At a time when the decline in farmland birds is again making headlines it was a pleasure to do spring bird counts in a one kilometre square of Lower Wharfedale, on either side of the river below Harewood. It is farmed intensively but also managed with a sympathetic eye for wildlife. My two visits, one in late April, the second in late May, provide a snapshot of changing populations but are also collated with others from all over the UK by the British Trust for Ornithology to give a year by year picture which, where farmland birds are concerned, has for years been one of unremitting gloom.
Below Harewood however, yellowhammers, hardly found further up Wharfedale, are abundant, giving their characteristic ‘Little bit of bread and no cheese’ song from trees and hedgerows. Skylarks are a constant presence, at times scarcely visible singing dots against the sky. On both visits this year I counted more than ever before, about a dozen on each occasion.
Hares are common with pairs chasing one another across the fields in April, less obvious a month later but with black ear tips visible above the growing crops.
Whitethroats, another species scarce further up the valley, usually occur in numbers along the hedgerows. On both my visits last year I recorded 6 or 7 birds but in late April this year I found only a single individual with just 3 a month later. Whitethroats winter in the dry scrubland of the African Sahel, a region presently gripped by drought. Similar conditions in the past have caused whitethroat populations to crash.
A bird I look for anxiously each year is the yellow wagtail, a species in decline nationally and here usually present in small numbers. It is another bird which must face the rigours of the Sahara on its northward migration from its West African wintering grounds. This year I searched in vain.
Another species in decline in the UK is the cuckoo and, after recording them in the area every year from 2003 to 2007, I had neither seen nor heard one there since, so it was exhilarating to hear one calling on my late May visit, especially after seeing one on Otley Chevin the previous day and hearing another above Strid Wood a week previously. Perhaps there is hope for the Wharfedale cuckoo population.