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.
Although summer is over and autumn is now well and truly with us, there are still plenty of fascinating flora and fauna to be seen in the Rowley Hills. Here’s a round-up of recent sightings; don’t forget, if you’ve seen something interesting, let us know!
Bird migration is continuing apace, and taking on an autumnal flavour, with the first Redwings of the season being spotted. This member of the thrush family breeds in northern Europe and migrates south in autumn, escaping the cold weather to spend the winter in the UK and other central and southern European countries. Other migrating species seen recently include Meadow and Tree Pipits, White and Yellow Wagtails, House Martin, Chaffinch, Siskin, Redpoll, Swallow, Spotted Flycatcher, Chiffchaff, Golden Plover and Cormorant. Many thanks as always to Ian Whitehouse for keeping us up to date with his Rowley Hills sightings!
We’ve had more good news following Sandwell Council’s decision to delay cutting the grass on Bury Hill in response to our request. Not only has this allowed the Harebells there to finish flowering – enabling us to collect seed from them to sow elsewhere in the Rowley Hills – another scarce wildflower in Birmingham and the Black Country has been discovered in the same area which would probably never have come to light had the grass been cut as normal. The flower is Trailing Tormentil (Potentilla anglica); it is very difficult to identify as it hybridises with two other members of the Tormentil family, Creeping Cinquefoil (P. reptans) and Common Tormentil (P. erecta). The two hybrids and Trailing Tormentil all look very similar, having flowers with both 4 and 5 petals; however 2 experts have verified that it is Trailing Tormentil. The diagnostic feature confirming this is fully fertile flowers – hybrids are not fertile.
Elsewhere on the hills Mike Poulton photographed a Broom Moth caterpillar feeding on Red Bartsia, and another new botanical record for the Wildlife Trust’s Portway Hill site was a large patch of Sneezewort, so named because its pungent smell supposedly causes sneezing.
Mike and Doug also found an enormous spider whilst working on the Wildlife Trust’s site, which turned out to be a Four Spotted Orb Weaver. This spider holds the record for the heaviest spider in Britain!
It’s turning out to be a great fungi season too. These two species were photographed last week; Blackening Waxcap was near the Wildlife Trust’s Portway Hill site and Verdigris Agaric was on Massey’s Bank.
We’ve had some great wildlife sightings in and around the Rowley Hills recently! If you’ve spotted anything interesting, please do let us know.
At this time of year, the Hills host a continuous flow of migrating birds, which stop off briefly to rest and refuel before continuing their journey south. Recent sightings include Tree Pipit, Redstart, Linnet, Grey, Yellow and Pied Wagtails, Siskin, House Martin, Garden Warbler, Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, Swift, Spotted Flycatcher, Sedge Warbler, Blackcap, Swallow, Willow Warbler, Mistle Thrush, Raven, Peregrine, Kestrel, Buzzard and Sparrowhawk. Many thanks to Ian Whitehouse who regularly tweets his Rowley Hills sightings and photos!
Local resident Andrew Cook also sent us these brilliants photos of a male Kestrel sitting on his garden fence. The Rowley Hills are a great spot for Kestrels as the grassland provides the perfect habitat for voles and mice, which are the Kestrel’s preferred prey. It looks as though this Kestrel may be resting after having recently eaten, as there is a small amount of blood on his beak and talons.
Another nice local record came from Lukas Large, who recorded this video of a Humming-bird Hawk-moth feeding on nectar from Red Valerian in his garden. As the name suggests, this moth resembles a Hummingbird in flight as it hovers and darts between flowers, its wings humming; Red Valerian is one of its favourite food plants. Humming-bird Hawk-moths migrate to the UK in summer from southern Europe and north Africa.
And finally, some more great news about the Harebells growing on the hillside above Bury Hill Park. Because Sandwell Council very kindly agreed to delay mowing the grass here in order to help conserve these wildflowers, we have been able to collect a large amount of seed from them. For most of the Harebells on that site it is probably the first time they will have produced seed in living memory as by now the whole area would normally have been cut. The seed capsules will now be left to dry out and the resulting seeds sown in suitable locations elsewhere on the Rowley Hills to help to conserve a scarce Birmingham and Black Country plant. This is great news for conservation and biodiversity in the Rowley Hills and we are very grateful to Sandwell Council for their cooperation with our request to put the mowing in this area on hold.