May 1998

Saturday 2nd May – Yorkshire – A bright blustery day. The morning starts with a gathering and a short memorial service in Dewsbury to commemorate all the workers who have been killed and injured at work. I then take my friend Kay on a tour of the district. From Dewsbury we head south west towards the moors. We stop off at Langsett to visit the old Oak wood. I tell Kay to look out for a small black and white bird and she promptly sees it before me! A splendid male Pied Flycatcher. Over to Ewden Beck to check the woods for what is becoming an increasingly elusive species here, Wood Warbler. Again, not a tinkle of its strange “spinning-coin” song. A Chaffinch and Willow Warblers loudly proclaim their presence but that is all.

Monday 4th May – West Yorkshire – We head north towards Calderdale. It looks like this may be a mistake as across the hills the tall needle of Emley Moor transmitter is shrouded in cloud. However, we reach Hebden Bridge and it is still fairly bright. A walk around the town with its line of mills up the River Calder. Then back through Greetland where there are still working dyers mills and on to Halifax. Throughout West Yorkshire there are hundreds of old woollen mills – great edifices of sandstone blocks, sometimes cleaned to glow a pale tan in the sun, often stained black with the smoke of the last century. Their names are often preserved – Machel & Son, Shoddy and Mungo Manufacturers (now a children’s activities centre); New Ings Mill; Victoria Mills (now a dealer in agricultural antiques); on the wall of a house, an advertisement, “Luther Rhodes Flock Manu” and the huge Dean Clough mill in the centre of Halifax (now a multi-purpose centre). Much of their output was traded through Halifax at the Piece Hall. This large building reminds one of a Roman garrison – a large square surrounded by a continuous building on all sides – two levels at the top, three at the bottom. The small rooms that the merchants used are now retail units selling everything from rocks and fossils to books, records to doughnuts. Just off the centre of the internal square is a band stand with a brass band in full swing.

Wednesday 6th May – Barnsley Canal – For the warblers it is “Show Time”! Their song fills the air all down Willowbank and along the canal. Willow Warblers in profusion, Blackcaps, Whitethroats, Garden Warblers (for once, one has stopped skulking and stands aloft on the top of a Willow) and well hidden in a reed bed that is still quite immature, a Reed Warbler jug-jugs; away. There are a lot of feathers on the Mute Swan nest and the pen is on duty.

Saturday 9th May – Minsmere, Suffolk – Setting off at 4:40 in the morning has the advantage of clear roads, although this is greatly offset by having to get out of bed! The run of 225 miles down to Suffolk was uneventful. I arrived at 8:30 and, as the reserve does not open until 9:00 I drove into the woods and parked up. As I got out of the car I could here a Nightingale. I looked and looked and then again, but simply could not see the songster. Eventually I moved on and heard Blackcap, Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff and Garden Warbler – and had still only seen a couple of Wood Pigeons. Eventually my frustration is assayed by the Garden Warbler that appears at the top of a Goat Willow. As I head back to the car the edge of the woods I hear and see clacking Blackcaps and squeaking Long-tailed Tits. Another Garden Warbler starts up and I catch a glimpse of movement, but on closer examination it is a Greenfinch pulling off Hawthorn buds. Off to the car park where I am kindly told to go further down the lane to a shaded spot to stop Dill the Dog getting too hot. I meet up with Jo, Jan, Moira and Caz. We get our passes and off we go. The first stop is an old sand cliff riddled with rabbit and Sand Martin holes. Outside are dozens of Sand Martins chasing. The abundance of insects must make them very happy birds, although the huge numbers of large black flies (St Mark’s Fly?) are not welcomed by us. A little further on in an area of gorse, Willow and Hawthorn a crowd is staring intently at a Hawthorn from which emanates the gloriously rich song of a Nightingale. The bird seems close enough to reach out and touch but none of us can see it. Eventually, we find glimpses of it, often by standing in a particular spot and looking into a hole in the leaf cover at a certain angle and part of the bird would be visible. However, I see enough to tick my first Nightingale for over 30 years. We reach the first hide. Greylags and Canada Geese on the shingle islands have young. Jo quickly locates a Garganey. I was perched on the edge of the bench seat so Jo invited me “to get my leg over”! There simply was no coherent response to that.

Common Terns wheel overhead. Black-headed Gulls sit on scrape nests, panting in the brilliant sunshine. Black-tailed Godwits in summer plumage sift the mud. We continue down the eastern side of the site between large reed beds. Sedge and Reed Warblers are calling – the first easy to spot the latter near impossible. We also get short sightings of Bearded Tits, usually with beaks of food. We have not got far before Jan calls us back. Jo and I start to wander back but Jan’s insistence forces us into a run – or a lumbering roll in my case. Jan points into the sky and blurts out “White Stork!” And sure enough there is a White Stork is circling. We reach the sea but there is little happening out there, apart from a few gulls and a passing Curlew. The marsh is protected from the sea by sand dunes and a bank. Little Terns speed overhead screaming. From the public hide (the main hide is overflowing) we scan the islands and shallows. The star bird is a beautiful summer plumaged Curlew Sandpiper. Other waders are Ringed Plover, Dunlin and Redshank. A winter plumaged Black-tailed Godwit has us fooled for few minutes. On the sand dunes we find a number of Stonechats. Jo asks about one which she describes as a juvenile. To me it is a splendid male! Then we discover we are looking at different birds. A little further on there is a Northern Wheatear strutting its stuff. By an outfall a single female Eider floats on the sea. We head up the western side of the marsh past some Tarpans – the re-created extinct horse of Europe, these coming from Mongolian stock.

We arrive back at the Visitor’s Centre where we get some welcomed refreshments. Greenfinches, Chaffinches, Great and Marsh Tit visit the feeders. I comment on the difference between Marsh and Willow Tit. “Oh yes,” says Jo, “It’s like the difference between Carolina and Black-capped Chickadees.” “Name dropper”, I growl! We then go round towards the island hide. Jo finds a bright red beetle. Rabbits feed on the heathland, ignoring us. A Sparrowhawk swoops across and over the pine woodland. We sit quietly and can hear the popping of Spruce cones. In the background a Bittern is booming. The hide is crowded but we squeeze in. The view is magnificent across the water and reed beds with Black Terns as delicate as dark photons skipping over the surface of the water. A Marsh Harrier bobs in the wind – so light and bobbing for such a powerful raptor. She is joined by the male who gives wonderful view as he sweeps round the lake and back over the reed bed. A group of Shelduck are distinctly unhappy and fly off. We continue round towards the next hide. A car suddenly stops in front of us and the people leap out and up the bank. We join them and they point out a small Adder with a skin like heraldic armour. It slides round the base of an Oak and off into the dead bracken. The next hide is Canopy and we climb the long flights of stairs and into the hide which is level with the tree tops. A Cuckoo stands on a tree and calls. We finally head back towards the Visitor’s Centre. Jo stops at a call we fail to recognise and she quickly finds its owner, a resplendant male Redstart. After the obligatory tummy tickling of Dill the Dog, I take my leave and head back north.

Sunday 10th May – Anglers Country Park – A bright morning with high cloud. Sedge Warblers and Reed Buntings are making their presence heard. A Mute Swan flies low overhead, its wings noisy through the air. Dill the Dog just stands and watches. A few pairs of Tufted Duck and a single pair of Pochard grace the main lake. On the Pol, a Sky Lark sings from the shingle and then from one of the large boulders. A Curlew lands in the Pol and starts to bathe. The reedy pool outside the hide is full of wriggling tadpoles. The skies are darkening to the South and great plumes of steam rise from Royston Drift coking plant. A Cuckoo calls distantly. The Sky Lark hangs overhead like a tiny kite, its song anything but tiny! A wader flits across Wintersett and lands on the edge – Common Sandpiper. Three Common Terns chase noisily over the water. A Reed Warbler jug-jugs from the reed bed. Swifts scream overhead.

Tuesday 12th May – Barnsley Canal – It seems as if winter has re-exerted its control over Willowbank. Everywhere is white with May Blossom. How right is May as an alternative name for the Hawthorn for this is the month it is bedecked in glory. Whitethroats rattle and chatter from the tops of these pale bushes. Two Tufted Duck slide along the canal watching Dill the Dog nervously. A Grey Heron croaks overhead. Blackcaps and Willow Tits enliven the canal hedge. The Mute pen is on the nest, the cob grunts out a warning.

Wednesday 13th May – Barnsley Canal – The cob Mute Swan shows his extreme displeasure at a pair of Canada Geese who alight upon the canal. With much noise of flapping wings he charges down the waterway and sends the intruders packing. The heavy dew has brought out a variety of slugs – medium sized black ones and small ones of a muddy cream hue. Comfrey grows on a patch of waste ground in large clumps, flowering purple. The fungus Dung Mottle-gill – Panaeolus semiovatus is growing, as its name might suggest, on horse dung.

Thursday 14th May – North Yorkshire – A brief stop at Ackworth Top water tower and immediately the jangling calls of Corn Buntings can be heard. Through the morning mist one can be seen on the high fence around the site. Another is calling from within the compound.

Burton Agnes – A couple of years ago the large village pond in this village near Bridlington, was a small muddy puddle. It is a sign of the good rain fall of recent years that it is now full and the wildfowl are back.

South Landing, Flamborough. – It is hot and dry. A check along the hedgerow and bushes at the top of the ravine reveals Whitethroat, Long-tailed Tit, Robin and Goldfinches in abundance. The woods are full of Wood Pigeons. In the ravine there is a mixture of greens and yellow Gorse. I wandered around the wood. A Blue Tit pops out of nest box. Great Tits and Chiffchaff are calling. Back on the open space at the top of the ravine Yellowhammers, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Song Thrush, Willow Warbler, and Dunnock are all in song. A White and Small Blue butterfly visit the flowers. However, the Woodchat Shrike reported the previous day cannot be not found.

Flamborough Head – I search for a reported female Red-backed Shrike – again without success. Pied Wagtail flick about the grassland. House Martins, Swallow and the occasional Swift sweep through the air. At sea there are rafts of Guillemot, Razorbill and Puffin. On the cliffs are difficult birds – Rock Doves, they have interbred so much with feral pigeons it is very difficult to find pure specimens. But these have perfect markings so get counted.

Bempton – One of the great natural sights in the bird world. The towering cliffs are alive with birds. Peering down from the top there are rows and rows of Kittiwakes, Guillemots and Razorbills, some copulating, some sitting on eggs but most seemingly just sitting there ensuring they hold their place. Nearer the base of the cliffs are rows of squabbling Northern Gannets. On the sea, hundreds of Auks are bobbing. The air around the cliffs are buzzing with birds coming and going. There is some danger for them though, at the top of the cliffs, Herring Gulls are watching carefully for any unguarded nests.

Friday 15th May – Scarborough – There is a heavy dew which inevitably leads to a wet dog. A pair of Grey Herons stand by a temporary pool in a field of grain shoots. The pool is being visited by Swallows and Sand Martins which return to the cliff tops to feed. Overhead many Sky Larks sing loudly. There are lots of Carrion Crows in the fields – it appears that the old expression “If it’s more than one, it’s a Rook” no longer holds true. In the hedgerows the ubiquitous Yellowhammers and Whitethroats sing as small flocks of Linnets twitter by.

Saturday 16th May – Little Don Valley – Walking down the Forestry path with Long-tailed Tits, Goldcrests and Chaffinches calling, On the Moor side emerald mounds of new Bilberry growth amongst the darker green heathers. Up the steep climb above the river and a male Bullfinch pulls buds off a tree. Here the trunks of the trees come out of the hillside nearly horizontally before rising skywards At least two Cuckoos are calling. A Grey Wagtail is eating something on a rock far below in the river. Six Crossbills fly over head and are later feeding in a Pine. Mistle Thrushes stand upright at the top of the trees. Up the clough a Cuckoo calls from a dead conifer. A Spotted Flycatcher sits on the outermost branch of an Oak. I was surprised to see Crossbills feeding off the branches of an Oak. These Oaks also are feeding good numbers of Willow Warblers. A Curlew keens up the valley of Mickleden Beck. There is only the occasional call of Red Grouse. Further on up the flood plain I tried to sort out the jumble of songs coming from a small wooded clough but for a while was deafened by sheep bellowing at Dill the Dog, who totally ignored them! Meadow Pipits chased over the rough grasses. Back in the Oaks, a Treecreeper slips along the underside of a bough. A Tree Pipit parachutes over the branches, singing. Two male Cuckoos chase and weave overhead, calling loudly. A Kestrel soared high above the pines. At long last I caught sight of one of the real speciality species for the area – a circling female Goshawk. A glorious yellow and black-capped male Siskin sings from the top of a Spruce.

Monday 18th May – Barnsley Canal – Looking down the valley towards the footbridge over the canal and there is a single pink flowered Hawthorn amongst all the white blossom. A Cuckoo flies around the valley calling. The Mute Pen is on the nest, her head behind her and her bill buried in the feathers on her back. But her eyes are alert and she warily follows Dill the Dog’s movement. The Cob comes clattering down the canal and takes off towards the river.

Wednesday 20th May – Dewsbury – The River Calder flows swiftly by. It is sad to see so much rubbish hanging off the overhanging trees, left there by the last time it was in spate. Along the side of the path are large Comfrey plants with flowers whose colours range from pale blue to rich purple.

Thursday 21st May – Barnsley – There is much activity on the bird table at home in the late afternoon. House Sparrows drop in regularly to grab a few seeds but are somewhat intimidated when a huge Wood Pigeon lands and starts feeding. This close this is a really magnificent bird. Later, after it departs, the House Sparrows return. They are joined by a pair of Collared Doves, but what seems to be the male is unhappy there is a rival in the area and keeps leaving the grain to chase the other off and up over the roofs.

Friday 22nd May – Dorset – Down to the River Stour. Completely different to earlier in the year – dryness being the main improvement. The river is nearly motionless. Damsel flies (Banded Demoiselle) float through the grass along with the female of another species – possibly Azure Damsel. May Flies are dancing over the grasses, their wings like stained glass and three long tail spines curved upwards. A Green Woodpecker laughs from Willows and is joined briefly by a Great Spotted Woodpecker. High overhead a Common Buzzard flaps gently across harassed by a Carrion Crow. Yellow Flag are in bloom. Down the valley huge mature Horse Chestnuts are covered in white candles.

Saturday 23rd May – Sturminster Newton, Dorset – A good bird before even leaving the house – a Peregrine Falcon wheels over the garden and flies off down the course of the Stour.

Lodmoor – A Cetti’s Warbler greets us loudly as we enter the reserve but skulks in the brambles. There is little on the first scrape apart from an Egyptian Goose and a couple of Shelduck. A Shoveler looks like it is just entering eclipse already. A Coot has red-headed balls of black fluff scurrying around its feet. A Hawthorn is infested with Tent Caterpillars, white silken threads in tents covered with squirming caterpillars. Over the path the air shivered as a swarm of midges passed. Blackthorn bushes have a heavy crop of frost damaged fruit, pale green large berries. Honeysuckle drapes itself over the bushes, gently scenting the air. Around the site and on the banks on the far side purple and white flowered Comfrey and a rose flower. A flock of at least 1000 feral pigeons fly over. In the lagoon young Mullet swirl and break the surface.

Radipole – The reserve is alive with Reed Warblers, many easily seen on the lower branches of small trees. There are also Cetti’s Warblers in abundance, exploding into song. Reed Buntings and Sedge Warblers join the chorus. We then had a frustrating time with a Spotted Crake calling within a couple of metres, but it remained hidden in the reeds and Yellow Flags.

Chesil Beach – A beautiful pink carpet of Thrift covers the flat beach before the great shingle bank of Chesil. Little Terns like dragonflies hover over the shallows, plunge dive and take their catch back to the nests on the shingle beach. Ringed Plovers, Little Plovers and Dunlin search the mud. They are joined by a summer plumaged Curlew Sandpiper.

Portland Bill– Up onto Portland and a pause at Cheyne Weare. A sea watch produces absolutely nothing. On the cliff tops are large patches of red Valerian with the occasional white bloom. Herring Gulls sweep by on the prowl for anything vaguely edible. We descend into an old stone quarry. On of slab of Portland limestone, a bramble has taken a foothold and put out three leaves, but it is hard to believe that it has a future in such a barren lump of rock. A large patch of Bird’s Foot Trefoil splashes bright yellow and green over the pale grey rock. In a ravine there is a patch of leaves, some nearly three feet across. There are also creamy white heads of flowers – we fail to identify either. The quarry is sheltered and lichen is growing on dead brambles and living privet.

Sturminster Newton – At dusk beside the Stour, the newly mown hay fields look perfect for hunting owls but none are be seen. Bats flit around the old railway bridge.

Sunday 24th May – Sturminster Newton – Across the Stour a Green Woodpecker calls from the tree tops. A Sedge Warbler rasps from bank side bushes. A Cuckoo flies silently up river.

Lyme Regis – On a Bank Holiday? Madness! Sandwich Terns fish just off shore. On the beach boulders show markings of eroded Ammonites.

Bank Holiday Monday 25th May – East Combe Wood – Into these woods just outside Shillingstone. Black Bryony climbs the undergrowth. An emerald-stripe on lime green moth sits on a Stinging Nettle. Nearby some sort of Sedge Fly has antennae at least three times the length of its body. The path climbs up and up through dense woods, hot and humid and we have to stop to strip off various coats which are dripping with sweat. At 170 metres up we reach the top of the chalk down along which runs the Wessex Ridgeway. The mixed woods cover the slope below. Butterflies flit and mate along the edges of the wood. The chattering song of a Garden Warbler rings from brambles but it is not until it flies off we can see it. Tall yellow flowers of Goats Beard are scattered along the path. Over the top of the down, through fields of brassicas and peas, and into Blandford Forest. Here there are Oaks feeding Blackcaps, Chaffinches, Blue Tits and a very tatty looking Coal Tit. Dill the Dog takes herself off into the wood and shortly there is a loud croaking and an angry Pheasant emerges with a pleased looking Dill the Dog chasing it!

Sturminster Newton – Down river to another part of the Stour at dusk. A Fox has a scratch in the field over the river and then lopes off. The fields are alive with Rabbits. Bats flit rapidly overhead.

Saturday 30th May – Dodworth – A cool, misty morning. First stop Dodworth pit site, now a large Japanese owned ball-bearing factory. An extension has been built over the scrape that attracted Little Ringed Plovers. A Sky Lark sings over the small area of rough ground that remains. Several small Hawthorns have an unusual mixture of both pink and white blossom. The Rape flowers are now almost finished and the blocks of yellow fade to green.

The Moors – Ewden Beck is loud with song. From the towering Elms on the steep bank rising from the rushing beck, come Chaffinches and Great Tits, from the smaller trees by the track, Robins, Wrens and Blackcaps. Overhead Rooks chuckle. The keening of a Curlew floats over from the Moors. Then suddenly the call I have been searching for, the shimmering song of a Wood Warbler. But it is brief and I cannot locate the source in the woodland.

Home – In the afternoon a young House Sparrow is on the bird table and seems capable of feeding. However, it notices its mother on a branch above in the Lilac tree so it darts up there and flutters its wings and demands feeding – which the parent obligingly does. A Coal Tit nips in and grabs a black sunflower seed. It flies up into the tree and starts hammering at the seed with its bill.

Sunday 31st May – Little Don Valley – Shortly after dawn and the hills are wrapped in fog. Robins, Chaffinches, Blue Tits and Goldcrests make up the dawn chorus in the woods leading to the valley. A Hare is spooked giving Dill the Dog an ever-hopeful, but always hopeless chase. Up the valley the songs change to the piping of a Grey Wagtail on rocks in the river, the rasping of a Mistle Thrush high in a pine, the descending trill of Willow Warbler, a short burst from a Tree Pipit and a distant Cuckoo, which then flies down the valley, jinking away when it sees me. From the hill side above the clough, a Spotted Flycatcher chases insects around an Oak. A white flash as a Jay flaps across the clough. Although it is only six o’ clock in the morning, the mosquitoes are lively! I climb up away from the Little Don Valley, high above the clough. An old Oak has buckled the green lichen covered dry stone wall and it seems inconceivable it can remain intact. From the top barren moors stretch out as the fog rolls in. It is strange that one side of the wall is peat and bracken, the other lush meadow. Dill the Dog is still chasing rabbits but the effort is not really there – just doing her duty. From the direction of the open moors comes the rippling hoot of a Short-eared Owl. A Curlew circles the valley, calling mournfully. The river bends around and up an old flood plain. There is a stone banking to channel the water but the river has long changed course and the banking is now high and dry. This is Meadow Pipit country and they are everywhere, their peeping continuous. Stock Doves sit on the roof of the farm ruin on the hillside. The sun is winning the battle against the mist and everything gleams in its golden light. Swallows skim the hillside, winking navy and gold. A Northern Wheatear stands erect on the banking. A sheep coughs rather disgustingly up the moor side, fascinating Dill the Dog. A small flock of Crossbills alight on a pine. By eight o’ clock, the clouds had rallied and the sun had been despatched.