BIRD WALK 20 January 2018
Those hardy souls that had managed to negotiate the icy conditions and gather at the bottom of Totley Hall Lane for the start of the first Bird Walk of the New Year were able to carefully scan the small field adjacent to the lane to get excellent views of four species of the thrush family that were feeding on the ground in the short grass.
Two of the species present were Redwing and Fieldfare, these are regarded as Britain’s “winter thrushes” because they visit our shores during the autumn and winter, having moved west from Scandinavia and even from further east, Russia. A quick count showed we were looking at ten Redwings and two Fieldfares. The differences in size and plumage were very clear for all to study and compare. The Redwings, the size of a Song Thrush, had the rusty-red markings on their flanks and the distinctive pale stripe above their eyes. The Fieldfares were bigger, more upright in stance, with an orange tinge to their heavily marked breasts and the grey of the rump and crown were noticeable. So our two main target species for the day were already “in the bag”!
Amongst the Redwings and Fieldfares, a couple of Mistle Thrushes, the same size as Fieldfares seemed to be as intent on keeping watch as they were feeding; standing proud and alert after each short run across the field. These birds came quite close to us, so their pale brown appearance and the large round black spots on the breast and under-belly were clear for all to see. The fourth type of thrush feeding in the field was the Blackbird, also known in the old days in Yorkshire as the “Black Thrush”. A small group of six of these birds was feeding in the leaf litter at the field edge. There certainly seems to have been more Blackbirds about over the last few weeks, no doubt the resident number being supplemented by birds moving down from further north or migrating in from the continent. Yes, those Blackbirds overwintering in your own garden may have travelled from Denmark, Germany or Scandinavia for the pleasure of feeding at your bird table, which is always a nice thought.
Anyway, as we watched and admired these thrushes a Robin sang from the hedge behind us and a Great Spotted Woodpecker briefly called overhead. The trees at the bottom of Totley Hall Lane are always productive and did not disappoint this morning as two Nuthatches and a Treecreeper put in an appearance while a Wren dived quickly across a gap in the piles of wood nearby and was seen to search for food amongst the logs. As we stepped over the new style into the first field a flock of Goldfinches flew high across the field; we could see their gold wing-bars and hear their tingling call; a “charm” is a perfect collective noun for this species. And as we turned to move on, a small party of Long-tailed Tits flew close-by us in a tight-knit group. This very small tit has an egg-shaped body and a distinctive long thin tail; one member of our group stated that these tits, when in flight, always remind her of dragonflies. All these encounters were a great start to this January walk.
We then searched nearby fields for more winter thrushes as we moved across the first field; a flock of more than one hundred Redwings had been feeding in one of the fields a few days before. There was none to be found today but we did manage to see a small flock of Starlings feeding on the ground with a number of Magpies and Woodpigeons near to them. Four Carrion Crows also made their presence known as they interacted and called loudly from the tops of hedgerow trees.
Pressing on along a track towards Gillfield Wood, we then noticed a Jay feeding below the outreaching branches of an Oak tree at the edge of a field. Everyone stood quite still and took it in turns to get better views of this striking bird through the telescope we had to hand. A member of the Crow family, Jays seem to be doing quite well locally and it is not unusual to find these birds, in ones or twos, in and around our wood. This particular bird stayed just long enough for its exceptional colours to be noted; the pinkish tinge to the head and body and the blue, white and black markings in the wing. Then it just disappeared from view which is typical of this shy species. And as we stood there the loud call of a Great Tit was pointed out to the group and then as if in competition another bird, same species, was heard to emit from deep cover the “Teacher, Teacher” call to add to the atmosphere of the morning.
And then it happened; a bird of prey, flying towards us on lazy long wings. It was Buzzard size, but it wasn’t a Buzzard, it was a Kite, a Red Kite; unbelievable! This was only the second time this raptor has been formally recorded in our Gillfield Wood area and there it was flying low over our heads. The light was not great so we were not seeing all its glorious red colouration but nevertheless the long forked tail was seen to do that characteristic twisting as this majestic bird adjusted its flight. It completed a tight circle in the air before drifting northwards out of sight. Great excitement, a brilliant “tick”.
Clearly this moment would not be beaten today, but we moved on to higher ground so we could have good views over the top of the wood onto the fields beyond in the hope of “pulling” a Common Buzzard. Unfortunately, on this occasion, one did not put in an appearance but the trusted Great Spotted Woodpecker did; not just one but several were seen or heard calling during the rest the walk. From our vantage point one was heard to call out its distinctive “click” noise which enabled us to locate it at the top of a Larch. It was a male with the red patch at the back of its head. The woodpecker then moved sideways-on so we all had good views of the bright black and white markings on the wings and that lovely flush of red on the underside of the body. As we studied this bird, an excited member of our group called out that there was another one clinging directly below to the same Larch. A pair, or was this a rival male? No calls of aggression were uttered but one bird was seen to drop from the tree top and in deep undulating flight it passed over our heads to land in another tree on the other side of the field. It is always surprising to see how far some of these woodpeckers will fly when they leave Gillfield Wood; some continue in what appears to be an energy sapping flight, across many fields, to reach the gardens of Totley without stopping in any of the available trees on the way.
As we entered the wood today, Coal Tits and Blue Tits were heard calling from on high and were seen feeding in the tree canopy. As Long-tailed Tits joined them, a solitary Treecreeper was seen to be working its way up a tall Oak, switching from one side of the trunk to the other and then going out on the underside of a branch demonstrating how adept they are. On the previous walk it had been very difficult to point out this tiny bird to those attending; we all remember too well the constant rain and mist on our binoculars that day. It was however very pleasing to learn afterwards that one member had been thrilled that he had actually managed to see that Treecreeper despite the weather conditions; it was his first sighting of this species. He would have certainly enjoyed seeing this delicate bird today as we got better views as it performed so well for us.
Continuing through the wood we could hear the occasional Robin, Wren and Chaffinch calling from the edges and, of course, those Great Spotted Woodpeckers made their presence known in several areas. On leaving the wood at the east end we did manage to see and hear Tree Sparrow and Bullfinch which are always good birds to add to our list of species seen on these quarterly walks. And as we neared our finishing point we had the opportunity of watching a tall Grey Heron quietly walking with stealth along the centre of the brook; you could not help but wonder what morsels of food it would find in the flowing waters on such a day in January.
As the group dispersed there were thoughts of our next Bird Walk which is planned for the spring. Hopefully some summer migrants, such as Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps will have arrived and their songs will add to the songs of our resident birds that will be on territory and probably nesting. There is so much to see and experience in and around our wood so hopefully you will join us on one of these Bird Walks. We may even see the odd butterfly but sorry, another Red Kite cannot be guaranteed!
Please remember you do not have to be a member to come along to any of the events run by The Friends of Gillfield Wood. The events are advertised on the FoGW website and within the diary in this publication. No experience is necessary to attend; you will be made very welcome. The next Bird Walk is on Saturday April 28th and starts at the Scout Hut by Aldam Road at the earlier time of 0800 hours.
Bird and Butterfly Walk 7 July 2018
It is always special to stand in a clearing early in the morning, particularly a warm sunny morning; waiting, watching and eagerly anticipating the next movement, be it bird or butterfly. This was where we found ourselves, in a clearing on this July morning, a group of twelve of us, keen to get the Bird and Butterfly Walk off to a good start.
Different birds were calling; strong and soft calls coming from within the bushes that surround the clearing and from the trees behind. The loud ringing notes and trills from a Wren were accompanied by the short repetitive song of a Dunnock. And then the fluted plaintive call of a Bullfinch was heard and within seconds a beautifully marked male Bullfinch perched above our heads for all the group to see. It was a perfect specimen with bright red underparts, black crown and thick bull-neck. One member of the group could not resist a muffled “Wow!”
Then a member of the group said that she thought she had just seen a Jay in an Oak tree. Although slightly hidden the bird’s head and beak could be seen poking out from behind the leaves in the centre of the tree, its streaked forehead showing above its pinkish grey-brown face and the distinctive black moustache stripe could also be seen. Not all the group were able to find this secretive bird but they were rewarded when another Jay flew low across the clearing, its conspicuous white rump showing perfectly for all to see. Excitement rippled through the group; not a bad start.
Then, while two Starlings were seen to fly over nearby roof-tops a small group of Swifts were spotted hunting insects high in the sky. It is a real pleasure to watch Swifts skimming effortlessly on curved-back wings across cloudless skies; such freedom. In contrast of flight, our attention was then drawn to some butterflies flitting amongst and over the long grass by the side of our footpath. A majority of these butterflies were “Whites”, Green-veined and Small White; almost continuously on the wing. One butterfly did however land in front of us, it was a “Brown”, a Ringlet. It remained still with wings closed for several minutes allowing close inspection. The Ringlet is a gorgeous butterfly with dark smoky-grey wings with conspicuous white edges, and on closed wings the eye spots on the underwings are easy to see and admire. A good story too as this butterfly has extended its range in the UK and we are now seeing it in large numbers around this area and the north.
Continuing our walk alongside Totley Brook, it brought back memories of the Kingfisher that had been seen fishing in the deeper sections of water earlier in the season, but with the prolonged hot weather and lack of rain the brook is now very low although it was still managing to flow freely and it was shimmering beautifully in dappled sunlight. On entering Gillfield Wood we did notice that it was much cooler and quieter; the tranquillity being enhanced by the sun shafting down through the canopy with the ceiling of leaves above us turning that lovely light transparent green colour. Only the gentle cooing of Woodpigeons and the fine contact call of active Blue Tits broke the silence.
Our gentle stroll then took us out of the wood and as we climbed the hill to Woodthorpe Hall a Common Buzzard was seen floating over nearby fields on slightly upturned wings, perhaps hunting for prey or just rising to catch a thermal to take it up even higher. And then a little further on we had Swallows flying low over a newly mowed field whilst a Nuthatch was heard calling from the grounds of the Hall. Here we also managed to get a fleeting view of a Song Thrush as it shot by us and over a high dry-stone wall giving us the opportunity of comparing this rich brown-backed gentle bird with the larger and much paler Mistle Thrush that we had seen in flight earlier. As if on cue the recurring notes of a Song Thrush were heard from a nearby copse. It has certainly been good to hear so many Song Thrushes singing this year from our wooded valley, be it early morning or in the evening.
Then, as we stood there, someone mentioned that they were watching through their binoculars some Red Deer up on the moors. Sure enough, considering the distance, perhaps a mile away, the find proved to be correct. Through the telescope the deer were brought much closer, and despite the heat haze, a little clearer for all to see; they were walking in the bracken on the edge of Totley Moor. A great find to add to the enjoyment of the morning. These walks are great opportunities to meet, chat and enjoy the nature that surrounds us and to ask questions and share wildlife experiences, especially on a lovely day such as this one.
Pressing on we then found ourselves on Fanshawe Gate Lane listening to a bird making a harsh clicking call, much stronger than a Robin’s call. It proved to be a female Blackcap and we were able to watch it feeding in a bush. Occasionally it moved out into the open so all could see its rich red-brown cap above the eyes and its dark grey back. Then a little further along the lane another warbler was heard singing, it was a Chiffchaff. It was not the first Chiffchaff we had heard this morning but certainly it was the loudest. Like the Blackcap, a migrant leaf warbler of the Phylloscopus family; both species undertake long journeys to the UK and Europe to breed. Hopefully they both found the weather here to their liking this summer, but it will not be long before they are heading south again to perhaps spend their winter in Africa; such an incredible achievement for such small birds; just eleven centimetres (approximately) in length.
With Robin and Blackbird being added to our sightings we then encountered a Kestrel, a female hovering over the fields near to Fanshawe Gate Hall. Hopefully it has had a successful season rearing young nearby and was finding enough small mammals to feed the fledglings in such dry conditions. This bird appeared again a little later, circling just above us so that we could see in good light the barring on the underside of the body and in the fanned tail, and the distinctive black band at the end of the tail. One could not help but wish that all birds of prey were that obliging and easy to identify.
As we entered the wood again a Speckled Wood butterfly suddenly appeared and landed in front of us on the leaf of an Alder tree; settling in the sun with wings open as they do. These butterflies can be encountered along woodland rides and in glades but feed on aphid honeydew from the leaves in the woodland canopy. So with Meadow Brown and Large White butterflies putting in an appearance amongst many other butterflies as we walked down through the fields on the south side of the wood it was nice to add another species to our count of butterflies.
Retracing our steps outside the east end of the wood we managed to see a solitary Long-tailed Tit perched in the same bush in which we had seen the Bullfinch two hours earlier. Our attention had been drawn to the bird by its high trilling call, but no sooner the appearance than it flew across the path into deeper cover. Then our second Nuthatch of the morning was heard calling. After a quick search of a tall Willow tree, we were able to see the bird with its long pointed bill, blue-grey back and pale underparts. Normally a very active bird, this one was taking a moment to perch on a long thin branch to preen and call out its presence.
And so we reached the end of our walk. Twenty five species of birds had been seen and heard, and with the great sunny weather continuing throughout the walk it had enabled plenty of butterflies to be found on the wing to add to the interest and enjoyment of the morning. Shame the butterflies will not put in an appearance when the next Bird Walk takes place; well it will be in November! Nevertheless we hope you will join us, you will be made very welcome.
Please remember you do not have to be a member to come along to any of the events run by The Friends of Gillfield Wood. The events are advertised on the FoGW website and within the diary in this publication. No experience is necessary to attend; just come along and enjoy.