January 2016

1st, Weel (& Masham) – Amazingly a few daffodils are beginning to flower in a garden near the river whilst one of my sisters came across some starting to bloom whilst walking with her family in Lower Wensleydale. However here at the homestead the majority of the spring bulbs are still only just starting to push through the ground, though in the shelter and warmth of the walled garden a few are somewhat more advanced, especially those against the south-facing wall.

2nd, Ryedale – The countryside in the Vale of Pickering, the traditional flood-plain between the Yorkshire Wolds & the North York Moors, is covered in large areas of standing water at the moment, the landscape in places resembling how much of this area must have looked prior to the agricultural drainage & improvements of modern times. Both the river Derwent and the river Rye near Malton were notably high as made our way to our destination on the other side of the Vale, though flooding has so far been contained in this part of Yorkshire, at least as regards towns and villages. Another consequence of the saturated ground has been a large number of blown down trees around Ryedale, the strong winds prior to the New Year simply tearing the trees out of the ground. Here’s hoping for some drier weather before things get worse in this part of the county.

4th, North Cliffe Wood – We enjoyed a morning stroll around the wood with my eldest niece and nephew on what was a grim and damp sort of morning (dreek as they would say in the north-east of Scotland). Indeed the top of the Wolds was enveloped in low cloud as we made our way across the rolling chalk uplands to our destination on t’other side of hills, and January 2016 is certainly proving to be exceptionally dull and damp so far with just half an hour of sunshine and nearly an inch of rain having been recorded since the start of the year.

Unsurprisingly given the poor weather, plus two rather boisterous young children, we didn’t see all that much on our walk around the wood, though the resident Marsh tits were noted as usual, whilst a few Brown Hares were spotted and a noisy Jay was on the edge of the oak woodland. The lack of frost this winter also means a fairly good variety of fungus can still be widely encountered beside the more typical year round bracket & earthball type species, the best today was some seemingly fresh Golden Jelly Fungus, the bright, almost luminous yellow fungi standing out like a sore thumb in the otherwise drab winter landscape.

Meanwhile water levels have continued to rise with most of the ditches now full of black and uninviting water, and in other corners of the wood the ground is now fully saturated with widespread areas of standing water. With more rain on the way, and with near zero evaporation at this time of year, water levels will likely continue to rise in this “carr” woodland until at least late February or early March.

6th, Woldgarth – I was up in the loft above our garage this morning on what yet another dreary and damp sort of day here in the East Riding of Yorkshire, and besides the very obvious arachnid presence provided by the webs of Daddy-long-leg spiders (or Cellar spiders) and House Spiders, a few insects were also noted, notably a few hibernating butterflies. Despite my strong aversion to eight legged creatures, I nevertheless like to venture up into their rarely disturbed realm at this time of year to see how many hibernating butterflies &/or moths I can find, the mere presence of which provides a promise of better days to come in the year ahead. With torch in hand I checked all the beams and joists I could reach, in the end noting five Peacocks, a couple of Small Tortoiseshell and a lone Comma, a good variety for a relatively small area. Hopefully they will all survive the winter (and spiders) and re-emerge when spring finally returns to these northern shores.

However as much as I dislike spiders I do find it interesting to note just how Pholcidae (ie. Daddy-long-leg spiders) have experienced a population explosion here in recent years, this once unknown spider at Woldgarth arriving sometime after the turn of the century. In this short-time they have taken over from the once dominant House Spiders (Eratigena/Tegenaria) as rulers of the local arachnid scene, a fact confirmed by the remains of many of the otherwise much larger species within the untidy webs of Pholcidae. This change of fortune for the respective species has been most welcomed by me and other spider disliking members of our family, as some of the House Spiders which live in and around Woldgarth are rather large to say the least, though it does mean that anything which is stored in the sheds outside is soon infested with the silver-bodied long-legged newcomers. In fact we have already accidentally introduced a few to our new home at Grosmont via furniture we have moved up there, and it will be interesting to see whether they will also flourish up there.

Daddy Long-legs Spider (Pholcus phalangioides)

7th, Woldgarth – So the first week of 2016 is now complete and weather-wise it has continued where December left off with above average temperatures, little sunshine and plenty of rain. The countryside in this part of the East Riding is not faring too badly so far with just the typical winter problems of mud and patches of standing water in poorly drained fields to negotiate whilst wandering the area, wellies being very much de rigueur at the moment. Nevertheless nearly 50 mm of rain has already been recorded here since the start of the year, which considering that the average rainfall for the whole of January is 54.1 mm, is not an inconsiderable amount at all, whilst sunshine has been completely absent for six consecutive days.

9th, Woldgarth – A wander around the garden after feeding the feathered residents of Woldgarth brought my first Bumble-bee sighting of the year, the exact species being hard to guess due to the briefness of the observation. Given the cloudy skies and temperatures of no more than 8 C it came as quite a surprise, even more so considering the lack of flowering plants in the gardens at this time of year. However the Winter Jasmine along the south facing wall might provide something to keep it going, whilst the very first Snowdrop of the year is just starting to open up in the same area, the solitary white flower being far ahead of the others whom remain a few weeks away from flowering. The Winter Aconites meanwhile are starting to slowly emerge through the soil, the flowers yet to open up, but given a bit of sunshine these should soon be brightening up the garden, the cheering yellow flowers usually appearing a week or two ahead of the snowdrops here at Woldgarth.

Other notes from the homestead today included a Grey heron passing very low over the area, indeed as it went over it was below tree height, but it didn’t hang around long and soon continued its way southwards. The gulls were also about in large numbers today in the skies above, the distinctive cries being heard throughout the day, though just three species were noted with Black-heads, Commons and Herring Gulls.

Winter Jasmine

10th, Kilnwick Percy – My family enjoyed a walk at the Madhyamaka Kadampa Meditation Centre this morning, where a lone drake Goosander was spotted swimming on the large lake of this Buddhist retreat just outside of Pocklington. The centre is located at Kilnwick Percy Hall, a rather grand Georgian property which sits in attractive wooded and parkland grounds of nearly 50 acres on the western foot of the Yorkshire Wolds, the grounds being a good place to enjoy a bit of birding thanks to the variety of habitats in a compact area. Indeed it is one of the few places where Nuthatches can be regularly observed in the East Riding, whilst the mixture of deciduous and pine woodlands, as well as a large area of permanent open water, can provide a decent variety of winter finches and waterfowl.

Goosander (Mergus merganser) at Kilnwick Percy

13th, Woldgarth – Apart from a brief cold snap back in late November, this has been a remarkably mild winter so far with little in the way of frost or snow, and as a result the garden bird feeders have been a little quieter than usual during recent weeks. However as natural food becomes increasingly scarce in the fields, hedgerows and woods, and with lower temperatures during the past week, more birds are now regularly coming to the garden feeders. As usual the dominant species is the Greenfinch, these grumpy looking birds bullying the other smaller species out. Sometimes over a dozen and a half of these olive coloured birds crowd around the sunflower heart feeders, though when a space does open up the next most dominant bird, the Bullfinch, soon muscles its way in. Though both males and females are rather handsome birds in their own right, one cannot fail to be impressed by the bright reddish pink plumage of the male Bullfinch, the neat black cap, blue-grey back and distinctive white rump making for a striking garden visitor. Whilst we have not reached the double figure counts of last year, they are nevertheless almost constantly present at the moment, the highest count so far this winter being six.

Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)

Next in the feeding hierarchy is another very beautiful garden visitor, the multi-coloured Goldfinch, a bird with a variety of other apt names such as Seven-colored Linnet, or my personal favourite, the Thistle-tweaker (a name derived from the Anglo-Saxon name Thisteltuige). Having spent much of my younger years up in the Pentland Hills of Lothian, this was a bird which I didn’t see very often until I moved down here to Yorkshire, and even now I still can’t help but smile when I see them in the garden. Whilst it is true they are near the bottom of the local finch pecking order, they do nevertheless have one thing to their advantage, this being their thin beaks which only they (and Siskins) can use to access the Nyjer seed in the specially designed feeders. This allows them at the very least to feed even if they can’t enjoy their otherwise preferred sunflower hearts.

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)

The tits meanwhile come and go as they do, these busy little birds grabbing a seed and taking it elsewhere to consume, the most common species being the Blue tit and closely followed by the Great tit and the Coal tit. Less common are the Long-tailed tits, the lack of any suet based food this year keeping them away, whilst the peanut feeders bring in the occasional Great Spotted Woodpecker. On the bird table and on the ground beneath the feeders we see the less agile birds such as Blackbirds, Woodpigeons, Robins, Dunnocks and Chaffinches take advantage of any food dropped from above, the very odd Tree Sparrow or Pheasant also dropping in from time to time as well for added variety.

Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

15th, Yorkshire Wolds & North York Moors – We enjoyed what was a wonderfully crisp and sunny winter’s day up on the moors today, enjoying the transformation of a familiar landscapes into a winter wonderland. The journey over the Wolds had also been a visual delight with a light but even covering of about a couple of inches in the higher areas between Fimber and North Grimston, the temperature up here still being -4 C at 10 am as we made our way northwards. After crossing the still green, and in places still flooded, Vale of Pickering we once more climbed upwards, the snow line starting just below Lockton, whilst the area around the Hole of Horcum looked particularly picturesque as we made our way to Grosmont, a single female Stonechat at Fen Bog also being spotted on our journey across t’ moors.

As Grosmont is not much higher than 50 metres above sea level, the countryside down around the village was actually largely green, the snow-line being some 100 metres above this community which nestles beside the steep gorge of the Murk Esk. However that is not to say our stop at the cottage was not without some interest as a single female Goosander on the river was nice to see, as were the garden Marsh tits, whilst in the garden itself the spring bulbs are starting to come up, the snowdrops probably being two to three weeks away from flowering, depending on the weather of course.

After completing our jobs at Rivergarth we decided we would enjoy a drive up on to the high moors whilst the sun was still shining, the snow and ice covered roads meaning we pretty much had the high roads to ourselves. On our journey we stopped first to enjoy a short stroll overlooking Glaisdale, the snow crunching under our feet as we made our way along the wind beaten hill-top which enjoys a fine view over this fertile and attractive valley. The wind was bitingly cold up here, my checks red and glowing by the time we made it back to the car, but I loved it, my wonderful thick winter coat which I picked up at Ryedale Show keeping the worst of the cold out.

Continuing onwards we were now up on top of the moors, the snow almost getting a little too deep for our car where it had drifted over the road during the night, but thankfully we made it over unscathed, another female Stonechat beside the road being our reward for our perseverance. However other than this pretty little bird, and of course the ever present Red Grouse, bird life was few and far between up here, the only sound being the wind as it blew across the bleak, open and unforgiving landscape of what is the largest unbroken expanse of heather moorland in Europe.

Finally we arrived at Hartoft Rigg, perhaps my favourite corner in the whole of the North York Moors National Park, and from here we could not only enjoy the stunning views over Rosedale, but also enjoy a wintry stroll through the mixed woods on the edge of Cropton Forest, the snow bedecked trees looking glorious in the pale January sunshine. The larches up here also hosted a few siskins whom fed high up in the tree tops, and as we enjoyed the view from the bench below the Rigg, a dozen Redwings passed over, their distinctive thin and high pitched calls making us all the more aware of the overwhelming silence. Had we been blessed with more riches this would have been where we would have made our home a couple of years ago, a hidden away former foresters cottage in the hamlet of Hartoft being just beyond our grasp, but at least we are now no more than 15 to 20 minutes drive away at Grosmont.

17th, Yorkshire Wolds – Another day of wonderful crisp winter sunshine was promised today, and with any trace of Thursday’s snow now long gone from the lower parts of the Yorkshire Wolds, we decided we would head up to the top of these chalky uplands where the snow was still holding on. However even up here south facing hillsides had lost their covering, two days of sunshine melting what was not much more than a dusting to be honest, though in the shade plenty had survived, the frost last night covering it all with a fresh layer of crystals. Indeed given that it had fallen three days ago, the snow was actually still lovely and powdery where it had remained out of the suns warming rays.

Starting our walk from the long straight road known as the ‘Bence’, we headed down past the larch plantation to this hidden away valley which is no more than 1/4 mile from the Wolds highest point at Garrowby Hill (246 metres). The plantation was quiet with little signs of life, bar a large number of pheasants, though as we continued a couple of Buzzards soared overhead, mewing as they did so. It was near here that I stumbled upon a Rough-legged Buzzard a few years ago, my first self-found rarity, but a quick check with my ‘bins’ confirmed that those today were ‘merely’ Common Buzzards.

Indeed the morning would prove pretty quiet as regards most forms of wildlife with a few Hares in the valley, and winter thrushes in the abundant hawthorn scrub, though in the skies overhead it was pleasing to hear a few Skylarks calling as they flew over, a bird which remains common on the Wolds but in increasingly fewer numbers. As we reached my favourite part of this walk, the plateau of land known as ‘Cot Nab’, another Buzzard was spotted cruising above the covert crops, though the local crows soon drove it away.

From Cot Nab one has a wonderful view looking southwards across the rolling hills and the many hidden deep valleys which so characterise this chalkland landscape, the distant snow-covered hill of ‘Cold Wold’ earning its name this morning. Cold Wold used to be home to an old abandoned farm house and it used to be one of my dreams to buy it and do it up one day, but a few years ago the local estate beat me to it and now it is comfortable private dwelling with fine views across the local countryside.

The rest of our walk continued with little further incident but the journey homeward brought some interesting observations, including some daffodils starting to flower outside the village of Millington, plus a number of Red Kites above Nunburnholme and again near Middleton-on-the-Wolds. We also quickly stopped to see if there was any sign of last weeks Goosander at Kilnwick Percy, but since the lake was completely frozen over, it was unsurprising to see that it was not there. I wonder where it has gone?

19th, North Cave Wetlands – On what was a very dull and murky morning, we made our way across the Wolds to visit North Cave Wetlands, this being our first visit of 2016. A redhead smew had been reported at the weekend and we were obviously hoping to see this as we arrived at the reserve shortly after 10 am, the chattering calls of House Sparrows greeting us as we stepped out into the cool morning air. The hedgerows along Dryham Lane hosted the usual variety of birds with Goldfinches, Dunnocks, Blackbirds and Robins being the most conspicuous, whilst Dryham Ings itself was largely quiet with just a few Common gulls, Teal, Tufted duck and Redshanks to be seen.

The high water levels meant that both Main Lake & Village Lake were dominated by waterfowl, especially Teal and Wigeon, the former being observed displaying from time to time. Other ducks included plenty of Tufted duck, Pochard and Mallard too, whilst less numerous were the Gadwall and Shovelers. In the distance about a dozen or so Shelduck were also espied, but disappointingly  there was no sign of anything more exotic, the recently reported Smew nowhere to be seen.

Making our way around the reserve we encountered a nice variety of typical winter passerines, a confiding Goldcrest leading a couple of photographers a merry dance, whilst the alders above them hosted a few Lesser Redpolls, these winter visiting birds having now been resident at the reserve since October. Along the northern hedge Redwings were spotted in smaller numbers than recently, with a few Song Thrushes also feeding in the fields, and as we stopped to watch the birds at the feeding station we spotted a very handsome Brambling amongst the far more numerous Tree Sparrows.

20th, Woldgarth – Both today and yesterday I detected a small but notable increase in bird song around Woldgarth, the woods around the old homestead hosting the calls and songs of Robin, Blue tit, Great tit, Wren and a few Thrushes. The odd Dunnock was also heard, though I haven’t seen any males competing and fighting, at least not yet anyway. The days have certainly begun to noticeably lengthen during the past week and without a doubt this is what is encouraging the birds to sing, after all the weather is still quite cold at the moment with January 2016 currently averaging 3.4 C, 0.8 C below the 1981-2010 average.

Meanwhile I noted that the Magpie pair were starting to inspect last years nest this morning, and I wonder what they will do with it in the coming months. More often than not they usually take it apart and move to another nearby tree, the nest being constructed largely of twigs collected from the woods and garden, though one year it was also supplemented with an abundance of brick ties which they stole from someplace unknown. Even now I still find the odd one falling from the tree tops!

21st, Woldgarth – The garden bird feeders were very busy again this morning, as usual dominated by the four common finch species that we have here at Woldgarth (Greenfinch, Bullfinch, Goldfinch and Chaffinch), though as I watched them from my office window I noticed another bird, this proving to be a rather smart Siskin. Whilst these winter visitors have been heard, and occasionally glimpsed, in the garden and woods since late autumn, it was only today that I have actually seen one at the feeders this year, the yellow and black finch showing a preference for the Nyjer seed feeders.

Siskin (Carduelis spinus)

22nd, Woldgarth – This morning as I wandered out to check the bird feeders and take the daily weather measurements, I came across an obviously diseased Bullfinch, the bird being unresponsive and obviously panting hard with foam coming from its beak (certainly suggestive of trichomonosis). The bird passed away within an hour, its suffering being relatively short-lived, but nevertheless it is always distressing to see any animal suffer even though of course it is very much part of nature, death being one of those everyday occurrences which more often than not go unseen in the countryside around us.

I always take hygiene very seriously here, and as a result I have spent the whole morning out in the rain cleaning and disinfecting all of the feeders, the bird table also scrubbed down with near boiling water and a hint of mild cleaner. Of course the bird may well have been ill from any other variety of diseases which afflict wild birds, and indeed the infection may well have come from elsewhere, but nevertheless I don’t want to see the disease spread, finches being particularly prone to a variety of viral & bacterial infections.

The absence of feeders for most of the day did however allow me to count the number of visiting birds more accurately, the birds gathering in the trees as they tried to work out where the food had gone, with the Bullfinch count being particularly revealing. Females outnumbered the males by two to one with six females and three males being spotted (not including the deceased male), whilst at least 11 Goldfinches and 21 Greenfinches were counted. The single male Siskin was also about again today, the bird seemingly roving about in association with the Goldfinches.

A busy feeding station

24th, North Cliffe Wood – On a grey and cloudy morning we crossed the Wolds to enjoy a stroll around North Cliffe Wood, our journey brightened by a small flock of Golden Plover near High Hunsley. Passing through the pretty estate village of Hotham we noted both snowdrops and winter aconites starting to flower beside the roadside, whilst the farm near North Cliffe Wood itself hosted a small carpet of white flowers in the shelter belt woodland beside the farmhouse. However the countryside at large is still pretty wintry in appearance, with plenty of standing water and mud down here on the Vale of York lowlands, though the overcast skies today made it appear particularly dark and dank.

Nevertheless in the woods signs of springs stirrings were noted here and there, including some hazel catkins just starting to open up, especially in the warmer and more sheltered parts of the wood deep in the coppice. However these few catkins were very much the exception with most others still yet to open, whilst I also failed to find any of the female flowers on the attractive stems of this most useful of trees. On the floor of the coppice the green leaves of the primroses brings the promise of better days ahead, as do the leaf spikes of bluebells which are now coming up all over the wood. No doubt it will be April before we know it!

Making our way through the dead bracken of the summer past we flushed up a WOODCOCK, the first we have encountered at the wood this year, and one wonders whether the recent colder weather has meant that they have finally arrived. In previous years we have recorded up to 8 (at least) of these elusive birds in this wood, the Scolopax rusticola being one of those birds which has always strangely fascinated me and which has become a sort of personal totem (hence the blog badge). However this year they have been very hard to find, probably as a result of the exceptionally mild November & December, so it was great to finally catch up with this most cryptic of woodland birds.

On the heath quite a bit of gorse is flowering (though when isn’t it!) and if you got close enough the faint whiff of that wonderfully evocative perfume could just be detected. As I enjoyed this sweet scent a Green Woodpecker was heard yaffling to the south of the reserve, and as I looked upwards a Great Spotted Woodpecker was then spotted flying across the area in that distinctive direct flying style of the species. In the wood the noisy call of a Jay could be heard clearly above all the other woodland sounds, whilst as we passed the fields just beyond the reserve a few Skylarks were half-heartedly singing in the heavens above, a sound to provide some cheer on what was yet another typically grey January morning.

26th, Woldgarth – My eldest niece was off school today with a bug of some sort, and this meant we were stuck at home on babysitting duties. However we did enjoy some garden birding during the afternoon, conducting a preliminary garden bird count before the main one this coming weekend, and as we watched the usual garden visitors I suddenly noticed a slightly unusual bird amongst the ground-feeding Chaffinches. With the help of my binoculars I soon realised it was a female Brambling, a rare visitor to Woldgarth (the last one was a few years ago I think), an unexpected but much welcomed addition to the year list. I wonder if it will turn up during the actual bird count at the weekend?

Meanwhile the return of mild weather has seen the winter aconites come out here at Woldgarth, their cheering yellow blooms brightening up the still drab winter gardens, whilst the first crocuses are now just days away from flowering, the pale blue varieties typically coming out before the others. By the shelter of the front porch the solitary flowering daffodil is still going strong, despite being bashed about by the wind today, whilst the odd snowdrop is now in flower here and there.

28th, Woldgarth – The Brambling was again spotted around the bird feeders this afternoon, though the Siskin from last week has not been seen for a few days. Meanwhile, despite being cooler today (indeed their was a touch of ground frost as I stepped out into the dawn twilight this morning), a couple of Blackbirds were singing away as the sun began to rise over the countryside, a sound which has become increasingly frequent during the past week.

29th, Woldgarth – Despite the strong winds today I did hear some sub-Bullfinch song in the garden, a delightfully modest series of trills and whistles which is typical of this endearing & retiring species. The actual full bullfinch song is not often heard, but the little trill which is usually followed by a soft “wheee” is one of my favourite spring sounds in the garden. Meanwhile the female Brambling was once more hanging around the feeders today, feeding on the ground in the company of about half a dozen or so Chaffinches.

31st, RSPB Garden Bird Survey – I conducted the annual garden bird survey for the RSPB between 9.15 and 10.15 this morning, watching the feeders and the garden from the comfort of my office window on what was a grey and cold late January morning. In total sixteen species of bird would be recorded, though for half an hour next to nothing was seen thanks to a Sparrowhawk attack not long after I started (it caught nothing by the way). Unfortunately the Brambling which was around last week failed to turn up during the hour, in fact I haven’t seen it today full stop, but this was compensated for by the presence of two Siskins (a male and a female) amongst the Goldfinches, whilst a Treecreeper & a couple of Goldcrests also made welcome appearances, the former creeping about the hawthorns and the latter flittering about the Yews in search of food.

In total the birds recorded were as follows; Blackbird (x9), Blue tit (x4), Bullfinch (x5), Chaffinch (x6), Coal tit (x2), Goldcrest (x2), Goldfinch (x11), Greenfinch (x6), Great tit (x3), Long-tailed tit (x2), Magpie (x2), Robin (x2), Siskin (x2), Sparrowhawk (x1), Treecreeper (x1), & Woodpigeon (x5). Birds which flew over, but otherwise can’t be counted, were Black-headed Gull, Common Gull, Herring Gull, Rook, Crow, Jackdaw, Mistle Thrush, Feral dove, Collared dove and Starling.

Other observations from the garden today included yet more sub-song from the local Bullfinches, whilst a Chaffinch was also heard nearly in full song, the accelerating series of notes just about managing to reach the final climax. Hardly a vintage performance by any means but nice to hear nevertheless. As I cleaned the feeders I noticed that the Kerria is just starting to flower as well, though last time I noted it flowering in January we had nearly half a foot of snow the next week!

Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)