Ear to the Ground with Steve Blacksmith - A snapshot of our bird species

Some of the walkers pictured at North Dean
Some of the walkers pictured at North Dean

I led a New Year’s Day walk and Annual Bird Count.

This year we got 21 species on the day; nothing rare, but a snapshot of the birdlife at this time of year in the early 21st century.

It’s usually the commonest birds you see first. In the future the bird lists might be different, or the same, which would be interesting in itself. On January 1, 2014 we found only 18 species.

We were watching a charm of eight Goldfinches feeding on thistle seeds, and I mentioned once seeing a flock of 200 of them at the end of the breeding season near Cross Stone, Todmorden. A companion said “how did you know there were that many?”, not believing I could have counted them. I explained how birders do it. We count 10 or 20, then slice the flock up into groups. If we get to up to 50 or maybe 100, we start slicing off in those units. It’s been tested with photography; you can be surprisingly accurate.

Quite a different bird count has been going on throughout 2014. A group of birders took up the challenge among themselves to see the greatest number of species in Calderdale. A bit like the hilarious (and mildly touching) 2011 film “The Big Year” in which the birders give themselves the whole of the USA to count in, including Alaska. There’s a cringingly recognisable cameo of two disapproving English birders in it.

The Calderdale Big Year had a previous record of 147 species seen by one birder in 1996. It was beaten by just two species.

The three top lists numbered 149, 142 and 139. Nick Dawtrey, the Recorder for Halifax Birdwatchers Club, commented: “This year’s winner was, unsurprisingly Dave Franz with a score of 149, yours truly (ND) ended the year on 142 and Dave Sutcliffe on 139. 2014 also saw the highest number of species recorded, so far on 163, beating 1996’s total by one. This year will mainly be remembered by the number of rare and scarce species that turned up, namely Eider, Hoopoe (both these around Todmorden), Buff Breasted Sandpiper, Wryneck, Woodlark, Richard’s Pipit, Great Northern Divers, Rough-legged Buzzard, Iceland Gull. If 2015 is half as good it will be considered a good year.” Other notable species included Dotterel, Kittiwake, Knot, Hobby, Marsh Harrier and Hen Harrier.

The one Calderdale bird no-one could connect with was the Tree Pipit, which used to breed here in summer in small numbers. I used to see it and hear its song, so different from the very common Meadow Pipit, above Hardcastle Crags, on the Walshaw Estate.

Though some people (including the English birder caricatures in “The Big Year”) might call this science reduced to a sport, the dedication of the competitors brought out that the fact that the Tree Pipit is just about extinct in Calderdale, at least a non-visitor last year. They would certainly have spared no effort to find it.

l Geologists tell us there was up to a mile of mountain above the current level of the Pennines. The coal seams that still exist at Todmorden and Brighouse used to be joined up, till pressure by the moving earth’s crust slowly pushed up the Pennine chain. Equally slowly, ice and rain started wearing these down till we got to where we are today – some rather flattish high ground intersected by the river valleys; an “Incised Plateau” as it has been described.

I used to wonder how the streams can continue to wear them down, when they are so small compare with the areas of high land, but looking how the streams erode the banks, especially in the steep-sided cloughs, like Gorpley Clough, I have come to an appreciation of how it happens.

The streams, though small, have times of spate. Then they undermine the banks, taking soil away, washing it down to lower land. The weight of the wet soil further up the steep bank causes it to slip slightly towards the stream, presenting the moving water with yet more soil to be washed away. It makes little difference if the soil is bound together with plant and tree roots. These too slide down the bank.

When they fall over, they lever up tons of soil with their roots, much of which ends up in the stream.