Walking with the birds of Sharphill Wood
To date, over 40 bird species have been recorded either in Sharphill Wood or using the surrounding farmland. Allow me take you on a quick guided tour.
Starting in the surrounding farmland, look carefully as you walk up from Peveril Drive and you might see pied wagtails Montacilla alba flitting around at the bottom of the hill. In winter, these cheerful little birds form small flocks over the fields. Keep on walking and (if it is spring or summer time) listen out for the beautiful song of the skylark Alauda arvensis as it flutters higher and higher up into the blue sky before stopping, hovering and belting out its melody for up to 15 minutes at a time! Keep watching and if you are lucky you will see it parachuting down, dropping silently to the ground. In winter, skylarks too form flocks over arable fields and are often flushed from the ground by unsuspecting walkers as they pass by.
As you walk on, if you hear someone shouting about having a “little bit of bread and no cheese”, don’t worry, it’s not Wallace shouting out to Gromit but the iridescent yellowhammer Emberiza citronella proclaiming his territory. Winter time is a great time to spot yellowhammers too as their radiant yellow feathers clearly stand out in leafless trees or on telegraph wires.
In the oilseed rape fields, look out for movement amongst the stems. A little brown bird with a jet black head and pure white neck might be a male reed bunting Emberiza schoeniclus. As you reach the hedgerow along the footpath, an incessant chattering and cheeping sound should alert you to the presence of one of our rapidly declining species, the house sparrow Passer domesticus This familiar species is now “red listed”, making it a species of conservation concern in the UK.
Buzzard seen in typical position on top of a telegraph pole
At the top of the hill, take a glance up into the sky. If the thermals are right, you might see a buzzard Buteo buteo or two soaring on V shaped wings, announcing their presence with their distinctive “keeyah” call.
Enter the wood itself on a warm, spring morning and the cacophony of birdsong can be a little overwhelming. Seeing the songsters amongst the fresh green leaves can prove somewhat trickier though. The eastern path around the wood offers the greatest number and variety of birds so is a good place to start your walk.
As you walk, keep an eye on the low shrubs and undergrowth for a glimpse of the elusive dunnock Prunela modularis dashing back into cover when seen or the diminutive, ball like wren Troglodytes troglodytes with its short, upright sticking tail and unbelievably loud, trilling song.
Wren, small in stature, huge in voice
If you hear a rustle on the ground as you walk, look carefully, for what is often assumed to be a squirrel could actually be a blackbird Turdus merula foraging noisily in the leaf litter. Also listen out for the blackbird’s distinctive, melodic song being sung from high up in the tree tops. Whilst you’re at it, keep an ear out for the robin Erithacus rubecula “ticking” angrily when alarmed or singing excitedly from a perch.
If you spend a little time looking up at the canopy, you should see lots of small birds flitting around in the treetops. The woodland is home to blue tit Cyanistes caeruleus, great tit Parus major, coal tit Periparus ater and long-tailed tit Aegithalos caudatus; 25 bird boxes suitable for blue tits and great tits have been placed on trees around the woodland to encourage them to breed.
Whilst you are staring upwards, spare a glance at the tree trunks and branches and if you are really lucky you might see the striking blue coloured nuthatch Sitta europaea scuttling head first down the trunk or along a branch. Look even harder for the stunningly camouflaged treecreeper Certhia familiaris circling head first up the trunk (the pure white feathers on its underside often give it away if you catch sight of it from the side). Both green woodpecker Picus viridis and great spotted woodpecker Dendrocopos major breeds in the woodland but unfortunately they are more likely to be heard laughing (green) or drumming (great spot excavating a nest hole in the spring) than seen. Look out for nest holes in standing deadwood or for the adults shouting at you if you stray too close to a nest in the breeding season.
The canopy is also home to wood pigeons Columba palumbus and corvids; carrion crow Corvus corone corone, jackdaw Corvus monedula, rook Corvus frugilegus and magpie Pica pica are all present in the wood as is the beautiful but shy jay Garrulus glandarius. If you see a fleeting glimpse of a white rump disappearing into the undergrowth combined with a screaming alarm call, congratulations, you just spotted a jay! Oh and whilst you’re looking up, pay close attention to the wood pigeons as they are not all that they seem. Up there, sitting quietly is the smaller and shyer stock dove Columba oenas too. Look for the shimmering green neck patch as opposed to the distinctive white neck patch of the wood pigeon.
In the summer, the wood plays home to some of our migrant visitors. A few birds helpfully call their names as they sing and the aptly named chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita is one of these. Fiendishly difficult to see, and very difficult to separate visually from the willow warbler Phylloscopus trochilus, it is usually to be found skulking in the branches or scrub (as is the willow warbler). Also to be found visiting in the summer are warblers who have names that (helpfully) describe them, the whitethroat Sylvia communis, lesser whitethroat Sylvia curruca and blackcap Sylvia atricapilla.
By now, you have probably reached the end of the eastern path and with any luck (and if it is early springtime) you are standing there listening to a bird singing loudly, repeating phrases. If you are, you are listening to the song thrush Turdus philomelos. The similar, yet larger and more wary mistle thrush Turdus viscivorusalso frequents the wood.
If you have time to walk all the way around the wood, head down the path towards the A52 and cut back in to the wood at the bottom gate. Before you head in though, stop a minute and see if you can spot any finches in the tree tops or on the telegraph wires near the A52 itself (the bushes just past the end of the wood are where you stand a good chance of seeing a whitethroat by the way). Watch out for colonies of T. armacadam with interspersed Linea alba in the middle of the A52. Back to the finches…listen out for the twittering, red-faced goldfinch Carduelis carduelis, the stouter, noisy greenfinch Carduelis chloris, the restless, red- breasted linnet Carduelis cannabina flitting from perch to perch and not forgetting the chaffinch Fringilla coelebs of course (which can be seen throughout the wood, not just down at the southern end).
Continuing your walk along the southern woodland path keep your eyes open for great tit, blue tit, dunnock, blackbird, chaffinch, robin and wren. I would say keep your ears open too but the sound of the traffic on the A52 drowns out the birdsong somewhat!
Back into the wood and the western side is a little quieter than the eastern side but there is still plenty to see (including one of the great spotted woodpecker’s nest sites if you look closely). Occasionally, all of the small birds will suddenly seem to go berserk, alarm calling and fleeing into the undergrowth. It is at this that point you need to be very alert as there is just a chance that they have spotted something that you haven’t yet; a sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus on the lookout for dinner. Just as stunning, but far less of a danger to small birds is the kestrel Falco tinnunculus that has also been seen on the outskirts of the wood (at the northern end).
So that’s about it, you should be heading back to the entrance (or exit as it is now) after your walk. If you are still keen to see something else, keep an eye on the skies as you wander back down the hill (or across the field) for two of our most iconic summer visitors, the wonderfully sleek, acrobatic swallow Hirundo rustica with its deeply forked tail and the migrant that graces our shores for the shortest length of time, the swift Apus apus. With its sickle shaped wings, the swift screams across our skies for a mere three months each year (May to early August) and is a real harbinger of summer.
So, next time you head up to Sharphill Wood for a quick walk on a bright morning, make sure to take your binoculars with you and see how many of our feathered friends you can spot. Happy birding!