If you are driving up Wharfedale in the next few weeks and happen to pass a large lay-by just before Barden Tower you may be intrigued to see a group of people, equipped with powerful binoculars and telescopes, apparently loitering there. In fact, these loiterers are dedicated birdwatchers keeping a sharp lookout for migrating raptors. Barden may not be a raptor hotspot like Gibraltar or the Jordan valley where hundreds of eagles, buzzards, vultures etc can be seen riding the thermals on their bi-annual migrations, but this humble lay-by does provide a sweeping view up and down the valley along which some of our more iconic birds of prey are travelling north at this time of year. Last year these watchers sent the WNS records of osprey, marsh harrier and a rare honey buzzard, and this season two ospreys have been seen already. Nowadays such records of sightings can be supplemented using modern technology: radio tagged juvenile ospreys from Loch Garten were charted on their flight south last autumn so we can proudly report that the female, Nethy, passed over Burley-in-Wharfedale at noon flying at 1300 feet and at 30mph! For those of us without the equipment or the expertise to identify a fast flying osprey, the odd bird does sometimes stop off for a few days to rest and refuel locally – the reservoirs in the Washburn have been so favoured in the past.
This is the time when huge numbers of birds are on the move. The swans and geese that spent the winter with us feel the tug of their northern breeding grounds and are already on the move In fact, 58 whooper swans flew over our Barden watchers on 19th March. These elegant birds are slightly less bulky than our resident mute swans and have black and yellow beaks whereas those of mute swans are orange. Meanwhile, our summer visitors are starting to arrive. A friend has already heard a singing chiffchaff near Fewston, sand martins are starting to arrive and willow warblers should be here soon.
There are smaller migrations too. For me, the cry of the curlew is the true herald of spring and last week I went over to Middleton to see whether I could hear it. We walked through the rough pasture that abuts the moor, and, after much ear-straining, at last heard one, slightly tentative, call. Then, turning homeward, we suddenly spotted a distant field dotted with pale brown blobs. Through binoculars these revealed themselves as about thirty curlews just standing about or, occasionally, taking a step or two and flexing their wings. Our calling bird was the first of the flock to claim its territory and proclaim ownership. In the next few days the rest will disperse over the fields and adjacent moorland, and soon the air will be full of their haunting cries. As we set off downhill, we were further reassured to hear the unmistakable ‘peeweet’ of a lapwing and saw him as he circled, swooped and dived over his already appropriated field.