The Dene through the Seasons
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.
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.
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.