The Dene through the Seasons
Weather wise February has been a month of a bit of everything. Heavy rain with gale force winds for a number of days resulted in the river bursting its bank in places and causing numerous small areas of flooding along a number of paths but at least temperatures stayed about average Then calmer weather arrived which caused temperatures to drop well below zero and for four days snow descended only to rapidly disappear when temperatures rose to ridiculously high levels with the sun shining from early morning to dusk. Add to all this the unbelievably high footfall in the Dene all month regardless of the weather and it is easy to understand why the Dene looks decidedly worn and a lot of the wildlife has changed their normal practices.
During February there has been a good number of Roe Deer in the Dene but in those areas where most of the visitors are to be seen Roe Deer have almost disappeared and are now virtually nocturnal only venturing out between last and first light. There are two main areas where they lie up during the day both are privately owned land with no public rights of way. The first is the woodlands in the horse field on the north side of the river along the Holywell Road Bridge (HRB) to the old railway line (ORL) path where it is estimated that around 12 animals lie up during the day. The second area is further east and is in the woodland on the west side of the river, opposite the path from Old Hartley Car Park (OHCP) to the estuary where it is thought that around 8 animals are lying up. Small groups do occasionally appear in daylight in the adjacent fields, usually of a buck and 2 or 3 does or just a family group of does but it is in the public woodland area which follows the river where sightings have become a rarity.
There is just one word that describes the volunteers’ work in connection with Red Squirrel Conservation during February and that is “frustrating” The necessary work involved in trying to eradicate Grey Squirrels from the Dene and along the Avenue has continued with feeding boxes being checked on a weekly basis and more often if one has been visited by a Grey Squirrel. There have been a good number of reports of greys being seen always in the stretch from HRB to the downstream bridge and occasionally from the Avenue and indeed a number of feeding boxes have regularly been emptied but every attempt at setting a trap to catch the grey has failed. The problem is thought to be Wood Mice.
A trap is set and shortly afterwards the food in the trap has been consumed by something that is too light to activate the trap, hence when the grey arrives there is nothing left to eat and it departs. This has happened on numerous occasions and as has been indicated mice are thought to be the problem. It is worth mentioning that we did have the same problem during late winter/early spring in past years.
There are very few reports these days of a Stoat being seen in the Dene but on 25th February a white one was seen between HRB and the oxbow lake. It was described as having some brown on its head and this would tie up with the March moult it will undergo to return to its chestnut brown colouring, this always starts on the head and gradually spreads across the body. I wonder if the very warm and sunny weather we had just experienced prior to this sighting was the signal for it to start the spring moult.
I am sure that you will be aware that just a few years ago it wasn’t a rarity to see one or more Otters in the river in the Dene in daylight. The increased footfall, spoken about earlier, appears to have had an effect on Otters and in this case the increase in dog numbers will have been a major factor. It appears that our otters have become completely nocturnal only coming out when it is dark, which makes it very difficult to determine whether they are still about especially in the winter when their spraints they leave on favourite rocks are washed away each time the river rises.
On the bitterly cold morning of 12th February with virgin snow still lying, it was possible to follow an otter’s tracks after it came out of the river at the stone bridge and walked upstream across the length of the meadow before sliding back into the river. At the point where there is an old fallen tree, where children use the river bank as a beach, it came out of the river again and its footprints could be followed before the slide print showed it re-entered the river just before the stepping-stones. This game went on until it slid into the river just short of the waterfall and no further prints were found. So at least we now know that the occasional Otter is still enjoying the Dene. Whether this animal is living in a permanent Holt in the Dene or is just using a “couch” as a temporary lying up area is unknown.
All the small woodland birds were seen regularly in the Dene during February, including Blackbirds, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Bullfinch, Chaffinch, Dunnock and Robins with numbers more or less as expected except that the number of Blue Tits seen was well down on past years but that will not change until after the next breeding season. Another bird which is now becoming common, as it rapidly expands through the Dene, is the Tree Sparrow, which was a rarity just a few years ago but now is being seen in double digit numbers in ever increasing locations.
Up to the middle of the month there were no reports of Long-tailed Tits being seen but then on 14th a flock of 10 was seen followed by a number of sightings of groups of 6 to 8 birds but this was quickly followed by a change to just 1 or 2 birds being seen regularly in the last week of the month. A single Willow Tit was seen on the 7Th, 14th and 15th with all sightings between the downstream bridge and the head of the estuary.
A Great Spotted Woodpecker was heard drumming far more often than being seen with reports increasing rapidly as the month went on and coming from every part of the Dene. No doubt they will have another good year. A Goldfinch was only seen twice in February with a single bird near Old Hartley Pond on 25th and then the following day 2 were seen near the Holywell Pumping station. Amazingly there was only 1 report this month of a Nuthatch seen on the feeders near the stepping-stones on 25th. In the tunnel/upstream bridge area a single Stock Dove was seen on 17th and again on the 27th while 2 Goldcrest were seen on 9th close to the bridge over the ORL and on 17th a single bird was near the upstream bridge.
The Jay has become a much more common bird in the Dene over the past few years and there many reports this month, which roughly clustered around the oxbow area to the west and the OHCP at the east end of the Dene with all reports being of 1 or 2 birds. We had to wait until 25th before Treecreepers started to be seen but then over the last few days of the month they were seen on 3 occasions twice in the oxbow area and once near the downstream bridge. I am delighted to say that we had 7 reports of Song Thrush this month covering from the oxbow area right down to the estuary. The reports on 10th and 12th from the oxbow area were each of 3 birds with the other sightings of single birds. On 7 occasions Woodcock were disturbed with amazingly 6 seen on 10th along the HRB/ORL path but then on another 6 occasions single birds were reported between the oxbow area through to the OHCP at the east end.
Our winter visitors were well seen in the first half of the month but then sightings and numbers dropped off. On 11th there were 15 Fieldfare in the estuary area while on 10th there were 36 Redwings counted near the downstream bridge, while on numerous other occasions numbers were below 5.
Finally in the woodland 12 Linnets were seen on 26th near the bridge over the ORL.
Needless to say Woodpigeon in their hundreds, Jackdaws in high numbers, Magpies and a few pairs of Carrion Crows were never far away as were the noisy Rooks who were seen carrying material to repair damage to their nests.
On the river there have been virtually daily reports of 1 or 2 Dippers from the usual tunnel area right down to the OHCP/estuary path, while there was only 1 report of Little Egrets with 2 in the estuary on 3rd. A single Cormorant was seen on 17th on the river next to the meadow with 4 reports of a single Moorhen in 4 widely spaced locations between the upstream bridge down to the head of the estuary. Wrens as usual have been seen spread throughout the Dene while Mallards have started to return with the first sighting on 12th with a male near the waterfall followed by an increase in sightings of 1 or 2 birds (sometimes pairs) between the oxbow and the estuary. Grey Wagtails have been similar with the first seen at the tunnel on 10th but then in the last week up to 3 birds have become common in various parts of the central area of the Dene. Not dissimilar, a single Grey Heron was regularly seen along the river in the first two weeks of the month but then they started to assemble in the heronry, so that by the end of the month there were 8 there making their presence known by their noise. The thousand or so Pink-footed Geese that have been in the area all winter appear to have ignored their usual fields immediately adjacent to the Dene and can now be heard, if not seen, in the fields further away especially to the SW. Only small flocks have been seen nearby such as the 150 birds seen next to Hartley West Farm on 15th.
Turning now to game birds there have been very few shoots this winter due to the pandemic so the birds are having a charmed existence. There are many Pheasants about both in the woodland and the adjoining fields with 9 seen on the 27th in the field immediately south from the lay-by. A much smaller number of Grey Partridge have been seen, mostly close to Crow Hall Farm but there was also a couple seen a little to the east of HRB on the 21st. It appears that towards the end of the month some Red-legged Partridge had been released with 10 seen together in a field NE of the bridge over the ORL and a couple in the field near the lay-by.
Finally our birds of prey have been around all month with a Sparrowhawk seen 5 times. Strangely, except for the one seen on 25th near the oxbow, the other 4 reports have been of birds seen around the
OHCP/stone bridge area. A Buzzard has been reported more times than the Sparrowhawk, always a single bird but not the same bird, as plumages have been significantly different. Sightings have stretched from S of the obelisk to near HRB and to the OHCP area where on 27th one was sitting on the southern hedge bounding Hartley Lane and opposite the car Park. A single Kestrel was only reported 3 times twice in the area of HRB in the last week of the month and on 17th one was in the area of the dipping pond near OHCP. In the early part of February a Peregrine was to be seen hunting along the cliff top between St Mary’s and Seaton Sluice. Whether it was the bitterly cold easterly wind or the lying snow that brought it inland, on 10th the Peregrine was seen flying low across the field immediately S of the lay-by in an easterly direction back to the coast. The following day it was again seen this time sitting on the fence on the southern side of the Crow Hall Farm road and on take-off it once again turned east and flew back towards the coast.
March started settled but cold in the first week but then turned unsettled with strong winds and rain with average temperatures up to mid-month. The second half of the month was generally dry, settled and warm with the last three days having temperatures way about normal for March. Overall the mean temperature for the month was a degree above the average since 1980, both in maximum and minimum temperatures and rainfall was considerably below average, sunshine average but windy days and the wind speeds above average. So generally both humans and wildlife had a good month weather wise.
Who would have thought that a March Fauna Report for the NE would ever have a heading of Butterflies? As mentioned above the extremely high temperatures on the final days of the month not surprisingly brought out 3 species of butterflies which were all reported on 31st, a single Peacock, 2 Small Tortoiseshell and the same number of Small White.
March is normally a good month for seeing Roe Deer in the Dene and this year has been no exception, however, sightings of Roe Deer in the permitted access woodland areas on either side of the river has virtually disappeared due to the massive increase in humans and dogs. In private woodland and in the fields adjacent to the Dene the number of animals seen has been just a little above the normal for past years with the increase clearly coming from the number of males about, some of which, by the size of their antlers, were born earlier than last year. There has also been a considerable difference in the groupings of animals seen. The normal ones of a mother with 1 to 3 female youngsters have been seen but this March there has been a female with 1 or 2 males and a male with 1 to 4 females. There have been 2 distinct areas where groups have been seen very regularly with one in the west opposite the oxbow area and a lesser one in the east close to Hartley West Farm.
This has been a very frustrating month because, although there have only been 2 actual sightings of a Grey Squirrel, there has been many feeding boxes visited with squirrels leaving hairs on the sticky tabs. As usual the great majority of these visits have taken place in boxes immediately to the east or west of the old railway line (ORL) but there have been a number of visits this month to boxes along the Avenue, which is too close to the Red Squirrels in the area of New Hartley to be comfortable.
Some trapping has taken place but we would have been happier with a great deal more but it is a very time consuming activity for the qualified trapper who supports us. However, we have had 2 successes this month with a mature male being trapped in an Avenue box on 7th and a similar animal caught on 17th from a box to the west of the ORL.
The white Stoat, mentioned in February’s Fauna Report, was reported again on 7th in the same area between Holywell Road Bridge (HRB) and the ORL and was joined at the end of the month by a Stoat seen running along the river bank with a rabbit in its mouth on the north side of the river opposite Old Hartley Pond (OHP)
There have been 3 reports, all in the last 10 days of the month, of a Red Fox seen out in daylight hunting for food which probably means they have young in the den. 2 sightings came from a field between the obelisk and the Dene and the third from a field NE of Hartley West Farm.
The weather in March was generally kind to birds and so all the more common woodland birds were present with numbers more or less as expected, including Blackbirds, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Bullfinch, Chaffinch, Dunnock, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Tree Sparrows and Robins. Coal Tits were few and far between this month while the sighting of Long-tailed Tits gradually increased as the month went on, with the winter double figure groupings a thing of the past and only 1 or 2 birds being the norm. There was only 1 sighting of Willow Tits with 2 being seen on 30th on the feeder near OHP. A bird that can often be seen in large groups wasn’t this month with a single Goldfinch being seen only twice in the hedgerows north of the Dene.
The larger common birds were all seen as usual with massive flocks of Woodpigeon, some already nesting, while around 30 Rooks were making their usual noise in their nesting areas, and Magpies in groups up to 6 usually on the edge of the woodland. Jackdaws were everywhere even feeding on the feeders meant for small birds and as normal a couple of pairs of Carrion Crows where to be seen high in their favoured trees.
A bird that was once common in the Dene but hasn’t been for some years, surprised everyone this month being seen and heard throughout the Dene, so welcome back Song Thrush and long may you stay. A bird that a few years ago was only seen in the far west of the Dene is now common throughout, with the greatest concentration in the tunnel area that is the Jay. If reports continue at this month’s rate it will soon join the common list.
Most of our winter visitors have now left but there were 3 reports of a single Redwing being seen all in the centre part of the Dene early in the month and a single sighting on 2nd of a Fieldfare near HRB. Of our summer visitors the first Chiffchaff was reported on 9th but then rapidly spread throughout the Dene but we had to wait until the last day of the month to record the first 2 Blackcaps.
A single Siskin was seen in the estuary woodland on 6th while above the fields to the north of the river and east of the ORL, Skylarks were heard on a number of dates after 15th. Then after the 21st, in the same area 2 Linnets were seen on 3 occasions. In the warmer second half of the month there were many reports of Yellowhammers being seen in the hedgerows both north and south of the Dene and along the ORL and similarly Reed Buntings were seen in the same areas and also in the woodland and near OHP. A Mistle Thrush was reported on 4 occasions in widely separated locations but 2 of these were near OHP and there was a single report of a Goldcrest seen near the Pumping Station on the 24th. Between 1 and 3 Stock Dove were seen on 4 occasions between the tunnel and downstream wooden bridge while a Nuthatch was seen on 7 occasions spread throughout the Dene. Finally in this group Treecreepers came back in the second half of the month with between 1 and 3 being seen on 9 occasions well spread out between HRB and the meadow.
As explained in the last Fauna Report, reports of Pheasants and Red-Legged Partridge continued to be very high with the former reported from adjacent fields, woodland and housing estates while the latter came from adjacent fields with up to 16 being seen. Grey Partridge were only seen twice with 2 being seen in an adjacent southern field opposite the lay-by on 1st and another pair was seen neat Crow Hall Farm on 18th.
1 or 2 Dippers were seen throughout the month mainly at or east of the tunnel and the same number of Grey Wagtails were seen in the same area. There were only 3 reports of Moorhens all month with 2 near the downstream bridge on 1st and on the same date 2 were seen at the head of the estuary. The third sighting was near the stone bridge on 7th. Up to 10 Mallards were seen in numerous places along the river some being pairs but overall with a majority of males. Wrens were beginning to sing loudly and could be heard along the whole Dene, whereas the sightings of 2 Lapwings on 9th and 100 Golden Plover on the 5th and 14th all came from an adjacent field to the south of oxbow. Pink-footed Geese were still occasionally seen in March in adjacent fields with 1000 seen on 9th followed by 40 on 22nd and 200 on 24th and finally the following day a massive flock of well over 1000 gathered and took off flying north. None have been seen since.
The occasional Grey Heron has been seen flying low over the Dene but the concentration has been in the heronry with counts of birds varying between 5 and 15 with nesting now in full swing. Sadly vision now gets more difficult as the leaves develop on the nearby trees.
Kestrels have been well reported this month, always a single bird but spread throughout the Dene from HRB to the estuary. Similarly, Sparrowhawks have been well reported but generally based in just 2 areas the first from OHP to the estuary and the second to the west around oxbow. Buzzards have also been well reported throughout the month either as single birds flying low or pairs flying overhead but overall they have been seen in all areas of the Dene and the adjacent fields.
Finally a Tawny owl has occasionally been seen roosting in a tree near the downstream bridge but have also been seen flying at first light near the two areas where nesting took place last year and have continued to be heard calling during the hours of darkness. Then on 18th 2 Barn Owls were seen in the Dene followed by a single bird seen in the late evening 3 days later. Both of these Owl reports give hope for nesting this year.
Overall April was an unusually cold, dry and sunny month and was actually colder than March. Temperatures were nearly 2˚ below the average resulting in the number of days of air frost being the greatest since 1960. The NE received well below 50% of its normal monthly rainfall while sunshine was well over 150% more than average. The number of days on which we had strong to gale force winds was also below normal.
The first few days of April, which were the warmest, promised great things from the butterfly world but the low temperatures from then on meant that there was little progress. The most seen butterfly was the Small White followed by 3 sightings of Small Tortoiseshell and 4 Peacocks. By the end of April last year, Orange Tip butterflies were everywhere but not this year, simply too cold.
Roe Deer. April is normally the month when Roe Deer numbers in the Dene drop dramatically and the pattern was followed this year. By mid month most of the family groups, adult females and last year’s offspring, had departed to their breeding grounds, with the youngsters staying with their mother until a week or so before this year’s births. This change was very marked with sightings in the east end of the Dene virtually drying up except for a lone female, which is very unusual, and a couple of males occasionally being seen. In the west end of the Dene things were not quite so dramatic with 1 and possibly 2 family groups staying and therefore likely to give birth in this western area, together with the usual single males tending to keep to themselves
Grey Squirrels. April has been a relatively quiet month with only 1 actual sighting of a Grey Squirrel, west of oxbow on 10th. In the first 10 days of the month all the activity was from east and west of the old railway line (ORL) with boxes being visited and traps set culminating in a Mature Female being trapped on the 10th. Then all went quiet in this area with activity transferring to the boxes situated in the Avenue area. Once again boxes were visited and traps set and lifted but on the very last day of the month a Mature Male was caught.
There were 2 unusual and amusing incidents concerning the setting of the traps. On one morning the check of a trap revealed a good sized Hedgehog caught in the trap, which was released without harm having eaten all the food that had been left in the trap. The second incident, which is much rarer, was finding a Jay caught in the trap. It too was released without harm having eaten all the peanuts that had been left.
Other Mammals. There were 3 reported sightings of a Stoat all in their brown summer coats from widespread locations. One was seen at the end of the month in the Holywell Pumping station area and the other 2 in the middle of the month, one in the north side field adjacent to the Stone Bridge and the third further downstream to the west of the Pipe Pond. There were only 2 reports of Red Fox out in daylight obviously looking for food for families both reports coming from the fields adjacent to Hartley West Farm. From previous records, April is the month for the most reports of Brown Rats feeding either on or underneath the bird feeders. This year has been no exception with numerous reports from most of the feeding stations. One of our volunteers, who regularly fill the feeders, got an unpleasant surprise finding a feeder with a Brown Rat entangled in the mesh. Although not many people are fond of rats to see one die in this manner is indeed sad. Finishing on happier notes, on the last day of the month an Otter was seen in the central part of the Dene very early in the morning and there have been many reports of Hedgehogs both to east and west with the majority of reports coming from people’s gardens which are close and not so close to the Dene.
April is the month when bird activity becomes frenetic as nests are built, eggs laid, and young hatch and then have to be fed: it is also the month when sighting reports rocket and it becomes more and more difficult trying to work out whether 2 birds have been seen or 1 bird seen twice.
Starting with the birds that are seen virtually every time you enter the Dene including Blackbird, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Chaffinch, Bullfinch, Dunnock, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Robin, Tree Sparrow plus a couple of birds that are not usually on this list but have become very common this year, Song Thrush and Jay, all have been well reported and most are nesting. Then there are the migrants such as Chiffchaff which has been both seen and heard everywhere, Blackcaps regularly reported and on the last day of the month the first Whitethroat of the year was reported. The first Swallow was reported on 15th in the estuary but by the end of the month numbers seen together were already into double figures. Willow Warblers appeared on the scene from 19th onwards and single birds were then seen on another 5 days with locations spread well throughout the Dene. In reverse on the 15th in the oxbow area the last of the winter Redwings was seen.
Turning to birds often seen but perhaps not quite described as very common, this includes Coal Tits which generated no reports in the first half of the month but then 1 or 2 birds were seen on 6 occasions during the second half. Long-tailed Tits were reported on 14 occasions covering the whole month but always just 2 birds except on 19th near the heronry when 2 pairs were feeding together. There were 5 reports of a Willow Tit being seen, all from the east end of the Dene and all of 1 bird except once when there was a pair. Goldfinch numbers varied between 1 and 6 in the 9 reports received, with all locations being between the Hartley Lane lay-by downstream to the estuary.
There are some larger birds that are so common that they are rarely if ever reported but are always in the Dene, these include Woodpigeon which in the woodland are often in double digit flocks but in the adjacent fields can be in the hundreds, Jackdaws which are often in large flocks in the fields, the 30 or so Rooks in their rookery going west from the car park and the Magpies and Carrion Crows that are always around but in smaller numbers.
Treecreepers had a very good month and generated a good number of reports but never more than of 2 birds. Locations stretched from the oxbow area right through to the estuary. In the middle 10 days of the month 1 or 2 Reed Buntings were reported from the east end of the Dene and during the second half of the month 1 or 2 Stock Doves were seen on 6 occasions in 2 areas near the tunnel and the car park area. Nuthatch sightings were disappointing with only 4 sightings of a single bird with locations well spread throughout the Dene.
There were a few sightings of birds not often seen. A Greenfinch was seen on 4th along the path to the estuary then on 8th 2 were seen in the Meadow and then a further 2 were seen on 28th on the path going north from the Dene towards the Obelisk. On this same obelisk path 4 Yellowhammers were seen during the last week of the month and before that on 23rd 2 were seen near the lay-by and on 12th another 4 were seen along the ORL. On 2nd a Mistle Thrush was seen just east of the tunnel but was not reported again until the end of the month when a pair was seen building a nest in the same area on 26th and another bird building a nest on the hillside north of the meadow. Then on 23rd a Pied Wagtail was seen near the pumping station and on the same day 2 Linnets were seen by the dipping pond. Finally, a single Collared Dove was seen on the estuary path on both 28th and 29th.
Throughout the month there were many reports of a Tawny Owl mostly roosting in the Dene especially in the area of the upstream bridge and a second bird in the oxbow area. Then on 29th and 30th a second bird joined the one near the upstream bridge, which remains a mystery but could be a nesting pair having a break from the demanding youngsters! Kestrels were well reported with all sightings of 1 or 2 birds between the ORL and the Holywell Road Bridge (HRB) except at the end of the month on 29th when 2 were seen near the downstream bridge. A Buzzard was seen sitting in the hedge on the south side of Hartley Lane opposite the car park on 10th and the only other report was of a flying bird above the fields of Hartley West Farm on 19th. A Barn Owl was seen twice, whereas a Sparrowhawk was seen numerous times from all areas of the Dene. It appears that there are at least 3 nesting pairs, 2 at the west end of the Dene and a third pair in the rough area of the heronry.
Continuing the reports of the last 2 months, Pheasants and Red-legged Partridge have been everywhere with a few of the former becoming amazingly tame. There were just 2 sightings of a pair of Grey Partridge both in the same field adjacent to Crow Hall Farm.
There has been plenty of activity on the river with Wrens in nesting mode all along the water and the occasional Grey Heron seen at numerous locations along the river but the main concentration is still in the heronry on the west side of the river opposite the estuary path. The one exception was on 22nd when 7 were seen early in the morning standing in a white frosted grass field and appearing to be waiting for the rising sun to reach and warm them. There have probably been more reports of Mallard families this month than any other bird. The maximum number of young reported was 13 but after that the number of young has varied from 2 to 12. Suffice to say the breeding season appears to have been fairly successful for Mallards
both from the number breeding and the number of youngsters surviving. There has been 2 unusual one-off sightings, the first of a pair of Teal seen on 8th between the tunnel and the upstream bridge and the second on 26th a pair of Gadwall was seen on the river close to HRB.
Not surprisingly there have been many reports of nesting Dippers and Grey Wagtails in April. Early in the month reports were coming in of both of these birds (sometimes 2 of them) being seen much further downstream than normal. Then as nest building started it was suddenly realised that both birds were nesting further downstream in addition to the usual nests in the tunnel area which had been their usual locations in previous years. By the end of the month it was confirmed that a Grey Wagtail nest containing young was in the area of the waterfall and further downstream Dippers were taking food to the entrance to their nest in the stepping-stones area. Upstream near the tunnel different pairs of these 2 birds were seen delivering food to nests in this area. Finally yet another Dipper has been seen near HRB and further west so there is the possibility of a third Dipper nest in the smaller tunnel west of Holywell, a location they have used in previous years, but to date this has not been confirmed.
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.