Ramblings

July 1996


Tuesday 2nd July – Clumber Park – A National Trust property in the northern part of Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. The park contains a large variety of habitats – lakes, woodland, heathland and meadows. The entrance to the park is through a stone gateway. Clumber House no longer exists but the stables and chapel are still there. Beside the lake there are a large number of Mallards – the males now clearly entering eclipse. In the woods Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers, Robins and Blackbirds are all singing, but Wrens far out-sing any other, filling the whole woodland with their song. On a branch a rufous bird with a spotted throat watches us. It looks like a young thrush but is actually a juvenile Robin. At the top of a tree a bird is darting out after insects – my first Spotted Flycatcher of the year. On the mowed verges good numbers of Song Thrushes seek worms and snails. A Jay peers out from the base of a tree. Under a small group of young Oaks are several Boletus mushrooms – very early, but enough for both lunch and dinner! The tree (Hornbeam?) is one of a massive avenue that runs several miles from the gate house to the lake; an avenue consisting of four rows of trees, two either side of the road. Out on the heathlands I look for a Wood Lark, but no joy. But I find a Tree Pipit performing its song flight perfectly – looping up from the top of a tree to a pinnacle and then parachuting back to the perch singing continuously.

Wednesday 3rd July – Dorset – Off to the coast at 5:30 in the morning. The weather is pretty foul all the way south. Indeed crossing the hills towards the Dorset coast there is dense fog. A pity because I was hoping to visit Cerne Abbas to see the Giant carved into the chalk downland side, but little point with that visibility. The whole area is so different to Yorkshire – there are signs of ancient peoples everywhere – hill-top forts, stone rings, field systems. Just outside Weymouth a team of archaeologists have opened a trench down the side of a low hill. I have no idea what they are looking for, but is indicative of the abundance of history under one’s feet here.

Lodmoor Reserve – As I approached the grassy meadows I hear the familiar yaffle of a Green Woodpecker. There, on top of a marker stick, in the middle of an overgrown grassland sits the woodpecker with hardly a tree in sight. A strange start. Sky Larks sing overhead as I head off around the reserve. On reaching the northern hide, I peer out across the sea of reed beds – indeed, it seems like life is reversed here, the reed beds are the sea hiding all sorts of life whilst the network of pools and channels are the land with their visible life of Coots, Moorhens and Mallards (let’s not look into this analogy too deeply!) Scanning around my eye alights on a white back. Eventually the owner moves to reveal its tell-tale bill – a Spoonbill – the first for several years. I head off towards the next hide and glance up a creek and there skulks a Little Egret – the second continental heron species – both increasingly common these days. By now the rain has returned and I am glad to dive into the western hide. From here I can see a group of Sandwich Terns on a mud spit resting. When the rain eases for a few moment I swiftly move round to the south hide. The pool in front of the hide contains a pair of Common Terns standing on posts. They are unappreciative of Sandwich Terns hawking over their pool and harass any that have the temerity to hang around.

Radipole Reserve – I had hardly walked twenty metres down from the Visitor Centre when an explosive song comes from behind me. Turning I see my first ever Cetti’s Warbler in a bush. It looks at me as if to say, OK that’s the song, here’s the spade-like tail. Got the dark brown plumage and light eyestripe? Good because I’m off! And it is gone. I see it or another Cetti’s several times, but all very briefly but the explosion of song is unmissable. In many areas of reed, Yellow Flag irises stand proud. In fact, giant flowers seem to be the order of the day at Radipole. Giant Mullein stands four feet tall and not even close to being in flower. Teasels are over six feet tall and have only the smallest of heads. Even the Common Comfrey are huge with creamy white flowers instead of the usual purple. Walking down one of the paths dividing the reed beds I perceive a movement across in the middle of the bed. I just get a glimpse of what must be a Bearded Tit but it is gone in an instance. Although I spend nearly an hour waiting it never returns. The warden tells me they had been seen in that area but the view was never enough to allow a tick on what would have been a lifer – the Bearded Tit will continue to be a bogey bird for me. Far more easy are the dozens, if not hundreds of Reed Warblers. Right next to the path a barely fledged chick is clambering in an ungainly manner through the reeds, with its concerned parent calling loudly at me. As I return towards the Visitor Centre, there is a loud splash behind me – Dill the Dog has gone into the lake. The look of sheer delight on her face stops me yelling furiously at her. She is supposed to have kept her bandage dry, but, let us face it, that was always far too optimistic.

Portland Bill – From Weymouth I head south to Portland Bill – a neck of land stretching out into the English Channel. At sea are a few Gannet, Kittiwakes, Guillemot and Razorbills. On the grasslands lots of Jackdaws but little else. Thrift and Scarlet Pimpernels abounds. From Portland I head down to Chesil Beach – a long stretch of high shingle that forms a natural harbour. On part of the shingle, protected by fences, is one of the few mainland Little Tern breeding colonies. The dainty terns with their distinctive white foreheads and yellow beaks are floating on the breeze over the shingle – another lifer. A few Common Terns, looking for once relatively heavy join them. A Turnstone is feeding on the mud. Dill the Dog particularly dislikes this type of shingle, it is just the wrong size for her paws to walk on, so she tramps along behind me looking distinctly annoyed. Lower down behind the shingle bank the going is easier for her, with hardy grasses, yellow Horned Poppies, Biting Stonecrop and Haresfoot Clover. Some particularly scraggy Rooks sit around the car park awaiting scraps.

Wareham Forest – Leave Weymouth and head east to Wareham. North-west from Wareham is Wareham Forest, a fairly large area of traditional heathland – sandy soils, gorse and heathers, conifer plantations and some mixed woodland. In other words, perfect Dartford Warbler country. Perfect it may be but I search until 19:00 without finding one. I retreat to a pub in Wareham, for a couple of pints, then next door to the Indian for a balti (actually far better than the one I had the previous weekend in Ladypool Road Birmingham – the home of the balti) and finally back to the heath. By now it is getting dark as I set off across the heathland. Eventually, at about 22.00 I hear the first churring of a Nightjar. Several more start up but they are way across this expanse of grassland. I try clapping my hands together – Nightjars’ wings make a clapping sound and they will often investigate a clapping sound. Nothing. Then after several more claps I notice a pair of rising notes immediately followed by a clap. So I try a clap and a rising whistle. Within seconds a Nightjar comes off the heath and circles me – my third lifer of the day. I see another as I head back to the car. I drive into a quiet parking space, adjust the seat back as far as I can and go to sleep.

Thursday 4th July – Wareham Forest – At 4:30 I start out on the Dartford Warbler hunt again. Dill the Dog actually looks horrified – I’ve only been asleep a couple of hours. I tramp the heathlands until about 7:00. A pair of Merlins fly over. Up on a hillside, a Roe Deer watches us cautiously before slipping off into the bracken. By the roadsides the gorse is often covered with Honeysuckle, filling the air with it’s rich scent. All around Stonechats are calling. Linnets sing from the gorse but no Dartford Warbler.

Durlstone – I decide now to head down to Durlstone Park on the coast. Past the magnificent ruins of Corfe Castle. A Common Buzzard circles some nearby woods. On the park car park are dozens of rabbits. They seem totally disinterested in Dill the Dog, running away at the last possible moment, causing the maximum amount of frustration! Down on the cliffs are the Till and Whim caves, now closed because of their dangerous condition. The caves are old limestone quarries which provide Freestone, a valuable kind of Portland stone; the Tilly was a quarryman and the Whim a primitive type of crane used to winch the stone up the cliff-side. On a rock far below is carved Look around and read nature’s open book. At sea are the usual suspects – Gannets, Guillemots, Gulls and Fulmars. The cliff-tops are carpeted with Thyme.

Holt Heath – Heading up now to Holt Heath. Near Wimbourne is a typical old estate wall running for miles. Suddenly a gate, which is crowned with a life-size Stag in gold. Another gate arch further on is topped with a larger than life Lion – more weathered and craggy. Holt Heath is another sandy area which is renowned for Dartford Warblers. Chiffchaffs call from the trees as I head across the heath. Suddenly a bird flew from a bush and then drifted back down giving a call like a Whitethroat – exactly how the field-guide describes a Dartford Warber. I search the bush for a few moments, not difficult as it has been burned down fairly recently and find the songster – a Whitethroat! At that point I decide I simply am not going to find a Dartford Warbler so off to Pembrokeshire in Wales. Dill the Dog is sound asleep in the car most of the way down there. In Wales my friend Peter, Buster his dog and I with Dill the Dog nip down to the Gann at Dale. A family of two adults and eight young Shelduck are on the lagoon, as is, quite surprisingly, a Common Scoter.

Friday 5th July – Strumble Head, Dyfed – Early in the morning I take the dogs up to Strumble Head near Fishguard. Sea watching for a little over half an hour (by which time Buster’s mumblings about how bored he is became too much to bear). I spot plenty of Manx Shearwaters passing at sea, seven Common Scoter, Gannet, Fulmar and Auks. Most surprising is a Grey Heron coming in off the open sea! On the large outcrop of rock on which the lighthouse is situated are large numbers of Lesser Black-backed Gulls with newly fledged chicks. On the fields behind the road a flock of seven Choughs caw their way through the wind. Heading down to St David’s the banks bordering the road are awash with colour – Foxgloves, Ragged Robins and Navelwort (also known as Pennywort). I pass a junction with a tiny road sign saying 6th Century Church – now this must be seen. I guess there is a little license being used as the church as Llanhowell is a very nice 13th Century Church but does contain a headstone inscribed RINACI NOMENA, reliably dated from the 6th century. In the churchyard a pair of Spotted Flycatcher dance in the air from branches.

Druidstone – That evening we go up to Druidstone but little was around apart from twenty-six Common Scoter feeding in a flock in the bay – all diving simultaneously. Lots of Skipper butterflies flit around. Buster is the proud owner of a large stick – nearly a branch and it is only a matter of time before he charges past Dill the Dog clouting her one around the head with it – predictable but still very funny.

Saturday 6th July – Westfield Pil – The sun is out so it is off to Westfield Pil – a regular spot. We follow the normal route down the old railway beside the river towards Neyland. A few Blue Tits and Willow Warblers sing from the wooded hillside above the path. A brilliant flash of rosy red reveals a male Bullfinch. In a tree on the opposite side of the river are four Grey Herons and a lone Cormorant. A Common Buzzard drifts lazily overhead. For a change we head back and then on up the line towards Rosemarket. All along the railway, wild Strawberries are in fruit. OK, so you need quite a few (or like the large one I find) to get much of a mouthful but worth it. Common Blue Damselflies are mating whilst flying from plant to plant. Large Darters, probably Libellula quadrimasclata rest on leaves, their powder blue abdomens pulsing. However, the insect find is a pair of huge Damselflies – black winged with heads and thoraxes as if studded with emeralds. I would guess at Agrion virgo but insects are not my strongest point.

Sunday 7th July – Dale – My last day in Wales. A quick stop at the bridge over the Gann brings a Sedge Warbler singing loudly, his yellow and red gape visible for all to see. Marloes Mere is very quiet. Over the Deer Park lots of Yellowhammers and even more juvenile Wheatears. A pair of Ravens fly low over the park. Near Skomer, Puffins are on the sea. More are returning and being chased by Great Black-backed Gulls – one of the latter crashing into the bracken after one Puffin.

Saturday 13th July – Wombwell Ings – The ings are quiet in the sunshine and light winds. Five Grey Herons sit in reeds watching or preening. Another two are stalking fry in the shallows. Lots of Lapwings, mainly juveniles, sit around the edge of the Ings. On the river, a female Mallard has a brood of six ducklings, possibly a second brood. Himalayan Balsam and Greater Water Parsnip vie for the honour of the tallest flower on the banks. Meadow Brown butterflies flit from flower to flower on the banks. A new fence has been placed around where a drainage ditch passes under the bank surrounding the Ings – a notice states Danger – Deep Water. Unfortunately, the dry conditions mean the drainage ditch contains grass and flowers but no water.

Haigh – In the afternoon I take a quick walk around the River Dearne at Haigh, north of Barnsley. A family of Willow Warblers chase around the trees beside the river. In the woods along the ridge – Wooley Ridge – some Amanita group mushrooms are growing under the old, stunted Oaks. I do not check whether they are Panther Caps (deadly poisonous) or Blushers (edible) – a mistake can be a little terminal! Finally I call into some waste ground – part of the closed down Redbrook colliery complex – for some Elder flowers (for Elderflower Fritters). The undulating ground is covered by grasses, Tufted Vetch, Thistles, Hawksbits and Daisies. The purple Vetch and Thistles attract 6-spot Burnet Moths – greenish-black velvety background with scarlet spots. There are also good numbers of Common Blues and Small Skippers.

Sunday 14th July – New Swillington Ings – A series of lakes by the River Aire near Leeds. A good site in winter but little happening now. A couple of Common Terns, one a juvenile, fly around Astley lake. Along the river grow a large umbelliform with almost a globe of yellow-green flower heads and dark red stalks – Angelica?

Blacktoft Sands – Off then to Andrew Grieves’ (RSPB Warden) reserve at Blacktoft Sands, near Goole. From the first hide there is a summer plumage Spotted Redshank – sooty black with silvery spots; the first I have in summer plumage. There are lots of Ruff across the reserve. One has a gold and yellow ruff, another a bright chestnut and black one. Many have lost their ruffs but have still very different plumages. There are a number of summer plumage Black-tailed Godwits present. A pair of Avocets were asleep on an islet, their young have departed. Over the reed beds towards the Humber, a Marsh Harrier is hawking for food for its young in their nest deep in the reeds. However, the sighting of the day is a lifer and the bogey bird mentioned above – Bearded Tit. In fact there is a whole family of them at the base of the reed bed, with one occasionally coming out onto the mud giving perfect views. The wader movement appears to have started with a flock of 120 plus Dunlin and a good number of Greenshank.

Saturday 20th July – Dodworth – The hot, sunny weather has continued through the week apart from a cloudy, muggy day yesterday. A walk around the old Dodworth pit site shows the flash has completely dried out. The grasses are yellowing. The only sounds are a few grasshoppers chirping and a lone Yellowhammer singing. A bike ride this afternoon up the track between Silkstone and Oxspring. Small Tortoiseshell butterflies are getting increasingly common, there must have been a major emergence from their chrysalis during the week.

Sunday 21st July – Huddersfield – Started off by driving rather aimlessly, then near Huddersfield saw a sign to Castle Hill. Follow the lanes upwards and eventually find a hilltop with a tower and a pub. The tower was erected in 1897 to celebrate the 60th year of Victoria’s reign. However, the surrounding earthworks look far older. A local tells me they are Roman. A possibility but I am always suspicious of earthworks being called Roman – Hollingbury Camp in Brighton has always been called the Roman Camp and as a child I imagined the legionnaires tramping around the ramparts. But, in fact, the camp was Iron Age and probably abandoned long before the Romans arrived. A well sits just below the tower. The well-head is modern and covered with a grill. Ferns grow in the damp darkness a few feet down. A stone takes three and half seconds to reach what sounds like very muddy water at the bottom. The hillsides are mainly gorse and it was not surprising to see lots of Linnets. There were also plenty of Rabbits and Grey Squirrels – much to the delight of Dill the Dog. A Whitethroat was singing from telephone wires and a number of very yellow Willow Warblers were chasing through the bushes. Foxgloves stand proud under a slope of Hawthorn, whose tiny green berries bear witness to the dry spring and good pollination weather.

Tuesday 23rd July – Home – The hot weather ended suddenly at lunch time today with a loud, prolonged thunderstorm. The rain hammered down for about 30 minutes. Dill the Dog dissolved into a mass of panic, panting non-stop. There is not much I can do to calm her. By early evening, the sun is shining again but the whole place smells fresher.

Wednesday 24th July – Tankersley – Much cooler now. On the waste ground at Wentworth Industrial Estate the Ragwort are hosts to the caterpillars of Burnet Moths – yellow with black stripes. Thistles are now in flower all over the waste ground as are the Bird’s foot Trefoil. Swallows are beginning to line the telephone wires and Swifts feed on high late into the evening, building their body fat for the long journey south.

Saturday 27th July – Wombwell Ings – Migration seems to be under way with nineteen Greylag Geese on Wombwell Ings. One group are feeding on the grass beside the mud whilst more are swimming on the ever decreasing area of water. Black-headed Gulls are beginning to lose their black hoods. All the Mallards look identical, the males being in eclipse. On the mud a pair of Golden Plover are still in summer plumage, their backs shining like bronze and bellies black. A Moorhen seems to have no intention of acknowledging the changing season as she is still on a nest. Along the sewage transfer channel there are reeds and other water loving plants. These attract butterflies – Gatekeepers, Meadow Browns, Large Whites and Small Skippers. Although there is not much wind, the trees by the park sound like rushing water as their leaves rustle. Over at Broomhill Flash, House Martins, Swallows and a single Sand Martin are feeding over the water. The Coot flock is beginning to build up, over 80 individuals already. Young Pied Wagtails are chasing around the rafts in the middle of the flash. A Wren churrs at me from the hedge around the car park.

Sunday 28th July – Wombwell Ings – A day of showers, but the slight breeze stops it being too humid and muggy. Another check at Wombwell Ings shows that five of the Greylag Geese have moved off but the other fourteen are still on the Ings, several calling. Another four fly off west mid morning. Still not many waders, some Common Snipe and Ringed Plover. Suddenly, a Hobby shoots over the Ings sending the flock of Lapwings into the air. The Hobby makes a half-hearted swoop across the area of mud containing the waders but makes no attempt of take one. It continues towards the hide but must suddenly realise I am there and breaks off quickly and swings away. Shortly after a Stock Dove drops down onto the mud – quite an unusual stoop for a dove. On the small park near the road are fifteen Mistle Thrushes, a couple of Blackbirds and Magpies. In the hedgerow, Linnets, Willow Warblers, Blue Tits and Long-tailed Tits are all chasing one another around. In the afternoon the weather remains dull with the odd heavy shower. At Edderthorpe, Tansy is coming into flower. Once used to flavour eggs and milk puddings, its scent is unmistakable. On the ings are a couple of Green Sandpipers, Redshank, Dunlin and Ringed Plover. Six Grey Herons stand hunched in the reeds. The only birds singing are a few Yellowhammers from bush tops along the abandoned colliery railway. Walking back along the path near the River Dearne suddenly becomes delicate when I notice numbers of tiny frogs, less the an inch long, hopping towards a pond. They do not need my boots crunching down on them, so I tread carefully. On the river, the Mute Swans and their three young slip down a natural weir – for pleasure? A pair of young Kestrels watch me from a tall bush.