BIRD WALK 7 February 2015
One of the highlights of our morning bird walk this February was the sight of Tree Sparrows perched at the top of an old Oak tree at the back of the houses on Rowan Tree Dell.
To be able to see these neat little birds out in the open was a delight. It gave us the opportunity to clearly note the birds’ markings; the red-brown crown, pure white face and distinctive black cheek patches on each bird. Tree Sparrow is a bird that is easily overlooked but is quite different from its close relative the House Sparrow. House Sparrows were in close attendance this day, to allow comparison, and small parties of both species were active and chattering together in the bushes nearby as they so often do in this area during the winter months.
Some time was spent looking over the field, trees and Hawthorn bushes at this east end of Gillfield Wood as we recorded Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Great Tit and Blue Tit in small numbers along with a few other species including six Starling that made a quick fly-past. Pleasingly we were later to see three Redwings in this area as well. Their red flanks were clearly visible as was the pale stripe over the eye to help confirm the identification. These birds are lovely; they are winter thrushes that usually come over from the continent in good numbers in the autumn and then they can regularly be seen in our trees and fields on the north side of the wood. Disappointingly they and the visiting Fieldfares have certainly been few and far between this winter.
We had recorded all the usual species from the moment we met at the Scout Hut at 9am and made our way along the main footpath towards the wood…carefully. There was ice on the path and crunchy snow elsewhere but even this was a marked improvement from the conditions over the previous few days following the large snow fall at the end of January. Wren, Robin, Blackbird and Woodpigeon put in an appearance and we had very good views of three Bullfinches. Two males with their bright red bulging bodies and black caps chased each other over Blackthorn bushes whilst a female looked on, with surely a certain amount of interest.
As we entered the wood, Nuthatch and Coal Tit were heard calling and with a bit of searching were then seen at the top of some Larches. But the big surprise as we moved into the centre of the wood was a bird trilling beautifully, high above the tree tops. It was a Skylark singing whilst flying in an easterly direction, fluttering its wings in characteristic fashion as it travelled. Excellent, it really did appear to lift everyone’s spirits with perhaps a thought of hot summer days.
We stood just outside the wood at different stages of the walk, patiently scanning the hedgerows and trees around us. The reward was a distant view of a female Great Spotted Woodpecker quietly clinging to the top of a Larch that was sticking out above the wood. Distant maybe, but we did all have the opportunity of viewing this bird in more detail through a telescope which accentuated the black and white markings in the bird’s wings and that red flush of the vent under its tail. Then just as the bird dropped down from its perch, some of our party of sixteen were lucky enough to get brief glimpses of a Treecreeper moving between distant Oak trees. This bird proved elusive for the rest of us to see, but that’s “birding” for you.
It had been an overcast but crisp morning and although lacking that special ingredient, sunshine, the birds performed and everyone enjoyed the event with twenty eight species in total being seen. On occasions one did feel that spring was just around the corner especially when Great Tits appeared to be staking a claim to territory as they belted out their call and a Great Spotted Woodpecker broke the silence, this time by drumming loudly on the dead branch of a tree.
Strolling back slowly to our start point, two Jays were seen in flight and a Grey Wagtail was heard calling. One associates this species of Wagtail with fast flowing steams so Totley Brook, at this time, is ideal for them. However we watched this particular bird work its way along the roof and gutter of a house on Aldam Road, feeding and flashing its bright lemon yellow vent as its tail bobbed up and down constantly. A special bird to end a great morning.
BIRD WALK 18 April 2015
Eleven brave souls left their warm cosy homes on Saturday April 18th to meet up at the Scout Hut near Aldam Road at the unearthly time of 0515. Yes, a quarter past five in the morning! The event was to be a short walk to experience the Dawn Chorus in and around our local wood.
It was still fairly dark of course when we met, and a little on the cool side. One member of the group commented “Blackbirds 11, Robins 8” as he arrived and then explained that that was the number of birds he had encountered singing outside houses and under street lamps as he made his way from his own house, via Main Avenue and Green Oak Road, to the designated meeting point.
There is something very special when out walking early in the morning, when all is quiet except for the sound of birds singing, particularly the wonderful Blackbird. Its rich fluty song carrying loud and clear across the gardens as another Blackbird responds from nearby to indicate, at this time of year, it too is on territory. It is almost certain their respective females are sitting tightly on eggs or have young in the nest.
And so it was, as we moved quietly away from the Scout Hut we identified the songs of more Blackbirds, Robins and then a Wren. The latter producing, from cover by the side of the brook, an explosive series of trilling notes; it never ceases to amaze just how loud Wrens can be for such a small bird. All this bird song was accompanied in the background by the soft cooing of Wood Pigeons as we made our way along the main footpath. We also heard and then saw a couple of Blue Tits, perhaps not settled down to breeding as yet, but working their way through the branches of trees searching for an early snack and doing their “sisisi” call. A Great Tit was then heard calling. Great Tit have such a wide range of calls but this was the more usual and, dare I say, more recognisable “Teacher, Teacher, Teacher” call which had everyone nodding knowingly.
As we moved into the open area before the wood itself, a Nuthatch was heard calling loudly and members of the group were anxious, with excitement added, to get a glimpse of this bird if it was at all possible. And then we saw it. It was gripping the entrance hole to one of the new nest boxes that members of the local Scout Group had made and erected this last winter. The bird was seen to manoeuvre itself onto the top of the nest box and, throwing its head back in unbelievable fashion, it continued to call and another Nuthatch, perhaps its mate, responded from a nearby tree. Despite the poor light we all had close views of the bird as it seemed to hug the top of the nest box possessively; it was a marvellous moment to remember.
Bird song continued to increase around us in variety and strength as we entered the wood and apart from those species already mentioned we identified the song of Coal Tit and Song Thrush. The Song Thrush was all too brief in making its presence known, but it did repeat the same group of notes three or four times for all to hear; the unmistakable repetitive call of the Song Thrush is the ideal first song for all to learn. And the Coal Tit, well that was the first of a number we saw and heard singing from the tops of the trees in the wood; very often they are found in the stands of Larch trees. The high pitched and rapid “sitchu-sitchu” helped us to separate the Coal Tits from the Great Tits.
It is certainly not easy to identify all the calls and songs that can be heard in our local wood but everyone smiled as a single Raven flew over the wood calling as it went; a really deep throaty “korrp” differentiated it from the other corvids we find in and around the wood and that we occasionally saw and heard that morning. All members of the group had reasonable views of this Raven through the tree canopy because the light had by now improved, and the bird did call again obligingly as if to confirm identification.
Moving on through the wood we admired the yellow Celandines at the edges of the main path, the large beds of white Wood Anemone scattered throughout the wood and we did see a few early patches of the lovely Wood Sorrel growing on moss covered logs. The first of the Bluebells were also starting to show their flower heads making us think that it would not be long before this ancient woodland floor would once again be a mass of blue.
Even though it was quite cold we did manage to hear, as the morning progressed, the “chiff-chaff” song of the delightful Chiffchaff. One of our summer visitors, this small brownish-green warbler will almost certainly have arrived recently from its winter quarters, as far south as Senegal perhaps. This bird was also heard to make its soft “hweet” call as it searched for food high up in the trees above our heads. And another sign of spring was the singing Blackcap we could hear from our raised position, as it moved through the bushes alongside the brook that was just below our path. Quite often these special visitors to our wood, that come to breed here in spring and summer, are hard to see when they feed and sing in the depth of bushes, and this one was no exception. Regarded by many as one of the finest songsters, this Blackcap was a real pleasure to hear as it went through a wide range of notes. We all stood and admired its repertoire. Blackcaps sometimes seem as though they cannot get their notes out fast enough as they chatter away in high and low tones. Beautiful sounds to accompany an early morning walk.
By now we were hearing other species singing and calling and we were able to add Goldcrest and Treecreeper to our list of “heard” (albeit faint snatches of call in their cases as the birds themselves proved elusive to actually see) and Long Tailed Tit and Great Spotted Woodpecker were added to our list of “seen and heard”. Chaffinch, however, proved to be an amusing problem. Every time its song was pointed out amongst the other songs and calls surrounding us, the bird immediately went quiet as if it knew we were listening to it alone, or at least trying to. Some members of the group began to question (with a smile) whether it actually existed but one Chaffinch did eventually perform to great effect so that the flourish at the end of its song was clearly heard by all, much to the relief of the group leader.
As the sun started to rise above the trees, yes it was still that early, we found ourselves on the outside of the wood overlooking the green fields that were now bathed in a wonderful warm light which appeared to make the grass glisten and glow. It was here that we spotted a fantastic Little Owl (Athene noctua, what a great Latin name) perched out on the low branch of an old Oak tree. The bird was seen to drop into the field below and then fly up, with its short rounded wings, to another perch in the tree, perhaps having tried to catch a beetle, one of their main prey items. We had good views of this small and compact owl; we even managed to see the white spots on its back and the characteristic facial pattern and white eyebrows as it swivelled its head. One member of our small group commented that “it was worth getting up early just to see that” and I am sure all of us silently agreed.
Certainly the sighting of this owl was one of several highlights we had that morning and as we walked slowly back one member of the group, who had remained alert, pointed out a male Sparrowhawk circling low overhead as we exited the wood. A great end to the walk. The three hours out in the field had gone quickly for us all but we were really pleased with what we had heard and seen. A lovely experience, and only a short stroll home for a well deserved breakfast.
Bird Walk 16 May 2015
This event attracted members and pleasingly non-members as well. In total 18 people were able to see and hear a number of different resident bird species in and on the edge of our wood.
One member commented on the amount of bird song and questioned with a smile, why he had got up so early two weeks before to hear the dawn chorus when he thought this walk was even better for bird song. The leader had to agree especially when Chiffchaff were performing so well high in the trees as we approached the wood and a Blackcap exploded into song from cover quite near to us when we stood by the bridge at the foot of Shep’s Hill. These two warblers are visitors to our wood in spring and summer and always add something special to our walks at this time of year. Other summer visitors included Swallows, House Martins and Swifts that we managed to watch flying above the fields on the north side of the wood as they hunted for flying insects. One member of our group was particularly pleased to see Swifts as they were the “first of the year” for him; we stood just outside the wood and admired their strong fast flight as they silently skimmed over the tops of the trees.
And to add to the pleasures of the walk, the swathes of Bluebells were, as usual, an absolute picture as we wandered through the wood together and then, at the end of the walk, we did manage to get a glimpse of a couple of butterflies trying to find, in long grass, some shelter from the cold wind. We are hoping a few more butterflies will put in an appearance when we do the next Bird and Butterfly Walk on Saturday August 1st .
BIRD and BUTTERFLY WALK 1 August 2015
It is always exciting to see a Sparrowhawk, but a sleek male gliding through and scattering a flock of chattering Swallows is rather special. That is exactly what we experienced as we walked by the boundary wall of Woodthorpe Hall at the top of Shep’s Hill. It caused much excitement amongst our group, the bird appearing “out of the blue”, quite close and just above eye level, as we stood admiring the view over the fields that spread out in front of us to the south of Gillfield Wood. It was turning out to be a lovely walk, full of highlights.
The morning had started a little overcast when we met at 0830 but as we walked away from the Scout Hut along the main path our eyes turned skywards when we heard and then saw a small party of Swifts calling above the houses to our right; their streamlined bodies on stiff curved wings zipped backwards and forwards below the clouds. The Swift is one of our summer visitors and these were possibly getting ready, by feeding up, for the long flight south to their winter quarters in the southern half of Africa; so we realised this might be our last opportunity of seeing this species this year.
Carrion Crows and Woodpigeons, Nuthatch and Robin were then noted as we worked our way along the path, each giving away their presence with calls. And then a group of Jackdaws drifted over our heads, their broad short grey necks clearly seen, and as they went they were uttering “ kyack” “kyack” to confirm identification. It was pleasing, as the clouds cleared and we remained in relative shelter from the light breeze, that one or two butterflies were starting to put in an appearance. Apart from Green-veined White, with dusting on the dark veins in the wings clearly showing for all to see, it was a great opportunity to compare the “browns”. Close views were secured of Meadow Brown and Hedge Brown, or Gatekeeper as it is more commonly known. The Gatekeeper was noted as being smaller and brighter with more brown on the upperside of the wings and it had the double white pupils in the black eye-spots on the forewings rather than the single pupil found in the eye-spots of the Meadow Brown. A Ringlet also showed well, the lovely pale edge to its dark velvety-brown wings were noted when it was resting with wings open, and then as if on cue it closed its wings to show the characteristic “rings” on the undersides.
Then on through Gillfield Wood we walked. In a shady part of the wood a member of the orchid family, a Broad-leaved Helleborine, was pointed out for all to admire. It was standing erect; the small purple tinged flowers were seen to be just starting to open on the thin stem. This specimen stood 60cm (2 feet) high. Some can have up to 100 flowers on one spike. And then just a few metres away we closely inspected, on the edge of the wood in dappled sunlight, a delightful Field Maple tree; small, arched and gnarled, and to think, possibly over 300 years old…..what stories it could tell.
On Shep’s Hill more Meadow Brown butterflies were seen flying low in front of us over the long grass, whilst a Bullfinch was heard calling from the Hawthorn bushes at the field edge. Then as we progressed further up the hill a Red Deer hind was spotted grazing in a nearby field to the west. She was facing away from us so we could see her pale rump as she gently worked her way along the side of a dry stone wall. And as we watched in silence another two hinds slowly appeared in the field below her. The sun was shining at this point, the grass was long and green around them, a wild flower meadow lay between us; it was a perfect setting.
As we continued on our walk that took us by Fanshaw Gate Hall, at least two Buzzards were heard calling and although they proved difficult to locate, one lucky member did manage to see one of the birds as it flew over the valley below us and out of sight. With the Hall’s impressive old barn at the back of us we descended through the pastures below and it was here that a good number of butterflies were seen in flight, some settling on the flower heads of thistles. Small and Large Whites, plus colourful Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells were observed with much enjoyment at close quarters.
Entering the wood, we turned on the main path for “home” and soon we were hearing the distinctive call of young Sparrowhawks, they were out of the nest. They were moving about in the tops of the trees and making so much noise we were sure one of the adults had arrived with some food. And as we tried to get a good look at one or these birds of prey our attention was drawn to a tiny brown bird moving on the side of a tree just in front of us. It was a Treecreeper, edging its way up the trunk of a tall Larch, the clean white underside of the bird was very noticeable against the bark of the tree; it delighted everyone. The Sparrowhawks would have to wait until another day, time was getting on.
And so, finally, as we neared the end of our walk, yet another highlight, a fantastic White Letter Hairstreak was spotted with closed wings on the top of a tall Hogweed. The white “W” being the main identification feature on the underside of the hindwing of this tiny butterfly which remained quite still as it fed, allowing close observation. Tiny, yes, about as big as a thumb nail. This species of butterfly associates with Elm trees and their suckers, it is quite rare in our area, in actual fact this is the first year it has been seen on the edges of the wood as far as we are aware. A special butterfly to end a great walk, a walk that certainly exceeded our original expectations.
Bird Walk Saturday 28 November 2015
It was somewhat of a surprise to wake up to icy conditions and a thin layer of snow lying over Totley and the surrounding fields at the end of last year. It was 0830 on Saturday November 28th, the temperature was just under 4 degrees and to say the least, it was a bit on the chilly side. Slipping and sliding to the metal gate at the bottom of Totley Hall Lane a small group gathered for our last event of the year. No pressure on the leader following the event being advertised as “a Bird Walk not to be missed”!
Greeting us at the start of this walk, Robin, Wren, Blue Tit and Goldfinch were crisply calling from nearby hedgerows and trees. Then Chaffinches put in a brief appearance on the path in front of us before diving back into the hedge as we climbed carefully over the wooden stile and stood in that first field scanning the lower branches of the large Oak trees in front of us. We knew that a Little Owl had been seen here a few days before; it had been seen to fly out of a Holly bush at the corner of the field and land in one of these Oak trees. Little Owls, approximately two thirds the size of a Tawny Owl, can quite often be seen during the hours of daylight and sometimes you can be lucky enough to see them sitting in the lower branches of trees, where they face the sun with eyes half closed “taking in the rays”. Surely we could not be so lucky to see one this morning, but the sun was certainly playing its part and shining well. And then, unbelievably, one of our group pointed out that an owl was sitting in the entrance of a small hole in an old Ash tree at the edge of the field. Huge excitement as we all gathered around two telescopes and took it in turns to get excellent views of this beautifully marked Little Owl as it sat facing the sun, undisturbed and yes, its eyes were half closed. What a brilliant start to the walk.
No doubt we were all wondering how we would follow that as we progressed along the footpath towards Gillfield Wood. But as we entered the centre of the wood, we detected birds calling and as we edged carefully down a steep slope to get closer, a small party of Long-tailed Tits with their trilling calls were found working their way through the bare branches of a number of trees next to us. Then suddenly, along the brook, just below us, there was a flash of a small bird in fast flight only a metre above the water. It banked slightly and the chink of cobalt blue on its back shouted out to us that it was a Kingfisher. It landed briefly but clearly knew we were there and immediately left its hidden perch and headed fast “up stream” calling clearly as it left us behind. Another special moment, but over all too quickly, and disappointingly not all the group managed to “get on” this bird. However you might be interested to know that there have been numerous sightings of Kingfisher throughout 2015 from the Scout Hut area to the east end of the wood, the last sighting being on New Year’s Eve day, so perhaps we all have a chance of seeing one in the area during 2016.
Our next two target species were Redwing and Fieldfare so we moved out of the wood to the fields on the south side. These two species, referred to as “winter thrushes”, are members of the thrush family and are winter visitors from the continent. At this time of the year one can normally expect to see these birds in our area but the recent mild weather conditions have almost certainly had an impact on the numbers moving through; they were unfortunately being seen in quite small numbers during November. Nevertheless, there was still a chance that we might be able to see them and our perseverance paid off as we scanned the trees and Hawthorn bushes in the fields below Fanshawe Gate. Getting good views proved somewhat difficult, but there they were, Redwings, feeding on the red berries of the Hawthorn bushes. Hidden in or on the far side of the bushes the colours of these birds blended in so well with their surroundings. Redwings are the size of Song Thrushes; they have olive-brown backs and we could just make out the pale stripe over the eyes, the streaking on the breasts and the flush of rusty-red on the flanks and they occasionally made that lovely seeping call as they moved about the bushes with a few Blackbirds in attendance.
And then we turned to see at the top of a Larch tree at the edge of the wood, Siskins feeding. Three only, but it is always nice to see these tiny finches. With their bright yellow plumage shining in the sun, they were hanging upside down feeding on the dangling cones. Perfect, but all too brief, as above our heads appeared an immature Sparrowhawk. Wings and tail out-spread, it was quietly circling, but so low you felt you could reach up and touch it. The pale brown markings, streaks and bars, on the undersides of the body, wings and tail were beautifully clear, this must have been due to the sunlight reflecting upwards off the snow on the ground. The presence of this bird of prey scared off the Siskins and Redwings and all was quiet, but…..
Our purple patch continued when we found and enjoyed close up views of Goldcrests nipping through the tangled shrubs on the very edge of the wood, calling as they went; thin high pitched contact calls to help them stay in touch with each other. Goldcrests are minute, Britain’s smallest bird, and it is not unusual to encounter them in our wood at any time of the year. On this occasion there were at least four together which may have been influenced by the huge number that had flown in off the sea on the east coast this autumn where some of these tiny migrators were so exhausted, that on reaching land, they had fallen to the ground at the feet of the birders who were there at the time.
As we progressed back through the wood, Coal Tit and Tree Creeper were seen and a Great Spotted Woodpecker was heard calling. One or two Fieldfares, that other winter thrush, were then noted moving through the tops of trees and out of sight at the bottom of Shep’s Hill, so our species list continued to increase and we added to that list Black-headed Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull as they were seen to lazily flap high over the fields nearby. Our final observation point was in the field at the back of the houses on Rowan Tree and as we watched a number of birds including Greenfinch flying back and forth across the gardens, we once again managed to get good views of Tree Sparrows. It is so pleasing to see that this species, which has declined dramatically across the country, has found a niche in this area and seems to be holding its own, but almost certainly they have been helped by the residents of this row of houses putting out suitable bird food. Excellent.
And so it was, our bird walk ended with another target species under our belt and everyone reflecting on a great morning; good company and good birding….what could be better. And yes, with Little Owl, Redwing, Fieldfare, Sparrowhawk, Siskin, Tree Sparrow etc on our “seen list” it did perhaps turn out to be “a Bird Walk not to be missed”!