Our Birding Blog and guide to all the resident and visiting species that can be seen at Tan Hill throughout the year!

 

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No 1. The Curlew

When this most magically enchanting of bird calls echoes out across the moors for the first time of the year, then we know, Winters grip is finally loosening.

 The Curlew, Britains largest wading bird with its distinctive long, curved beak is easy to identify from other waders. It is often the first returning migrant to arrive back to the uplands of Tan Hill as early as mid February. Keeping a low profile at first, it is well camouflaged to do so and only revealed when silhouetted against the rapidly thawing snow patches. If you are lucky, this is where you may catch a glimpse as it silently seeks out the best nesting site amid the tough grasses and peat hags.

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But it doesn’t remain silent for long.

Low bubbling whistles, the beginning’s  of its bewitching air start to rise as the secretive bird finally emerges from out of the tussocky grass and takes to the moody sky. It is here aloft the sombre coloured moor that provides the perfect stage for this piping song of the fell to unfold in all its glorious complexities! With an increasing urgency this ecstatic  melodious trilling, W.B. Yeats described as a “sweet crystalline cry” ascends above the endless moor, building to a passionate rippling crescendo before gently fading away. A joyful song but tinged with a haunting melancholy that reflects the beautiful bleak desolation that’s lies below, it’s ascendanc

Curlews lay their eggs in a nest on the ground known as a ‘scrape’ and both  male and female incubate the eggs and chicks for roughly four weeks, before they leave the nest. They spend time with their parents for a further four weeks until fledged.

Whilst on the fell, they feed on insect, spiders, larvae and worms In the autumn, both adults and young return to the estuaries with its rich marine food supply of molluscs lugworms and much more and there they will remain throughout the winter.

Curlew numbers has sadly declined drastically in recent years. Intensive farming practices, including drainage and reseeding and the turning of areas of moorlands into forest have had a huge impact on their population.

The population around the Tan Hill inn (Great Britain, highest pub) seems healthier than most and throughout the spring I hear them reasonably regularly. But I can remember a time as children, walking the fell with my father, binoculars in hand, when they seemed to be everywhere. And one bright March day we relinquished our coveted seats by Tan Hill’s welcoming fire and took our drinks outside There we sat for what seemed like an age, listening to countless curlews calling to one another, as they and their song soared above us!

On days, like this, I felt the luckiest 12-year-old on the planet, my brother, and I having dad to ourselves for a great long walk and seeing and hearing these wonderful birds in full courtship. And of course, I was even happier, because Neil, the Landlord had let me pull myself a small beer shandy with a little bit more beer than lemonade in it.  I literally was on the top of the world.

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The curlew and its iconic call it’s probably one of the most evocative sounds of the uplands of Great Britain and Ireland. But in much of folklore(particularly in coastal areas), it is very much associated with sorrow and a harbinger of ill tide and bad omens.

However, despite its bittersweet mournful qualities, it is for me and those who like myself, that live and work amongst these wild lands, a joyful  welcoming sound, and a promise of warmer brighter days  ahead. Whenever I hear its call, however faint, it always stops me in my tracks, holding my attention until the last complex note plays out and is carried away on the wind……

No 2. The Lapwing

 

If you are out walking during the Spring, across the footpaths and fell tracks that lead to the highest pub in Great Britain, then the lapwing will undoubtedly make it known to you ,that it is there!

You may catch a glimpse of one watching you, whilst teetering on its toes as it furtively pops its head up above the heather, stretching its neck, moments before exploding noisily into the air in a clamorous declaration to all of its presence. 

Before you know it the whole moor resounds with the answering cry, a loud unmistakable, shrill ‘pee-wit’ , which gives it, it’s common local name(and one of many that it goes by) 

 

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Once you appear to be no threat, the alarm calls transforms into a bright ebulliently uplifting delightful song. Its  abounding joyfulness underlined by a subtle wistfulness woven inbetween its notes, ensures  that the peewits cheerful ditty is one of the most iconic sounds of the moors and  only marginally bested by the Curlews bewitchingly beautiful, mournful song of the season.

For this is their courtship track to the males tumbling, acrobatic display flights. Their frenzied eronautical nuptial dance in the sombre skies above the Moors are all choreographed to this swift rising and falling notes of the melody. The song will be heard throughout the springtime months., while the quest to find the perfect mate and nest site continues…

 A distinctively, looking,, wading bird, of blacks and whites,  iridescent purple-green tinges  and topped off with a resplendent tapering crest, the Lapwing returns to Tan Hill each March to breed. 

Well camouflaged, their nests are shallow scrapes in the ground lined with grass, feathers, and other vegetation into which they generally lay four eggs.

Extremely protective parents they will aggressively defend their nest and offspring from predators and anything or anyone who may stumble towards the nest regardless of. Size. Curious Swaledale sheep are soon given their marching orders!

They feed on insects, worms and invertebrates, but when available will consume certain seeds and berries.

In the autumn, they leave the uplands and head to the Rich feeding grounds of the estuaries and coastal areas, where they will spend the winter.

The collective noun for a group, of lapwing is known as  a ‘deceit’ due to the fact that the bird would feign injury when threatened. In the upland areas, their return was seen as a coming of spring, but in more coastal areas folklore saw them as the harbinger of disaster, particularly when their calls were heard at night
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There were far more peewits when when I was younger, they even nested in the fields close to my home on the edge of town. Sadly their numbers have desperately dropped off in recent years due to habitat loss and fragmentation and have almost vanished from the lowlands now, preferring the wilder moorland areas. Fortunately,, their population seems reasonably healthy around the moors of Tan Hill.

 

An easy bird to observe as they seem to have no fear of humans. Once, as we were out walking when I was a small boy, a pair of lapwing, burst up, right in front of me and fearlessly chased me off, as I inadvertently approached a nest of young chicks. I was so surprised I ran into a bog, went in knee, deep, and lost my Wellington boot much to my father‘s mirth!. But as the tears began to roll down my face, my dad had an idea and sought sanctuary!

 

Soon after, damp and barefooted, I was sat by the warm, welcoming fire of the Tan Hill inn! while the landlady‘s wife fussed over me. The rest of the walk had been curtailed whilst the retrieved wet sock and boot and miserable, little boy, dried off in front of the  pubs constantly ablaze hearth. However, a packet of crisps and a bottle of pop soon, made me a happy little boy again . So in a roundabout way, I had the peewits to thank for this unexpected treat

It was an unscheduled stop of necessity. I remember my father explaining to my mum when we returned a little later than we should’ve done!

“Peewits??? Really!”she said disbelievingly!

I kind of had a soft spot for the lapwing ever since then!

 

By the start of April, spring is getting well into its stride. A south-westerly breeze hastens the retreat of the last lingering snow patches and  the sun, confidently stronger, finally stirs the fell land back into full wakefulness.

 

The heathered moorland is now alive with a symphony of Birdsong. The Curlews and lapwings airs of joy and sorrow provide star billing while the skylark and his song of soaring ascendancy gives us our virtuoso performance. Interwoven with the meadow pipits sweet, chirruping burr and the red grouses percussion of guttural outbursts, the Tan Hill Inn has quite the orchestra right on its doorstep!

However some birdsongs are a little too soft and delicate to be heard above the more vocal members of the fell side fowl choir and they are best appreciated outside the wider ensemble!

No. 3 - The Golden Plover

The Golden Plover is one such performer, preferring to remain hidden while it sings its song. There from a tussocky vantage position above the dips and troughs of the peat hags it’s ghostly, plaintive piping drifts out onto the moor!

 

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If you are lucky to catch a glimpse of this strikingly looking wading bird, you literally have struck gold!

 

My dad brother, and I had often heard their clear, sorrowful sounding whistles when we went out walking, but had failed to catch a glimpse of them. They always seemed to dance fleetingly just on the edge of our vision, never fully revealing themselves.

 

That was until one day, long ago, when we heard their distant emotive call, and like a sirens soul stirring song of seduction, it beckoned us to follow!. Becoming clearer, the lonely piping led us into the rolling gullies and deep narrow ghylls of the dark mounded peat hags. Whilst we explored this upland terrain a dank, wet cloud, drifted low enveloping the moor. Visibility quickly deteriorated, and we became separated. 

 

As we called out to each other through the wafting mist, I heard the plovers haunting cry, now very close to where I stood. I crossed a little rivulet, warily treading through the black claggy peat bog to where I believed the sound emanated from. But then the elusive bird called out right behind me. I swung round quickly but all I saw were dissipating shadows and indistinct shapes , fading in and out of the swirling mist. I swung round again as a shrill peeping sounded to my left, and then another to my right, had me completely in a disorientated spin.

 

Now the mist was full of forlorn calls seemingly all around, but still, this fast flying little bird, still would not reveal itself to me. Stumbling forward, already soaked wet through from the moisture laden mist a large peat hag ominously, loomed out of the dismal murk and I scrambled up its banks. 

 

Above the hags maze of little streams and gullies, a fresh breeze was stripping off the misty fronds of the low flying cloud, allowing bright shafts of sunlight to filter through. As I stood a top this short grassy plateau, I saw my father and brother on top of another tussocky topped hag. My dad was furiously waving and pointing his stick, gesturing for me to turn round. So I did!

 

Finally, there they were, a pair of Plovers, resplendent in their beautiful black and golden plumage, which shimmered in the rays of the afternoon sunshine,  now burning off the remaining mist. Such was their bold demeanour, there had to be a nest somewhere, close by. I was sure, so I backed slowly away and down from their Vantage point. They calmly watched me go, and then with a loud piping, they broke into a quick sprint before launching themselves into a brighter sky. We re-grouped, and with the mist just about lifted, made our way carefully, through the twists and turns of this boggy landscape, back to where the car was parked outside a lonely pub, the highest in Great Britain!

 

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Laying on average four oval-shaped eggs in a nest, roughly scraped into the ground,, the Golden Plover numbers in the UK, are reasonably healthy. The moors around Tan Hill have a substantial breeding population, with densities some of the highest in the country . On the moors, they feed, mainly on worms, beetles, and other insects.

Golden Plover overwinter in the invertebrate rich  muddy estuaries around the British coast. During this time, their numbers are boosted by birds flying south from Scandinavia. They all return to their breeding grounds in the spring time, but none get quite the welcome as the one that they get in Iceland. Here, the first appearance of the golden plover is eagerly anticipated and has become a national media event. For when the first one arrives, that officially means spring has started in this northerly country.

Throughout early spring, you are more than likely to hear them piping away outside Great Britain’s highest pub. But whether you get to see these shy and most beautiful of birds, well, that is all down to luck

No. 4 - The Meadow Pipit

Returning to the moors, in March and April the meadow pipit is frequently seen speedily flitting about around Britain’s highest pub. Often dismissed as one of those dull browny/yellow birds not worth consulting the field guide to identify. But if you just take the time and have a closer look, this hardy little fell side inhabitant is far from drab and uninteresting.

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They are quite the aerobatic performers, the males courtship display of

fluttering parachute drops and convoluted undulations during spring is quite a spectacle! Their melodious high piping trill is the constant background resonance to the bleating Swaledale sheep, buzzing bees amongst the Heather, and the calls of curlew, lapwing and other moorland birds, sounds synonymous with the upland summer.

Like most of Tan Hill’s feathered friends, they are ground, nesting , laying 3-5 eggs in a simple construction of dry grass,  hidden in dense vegetation. They are the most industrious and attentive of parents, which unfortunately has made them the preferred victim of that cunningly artful con artist, the Cuckoo, who displaces the pipits eggs for their own. 

Unwittingly, they become surrogates for a demanding oversized impostor chick, who quickly outgrows them. Remarkably they often have a second brood. But as autumn deepens, they leave the moors descending in flocks known as ‘a profusion of pipits’ to lower plains. Some will migrate as far south as Spain, Portugal, and even North Africa. 

The pipit is an important food source for moorland predators such as short eared owl and merlin. Here their numbers are healthy and able to sustain these losses but sadly the population has been in general decline since the 1970s, possibly due to changing farming practices affecting their winter feeding grounds.

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If you are lucky enough to be able to sit outside the pub on a sunny afternoon , they will provide quite the show for you whilst you enjoy a pint of local ale and a bite to eat from our tempting menu. The pipit is more than happy with their diet of insects and spiders and as shadows lengthen and afternoon descends into dusk, to quietly observe the pipits elaborate twist and turns above the tussocky peat hags and heathered moor deftly snatching moths and beetles from the air is mesmerisingly addictive……..More so with a pint!

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When some of the old farmers came to Tan Hill and were asked what they would like to drink, they were often heard to say… 

“Aye I’ll jus have me sen a low flyer” 

… usually put to a bewildered newer member of staff. Of course what they meant was a wee dram of Famous Grouse whisky, a favourite tipple for the men of the dales.

Low Flyer refered to the way the red grouse flew, just above, and very close to the ground. Living amongst the heather moorland surrounding our pub, their distinctive guttural call  sounding a bit like  ‘go back go back go back’ can be heard from deep within the tussocky grass and peat hags. A beautiful and sometimes comical bird, to observe, its plump, dark brown plumage, makes it well camouflaged but is often given away by the males bright red eyebrows which he uses to great effect in his courtship. They can lay anything from 6 to 12 eggs or more in April and May within little feathered hollows beneath the heather, and both parents raise their young together.  They rely upon seeds flowers and young heather shoots of to feed upon but will also eat berries and other upland plants.

Since Victorian times there has been organised grouse shooting. Much of these moors are managed by gamekeepers to suit the grouse, and every year, areas of old heather is burnt to encourage new growth. 

Grouse shooting season begins on the 12th of August!

 

 
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Ground Nesting Birds

The vast majority of birds that can be seen around Tan Hill are ground nesting species. Allowing dogs to run wild can be devastating for wildlife, particularly in spring when species are breeding and vulnerable. The 
 that you must keep your dog on a lead no longer than 2 metres between 1st March and 31st July, when on any open access land to protect birds, nesting at ground level

We are very dog friendly here at Tan Hill, but we love our local wildlife too, so please be aware by staying on the paths and keeping your canine companions close!

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