Guided Walks at Hillhouse

FoHHW welcome to the guided walksBluebells & Dawn Chorus Guided Walks

Guided walks at Hillhouse Wood are a regular feature of the calendar, Steve Hallam reports on the two Spring walks deciding that 2016 is a year of ‘firsts’:

Each Spring the Friends of Hillhouse Wood organise two guided walks – one to look at the Bluebells, and a Dawn Chorus one.  These are normally 2-3 weeks apart, to match each one to when its subjects are at their best.  However this year things were different, and for the first time ever we ran both walks on the same weekend.

The reason for this was a combination of the weird timings of when flowers are flowering and birds are singing in recent Springs, and my availability to lead the walks.  So the Bluebell walk took place on the afternoon of Saturday 7 May, while the Dawn Chorus walk ran at 3.45 am on the next day.

Bluebells at HHWBluebell Walk

In truth the ‘Bluebell’ walk should probably now be called the ‘Spring Flowers’ walk, partly because so many people now come to see the Bluebells that they don’t need us to show them.  And partly because the wood (and the walk to it along the track) has so much more to see.  This was particularly true this year, when the earlier flowers have been delayed by the cold weather and so have overlapped with the ‘later’ ones.

Due to this, the twelve people who came on the ‘Bluebell’ walk were able to enjoy seeing a total of 27 different flowers. (This did not include the Ramsons, which we did not have time to get to.)  While there are no records to ‘prove it’, I suspect that this could be the highest number seen on one of these walks.

We were able to find a last few Primroses (which have had another good year), Wood anemones (which I think did not), Golden saxifrages, Violets and Marsh marigolds, while there were still good displays of the early flowering Lesser celandine.  Did you know, by the way, that this was the favourite flower of William Wordsworth, who wrote three poems about it?  Because of this a celandine was carved on to this tombstone – but the mason wasn’t a good enough botanist and mistakenly carved a Greater celandine (an unrelated flower) instead!

FoHHW Display for Bluebell walkAt the other end of the flower timing scale the first examples of Yellow archangel (a plant that was believed to protect people from evil spirits) and Bugle were seen.  The Early purple orchids were a few days past their best, but there were again a good number of flower spikes, and some of these were still pristine.  These flowers are increasing in number, on both sides of the main path.

But, of course, the stars of the show are always the Bluebells.  These were also perhaps a few days past their peak, but still looked (and smelt) impressive.  The cooler weather, especially at night, has meant that they have remained in flower for a relatively long time.  I took the group along a route that went through some of the best glades, and they really did look good.

Over the years ever increasing numbers of people come to see the wood, as both ‘word of mouth’ and Press coverage raise awareness of its Bluebells.  It is great to see so many people deriving pleasure from the wood.  But it does cause pain to see how people damage the very thing they come to see by making new paths and sitting (and even picnicking) in the Bluebells.  I am sure that this is done innocently, and that they have no idea how vulnerable these plants are to being crushed.  I doubt that little can be done to change this: we know from painful experience that any notices that are deemed to constrain peoples’ ‘right to behave as they please’ are either ignored, or else precipitate an ‘energetic’ reaction.

Sometimes this walk, happening in the afternoon as it does, encounters relatively little bird activity, as this is when they tend to ‘siesta’.  However this was not the case in 2016.  We heard four Nightingales singing, one of which was in a territory that was new to me.  We also heard several other woodland birds singing, and saw several Orange Tip butterflies.  So overall, a most successful and enjoyable walk, which set the scene for the next one, due in just twelve hours time …

Dawn Chorus Walk

Over the last few years the Friends has developed a slick and effective ability to publicise our activities, particularly the guided walks.  So it was another ‘first’ when the publicity for the Dawn Chorus walk, err, didn’t happen.  In an organisation with the scale, complexity and dynamism of the Friends there is always the risk that inter-departmental communication may go awry. And so it appears that our Outreach and Publicity Division were not made aware of the date of this walk – according to its Global Vice President of Communications.  Our Operations and Delivery Division had forgotten to tell them! Maybe we need a new ‘cloud based’ technology platform? One for the next committee meeting!

So, exhibiting impressive fleetness of foot and responsiveness (for an organisation of our size) we used our stand at the church, the previous afternoon, to tell passing visitors to the wood about the Dawn Chorus walk.  And so nine people (plus a well behaved collie) turned up – not the largest group, but very pleasing in the circumstances and, actually, better for bird listening than larger groups.

I’m always interested to see what will be the first bird we hear, in the pre-4 am blackness.  This year’s next ‘first’ was that, embarrassingly, I couldn’t tell what it was.  We heard a single, high pitched call note, which did not appear to be that far away.  The closest thing to it that I know is the typical call note of a flying wader, which made no sense at all.  However virtually at the same time we also heard a distant Nightingale tuning up.  So perhaps we heard a rogue note from this. Or perhaps I missed a ‘mega spot’.  It was interesting to note that, in each of the last three years, we have heard our first bird at the same point, more or less by the second Oak down the track!  This year we also caught a distant Tawny Owl about now.

By the time we were approaching the wood we had heard relatively little, as usual, and I was starting to worry that everyone would be getting bored – as usual.  But then the ‘choir’ roused itself – as usual.  Other than Nightingales, which can sing at any time, the first birds we hear are the Song Thrushes.  These trigger the Robins and Blackbirds, and it is these species that constitute the main ‘wall of sound’ of the Dawn Chorus.  Also in the mix are Nightingales and Wrens, but little else.  It may be that, understandably, everything else has concluded that there is little point, as they will not be heard in the din.

By the time we were half way down the path to the stream at the bottom of the wood the main force of the chorus was dissipating, which allows the Blackcaps to start singing.  This year Great Tits were also much in evidence, in contrast to some previous years.  This year a recognisable Dawn Chorus kept going until we were nearly at the lower pond.  This was quite a bit longer than in 2015 – I wonder if it was related to the much nicer weather on the day?

Soon after passing the lower pond we experienced our last, and best, ‘first’.  I had stopped the group to burble on about something or other when we heard a rapid thumping / crashing noise coming towards us, down the hill.  Out of the undergrowth emerged a high speed Badger.  It rushed across the open ground on either side of the little stream and disappeared into the vegetation on the far side, passing within no more than five yards of the group.  The whole thing lasted no more than 2-3 seconds and left us open mouthed.  The aspect that amazed me was the contrast between the noise, which a herd of elephants would have been proud of, and the size of the animal, which was quite a bit smaller than I associate with Badgers.  This gave an impression of considerable power.

By now the chorus noise level was such that individual birds could again be picked out, which is nearly impossible when the choir is in full swing.  One warbler singing by the path had me thoroughly uncertain as to whether it was a Blackcap (which are numerous in the wood) or a Garden Warbler, of which we only get one or two.  On balance I reckon it was a Garden Warbler, which was a nice find.  In total we heard four Nightingales singing, but there was no sound from two other territories that I know are occupied this year.  So I think there are at least six males in the wood this year, and there may well be more.  Migration has probably not finished yet.

On the way back to the church the rising sun enabled us to show the orchids to people who had not yet seen them.  As usual, the Whitethroats in the hedges were not yet singing – how lazy!  We arrived back at the cars just after five thirty, with the full force of the Dawn Chorus now a distant, but pleasant memory.  I wonder what people hear who go on ‘Dawn Chorus’ walks that start about 5 am?


Skip to content