-London road. A mixture of styles of building from mediaeval to Georgian lines the street and small courtyards. High above the village is the church of St Laurance - an odd mixture of old flint and Georgian stucco. A large gold ball tops a square tower. Beside the graveyard is a massive circular mausoleum of the Dashwood family. A central covered pillar contains an urn, with reptilian clawed feet and a gargoyle face with a ring through its nose. Stone plaques on the wall proclaim the resting places of Dashwoods from at least 1710 to 1996. Urns, apparently containing their hearts are in niches high in the flint walls. Below the road stretches straight as an arrow. The warm sunshine has brought forth butterflies, brilliant yellow Brimstones and a ragged edged Comma. The woods are filled with ancients Yews, often with extensive root systems exposed. Many badgers’ setts are in the chalk soil. Suddenly above us floats a Red Kite – wing tagged and one of the recent releases in the Chilterns. A Sparrowhawk also drifts across the trees, and later a pair of Kestrels cross the hill, incurring the wrath of mating Rooks.

Kop Hill, Princes Risborough – The hill is above the town, lies on the Ridgeway, an ancient trackway and is wooded. Robins, Blue and Great Tits sing. A Bullfinch flies silently between thickets. Croaking Pheasants are heard from the surrounding fields. White and Yellow Anemone and purple and pink Lungwort (with delicately variegated leaves) flower in the leaf mulch on the woodland floor.