Monday, 12 May 2014



It's blustery, wet and cool, but worth trying another trip to the valley's northern end to see what, if anything, has touched down on passage.  A pretty poor year so far for migrants, and we're running out of time, for the best weeks in the valley are usually the last in April and the first in May.  So, shoulders hunched, bins covered against the rain, and it's a somewhat squelchy slog under the Jones Road railway viaduct and on to the canal towpath past the last few of the Wolverhampton 21 locks.  Despite the weather there's song from a Song Thrush, three Blackcap, at least four Chiffchaff and churring calls from Whitethroat in brambles and bushes around the sloped grass field leading up to the railway carriageworks.  A male Reed Bunting sings from the edge of thicket and copse close to lock 20,  and nearby a male Greenfinch's weezing notes bring a response from another bird the other side of the canal.  A female Mallard guards her brood of five duckling as they swim in and out of bankside vegetation, a single Swallow skims the surface and flicks back over the hedge towards its racecourse nest site, it seems that's all of note, so back towards the Stafford Road and the car.  It's raining again, brief  squalls ruffling the water, when, just audible, there come scritching, scratching, chattering notes from the base of bushes just below lock 18, the song at first subdued but then increasing in intesity.  Nothing to see at first, but then a movement just above the water line, the shape small, round-tailed and brown-rumped, the broad white stripe above the eye clear against the semi-darkness at the base of the bushes, our first recorded Sedge Warbler for the year, moving among the stems and picking insects from the base of the leaves.  This stretch of the canal has been a favoured by these diminutive migrants for decades, but last year none were reported from anywhere in the valley.  Nowadays they are only with us for a short time, but in the 1990s they nested successfully by the Staffs & Worcs Canal at Wightwick and at Compton, the earliest return date so far being April 15th in 2011.  Today's bird continues to sing sporadically, never ascending more than a few feet above the base of the bushes and eventually disappearing into the gloom.  The weather's lifting somewhat, so let's give the racecourse a go . . .
It's a story of mystery appearances and disappearances at the Dunstall Park.  Firstly, a mass swan invasion, and secondly, a breeding calamity for geese.  Ten Mute Swan were seen on the lake on May 3rd, and today there are 12.   At least seven are immature birds, and their grouping with a handful of adults suggests families may be involved.  Quite where they have come from is a mystery, and the size of the flock is only equalled by six adults and six youngsters which flew in on November 2nd 2008.  As for the Canada Geese, at least six pairs were sitting on the lake island, but by mid-April all nests were empty.  Quite what forced the birds to quit is a mystery, as there was no sign of broken eggs or of dead goslings.  Weather conditions were not harsh, so some kind of predation may have taken place.  Lesser Black-backed Gulls have almost certainly taken Coot chicks this year, and Mink have been seen along the nearby canals in the past.  The Little Grebe pair are still present, but  no youngsters have been seen, so maybe nesting has failed.  A pair of Barn Swallow appear to be setting up inside the Smestow brook culvert pipe by the lake (a pair nested there in 1998), and at least two pairs are breeding in the stables at the other end of the site.
Recent racecourse records include the Gadwall pair still at the lake on April 26th, a nesting Goldfinch near the parade ring,  a singing Lesser Whitethroat on the western edge on April 26th, a Pheasant calling from the oak copse on April 26th, and a male Wheatear on April 29th.  Elsewhere along the valley,  Geoff reports that a Garden Warbler first heard at the top of the Compton barleyfield on May 4th was still present on 11th,  and Gary Christianson from the Pool Hall lane smallholding reported an Oystercatcher flying low along the canal towards Windmill Lane on May 5th, and a group of Swift moving northwards on May 8th, the first local record this year.  

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