February 2016

2nd, Woldgarth – The sunshine and drying winds induced me to enjoy plenty of time outdoors on this Candlemas Day, the garden being relatively warm and sheltered from the strong winds which yet again affected this part of the country. Despite the roar of the wind I heard a few birds quietly singing away in the woods, the whistles and trills of the Bullfinches included, whilst the winter aconites were flowering well today, the sunshine encouraging them to open their cheering yellow blooms. More snowdrops have also appeared in the last week, as have crocuses.

Incidentally weather-lore suggests that a sunny and fine Candlemas is a sign of a long drawn out winter, though of course we will have to wait and see as to whether this does indeed prove to be the case. Still, at least according to our ancient ancestors, yesterday was the first day of spring, and with all the signs of new growth one starts to see at this time of year I have to say I agree with their definition of the seasons. Indeed the old celtic calendar always seems far more in tune with the changing seasons than the modern one, and whilst weather-wise it may still be winter, as regards the natural world things are already most definitely on the turn.

3rd, Swinemoor – With the morning’s now rapidly lightening up, I decided to call in at Swinemoor Common just prior to dawn on what was a chilly but mostly clear February morning. I would visit this location far more often if it wasn’t for the fact it was on the other side of Beverley, this rapidly bloating & expanding market town being far from my favourite places in this world. Indeed I do all I can to avoid it during most of the day, the narrow streets not being kind to a cyclist, and therefore I try to get through the town before the vast majority of its bleary eyed residents begin their commutes to Hull and other equally delightful northern ‘powerhouses’.

When I arrived on the banks of the river Hull shortly before 7 am it was still too dark to visually ID the birds out on the winter floods, though despite this I was able to use my ears to identify a few species of bird, especially the Wigeon and Teal which both numbered in excess of a few hundred, as well as Lapwings and the odd Golden Plover. As the light slowly increased a few other species were added, including Shoveler, Tufted duck and Mallard, whilst amongst the Black-headed Gulls a few were already starting to show signs of a developing ‘hood’ as spring-time beckons. Speaking of spring I also finally came across my first Celandines of the year, well two of them anyway, during my walk along the bank of the river.

3rd, North York Moors – After my spot of early morning birding, we headed up to Grosmont to check on our riverbank cottage, the situation as regards its renovation being as depressing as ever with no work having being carried out since well before Christmas. Still the journey there and back brought some interesting and varied observations which did at least lift my mood somewhat, chief amongst these being a hunting Barn Owl outside the Yorkshire Wolds village of Wetwang, and a beautiful male Stonechat near the top of Goathland Moor. The latter species has been almost ever present at this particular location since early winter, the richly coloured bird more often than not being seen perched on the wire fence which keeps the sheep off the A169.

A number of spring observations were also noted on the journey, including my first blossom of the year in the gardens of the affluent suburbs of Beverley, the slightly warmer climate of the town meaning that they are probably a week ahead of us at Woldgarth, whilst in Malton, another overly busy and populous market town, some Forsythia was noted coming into flower in a roadside garden. More widespread were Snowdrops, the cheering white blooms now out pretty much everywhere throughout the East Riding and Ryedale, whilst in the woods above Thornton-le-Dale some Dog’s Mercury was noted coming up. Some early Elder leafing was also noted in this same area.

Up on the moors quite a bit of ‘muirburn’ was taking place, with at least half a dozen separate burns being spotted from the heights of Sleight Moor, this controversial means of moorland management being much in the news lately thanks to Mark Avery’s compelling tome ‘Inglorious’, as well as the recent floods in parts of northern England. Meanwhile the gorse covered hills above Grosmont hosted quite a bit of flowering ‘furze’, the sight of which, for me at least, evokes memories of past April walks in the spring sunshine in which one is serenaded by the sweet descending song of those first returning Willow warblers of the year. Indeed these delightful songsters should be back with us within 10 weeks or so, all being well, and I can hardly wait.

5th, Woldgarth – The magpie pair were once again observed rebuilding last years nest during the morning, and this year they seem to be building a roof over the top. The local magpies usually don’t bother with this design feature, but for whatever reason this years pair seem to have decided to add the extra bit of protection to what is always a large and well constructed nest. Meanwhile a male Siskin was seen feeding with Goldfinches at the top of the Ash trees, and last night I was awoken by a pair of noisy foxes in the woods, these being the first I’ve heard this year. Interestingly they have been much quieter than last year.

However the highlight of the day would come shortly before lunch, for as I sat back and glanced out of my study window I noticed two largeish birds of prey soaring high to the east. Their build and flight profile was instantly recognisable but just to be sure I checked with my binoculars (which are always kept beside me on the study window) and confirmed that they were indeed a pair of Peregrine Falcons, an uncommon bird here at Woldgarth. I presume that they are same pair which are now seen regularly in the skies above nearby Beverley (they nested at the Minster last summer) and one hopes that they may become more and more common in the skies above Woldgarth in the coming months and years as they become re-established as a breeding bird in the local area.

6th, Woldgarth – Since the big garden birdwatch last week, I have decided that I will conduct a weekly count for the remainder of the winter, and all being well, into spring and possibly beyond as well. However I have decided that these counts will last just half-an-hour rather than a full hour, but otherwise the rules are much the same and can only include birds actually spotted within the confines of the garden itself.

With this in mind, and with some free time ahead of an afternoon of Six Nations Rugby, I conducted my survey between 12:00 and 12:30, the results of which were as follows; Blackbird (x9), Blue tit (x5), Bullfinch (x6) (♂3), Chaffinch (x10) (♂4), Coal tit (x1), Dunnock (x1), Goldfinch (x13), Great tit (x2), Greenfinch (x6), Magpie (x1), Robin (x1), Siskin (x1) (♂1), Starling (x1), & Woodpigeon (x5).

8th, Woldgarth – A very quiet day at Woldgarth with few birds about, though in late afternoon a decent number of Wood Pigeon were noted heading into the woods to roost, with possibly as many as a 100 passing over the garden. Jackdaws were also seen heading to another nearby location, a common sight throughout the winter months.

In the garden itself a pair of Bullfinches were noted nibbling on the crab apple buds, these being the first I have seen doing this unwelcome behaviour this year. Since the gardens of Woldgarth used to part of an orchard to a nearby large property (our house was the old stables!), a number of fruit trees can be found within its boundaries, and whilst the bullfinches do a lot of damage every year, I nevertheless consider it but a small price to pay for having a healthy breeding population of these handsome birds to admire.

Bullfinch in the crab apple

9th, Woldgarth – Some Pink-footed Geese were heard distantly to the east this morning whilst I was in the garden, though despite scanning the skies I failed to spot them. By the sounds of it they were very high, though I also later learned that a trio of skeins were spotted passing over Castle Howard later in the day, perhaps indicating a movement of these birds today as they start to become restless as spring approaches.

However apart from this it was yet another strangely quiet day in the garden, and whilst the usual suspects turned up at the feeding station outside my study window, including almost a dozen Blackbirds around breakfast, it just seems as if we are at a sort of cross-roads at the moment with the natural world not sure what the next few weeks will bring us. Is winter going to actually turn up, albeit very late, or has spring already arrived?

11th, Woldgarth & Beverley Parks – The day started with a magical frost of the type we have rarely enjoyed this winter, the countryside around our home being covered with beautiful delicate crystals which glistened in the early morning sunlight. A good heavy frost is as good as a snowfall in the right conditions, with the added benefit that it doesn’t cause the traffic chaos that a single flake of snow seems to cause amongst the British people, and it was truly delightful to cycle along the frost covered lanes at dawn, the frost hissing beneath my wheels as I headed into town to pick up the pre-breakfast essentials.

As I cycled along I passed the Cherry Plum trees which are now blossoming beside the YWT nature reserve of Keldmarsh, whilst the pasture beside Beverley Minster hosted the usual cherry trees which have also started to flower in the past week. Beside the railway line a host of Celandines were also flowering, despite the cold and the weak dawn light. A quick check of the lakes beside the new southern bypass produced no birds of note, apart from a few Mallards, though I spotted a black rabbit in the fields. Whilst black rabbits are quite common in the countryside, especially near human-habitation, I have never actually seen one in this area before so it seems to be a newcomer.

Back at home the gardens at Woldgarth were much busier than they have been in recent days, the feeding station being very active with the usual array of finches, tits and thrushes coming and going from the three sunflower heart feeders, and the single nyjer and peanut feeders. On the ground beneath up to a dozen chaffinches fed on the spilt seed, joined by the odd dunnock, wood pigeon and squirrel, whilst in the yew trees at least a couple of goldcrests were observed looking for food. The birds were also in good song today, with a variety of species being heard on what was another largely sunny and pleasant February day, and I also observed a few great tits chasing each other about the garden as they seek to establish their dominance before spring.

A rare hoar frost in what has been a very mild winter…. so far

13th, Woldgarth – Another weekend means another garden bird count, and today I enjoyed a peaceful half-hour watching the birds from my study window between 9.30 am and 10 am on what was a cold but improving morning, the early morning sleet having soon cleared away with even some sunshine developing towards the end of the half-hour. In total 46 birds of 14 species were recorded, this comparing to 62 birds of 14 species last week and 63 birds of 16 species during the actual RSPB survey at the end of January, and already I am starting to see some interesting information being gathered from these weekly informal counts.

Birds recorded within the confines of the garden were as follows; Blackbird (x6) (♂3), Blue tit (x6), Bullfinch (x3) (♂1), Chaffinch (x3) (♂1), Coal tit (x2), Dunnock (x1), Goldfinch (x3), Greenfinch (x5), Great tit (x2), Long-tailed tit (x2), Magpie (x2), Robin (x1), Starling (x3), and Wood Pigeon (x7). A few interesting birds were also seen passing over in the half-hour including a couple of Cormorants, a variety of gulls (mostly Black-heads plus the odd Common & Herring), and a single Greylag Goose.

Later in the morning the male Siskin, which has been coming and going since mid-January, was seen right outside my study window, this allowing me to take a few quick photos with my old Lumix FZ45 which just happened to be at hand. I was alerted to its presence by the sound of its distinctive call, the soft twitterings drifting in through my window, and it was lovely to admire this yellow and black finch at such unusually close quarters. Hopefully he will hang around like a male did in 2013 and we will be able to enjoy the whistling and trilling song of this charming little finch once more.

14th, North Cliffe Wood – On a cold but otherwise sunny Valentine’s morning, we decided to enjoy a stroll around North Cliffe Wood, this peaceful YWT reserve usually being excellent for some undisturbed strolls through the birch, oak and hazel woodlands which make up the reserve. However when we arrived we soon realised that this was one of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s weekends for doing work around the reserve, with a dozen or so volunteers joining them, and whilst this was unfortunate as regards our hoped for quiet and secluded stroll, we nevertheless enjoyed a peaceful enough wander through the late winter woods.

Bird-wise it was a quiet morning with just 25 species of bird being recorded as we made our way around the perimeter footpath, though as we passed the arable fields to the west and south of the reserve it was lovely to hear a few skylarks singing. A stock dove was also noted in the fields whilst a variety of corvids (mostly Rooks & Jackdaws) and a small flock of Redwings were additional observations. In the woods roving flocks of mixed tits, including a few Marsh tits, were joined by a couple of Goldcrests and a single Treecreeper, and as we continued onwards a Buzzard was spotted soaring above us.

Most of the hazel catkins are now fully out, the gentlest of touches producing a puff of pollen, whilst a few alders are also just starting to open their catkins too, though for the most part most of these trees are still a week or two away from flowering, especially within the heart of the wood itself. The snowdrops are still going in the NE corner of the reserve but are undoubtedly beyond their best, though apart from these there are few flowers to be seen, bar the odd bit of blackthorn blossom along the hedgerows.

14th, Woldgarth – Meanwhile after returning from my nephew’s sixth birthday party I encountered my first moth of 2016, a rather delicate and pretty Beautiful Plume (Amblyptilia acanthadactyla) which was actually found inside the car. Whether the moth came from Woldgarth or from Willerby is unclear but nevertheless it was good to finally kick off the new ‘mothing’ season. As it is Beautiful Plume is usually one of the first moths to be recorded here every year, this easily overlooked species being seemingly common around here, though looking at the forecast I think it will be another week, at the very least, till I put out the moth trap for the first time this year.

Beautiful Plume (Amblyptilia acanthadactyla)

15th, Woldgarth – For the first time in more than a month a Great Spotted Woodpecker was spotted at the feeding station today, though unlike the last visitor this was a female Woodpecker. I didn’t spot any juveniles in the woods or the garden last year so hopefully the arrival of this female will ensure that we have at least one breeding pair this year. However I have yet to hear any drumming in the woods so far.

19th, Woldgarth – A single Lesser Redpoll was seen with the goldfinches this morning, this same flock also containing the single male Siskin which has been around the garden for a few weeks now. Lesser Redpolls are rare visitors to the garden, a lack of trees such as alder and birch meaning that the area is not really suitable for them, but small groups do turn up from time to time, especially at this time of year, the vast majority of my garden records coming in February and early March. This has been a good winter for Redpolls with plenty of records from around the country, especially in eastern parts, and I had been fearing we were going to miss out here at Woldgarth, but the single bird this morning has put paid to that concern. Hopefully it won’t be the last one of the year either!

Lesser Redpoll (Acanthis cabaret)

20th, Woldgarth – I conducted my weekly garden bird survey on what was a mild and grey afternoon with some light drizzle in the air. In total 75 individual birds were counted, the highest number yet, whilst 15 species were represented, the best of the lot coming courtesy of at least four Siskins (three males & a female). However there was no sign of yesterday’s Lesser Redpoll. Birds recorded were as follows; Blackbird (x5) (♂3), Blue tit (x6), Bullfinch (x4) (♂2), Carrion Crow (x2), Chaffinch (x6) (♂3), Coal tit (x2), Goldfinch (x7), Greenfinch (x15), Great tit (x3), Magpie (x2), Robin (x2), Siskin (x4) (♂3), Starling (x11), Wood Pigeon (x5) and Wren (x1).

With four survey weeks now complete this year some 20 species of bird have been recorded in and around the feeding station at Woldgarth since the start of the year, whilst on average 61.5 birds have been recorded during the survey periods. The ten most numerous species, on average, have been Goldfinch (x8.5), Greenfinch (x8.0), Blackbird (x7.2), Chaffinch (x6.2), Wood Pigeon (x5.5), Blue tit (x5.2), Bullfinch (x4.5), Starling (x3.7), Great tit (x2.5), and Coal tit (x1.7). As I mentioned last week these surveys are already providing some interesting statistics, whilst it has confirmed that the once common Dunnock has become quite scarce in recent times here at Woldgarth, a troubling and worrying decline. They are undoubtedly still in St. Giles Wood as they are often heard, but for whatever reason have deserted the garden. Perhaps the feeding station is a little too busy for this rather timid species and I might set up another small ground based feeder to see if I can attract them back to a quieter corner of the garden.

22nd, Woldgarth – The sound of a singing Mistle Thrush has been heard in a number of local woods during the past week or so, including here at Woldgarth and down in the nearby Parklands, the lovely rich song being delivered almost constantly from up high amongst the tree tops. The parklands and Beverley Westwood host a very healthy population of these large resident thrushes and whilst they are rare in the garden itself, they are often heard passing over, their distinctive rattling flight call usually alerting me to their presence.

Speaking of thrushes, it is usually around this time of year that the annual build up of winter thrushes begins in the Parklands, especially on and around the horse grazed pastures of a local livery, but so far I haven’t seen or heard any. Indeed this winter has seen very few winter thrushes, fieldfares in particular being few and far between, and as we move towards and into March it will be interesting to see how many, if any, turn up this year as they prepare to head back to their summer breeding grounds.

23rd, Beverley Parks – A Grey Partridge was heard calling in the fields as I cycled into town along the almost traffic free lane which connects the Parklands to Beverley, the characteristic call, which to me sounds like an old rusty bike wheel, being always good to hear. The Grey Partridge is quite a rare bird these days in the East Riding but nevertheless a small population continues to hold on in the arable fields, small woods and pastures which characterises the countryside south of the town, though with continuing and ongoing developments in the area I do fear for their long-term survival.

With the recent fine weather I keep expecting to hear my first singing Yellowhammer of the year whilst I pootle along the lane, but as of yet they are keeping silent, but nevertheless plenty of bird song can be enjoyed already, the chaffinches having become particularly vocal in recent days, whilst skylarks sing from the heavens above on the sunnier days. A trio of roe deer were also seen out in the fields this morning, as were about a dozen Greylag Geese.

23rd, Woldgarth – In the evening it was interesting to see the full Moon in close proximity to Jupiter, the two celestial bodies being within a few degrees of each other. Indeed it was a near perfect evening for gazing at the heavens tonight with not a cloud in the sky, though it was pretty cold with temperatures soon dipping below freezing. I did have a quick look at Jupiter through my eight inch reflector, and whilst the light from the nearby full moon meant that contrast was not particularly great, I nevertheless enjoyed the view of probably my favourite object in the night sky, the main belts clearly obvious, whilst the four Galilean moons were on show, the volcano ravaged Io appearing from behind the planet during the course of the evening. I really should do more astronomy but since I have always been an early bird, I do find it hard to stay up any later than 9 pm !

24th, Beverley Parks & Woldgarth – At least two Yellowhammers were heard singing in the Parks as I cycled into town this morning, these being the first I have heard this year, whilst a few Redwings were noted in the fields of the equestrian centre & riding school. Back at home I noticed a Long-tailed Tit repeatedly fighting with its own reflection in one of the windows of the old & increasingly derelict summer house, a behaviour I have often seen in other species, especially Chaffinches, but never in Long-tails before. If it does it again tomorrow I think I will have to put a towel or blanket in the window to stop it needlessly wasting its energy.

26th, Woldgarth & Beverley Parks – I heard my first drumming Great Spotted Woodpecker of the year this morning, the bird utilising a particularly resonant dead branch near the top of a lime tree about 50 yards from the garden. Further interest today was provided by a fox on the southern outskirts of Beverley, the vixen showing little concern as it wandered past me on the roadside verge as I cycled in t’other direction. Meanwhile the blackthorn blossom is now going strong throughout the Parklands, the hedgerows around New Model and Old Hall Farms looking wonderful as I casually pedal to and from Woldgarth. Back in the garden a large frog was encountered in the front yard, the first I have seen this spring.

27th, Woldgarth – I conducted the weekly garden bird count with my eldest niece helping me today, her knowledge of birds and wildlife already being pretty impressive for a six year old. The weather was largely cloudy and cold with light winds and in total a minimum of 74 birds of 15 species would be recorded during the half hour. Total birds were as follows; Blackbird (x5), Blue Tit (x7), Bullfinch (x3), Chaffinch (x3), Coal Tit (x1), Goldcrest (x1), Goldfinch (x4), Greenfinch (x8), Great Tit (x3), Long-tailed Tit (x2), Magpie (x2), Robin (x2), Siskin (x2), Starling (x25), and Wood Pigeon (x6).

Further observations today included two Grey Herons passing over Woldgarth, whilst the hawthorns growing along the Beverley to Skidby road are already showing plenty of ‘green’, though these hawthorns are always amongst the first to leaf in the local area.

28th, Nunburnholme – On a stunning and sunny late winter’s morning we took my eldest sister and her lovely four month old Fox Red Labrador bitch out for a walk in the Wolds, this being ‘Rosie’s’ first outing into the Yorkshire Wolds. The walk of choice was the Nunburnholme Wold circular, this pleasant walk taking us down through Merebalk Wood and the beech woods between Warter and Nunburnholme, and as we passed the winter cereal fields we noted a large number of Hares out in the open, this common mammal being particularly conspicuous at this time of year. Red Kites too were seen almost constantly as we wandered through the still bare woods, with at least half a dozen being spotted or heard, whilst a single Buzzard was also spotted above Bratt Wood.

Near the village of Nunburnholme a yaffling Green Woodpecker was heard in the sheep grazed pastures, whilst above us Skylarks sang loud and clear, a most cheering and welcome sound. The hedgerows hosted a few Yellowhammers, a couple of which were stunningly yellow and stood out like beacons amongst the still bare branches of the hawthorns. With no rain in the past week and a few days of drying easterly winds, the ground is already starting to become nice and firm on the free draining Wolds, most welcome after all the mud of December and January, though looking at the weather forecasts it looks like the coming March may well be on the chilly side this year. Indeed it wouldn’t completely surprise me if we saw more snow in the coming March than we did in the whole of the winter, though of course we will just have to wait and see.

Brown Hares (Lepus europaeus)

29th, Beverley Parks – A Reed Bunting was heard singing in the Parks this morning, the first I have heard this year. Meanwhile at least half a dozen Yellowhammers were also heard in song throughout the Parks, whilst a yaffling Green Woodpecker was near New Model Farm. A few Fieldfares were about as well, especially near Halfway House, perhaps the beginning of the usual late winter/early spring build-up which we usually get here in the Parklands.

29th, Woldgarth – Back at home a Buzzard flew over the garden in early afternoon, the large bird of prey being mobbed by crows as it drifted southwards. Buzzards are still not particularly common on this side of the Yorkshire Wolds but they have been steadily increasing in recent years as the booming Wolds population begins to spread further afield. Speaking of raptors I was unsurprised to read in the local paper that a few Beverley residents have already felt the need to complain about the placing of Peregrine nest boxes on the Minster, the birds which nested there last summer having been blamed for the decimation of songbirds in the town, as well as targeting racing pigeons. No doubt these same people will be telling stories of how “blood-thirsty” Peregrines have been terrorising their dogs, cats and children in the coming months as well.