December has been an excellent month, in this area, for seeing kingfishers, and these colourful long beaked birds can be seen around the canal and on local ponds. They seem to come alive at this time of year, and their striking plumage stands out when there is less undergrowth. They have a habit of sitting on perches, usually branches that stick out over the body of water, and then, if approached, fly off fast and low away from the observer to another prominent perch, often giving a loud piping call as they fly. They have been seen on the canal at Tattenhall, Christleton, Hoole, & Chester as well as on the ponds & stream at Caldy Valley. Winter also sees the return of snipe to wet meadows, but these long beaked birds are now quite rare, as are the longer curved beaked curlew, the bird with an evocative call that calls its name as it flies. A number of beautifully camouflaged fast flying snipe have been flushed out recently from the wet meadows at Hockenhull and also along the river Gowy. They too fly fast and low away from observers when alarmed, but often will settle in dense vegetation until the intruder disappears. There have also been several recent reports of the elusive water rail being seen, and these slate grey and brown water birds with slightly curved red bills, about the size of a moorhen have appeared at several well known sites, often given away by their squealing calls, rather like pigs. They skulk in dense vegetation, but can sometimes be seen in the open passing from one clump of reed beds to another in search of food. They eat worms, snails, aquatic insects, tadpoles and fish. The best place to see them locally is on the wetlands at Burton Mere.
Many people walking in the area will be familiar with the sight of a tall grey heron standing in the open on fields or towpath alongside the canal, or on the bank of local ponds, often not concerned about the passer by until they get extremely close. Sometimes they will stand absolutely still staring into the water beneath them, as they search for food such as small fish or frogs. They fly with a rather jerky ungainly flight with their large yellow beak protruding out in front and long legs trailing behind. Nowadays you are also likely to see a similar species, which appears to be a pure “white heron” with a long black bill, yellow legs and a short white plume on its head. This is the little egret, which is much smaller in size than the heron, and hardly makes a sound, unlike the harsh “krark” of its bigger cousin. These small “white herons” often fly inland, but can usually be seen on estuaries such as the River Dee. There are good numbers there at present. Occasionally a taller white plumaged bird, similar in size to the grey heron will be seen, but a look at its wide spoon like bill will give the game away, as it will almost certainly be the spoonbill, which is a rare visitor to the Dee, but is more usually seen on the east coast if England where it breeds, having arrived there from the traditional nest sites in the Netherlands. Its distinctive large spoon-like black bill often with a yellow tip enables it to feed with a sweeping or scything action in shallow water.
All three of the above species nest in tall trees, and are easily visible from the ground. They are also distinctive in flight, but shouldn’t be mistaken for the large black heron sized birds with similar long beak and shorter black legs which can often be seen flying along the canal, or sitting on banks and fishing platforms on local ponds such as at Christleton. The cormorant usually nests on sea cliffs, and is said to eat up to 4kg of fish a day, but regularly comes inland for food these days, especially in winter. The adults have a glossy green-black plumage with a white face, and slightly hooked bill, whilst youngsters can be easily identified by their pale white bellies. They swim with uptilted heads, and can be seen diving for fish, often staying under the surface for considerable periods.
At the beginning of February I had the superb fortune to come across the sight of three brown hares together in a field, clearly showing activity related to mating. Two of them which I assumed were males, were following each other around their territory sniffing at the ground, pausing, then following identical routes around the field boundary. I witnessed this behaviour for ten minutes or so, photographing them even as they came to within 10m of me. They were so engrossed in each other’s behaviour they did not see me behind a low fence. A few minutes had elapsed after they had gone off in completely different directions, when I saw two hares together bouncing off into the distance. I presumed that on this occasion the dominant male had found/won a mate. Brown hares graze mainly on vegetation and nibble bark and small bushes. They are usually found on arable and pasture land, but often can be seen in rough ground or on the wet meadow. Hares are much bigger than rabbits and can be identified by their long ears, twice as long as their head, with black tips. Their fur is a warm brown, with paler undersides and orange brown flanks. Their tails are very short and are white underneath, but show black when running. They really bounce along on open ground, often in a zig zag pattern, and often can be seen leaping in the air using energy from their powerful hind legs. Their speed often helps them escape predators, which are probably foxes and buzzards in this area. Hares shelter in a “form” a simple depression in the ground, and can have three or four leverets after a 42day gestation period, which although small are fully furred when born. A doe can give birth three times a year. March is a good time to see them, when their normal shy & nocturnal behaviour changes almost to a frenzy, and their habit of “boxing” occurs, giving rise to the old expression “as mad as a March Hare”. Boxing when two hares face each other, striking out with their paws, occurs between sexes and is not just a match between two males seeking dominance. Although most active in spring they can be seen around all year. Leverets are well looked after by the adults and I’ve seen an adult hare run off in different directions to prevent a predator getting close to the “form”. I usually see them in fields & meadows alongside the R. Gowy, on arable land in Littleton or between Tattenhall and Burwardsley.
Members of the colourful finch family make a wonderful contribution to the birds you might see in your garden during Spring. They are also very active in the countryside, so be on the lookout for them everywhere. My favourite is the colourful goldfinch, with its sparkling red white & black head, and bright patches of gold on its wing. They can often appear in large groups, and regularly take food from seed feeders in gardens. The more secretive bullfinch is a real treat to see, the male with his black crown and deep crimson chest, the female with a black crown but chocolate coloured body. Both have black wings and appear quite chunky compared with other finches. They are not welcomed by fruit farmers as they have a favoured habit of feeding on emerging new blossom on fruit trees in their orchards.
Chaffinches often form large flocks and have a distinctive pink breasts, and an easily identifiable call sounding like “pink pink” They can often be seen hopping along in open ground in parks & forests together with groups of greenfinches and siskins. Sadly greenfinch numbers are well down as they seem to have developed a disease which has affected a considerable number of them. They are fairly easy to identify being largely green with yellow edges along their wings. They also have a very distinctive nasal and repetitive “skeer, skeer” as their main call, but also use a “chup-chup” sound in flight. They are appreciably bigger than their siskin cousins. Siskins are generally a much brighter green as well as having a dark crown on their heads. They also love seeds, and are agile feeders at both bird tables and hanging feeders. All the finches have a short stumpy beak to enable them to crack open seeds and nuts. Sadly another two species of finch, the yellowhammer and linnet, once very common in this area, have now almost disappeared. The yellowhammer with its call “little-bit-of -bread and no cheese” was a real favourite in Cheshire in the 1960-70’s, and at one stage was regarded as the “County Bird”. I used to record family parties of fifty - sixty birds at Hockenhull Platts during winter months, and they were regular breeding pairs on the reserve. Linnets too were quite common in the area, especially where there were patches of gorse, but these delightful songsters seem to have been lost. Their song was so sweet, that the Victorians used to cage them, and have them on display in front parlours. Thankfully that habit has long gone, but so have these delightful birds, which is a real shame.
June and July is the most active time in the breeding season for spotting these fast moving birds. In the Chester area sand martins are usually the first to arrive from their wintering sites in Africa, closely followed by swallows house martins and swifts. Sadly sand martins are now very scarce, although efforts are being made to encourage them with an artificial nest site at the RSPB Burton Meres Reserve. They have sandy brown upper wing colour with white underparts and short tail. Next to arrive from their wintering grounds in South Africa are swallows, which are probably still the most numerous of this group of migrants. They have long angled wings and deeply forked tails, which helps to identify them. Their upper parts are a dark metallic like blue, with a red face and throat. They also fly very fast, and like house martins swoop low over water to catch insects. Good places to see this behaviour include the Shropshire Union Canal and Christleton Pit. Both swallows and house martins build nests on houses, usually under the eaves, and these are painstakingly built using tiny globules of mud found nearby. The swallows nest is flatter and simpler than the house martins, and usually can be found on ledges, on which they build their open shallow capped nest. The house martins nest however is gourd shape, with a narrow half open entrance and is usually well secured to the underside of eaves. House martins also have shorter sturdier bodies than a swallow, with jet black upper parts and white underside. They also have shorter shallow forked tails and nest in colonial groups, but don’t share the same sites as swallows and swifts.
The faster, sleeker, scimitar winged swifts have a very different nesting technique, and as well as being the latest to arrive, usually in early May, build inside the eaves of buildings. They are bigger than swallows and martins, and have an almost all black colouring with a white chin. They can be heard “screeching” in the skies above their nests sites, often doing so in family groups. They are the most aerial of these species, and land only to incubate eggs and feed young. They also have specialist needs in terms of the roofs they build in, and as the type of roofs they prefer are modernised with energy saving in mind, fewer and fewer nest sites are available to them. Swifts leave their nest sites at the beginning of August, whilst most swallows and martins wait until they gather into bigger groups, and don’t leave this area until mid-end of September. Later broods are often still here in late October and have an even more hazardous journey to their wintering sites in Africa.
Late August and early September is a good time to see butterflies in your garden. We had some extremely good sightings in early spring, but the main influx of summer butterflies seem to be very slow in coming, and might find food scarce after the early flowering of most garden flowers. Our buddleia’s have finished flowering before the main crop of butterflies have arrived. Peacock, small tortoishell, red admiral, comma are all common garden species and if you live near the canal or meadow you might see the smaller gatekeeper, small copper, speckled wood and even common blue. This year we’ve had more bright yellow brimstone butterflies than usual, and this species now seems to be well established all over the county. Several friends have recently reported seeing both clouded yellow and painted lady butterflies. These colourful migrant butterflies from the Mediterranean and North Africa respectively appear in small numbers most years, with occasional eruptions in others. 2009 was the most spectacular recent year for painted ladies with tens of millions appearing over the UK. A few weeks ago I saw hundreds of large white butterflies fluttering over the Gowy meadows, and they had emerged on the same warm summer morning as hundreds of meadow brown and gatekeepers. The delightful gatekeepers can be identified from their small size, orangy/brown colour and two prominent white pupiled eye spots, whilst small coppers have a number of small black spots on their copper coloured wings. One of the latest summer butterflies to appear is the ragged outlined, orange coloured, comma, which feeds on fermenting fruit in gardens or along the hedgerows.