Here are a few photos of some recent sightings on the Rowley Hills – a superb male Sparrowhawk photographed by Andrew Cook on his garden fence, a Ring Ouzel on a migratory stop-off en route to his breeding grounds also photographed by Andrew (from his house!!); and a Tawny Mining Bee and newly emerged male Orange Tip butterfly, both photographed by Mike Poulton.
With lockdown restrictions easing, we’ve been lucky to be able to start holding events again on the hills. First up, here are a few photos from our dawn chorus walk last month when, although we had a good range of sightings, the conditions were not all that great for photography:
And here are many more photos from the Wildflower Society-funded identification event from this month, when conditions were a little more favourable for photography! We spotted many wildflowers and insects, with Flower Crab Spider and Lime Hawk-moth being new records for the site; the spider was only the 2nd record for Birmingham and the Black Country. This spider is spreading up from the south so be on the lookout for it in your area.
We hope you have all been keeping safe and well during the lockdown and that nature has been able to provide you with some relief. Mike Poulton from the Friends of Rowley Hills has been able to carry out some butterfly transect walks on the hills while doing his daily exercise, and so far this season has recorded Orange-tip, Speckled Wood, Green-veined White, Small White, Brimstone, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies, and Burnet Companion moth.
On the bird front there’s been a pair of Ravens flying over the site (invariably pursued by Carrion Crows), Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, Blackcap, Green Woodpecker, Song Thrush, Swifts and all of the usual common species. FORH member Nick Horton heard a Garden Warbler and a Grasshopper Warbler when he was walking in the hills at the beginning of May.
Another of our members, Mike Siviter, took a fabulous sunrise photograph from Portway Hill in early May. When he got home he sent it to the local BBC television station and it appeared on the BBC’s lunchtime local weather forecast. He has also sent us this rather good photograph of a Whitethroat that he had taken up there.
Here’s recent some good news from the hills. During one of our volunteer days at the start of March, an owl pellet was found on top of a fence post. Owl pellets are composed of all the parts of an owl’s prey that cannot be digested – mainly bones and fur. As these cannot pass through an owl’s digestive tract, they are instead regurgitated as a neat package. This may sound a bit disgusting, but it tells us 2 very interesting pieces of information – the first one being that an owl has been using the hills, and the second one being what it has been eating! We are uncertain of the species of owl but it is likely to be a Tawny Owl, or possibly a Barn Owl. Tom from the Wildlife Trust dissected the pellet to discover what the owl had eaten, and found that it was a vole species. He was able to reconstruct almost its entire skeleton – see the photos below.
Once again, our annual early morning bird watching walk led by local expert Nick Horton did not disappoint. Following an introductory talk, in which he informed us of what birds we should particularly be looking out for at this time of the year, we headed onto the hillside, taking the track leading through the old quarries excavated back in the 1700s which opens out onto the site of Blue Rock Quarry landfill. As we walked through the canyon, bird calls were evident, and we heard or saw in this area Chiffchaff, Blackbird, Woodpigeon, Song Thrush, Carrion Crow, Magpie, Great Tit, Blue Tit and Dunnock. Once out in the open, those who had them trained their binoculars on the dense patches of bramble and it wasn’t too long before Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat were spotted. It’s hard to believe that these tiny birds have in the past few weeks flown all the way from Africa to breed here, and in the next three months will raise their young and then both adults and juveniles will fly off to Africa to spend the winter in sunnier climes. Those that survive this mammoth journey will be back next year and the cycle will continue. Both species are relatively frequent up here on Portway Hill and Nick informed us that this was the best site he knew where both birds could reliably be seen at this time of the year.
Moving on further up the hillside in the direction of the masts, more birds were added to our ever-increasing list – Robin, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Bullfinch, Chaffinch, Green Woodpecker, Coal Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Wren, a Peregrine, and possibly a fleeting glimpse of a Linnet as it flew off.
As we headed up towards the golf course, crossing Portway Hill, a Sparrowhawk flew quickly by. There was too much human activity on the golf course by this time so from here we turned back, crossed Portway Hill and returned along the track, skirting back gardens in Lye Cross Road where House Sparrow and Goldfinch were added to the list.
Our walk ended shortly after this and Nick was thanked for providing us with his expertise which always makes this early morning walk so much more rewarding. As he walked back home, he reported later that a Buzzard and a Heron had flown over.
Following on from our successful dawn chorus event last year, on Sunday May 7th we held our second annual Dawn Chorus walk on the Rowley Hills, once again led by local bird expert Nick Horton. Eleven attendees met at 7:00am at the cairn on Portway Hill in sunny, still weather conditions with a little chill in the air. We headed through the canyon to Bury Hill Park, across Portway Hill towards Turners Hill, and then down towards Warrens Hall Park, passing Warrens Hall Farm Riding School. In total we saw or heard 38 bird species.
Before setting off from the cairn Nick briefed us on which birds we should be particularly looking out for at this time of year and made us aware of some of his recent sightings on Portway Hill. Almost immediately, one that he had mentioned, our first Whitethroat of the day, and almost certainly a male, was seen launching itself skywards and then dropping down into a nearby patch of bramble in which there was probably a nest. Whitethroat is a summer visitor to our shores, arriving from Africa during April. The breeding habitat requirements of this bird are met with perfectly up here on Portway Hill, dense patches of scrub for nesting and an abundance of insects in the surrounding grassland on which to feed their young. Their numbers, Nick told us, are on the increase on this site, with many pairs noted in suitable habitat all over the hillside.
As we headed along the recently opened-up right-of-way through the old canyon leading out onto the top of Bury Hill Park we saw Long-tailed, Blue, Great Tit and Chiffchaff and a Blackcap was heard in the distance. High up above us, recently arrived House Martins and Swallows were a reminder of the summer yet to come.
After taking in the panoramic views towards Cannock, Barr Beacon and Birmingham city centre from the top of Bury Hill Park we set off in the direction of the masts on Turners Hill pausing briefly to count 13 Swifts soaring overhead. Stopping near the extensive patches of bramble and other rank vegetation about halfway up the hillside Nick pointed out where he had previously seen Lesser Whitethroat, and as if by order, one was spotted flying low over the bramble into a nearby hawthorn bush. With similar habitat requirements to Whitethroat the Lesser Whitethroat is much less common and more secretive and can be difficult to spot.
As we approached the upper regions of Portway Hill a Kestrel was hovering above the open grassland and provided a perfect photographic opportunity for those of us with a camera and telephoto lens. Nearby, from the top of the nearby hawthorn hedge, a Blackcap obligingly made its presence known.
As we neared the masts on Turners Hill, two of our larger raptors were noted; a Buzzard was soaring high overhead and a fleeting glimpse of a Peregrine was made by just a few of the group. A rabbit foraging in the nearby horse field was a first on this site for most of us. The morning sunshine had brought out the golfers so on this occasion the golf course was avoided and instead some of the party continued down Oakham Road towards the riding stable. By now the sun was high in the sky and it was becoming quite warm with butterflies becoming active. As we headed along the track which runs along the back of the stables and then descends, passing the fishing pond on the right, we noted Speckled Wood, Orange-tip and Green-veined White. Numerous Long-awned Moths, flitting about and alighting upon newly opened Wych Elm leaves were a pleasant distraction in the morning sunshine and a Holly Blue butterfly was yet another addition to our butterfly list.
A small warbler noted in the hedgerow was confirmed by Nick as Garden Warbler after consulting his bird book to compare it with the very similar and much commoner Chiffchaff. Debatably, the most memorable sighting was probably our last of the day. There before us in a large Ash tree, whose leaves were not yet open, sat a Buzzard, totally oblivious of our presence. Through binoculars it was apparent just how large this bird is and how fortunate we are to have them here on the Rowley Hills in such good numbers. Our thanks once again go to Nick for leading us and for passing on his invaluable knowledge of the bird life of this area and we look forward to him leading another bird walk for us towards the end of the summer.
|Birds||Butterflies and Moths|
|Blue Tit||Great Tit||Peregrine||Green-veined White|
|Bullfinch||Green Woodpecker||Peregrine Falcon||Holly Blue|
|Buzzard||Greenfinch||Robin||Long-awned Moth (species not confirmed)|
|Canada Goose||Heron||Song Thrush|
|Carrion Crow||House Martin||Starling|
|Chiffchaff||Kestrel||Swift x 13|
|Collared Dove||Lesser Black-backed Gull||Whitethroat|
|Common Gull||Lesser Whitethroat||Woodpigeon|
Don’t forget it’s our dawn chorus walk this Sunday (7th May), starting at 7:00am at the cairn on Portway Hill. Join local bird expert Nick Horton to look and listen out for the Rowley Hills’ resident birds such as Kestrel, Bullfinch, Long-tailed Tit, Mistle Thrush and Buzzard, as well as recently arrived migrants including Chiffchaff, Swallow, Blackcap, Whitethroat and maybe even a Lesser Whitethroat, Wheatear or Ring Ouzel. This event was very popular last year with some great bird sightings and we hope for similar successes this year! No need to book, just turn up; ensure you are dressed appropriately for the forecast weather conditions, and wear sturdy footwear. Bring binoculars if you have them!
On Saturday we held our first dawn chorus walk on the Rowley Hills, led by local expert Nick Horton. Ten attendees met at 6:30am at the cairn on Portway Hill in perfect weather conditions – sunny, mild and still. We headed across Portway Hill, past the farm and over to Turners Hill before checking out the golf course, then heading back the way we came. In total we saw or heard 33 species.
At this time of year, many migratory birds have recently arrived from Africa to breed in the UK and we saw good numbers of these. The bird we probably saw (and heard!) the most on our walk was Chiffchaff, a small warbler which generally spends the winter in north Africa and parts of the Mediterranean, although in some parts of Europe they can be seen all year round. A close relative of the Chiffchaff, the Willow Warbler, was also spotted several times on the walk; this species likes young woodland and we saw a few in the area between Bury Hill Park and the Wildlife Trust cairn on Portway Hill.
Two other closely-related warblers that we saw were Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat; Whitethroats in particular are very common on the Rowley Hills as they breed in low scrub and brambles, a common habitat here. Although we were hoping to see a few birds of prey, these were surprisingly difficult to find – up to four species can regularly be seen on the Rowley Hills (Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Peregrine and Buzzard) but on this occasion we only saw Buzzard, and a brief glimpse of a Peregrine.
Turners Hill, as the highest point in the West Midlands, is a stop-off point for many bird species on migration, which take a brief break to rest and refuel before heading off again to their breeding grounds. Early in the morning before the golfers arrive some of these birds can also be seen on the golf course, and one of our best sightings of the walk was here – a Wheatear quietly resting next to a ditch. This is an attractive bird of mountains and moorland, related to robins and thrushes; probably the closest breeding site to the Rowley Hills would be the Clee Hills in Shropshire.
We also had lovely views of both Mistle Thrush and Song Thrush, and we all finished the walk feeling much more confident that we could now tell these two similar-looking species apart!
We hope to repeat this walk in October, to catch migrating birds heading south for the winter – but it will be a daytime rather than early morning event. Keep an eye on our Events page to find out when this will be happening!
Here’s the full list of birds we saw or heard:
|Blue Tit||Long-tailed Tit|
|Carrion Crow||Mistle Thrush|
|Collared Dove||Song Thrush|
|Feral Pigeon||Stock Dove|
|Great Spotted Woodpecker||Wheatear|
|Lesser Black-backed Gull||Wren|
Here is a guest blog post kindly written for us by John Davison of Selly Oak, who is a keen Swift enthusiast spreading the word about what we can do to encourage these acrobatic but sadly declining birds. Swifts will start arriving any day now after their long migration from Africa so now is the perfect time to start looking out for them in your area! For further information about Swift conservation please visit http://www.swift-conservation.org/.
I moved into my very ordinary semi in B29 a few years ago. The roof is plain clay tiles on timber batten on timber rafters. The rafters are supported on the top of the outer walls on a timber, the wall plate. The ends of the rafters can be seen from outside and this is because when built, air was intended to flow through the loft space. This circulating air dries the back of those tiles after heavy rain.
It was after I had moved in that I found that in the summer, visitors arrive. These visitors, birds, have travelled hundreds of miles. By chance, because my roof was as first built and not later stopped up with soffit boards, the visitors set up nest on my wall plate. The Swifts are rarely there as they are almost always on the wing; nests are for chicks.
You can see the Swifts, careering across the sky above a housing estate by Selly Oak Park, from May onwards. Perhaps you have Swifts in your area. They eat (only) insects, they stay airborne, and with their sometimes incredibly fast flight, are sometimes mistaken for swallows. Their acrobatic stunts are called ‘low-level screaming parties’.
Sadly what I have noticed is that the numbers are declining. This is also documented: Common Swifts (Apus apus) are declining in the UK and are an amber listed species of conservation concern. The RSPB asks the public each year to enter their sightings of Swifts into their survey form at http://www.rspb.org.uk/helpswifts. One aim is to protect existing nest sites when people are refurbishing their homes; another is to provide new nest sites in new developments in areas where Swifts are already present.
This issue, the new nest sites, is crucial. Housebuilding in the UK collapsed during the years 1990 to 2012. Very few new homes were built for people, let alone ones with places for Swifts to nest in. The situation is changing. The government estimates that 1.4-1.8 million more households will need accommodation by 2020. A building boom will be necessary to provide for them all. From the point of view of saving declining Swift populations, the problem is that new buildings are useless for Swifts. However, new housing projects can include Swift nest places if we ask for them. If the roof form of a new building does not suit, commercially-available Swift nest bricks can be incorporated. This can happen if more of us become Swift enthusiasts, and make it happen.
Birmingham and the Black Country, with its bodies of water, has plenty of insects for Swifts to eat. So too has Cambridge, the heartland of the Action for Swifts group, where more than fifty Swift projects have been carried out in commercial and private buildings, schools and church towers. In one case, a thriving colony of Swifts in old houses was saved as the old houses were demolished and new ones erected by phasing the project over three seasons and by building Swift nest accommodation into the new buildings. Over 200 nests were built into the new houses, and so far 44 breeding pairs have been recorded in them.
I want to see more Swifts in Selly Oak, and I am discussing with some neighbours (who have blocked up their eaves) the installation of Swift boxes. I ordered boxes from http://www.swift-conservation.org and I will then need access to a ladder to install them.
You too could host Swifts and play a part in stopping their decline. What we do want is a Rowley Hills Swift group!
It is a privilege and a joy to share a summers day with these amazing birds.