Why not use all your spare lockdown time to get back to nature? Keen birdwatcher ANTONY CLAY offers up some tips on what birdlife you can expect to see in the middle of Rotherham town centre
IT is easy to think that town centres are deserts for wildlife — but nothing could be further from the truth. And for birdlife, Rotherham’s commercial heart has a pretty rich list of our feathered friends.
But you have to know where to look. There are some pretty special species in plain sight.
Now might be a good time to go for a socially-distanced walk with a pair of binoculars — though they aren’t essential — to see what’s out there.
I’ve been a birder for many years, but it’s always a thrill to see something unexpected.
The River Don is a good place to start. Stand on the bridge over the Don at Forge Island, for example, and you can spot a surprising array of water birds.
In recent weeks there have been mallards, a moorhen and mute swans coping with the sometimes turbulent flows of the waterway, but a closer inspection has revealed the more surprising goosander in varying numbers, cormorants and a grey heron.
Throw in a regular grey wagtail and you can see that the river is far from empty.
In the summer I have seen sand martins in quite large numbers on the river near the borough council offices, with some evidence of nesting, and they have been joined by feeding flocks of their cousins, the swallow and house martin.
You can see all sorts of birds on car parks. The wide open spaces offer a prime feeding opportunity as they can see insects easily. Pied wagtails — black and white with constantly bobbing tails — are the usual species adopting this method and can be seen regularly here.
Rotherham town centre has plenty of green spaces of varying size and for birds this means both cover and a place to feed. Robins, blackbirds, wrens, dunnocks and song and mistle thrushes use them, and there is the occasional house sparrow and blue or great tit.
I have heard both goldfinch and greenfinch twittering away in the green space around Rotherham Minster.
Starlings are known for rowdy raiding party visits to garden bird feeders but in Rotherham town centre they can be seen in good numbers in the evening as they prepare to roost either on local buildings or at some local venue like the Old Moor nature reserve in Wath.
Groups of starlings can often be seen on open spaces such as Clifton Park or recreation grounds, alongside blackbirds, wood pigeons, collared doves, and crows like the jackdaw and magpie.
An area such as Clifton Park with a variety of habitats is great for birdwatching. In the spring and summer you can hear the dawn chorus from the trees, with birds such as chaffinch and blackcap warbling away.
On any area of water, you will see gulls. It will usually be the small but very loud black-headed gull, a bird which could well be prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act as it NEVER has a black head, even in the summer when it appears to (it’s actually brown). If the bird you see does have a black head then it would be a little more exciting as it could be a Mediterranean gull, a Sabine’s Gull (very unusual inland in the UK), a little gull or an even rarer Bonaparte’s Gull from the USA which would be a bit of a birding humdinger.
You can see herring gulls with their light grey backs which are significantly bigger than the black-headeds. These are the seaside gulls and their call is the sound of the coast. If it’s herring gull-sized but has a darker back then it’s likely to be a lesser black-backed gull (it will have yellow legs as opposed to the herring gull’s pink ones). If you see one even bigger than that and very dark on its back (with pink legs) then it is the biggest UK gull, the great black-backed gull, which dwarfs most birds.
But gulls don’t confine themselves to just water or the sea. They will scavenge anywhere, even in gardens, and open spaces are a great place to see them, as are rubbish dumps.
You can’t wander through Rotherham’s shopping heart without seeing a pigeon. Lots of pigeons. A huge number of them roost in the old buildings at Forge Island when they aren’t scrounging for food amongst the town’s shoppers.
These sometimes rather raggedy birds are known as feral pigeons and they are the descendants of the now rare rock dove which is usually confined to the windswept coastal cliffs. The rock dove may shirk modern life, but the feral pigeon loves it.
Wherever there are small to medium-sized birds, there are predators, and in the town centre these take the form of kestrels and maybe the occasional sparrowhawk. Listen carefully and you can sometimes hear birds of prey calling.
Some urban places have attracted the magnificent peregrine falcon.
Urban spaces with their tall buildings must look like their natural upland mountain habitat, with high viewing points and crevices to nest in. And they like to eat pigeons.
I would suggest that you could walk around the town centre and see up to 20 species pretty easily if you keep an eye out and know what you’re looking for. Like everything else, birdwatching takes practice and you shouldn’t be disheartened if you don’t know what everything is at once. If you see something you don’t recognise, make a note of what it looks like and then look it up at home, at a library or online. A decent field guide can be purchased fairly inexpensively.
And if you look for birds, you will see other wildlife too such as grey squirrels, hedgehogs and foxes.
This year has shown us that getting up close to nature is a real boon to our physical and mental health.
If your interest in wildlife develops, you can progress to visiting our fantastic local nature reserves such as Old Moor in Wath, Denaby Ings in Denaby, and Blackburn Meadows at Templeborough.
Keep your eyes peeled and get out there. Look up and look around, and listen too.
Where to spot birds in Rotherham town centre
RIVER DON — The whole length of the river in the town has potential but a good spot is where it passes the Forge Island car park.
CLIFTON PARK— An open space which attracts gulls and a variety of smaller birds. Other great open spaces include locations such as Herringthorpe Playing Field
ROTHERHAM MINSTER — There are lots of birds to see in the green areas around the church, but keep an eye on the building itself for corvids or birds of prey.
TOWN CAR PARKS — Gulls, songbirds, crows. Pied wagtails like open spaces.
GARDENS — No matter how big or small a garden, put out food and birds will visit. Sometimes there will be a big surprise. Even people living in apartments can put out food on balconies or use special feeders that attach to windows.
l ALWAYS make sure that any site you visit is safe and that you have permission to go there. Do not put yourself or others in danger, and don’t break the law.