Winter welcome for
The last post for 2014, the last day of the year, on a slowly thawing Dunstall Park, beech branches dripping on to silver-fringed frosted grass, a watery morning sun low behind bare hawthorns, high thin grey cloud, the cracking of ice as a narrowboat inches into a lock at the bottom of the Wolverhampton 21 flight. There’s little or no sign of birdlife along the northern and western edges of the racecourse, no winter passerine flocks, just the occasional corvid call and the sound of joggers huffing their way along the towpath towards Aldersley. The lake is still frozen, save a stretch of water kept open by ducks and other species. This first cold spell of the winter marks the end of a relatively quiet year along the Smestow Valley, but the last two months have not been without interest . . .
So, let’s start with the bird of the year for 2014, and for that matter for the last few years. Gareth Clements tells how on November 18th late in the afternoon at Dunstall Park lake he found a real gem, the valley’s third Yellow-browed Warbler.
“I was hoping for a Mandarin to drop in with roosting ducks, when I realised a large tit flock was going around the lake. I was pleased to pick out a Chiffchaff, and was thinking how I missed the days when there were Willow Tits in these flocks. Soon after 4 o’clock I decided to walk around the lake again, and could hear a Coal Tit. It was going frantic, and then I then realised it wasn't a Coal Tit but a Yellow-browed. I messaged Dad, saying: ‘I’ve got a Yellow-browed, but I can't see it’. Then I did manage to see it briefly as it came high enough in a bush for it to be visible over the bank. I was expecting a dull bird, but it was very well marked and had very clear double wing bars. Afterwards I counted the tits as they went from bush to bush, in total 52 Long-tailed Tits and two Blue Tits. I looked for the Yellow-browed later, but there was no sign of it.”
Gareth’s bird, which was not seen again despite a search next morning by local birders, was in a typical waterside sallows habitat, just as was the valley’s first Yellow-browed found by David Jackson next to the Smestow brook just south of the old Tettenhall railway station on October 25th 1998. Jacko’s bird was the first ever Yellow-browed record for the West Midlands. Gareth found the valley’s second bird in towpath bushes near lock 4 of the Birmingham Canal above Stafford Road next to Wolverhampton Science Park on the afternoon of October 4th 2008 (this was a Smestow Valley record, as the brook flows under the science park grounds via Fowlers Park from its source in Park Village). Yellow-broweds are still regarded as a relatively rare migrant species across inland Britain, with only around 16 records for the whole of the area encompassing Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire and the West Midlands. In that context, not a bad end to our birding year. Is Gareth on a hat trick . . ?
Early winter reports from Dunstall Park lake included a pair of Mute Swan first seen on 28/12 (the male was seen ice-breaking to reach feeding areas, followed along the narrow open channel by two enterprising Coot), a Grey Heron on 7/12, single Little Grebe on 5/11 and 20/12, eighteen-plus Teal on 19/11, seven male and three female Shoveler on 15/11, two female Tufted Duck on 15/11, a male Gadwall on 18/12, and the female Ringed Teal on 28/11. Three Chiffchaff were by the lake on 28/11, nine Snipe were reported there on 5/11 (with minimal mud margins and freezing weather, none were seen after 20/12), a Water Rail was recorded on 28/11, a female Reed Bunting was seen on 30/11 with a male reported on 14/12, a first-winter Grey Wagtail fed along the Smestow brook open culvert on 14/12 and 31/12, and two Pied Wagtail were on the racecourse hotel roof on 30/11. At least ten House Sparrow were daily visitors to the lake island, 20-plus Starling were in island bushes on 28/12, twenty six Crow were on the lake fences and grass on 14/12, and at least six Rook chasing and calling around the oak copse rookery nests in calm bright weather on 28/12 gave a hint of spring to come. Three Stock Dove were in the oak copse on 28/12, a Nuthatch was on what is now a traditional nest tree on 19/11, and on the central grass area, a Canada Goose flock totalling up to 130 birds were joined by five Greylag from early December, and by an albino Greylag from mid-November. Gull numbers peaked at 350-plus Black-headed Gull on 30/11, at least 100 Lesser Black-backed Gull on 30/11 and nine Herring Gull (four immatures) on 15/11.