My idea of a good time in spring is to be up by first light and be the first person on North Anston Pit Top (NAPT), subject to the events of the preceding night. That first peek over the edge of the pit top, and the uncertainty of not knowing what you are about to see, is for me one of the highs of local patch birding. Over the years these mornings and days spent at sites within SK58 have produced some memorable birds. These have not necessarily been rare birds. Something as simple as the first Little Ringed Plover of the year is always a high, emphasised by the fact this is right on my doorstep. Two days that will stay with me for many years to come covered the weekend of April 26th and 27th 1997.
Typically the weekend began with the serious job of a survey visit as part of the group's Woodland Survey 1997. The weather the day before had been atrocious, with heavy rain, so it did not bode well for the weekend. Saturday was fine, but dull and cool; regardless Steve Wilson and I spent a very profitable four and a half hours in Carlton Wood noting all the birds encountered, the highlights being our first Cuckoo of the year, a superb Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, 3 Hawfinch and a female Wheatear in a field by the wood. With the volume of birds and the first Cuckoo, it quickly became apparent there had been a fall of birds - no doubt the grotty weather the day before had played a major part.
Following our survey we decided to visit nearby Langold Lake in the vain hope we might chance upon a passing Osprey. Alas this was not to be - a variety of wildfowl was our reward. Undeterred we went to Carr Hill, the highest point in the whole 10km square. The fields around had in previous years produced good numbers of Wheatears and Whinchat plus occasionally Dotterel. Yet another Cuckoo provided the only entertainment. Dropping down to Thurcroft my pager went off, reporting a pair of Ring Ouzels on Thurcroft Pit Top. Steve and myself could hardly believe this as we were almost there. Crossing the vast expanse of black slag we checked out every speck, hoping to discover the Ring Ouzel. In the distance we recognised Rob Hardcastle and Mick Clay. They approached from the far side having seen the Ring Ouzels. Whilst chatting to Mick and Rob we noticed several Wheatears running about; initially we thought it was the same few birds running about the ruins of the pit buildings, but it soon became obvious there were many birds about. Interest in the Ring Ouzel soon passed as we began to count the Wheatears. By this time John Shepherd had arrived. We spread out and incredibly the five of us amassed an amazing count of 30+ Wheatear, by far the highest count from one site ever in SK58. Wherever you looked Wheatears were running around with their stop-and-go action, a sight more akin to a good day at Spurn Point - not SK58!
It was hard to leave this site, but what else might be around SK58? Checking out Roche Abbey yet another message on the pager, this time from Mick - on his way home he stopped off by a rough field on Common Road and found 4 male Whinchats. Having found nothing at Roche Abbey, Steve and I went to Common Road, where we had 3 males and a female - so with the other male that Mick found it meant there were 5 Whinchat here. By now we had been in the field for 13 hours. As I went home my thoughts were "What have I missed on North Anston Pit Top (NAPT) this morning?" and "There's still Sunday - NAPT first thing in the morning".
At first light on Sunday I met up with Steve. The day was bright and sunny in stark contrast to yesterday - it was going to be a good day. We made our way around NAPT. Birds were everywhere, good numbers of pipits, Skylarks, warblers, tits and common finches etc… Despite the quantity of birds we were a little disappointed at the quality - we were hoping for something a little rarer. We were soon rewarded. Walking behind Cramfit Brook we put up a stunning Short-eared Owl from a grassy knoll. The Short-eared Owl had presumably roosted here overnight. Immediately it took flight and was mobbed by a half a dozen Rooks, following as the owl headed off towards Dinnington Marsh and out of sight. The Owl on its own was well worth the early start. Making our way towards Dinnington Sewage Works, we began to pick up Wheatears. Initially just one or two, by the time we reached the sewage works 5 were counted - this itself a site record. Walking around the perimeter of the works produced another 5, giving a total of 10 - not the 30 of the previous day on Thurcroft Pit Top, but still a superb record from this site. Enthused by the Short-eared Owl, Wheatears and numbers of commoner birds, the anticipation that something really good was about rose. After our blast around the sewage works we headed for Penny Piece, a tiny patchwork of small fields and superb hedgerows. Despite giving the area a thorough grilling, nothing out of the ordinary was found although, as on NAPT, common birds were in abundance. A previously arranged walk along the Chesterfield Canal had to be endured, although the walk, pleasant enough in the now hot and sunny weather, was enlivened by the purring of my first Turtle Dove of the year and the excited calls of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.
Returning in the afternoon I met Rob Hardcastle, but while I was parked at Turner Wood some toad caused £100 worth of damage to my car! Despite this and excited by the number of birds around, we decided to go together to Dinnington Marsh, via Netherthorpe Airfield, where the short-cropped grass revealed another 3 Wheatears. This site I'm sure must yield good birds if watched often enough. Dinnington Marsh is a great spot, under-watched and threatened with development. Walking along the old railway we scanned the rank vegetation, and this yielded Redshank - now a rare bird in SK58, and shortly afterwards a vivid male Whinchat was found. How many of those had gone through this weekend? In front of us a female Common Redstart (now recorded annually due to increased coverage of the square) quivered her rear. A Grasshopper Warbler perched on a reed reeling away topped off this short spin around the marsh. All in all, not a bad hour and half.
With the best of the daylight hours behind us we Rob and I decided to spend the remainder around the village of Carr with the intention of counting the large flock of Golden Plover and perhaps stumble upon a trip of Dotterel. Was it only yesterday I was here with Steve? We found the plover flock and spent half an hour or so watching through them, but alas no matter how long we stared at them not one turned into a Dotterel. Rob began to pack up his gear as the shadows began to lengthen. I took one last look; as I did the goldies took flight. Scanning them through my bins hoping yet again for Dotterel, I noticed a large, dark, bird flying lethargically behind the plovers, flying slowly diagonally away from us. It immediately became clear I was looking at a raptor. I told Rob who looked at the raptor through his bins; I went for my scope. My initial thought was Buzzard; they are fairly common here. But the shape was wrong. I then thought Marsh Harrier, but again this did not seem right. The other thought that whizzed through my mind was Black Kite; it had a laboured flight, and was quite sleek looking. As I thought this, the bird twisted its tail and changed direction; this revealed a shallow forked tail. This, along with the flight profile and shape, brought about the shriek of "Bloody hell, it's Black Kite!" Rob in stunned silence kept his face glued to his bins picking up on every wingbeat. By now the bird was quite a way away and heading away from us. Having identified it I frantically tried to contact a few folk. I tried John O'Malley first, as it was heading straight for his hometown of Maltby! Frustratingly he wasn't in. Lastly I contacted a pager service, with the message that a Black Kite was going over Maltby now, in the vain hope that perhaps some Rotherham birders might pick it up as it went over.
We watched the bird disappear from view, somewhere over Maltby. Completely elated we went straight to the pub for a celebration drink and a well deserved sit-down (after another 13 hours in the field). We reflected on what a weekend it had been. Starting off with the Cuckoo, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Hawfinch in Carlton, the chase for the Ring Ouzel, the amazing spectacle of all those Wheatears on Thurcroft. All that seemed a long time ago - having said that, Sunday morning seemed a long time ago, as did the Short-eared Owl. The gorgeous Redstart, a stunning male Whinchat at Dinnington Marsh, the numbers of commoner birds and the cherry on top the amazing Black Kite.
To me this is what local patch watching is all about. Picking up on movements and falls, knowing birds have arrived because you know your patch and you know what's in it. The hundreds of hours, counting and watching 'common' (or should I say 'once common') birds are occasionally rewarded with something special, but the only way to see them is to get out in the field!
SK58 has its own bird group, SK58 Birders. Their website is at www.sk58.freeserve.co.uk
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