The Society has been recording birds seen in the area since late 1945. Such is the variety of habitat that over 230 species of birds have been seen so far along the rivers, in woodlands and on the moors. The many attractions of the area for birds mean that it also seems to attract escapees. An eagle owl spent 2002 in the area, terrorising small dogs on Ilkley Moor – and don’t be surprised if you see a white stork, which comes from the Harewood aviary and is allowed to fly free!
The range of birds that can be seen includes 11 species of raptor, all 3 woodpeckers and all the species of owl except the barn owl. Whilst some birds, such as the black grouse, corn crake and hawfinch are now extinct in the area, new species have come in including the goosander, which breed along the river. Several birds of prey have increased considerably in number, with buzzard nesting throughout much of the area now and red kites roaming away from Harewood, where a number have been released since 1999.
It’s easy to tailor a birding walk to the time you have available (and the energy you wish to expend) but we suggest a number of options:
Strid Woods is good most times of the year and in the spring it’s stupendous, when you have the added attraction of masses of bluebells and wild garlic! You can stroll up to the Strid or, if you’re inclined, do a circular walk up to Barden Bridge. In the winter it’s a good spot for dippers and goosanders, and there are also plenty of nuthatches, tree creeper and goldcrests. You can also find brambling and, if you’re lucky, mandarin ducks. In the early summer pied flycatchers breed and you’ll see and hear several varieties of warbler including the delightful wood warbler. Common sandpipers and grey wagtails breed along the river. If you’re more energetic a walk beyond Barden Bridge can produce sand martins and possibly a kingfisher or a spotted flycatcher. Alternatively, look for whinchat and stonechat on Barden Moor or Fell, where you may also see raptors – although be warned, bird watching on the moorland can be rewarding but is always something of a lottery.
Ilkley offers moorland, woodland and river walks. The river in the town is usually too crowded to attract too many riverside birds, but you can enjoy peace and quiet and the usual woodland birds in Middleton Woods in the east or Hebers Ghyll to the west of the town. In spring and early summer the moors north and south of the town echo to the calls of a variety of waders including curlew, lapwing and golden plover but if you are walking there please keep to the paths because this is an important breeding area for these species. There are lots of pipits breeding on the moor, so the edges are a good place to catch cuckoos in the spring and early summer. There’s no problem stumbling on the odd red grouse, but other moorland birds are more difficult. Ring ouzel and merlin still breed on the moor in small numbers but if you’re hoping to find short-eared owls or even, possibly, a harrier, you’re going to have to look in the wilder and more desolate parts of the moors.
The Washburn Valley is the most rewarding area for the keen birder, but can be a little more demanding. The reservoirs offer a variety of habitats. There are easy walk round Swinsty and Fewston. Winters can be good, with wildfowl present in good numbers and look for brambling, siskin, redpoll and crossbill in the plantations. Thruscross is a wilder place, sometimes quiet, but also occasionally a hunting ground for short-eared owls. There are good numbers of winter thrushes and the smaller birds of prey hunt on the hillsides above the reservoirs; you may also see little owls. In the spring and early summer try the valley to the south of Swinsty, north and south of Lindley Wood Reservoir where you can find all three types woodpecker, all the common warblers, as well as good numbers of redstarts and some flycatchers.
These three examples are typical of the environments along the length of Wharfedale. You can walk along the riverside for much of its distance north of Barden Bridge as far as Beckermonds and see many of the birds you see in Strid woods. The walk along from Grassington to Grass Wood is excellent and you may be lucky enough to see green woodpecker or partridges. Also, look for the rare yellow wagtail in the upper reaches. An alternative reservoir in mid-Wharfedale is Grimwith, east of Grassington. The environment is very different from the Washburn, but a circular walk can produce interesting birds at any time of year.