Of the four walks that I lead in and around Hillhouse Wood during the year, the Winter Bird one is the most variable and unpredictable. This is because winter birds move around in their search for food, so what we see is unusually dependent on ‘being at the right place at the right time’. The 2018 walk was an excellent example of this, enhanced by its timing just at the end of our exposure to ‘The Beast from the East’. If nothing else, it was the first walk I’ve led through several inches of snow.
Perhaps as a consequence, the overall number and variety of birds was a little below par, but the quality of what we saw more than made up for this. As to the human element, five hardy souls turned up. They must have been mad! Waiting for the group to assemble at the Old Church often produces a few birds, but this year it only revealed some Jackdaws and Blue Tits, with some Black Headed Gulls gliding overhead. The walk down the track to the wood entrance was not much more productive, with just a few Carrion Crows and more tits. So I used my normal technique of ‘filling in the gaps’ by telling the group what we have seen previously, or what can be seen here at other times of the year.
However, as we approached the wood, one of the small trees by the side of the track produced one of the highlights of the walk: it suddenly became host to a travelling band of Long-tailed Tits. For several minutes these lovely and delightful birds demonstrated their upside-down acrobatics, just over our heads. It’s always nice when ‘nature’ puts on a show that can be appreciated without the need for binoculars.
Walking down through the wood towards the stream at the bottom mainly served up some opportunities to appreciate the variety of different calls that Great Tits use at this time of the year. They are reputed to have one of the widest vocabularies of any bird, of which we heard a nice selection.
Over the previous few weeks I had seen quite large flocks of Yellowhammers and winter thrushes in the fields on the other side of the stream, as well as Redpolls feeding in the Alders that grow along its banks. So I decided to take the group up the path that leads into these fields, in case they were there. Trudging up the slope to the far side of the field confirmed that, in fact, they were not. Not one of them – wrong place / wrong time. However, as we turned round to walk back the wood I spotted a large white bird flapping in a rather ungainly manner in front of the edge of the wood. I immediately recognised one of the less frequent visitors to the wood – a Little Egret. As it was some way away, I was glad to see that it dropped down into the stream, close to where our route lay. If we could get there before any other walkers, we could get a good view. And, luckily, so we did. This was a most unexpected treat, and just goes to show that what you lose on the one hand, you sometimes gain with the other. We also saw a Jay and a Greater Spotted Woodpecker in this area.
After this excitement we continued to walk back into, and through, the wood. Bird life continued to be a bit ‘thin on the ground’ (and in the trees), but as we walked along the stream we were accompanied by a Wren. I used this as a prompt to explain how Wrens and Goldcrests are similar in both size and behaviour, but one way to tell them apart is that, in my experience, Wrens rarely venture more than about 3-4 feet off the ground, while Goldcrests prefer to forage higher up. Doesn’t my audience look enthused?
Readers may recall that, on my guided walks, there is a tradition of me imparting some gem of wisdom or knowledge, and then ‘nature’ makes a fool of me by demonstrating the exact opposite. And so it was that, a few minutes later, we saw a little bird fly down the the base of a tree just in front of us, and then disappear behind it. This is typically what Treecreepers do, before starting their spiral ascent of the trunk, and so I waited for the bird to come into view. This is shortly did, more or less at ground level. And guess what it was? A Goldcrest. Which made me spectacularly wrong on not one, but two counts. David Attenborough can rest easy.
This Goldcrest then proceeded to forage along the base of a hedge until it came to within no more that 4-5 feet of us. It continued to do this for several minutes, enabling everyone to see its golden ‘crest’ with the naked eye. It provided the best views of this tiny species that I have ever seen, and became the ‘third highlight’ on the walk. The remainder of the walk did not provide us with too much more – a nice perching Kestrel, a solitary Common Gull and a distantly calling (but invisible) Buzzard took the total species count to a below average 18. But this year’s walk was all about quality.