The Dene through the Seasons
Weather wise November turned out to be rather boring. There were no extreme temperatures either up or down, there were no extremely wet days and no particularly strong or boisterous winds and we did not get any snow. However, there were plenty of cloudy and gloomy days but average temperatures were above normal and there was less rain than normal: so all in all neither humans nor wildlife suffered greatly.
It is certainly very unusual to start a November report with a sighting of a dragonfly in the Dene but on the 5th a Common Darter was seen in the Dene along the river bank between the stepping stones and the downstream bridge.
Indications are that some of our Hedgehog population started hibernating in the first week of the month while others were still feeding on the meals put out for them during the third week. By the end of the month all should be hibernating and now we wait for smaller hedgehogs to be seen out in daylight hunting for food. So far we have had no reports but if you see one please catch it, put it in a cardboard box together with an old towel and let us know as soon as possible.
Regrettably, there have been plenty of sightings of Grey Squirrels in various parts of the Dene this month often close to a feeding box. The majority of the sightings have been from the area between the old railway line and Holywell Road Bridge with 4 seen feeding there on 5th and a lesser number throughout the first three weeks of the month. A Grey Squirrel has occasionally been seen in other areas, particularly between the old railway line and Hartley Car Park but nowhere has a feeding box been visited throughout November, except one. In the October Report mention was made of the box closest to Delaval Hall being visited and the food eaten and that continued into this month. Finally a trap was set on 8th but was totally ignored until the afternoon check on the 14th revealed a Mature Female had been caught.
The sighting of greys in the Dene but with none of them using a feeding box was very frustrating and an alternative form of culling was investigated. After all the necessary legal requirements and formal written permission had been completed, a person with a rifle kept watch and on 22nd a mature female was shot and the next evening a mature male received the same treatment: good news that a breeding pair had been removed.
There have been a massive number of reports this month of Roe Deer being seen from almost all areas of the Dene. Those that moved away to breed have now returned with their offspring and joined up with those that bred in the Dene earlier in the year. Even the increase in the number of humans with their dogs visiting the Dene for recreation due to the virus, has not put the deer off and if anything they have become tamer. Many visitors have said what a thrill it was to come relatively close to a Roe Deer for the very first time.
As usual November has not been the most exciting month for birds but with the trees now leafless it is at least easier seeing what is around. There has been a few interesting sightings and the rather worrying lack, last month, of some of our commonest birds has improved slightly.
On 26th a Merlin was seen in the area just west of the tunnel from where it flew off in a westerly direction. One is reminded that some 5 years ago a Merlin wintered in the Dene and was often seen so this, hopefully, could be repeated. On the same day 1 and possibly 2 Woodcock were seen by 2 people on the southern hillside above the old well a little downstream from the stepping-stones. Although not particularly rare in the Dene they have usually been seen further to the west. I cannot remember a report of a Woodcock being seen east of the upstream bridge before.
Earlier in the month on 9th a Water Rail was seen in the area about 150 m upstream from the pipe bridge. It is a very long time since a Water Rail was seen in the Dene, a very secretive bird that loves reed beds and what have we got close to the pipe pond - 2 recently dug reed beds! Although not rare and indeed breeding in the Dene, a Tawny Owl (or more than 1) has generated a real flurry of reports by their calling throughout the evening and before light in the morning. It has occasionally been reported in previous years but not covering so many days or going on for so many hours. These reports I should add have come in from all areas of the Dene plus a couple of reports of one roosting by day near the upstream bridge.
In October’s report mention was made of how few Blackbirds and Blue Tits were around and although towards the end of this month numbers being reported did increase they are nowhere near the numbers seen in previous years. Other common birds were closer to norm with Great Tit, Bullfinch, Tree Sparrow, Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Robin about average while Chaffinch, Coal Tit, Willow Tit and Nuthatch were above average. Special mention should be made about a Dunnock, which was only reported twice, once on the 7th and again on 27th. Long-tailed Tits were about average but the numbers seen varied between 1 and 12 with low numbers still being seen at the end of the month, which is unusual at this time of the year.
1 or 2 Stock Doves were reported on 4 occasions well spread from the upstream bridge east to the car park while 1 to 3 Jays were reported 9 times spread from the tunnel to the car park with the majority of sightings near the tunnel. Treecreepers were few and far between this month with only 2 reports both on the 6th with a single bird near the oxbow and 2 near the downstream bridge. 8 Goldfinch were seen at oxbow on 15th while 1 to 2 Goldcrest were seen on 6 occasions from various locations. A Chiffchaff was heard on 12th close to Hartley Car Park and again on 26th near the downstream bridge.
Our common winter migrant the Redwing was seen in all parts of the Dene often as a single bird but if there had been a morning migration then many agitated birds could be seen in groups at the east end of the Dene at first light: then having had a quick feed they rapidly dispersed inland.
At least 1 Buzzard was seen each week during November sometimes in the oxbow area and sometimes further east above the fields surrounding Hartley West Farm. A Kestrel was seen 4 times in the second half of the month on 3 occasions in the car park area and once at oxbow while a Sparrowhawk was reported on 4 occasions all from the car park area.
The river and estuary saw a Dipper near the tunnel on 3 occasions with 2 Grey Wagtails seen in the same place on 22nd; they were joined by a Moorhen on 26th. A Little Egret was seen on the estuary on 26th and further to the west between Holywell Pond and the old railway line 13 Whooper Swans were seen soon after first light on 6th while in a northern field to the east of the old railway line on 15th there were 10 Pink-footed Geese.
1 or 2 Wrens were along all areas of the waterway all month but on 9th a Goosander was seen at the head of the estuary and later on the same day 2 were seen near the stone bridge. 1 or 2 Pheasants were reported occasionally from all parts of the Dene and surrounding fields while Grey Herons were seen from oxbow right down to the estuary, normally a single bird but on 2 occasions 4/5 birds were seen in the trees of the heronry.
Finally, 100s of Woodpigeons, many Jackdaws and numerous Rooks, Carrion Crows and Magpies continue to be in all parts of the Dene and surrounding fields, with numbers appearing to ever increase.
As we reach the end of the last month of this never to be forgotten year, it can be reported that weather wise, December was about average. There were some periods of above average temperatures but these were balanced by particularly cold periods, especially towards the end of the month. We had some days of severe gales but overall winds were below average for the month. Rainfall was average overall but as the ground became saturated so some flooding was to be seen in adjoining fields but the river, quickly rising and falling as it always does, this year more or less kept within its banks unlike 2019. We had no snow and severe frosts and ice were missing.
So with no prolonged periods of bad weather and an abundance of natural food, wildlife has had a very easy time. However, it has had to put up with a massive influx of humans with individuals and families using the Dene as their place of permitted daily exercise every day of the week and especially at weekends when it has resembled Northumberland Street at its worst. This has resulted in far fewer reports being received and numbers of wildlife seen being on the low side.
It is pleasing to report that we have not received any reports of Hedgehogs in difficulty and out in daylight hunting for food so far this winter.
Without doubt what happened early on the morning of 10th was the report of the month. An Otter was seen on the bank of the river in the meadow, probably consuming what it had just caught in the river, but as the reporter approached it slid into the river and was gone. What was particularly unusual was this happened at 5am!! There are a few people that are in the Dene long before first light, mainly people self-isolating who wish to avoid the later crowds, so it seems are the Otters!!
There have been many reports of Roe Deer in the Dene this month with most sightings around first or last light. The two areas creating the majority of reports are from the footpath between Holywell Road Bridge (HRB) and the Old Railway Line (ORL) and in the Dene and fields around Hartley West Farm. Some have been of a lone buck but most have been of family groups consisting of does and their fawns with numbers between 2 and 4.
Not one of our 25 Grey Squirrel feeding boxes, stretching from the HRB to the Avenue, has been visited this month. However, the animals are around and we have received 10 reports of sightings, again mostly at around first and last light. Numbers have always been of 1 or 2 with all reports coming from the oxbow area to the west of the ORL or from the upstream bridge area to the east of the tunnel. On 20th there was a grey seen on a bird feeding box at this location so this might be an indication that natural food is beginning to run out.
Although not in our area it is interesting that 2 greys were trapped when visiting a feeding box between Holywell and Seghill on 21st and 23rd one being a mature female and the other an immature male.
All our usual common birds were seen this month in varying numbers with reports indicating that numbers increased slightly towards the end of the month. Blackbirds definitely increased during the month but Blue Tits continued to be well below normal. Great Tit numbers were about average but Coal Tits continued to be well above average; they must have had an exceptional breeding year. Willow Tits were reported on no less than 9 occasions, always a single bird except on 29th when 2 were seen together and all reports coming from the stretch between Hartley Car Park and the start of the estuary. The Long-tailed Tit reports came from various locations throughout the Dene, with 6 seen on 3rd, 8 on 5th and then nothing until 20th when 2 and 8 were seen on the same day, followed by 3 on 23rd , 6 on 29th and finally 8 on the 30th.
Of the finches both Bullfinch and Chaffinch were seen throughout the month and Dene but not in any great numbers, always between 1 and 3 except on 5th and 20th when 6 and 5 Bullfinches were seen of mixed sexes. Not a single Goldfinch was reported. A Dunnock was only seen on 6 occasions 2 of which were of 2 birds and the rest only 1, while a Great Spotted Woodpecker was only seen on 3 occasions, on the 20th 2 males and a female were reported with single birds on the 28th and 30th. That will certainly change once they start drumming, usually in January. As usual Robins were well reported as they have a tendency to come to humans rather than flying away. Unusually, no gathering of a good number of Robins was seen, with the maximum number being only 2 together. Not for the first time Tree Sparrows were the most seen and reported bird in the Dene with numbers often in the order 6/7 and almost seen on a daily basis.
A Stock Dove was only seen on 3 occasions, 2 on the 5th and 1 on 7th and 30th while a single Nuthatch fared a little better being reported on 6 occasions evenly spread across the month. Jay reports have been less than in recent months with all reports of 1 to 3 birds coming from either side of the tunnel. On a few occasions throughout the month there has been migratory birds arriving on the coast and quickly dispersing into the Dene, which has meant that groups of Redwings from 1 to 10 have been seen in many parts of the Dene. However, on 30th 19 Redwings were seen on the field immediately north of the stone bridge. In the adjacent fields a few Fieldfare have been reported but numbers only in the 2/3 region. On 2 occasions, 17th and 20th a single Song Thrush was seen with a group of Redwings and one wonders if these 2 birds had arrived with the other migrants. A single Goldcrest was seen on 20th and a Mistle Thrush on 30th both in the pumping station area while a Treecreeper was seen twice on 30th and 31st either side of the tunnel. On the last day of the month there was a rare sighting of a Snipe flushed in the area of the pumping station, the first for many a year.
A Buzzard has only been seen 3 times this month on 5th, 13th and 20th all of a single bird along the ORL/HRB path while a Kestrel was seen twice on 3rd and 30th near the stone bridge. A Sparrowhawk was seen twice on the 8th and 14th both sightings coming from areas near to Hartley Car Park. After last light a Tawny Owl has continued to be heard calling on a good number of evenings but from various parts of the Dene: whether this is always the same single bird or is a combination of birds is not known.
1 and sometimes 2 Dippers have been seen all month all coming from areas linked to the tunnel and in roughly the same area a Grey Wagtail was seen on 3 occasions. A single Moorhen was seen on 3rd near the upstream bridge and on 8th a little upstream from the pipe bridge while a Little Egret was only seen in the estuary twice on 4th and 30th. A pair of Mallards was seen at the HRB on 4th and Grey Herons were regularly seen flying over but there was only one report of a single bird on the river bank between the 2 wooden bridges. Wrens were seen close to the river throughout the Dene but always of a single bird and not yet singing.
Massive Corvid flocks were regularly seen in the adjacent fields with numbers well into the 100s with smaller groupings in the woodland of Woodpigeon up to 25, Jackdaws 15, Rooks 20, Magpies 5 together with the occasional Carrion Crow, often a pair. On 2nd 9 Curlew were seen between the ORL and Holywell Pond while Pheasants continued to be seen and heard throughout the Dene and in the adjoining fields. Pheasant groupings of up to 10 birds were seen occasionally in the fields but by the birds behaviour it appeared they had been recently released ready for the Delaval Estate Shoot, which is in mid-season.
Throughout the month smallish flocks of Pink-footed Geese had been reported flying over the Dene but the large flocks on the ground in the adjoining fields that we had seen in December in previous years were missing. Then on the penultimate day of the month a small flock landed in their favoured field followed by another and another. These small flocks joining the ever increasing numbers on the ground continued on and off for over an hour, until it was estimated that there were over 1000 birds on the ground. A couple of hours later they departed with around 700 returning on the last day of the month but again staying for only a couple of hours.
What a month January has turned out to be. Not only have we been locked down due to the corona virus but it has been the coldest January since 2010 and very much wetter than average: but at least the number of sunny hours was normal! With the ground already saturated at the start of the year any rain in January has created flooding, vast areas across cultivated fields and in the Dene smaller areas of flooding along almost all the paths. Ditches collecting water from the surrounding fields and directing it down hillsides to the river have been overwhelmed, consequently bringing mud and debris onto paths which have become seas of mud in many places. Due to the lockdown the number of people visiting the Dene for recreation is dramatically above the norm and, where the paths have been flooded, this increased footfall has found ways round which sometimes is going to have a major impact on flora when we all get back to normal.
In the January 2020 Fauna Report, reference was made to the very mild winter and consequently there were only 2 reported sightings of Roe Deer throughout that month. What a difference a year can make with Roe Deer being seen most days throughout this month and appearing to becoming happier with the greatly increased number of humans about. The most sightings were at the west end of the Dene, along the Holywell Road Bridge (HRB) to old railway line (ORL) path especially on the north side of the river where some were born last year. It is difficult on occasions to calculate how many animals are about without double counting but it is thought that there were occasionally up to 10 in this area.
At the east end, between the downstream wooden bridge right down to the estuary, there were many sightings of Roe Deer with the majority seen surrounding Hartley West Farm either in the woodland either side of the river or in the adjacent northern fields. The usual sightings in this area were of family groups of 3 or 4 but a single female and 1 and 2 males were regularly seen and occasionally they appeared to have linked up with the family groups. The 2 strangest sightings on different days were of a family group of 3 which had left the Dene at first light and were on the grassed area directly in front of adjacent Seaton Sluice houses, with the odd person passing on the pavement less than 100 meters away.
Last month’s Fauna Report stated that a good number of physical sightings of Grey Squirrels had been reported, all roughly east and west of the ORL but that no feeding box had been visited, this probably due to an abundance of natural food. This situation continued into January but we had an extra weapon in our armoury (first reported in November 2020) for the land on the south side of the river between the ORL and HRB, we had permission to shoot Grey Squirrels and a person qualified to do it.
On 13th January 2 immature males were shot followed on 24th by a mature female but also at this moment the natural food must have run out because all of a sudden the feeding boxes were being emptied. Traps were set and between 26th and 29th 3 squirrels were trapped, a mature male, immature female and a mature female and amazingly all from the same box in the area of the upstream bridge.
In a similar way to squirrels that found their natural food running out in January, some of our residential common birds were in the same boat, resulting in birds seen in the Dene increasing to more normal numbers. Perhaps the best example is the Blackbird whose numbers suddenly took off from the middle of the month and now it is not rare to see double digit numbers when you walk through the Dene. However this doesn’t apply to all our commonest birds with the number of Blue Tits and Great Tits still worryingly low. The reason for their decline is thought to be a very poor breeding season in 2020 due to a lack of caterpillars needed to feed large clutches. The Preliminary Report on the 2020 breeding season just published, indicates that Blue Tits were down 55% and Great Tits 39%
The number of our other common birds seen in the Dene has been more normal, these include Bullfinch, Chaffinch, Dunnock and Robin, while Coal Tit numbers, which appeared to be above average in December and early January, is now back to more normal numbers. The Tree Sparrow explosion, which started a few years ago in the Dene, is continuing with not only numbers increasing, with the first report of 10 on a feeding station, but they are gradually expanding their Dene territory.
A few sightings of Long-tailed Tits, in small flocks of up to 12, were reported mainly in the first half of the month but there were only 2 reports of Willow Tits with just 1 being seen on the 8th and 9th both along the car park to estuary path. On the 9th the first drumming Great Spotted Woodpecker was heard and thereafter this method of establishing territory became more common and hence reports became more frequent. Goldfinch were only reported on 5 occasions with 6 seen near the stone bridge on 5th and then 1 to 7 were seen between 17th to 27th all in the car park area. Nuthatch sightings in January were disappointing with single birds seen on only the 7th, 9th and 23rd. On the other hand Jays were well reported with sightings coming in throughout the month and from most areas of the Dene, from the oxbow lake area in the west through to the car park area in the east. Our Corvid fraternity were to be seen everywhere in varying large numbers. Without doubt Woodpigeons were the most common in their tens in the woodland but in the surrounding fields into the hundreds. Jackdaws were always around to be seen in double digit numbers with Magpies up to 7 on the edge of the woodlands and the occasional pair of Carrion Crows high in the trees. West of the car park the 20/30 Rooks in their rookeries were often in full voice – who could possibly miss them
There were a few less common birds seen, a Goldcrest on 9th near the stone bridge and again on 31st near oxbow, while a breeding bird that was common in the Dene a few years ago, the Song Thrush, was seen just once on 30th along the path opposite the heronry. A single Treecreeper was seen on the 9th, 16th and 25th in the oxbow area and on 19th near the downstream bridge. Between 1 and 3 Yellowhammers were seen on 4 occasions along the ORL and a flock of 7 was seen in the HRB area on the 31st. A Woodcock was flushed along the HRB path on 23rd and 31st and then 2 were flushed, one on the same path and the second near the dipping platform on Old Hartley Pond. On 30th came the biggest surprise with a bird flushed on the small upper estuary path which goes to Starlight Castle. The occasional Redwing was still being reported from a series of locations in the Dene but numbers were down to between 1 and 4 and another of our winter visitors was seen on the 9th when a flock of 12 Fieldfares flew over near the pumping station.
1 or 2 Buzzards were seen throughout the month on 5 occasions along the HRB path, together with the sighting of a bird in the estuary on 18th and 2 sightings near the downstream bridge on 30th and 31st. There were 2 Kestrels seen near the stone bridge on 25th and 1 on 17th while on the 13th one was at oxbow. There were many sightings of a single Sparrowhawk this month with the majority coming from near the car park but 3 sightings came from the HRB path. The calling of a Tawny Owl after dark continued on and off throughout the month with its location, as in the past, seeming to change by the day.
1 to 3 Pheasants were well reported throughout the month, all being seen in the surrounding fields, while on 23rd 12 Grey Partridge were seen close to Crow Hall Farm; however they might have been released birds for shooting purposes. Pink-footed Geese were seen on just 3 occasions feeding in the fields close to Hartley West Farm with numbers estimated to be around 500 birds. Unlike previous years their numbers and staying time were well down with a couple of hours in the field being the norm instead of all day. On 2 occasions large flocks of an estimated 2000 birds were seen flying over the fields but they didn’t land.
In the estuary 1 or 2 Little Egrets were seen often in the first 2 weeks but not at all in the second 2. Reports of Grey Herons were well down this month but there were three reports of 3 and 4 birds resting in the heronry. A Moorhen was seen just once near the stone bridge with a Grey Wagtail seen on 4 occasions in various locations along the river and 1 or 2 Dippers were regularly seen near or downstream from the tunnel. Finally, on 24th 2 Goosanders were seen on the river a short distance upstream from the pipe bridge.
This monthly Fauna Report is based on sightings submitted by people, expert and amateur, interested in birds and wildlife. The more reports we get the better and more interesting the Fauna Report will be. If you visit any part of the Dene or adjacent fields and you see birds or animals you recognise we would love to hear from you. Ideally, what you saw, how many, the rough location and date/time are the details we want.
You can let us know by: Text to 07958640903 or email to www.friendsofholywelldene.org.uk
We really do look forward to hearing from you.