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Birds of a Country Parish

by Michael Thompson

Britain has a long tradition of recording natural history within boundaries. These boundaries may be the British Isles, or a region, or a drawing of lapwing (peewit)county within Britain, or a parish, or, even, a garden. Sometimes the recording is related to the topography of an area, such as a mountainous region. Linked in to this recording, be it fauna or flora, is a popular pastime known as phenology, the study of the timing of natural events, such as the first arrival dates of summer migrant swallows. Today, phenology, over a period of time, has become an exact science and has proved to be a useful indicator of the effects of possible climate change in Britain. Currently, it seems that spring in the northern hemisphere and the British Isles is coming earlier and this appears to be the case locally. This article, however, is more concerned with bird lists.

In the past, much of this recording has been on cards or in note books and, here in Yorkshire, so we are told, ‘kept under beds in boxes by the recorders’. However, much of it has been published in Yorkshire in the Naturalist and, in the last two decades, recorded electronically. With the foundation of the North and East Yorkshire Ecological Data Centre, many current and historical natural history records are being collected together to give, amongst other parameters, the distribution of many of Yorkshire’s plants and wild animals.

There are, I expect, many parishes in Britain in which someone, or a group of people, have recorded the wild life within that parish. Historically, the most famous parish natural history has been the Natural History of Selbourne by the Reverend Gilbert White, first published in 1789. However, he was not the only individual in the late eighteenth century to record wildlife within a parish and to establish the pastime of phenology. Robert Marsham of The Hall, in the Norfolk village of Stratton Strawless, began keeping a log of the key spring events from 1736 onwards, of which he established 27 indicator events. He started a long and fruitful correspondence with Gilbert White over many years, in which they swapped ‘first dates’. It seems they experienced a series of cold springs and delayed arrivals. Another classical country parish history and natural history has been Arnold Boyd’s A Country Parish, which was published in the New Naturalist series in 1951. Here, in Slingsby, a small booklet entitled The Parish of Slingsby. Its History and Wildlife was published in 2000 to celebrate the Millennium (Mackinder M. & Thompson M.J.A.)

In 1904 the then incumbent of Slingsby parish in North Yorkshire near Malton, the Reverend Arthur St.Clair Brooke, wrote a book entitled Slingsby and Slingsby Castle. In the appendices at the back of the book, and with the help of Mr. James Brigham of Slingsby, he published a bird list. The records start from 1871, but with a single record of a successful raven’s nest (Corvus corax) from Castle Howard in 1850, which is 2 miles outside the parish boundary. In all, St.Clair Brooke lists 114 species of birds, giving in some cases some idea of quantity of each species. Since 1996, when we moved to Slingsby, I have recorded 94 species of birds, of which I have been able to re-record 73 of those 1904 species (63.5%). There are 40 species on the 1904 list that I have not seen (see Table 1), and this excludes the raven. Some of those listed I am very unlikely to see, such as the American Bittern Ixobrychus minutes that was shot at Kells Springs on Slingsby Carrs on 4th December 1871. This record is also to be found in John Mather’s book The Birds of Yorkshire (1986). The 19 species not recorded in 1904, but present since 1996, make interesting reading (see Table 2). To date, 134 species of birds have been recorded in the parish of Slingsby since 1871.

Table 1

English name Latin name 1903 1996 on Burwood
Great Northern Diver Gavia immer    
Slavonian Grebe Podiceps auritus X    
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis X    
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo   X  
Bittern Boataurus stallaris X    
American Bittern Ixobrychus minutes X (Kells Springs 1871)    
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea X X X
Mute Swan Cygnus olor   X X
Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus X X  
Barnacle Goose Branta leucopsis X    
Greylag Goose Anser anser   X X
Canada Goose Branta canadensis   X X
Pink-footed Goose Anser brachyrhynchus X    
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos X X X
Wigeon Anas penelope X    
Teal Anas crecca X    
Shoveler Anas clypeata X    
Pintail Anas acuta X    
Goosander Mergus merganser   X  
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra X    
Common Buzzard Buteo buteo   X X
Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus X X X
Kestrel Falco tinnunculus X X X
Peregrine Falco peregrinus X    
Merlin Falco columbarius X X  
Hobby Falco subbuteo   X  
Pheasant Phasianus colchicus X X X
Grey Partridge Perdix perdix X X  
Red-legged Partridge Alectoris rufa   X  
Pallasís Sand Grouse Syrrhaptes paradpxus X (1888)    
Water Rail Rallus aquaticus X    
Spotted Crake Porzana porzana X (? Land Rail)    
Moorhen Gallinula chloropus X X X
Coot Fulica atra   X  
Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta X    
Oystercatcher Haemotopus ostralegus   X X
Lapwing or Peewit Vanellus vanellus X X X
Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria X X X
Dotterel Charadrius morinellus X    
Woodcock Scolopax rusticola X X X
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos X    
Redshank Tringa totanus X    
Greenshank Tringa nebularia X    
Little Stint Calidris minuta X    
Curlew Numenius arquata X X  
Jack Snipe Lymnocryptes minimus X    
Snipe Gallinago gallinago X X  
Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus   X X
Common Gull Larus canus   X X
Herring Gull Larus argentatus   X X
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus   X  
Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus X X X
Stock Dove Columba livia X X X
Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur X X X
Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto   X X
Cuckoo Cuculus canorus X X X
Kingfisher Alcedo atthis X X  
Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopus major X X X
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopus minor X    
Green Woodpecker Picus viridis X X  
Tawny Owl Strix aluco X X X
Long-eared Owl Asio otus X    
Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus X    
Barn Owl Tyto alba X X X
Little Owl Athene noctua   X  
Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus X    
Swift Apus apus X X X
Skylark Alauda arvensis X X X
Swallow Hirundo rustica X X X
House Martin Delichon urbica X X X
Sand Martin Riparia riparia X X  
Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis X X X
Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis X X X
Pied Wagtail Motacilla alba yarrellii X X X
White Wagtail Motacilla alba alba X    
Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava X    
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea X X X
Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata X X X
Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca X    
Nuthatch Sitta europaea X X  
Treecreeper Certhia familiaris X X X
Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor X    
Great Tit Parus major X X X
Blue Tit Parus caeruleus X X X
Coal Tit Parus ater X X X
Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus X X X
Marsh Tit Parus palustris   X X
Wren Troglodytes troglodytes X X X
Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus   X  
Dipper Cinclus cinclus X    
Dunnock Prunella modularis X X X
Robin Erithacus rubecula X X X
Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe X    
Whinchat Saxicola rubetra X    
Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus X    
Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla X X X
Whitethroat Sylvia communis X X  
Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca X X  
Garden Warbler Sylvia borin X X X
Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus X X  
Grasshopper Warbler Locustella naevia X    
Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus X X X
Wood Warbler Phylloscopus sibilatrix X    
Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita X X X
Goldcrest Regulus regulus X X X
Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus X X X
Song Thrush Turdus philomelos X X X
Blackbird Turdus merula X X X
Ring Ouzel Turdus torquatus X    
Fieldfare Turdus pilaris X X X
Redwing Turdus iliacus X X X
Carrion Crow Corvus corone corone X X X
Hooded Crow Corvus corvus cornix X    
Rook Corvus frugilegus X X X
Jackdaw Corvus monedula X X X
Magpie Pica pica X X X
Jay Garrulus glandarius X X X
Raven Corvus corax X (Castle Howard 1850)    
Starling Sturnus vulgaris X X X
House Sparrow Passer domesticus X X X
Tree Sparrow Passer montanus X X X
Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis X X X
Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs X X X
Greenfinch Carduelis chloris X X X
Siskin Carduelis spinus X X X
Brambling Fringilla montifringilla X X X
Linnet Carduelis cannabina X X X
Corn Bunting Miliaria calandra X X X
Lesser Redpoll Carduelis flammea cabaret X    
Redpoll Carduelis flammea flammea X X X
Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula X X X
Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes X    
Crossbill Loxia curvirostra X X X
Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella X X X
Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus X X X

Analysis of some of those birds missing in 1996, but found in 1904, indicates changes in land usage, agricultural practices and climate.

Some of those on the list are vagrants and, therefore, are unlikely to be seen again, such as the Great Northern Diver or the Great Grey Shrike. According to Mather (1986), a Slavonian Grebe was seen at Redcar in 1901. In 1888 there was a second large influx of the Asian based Pallas’s Sandgrouse from the Continent, with several records from North Yorkshire, including Scarborough. The Slingsby record could have been part of that influx. Reference has already been made to the American Bittern, but the possibility of the European Bittern being seen in Slingsby is extremely rare for there are no reed beds of any size in the area. The Spotted Crake is a rare breeding bird in Britain and, therefore, very unlikely to turn up. Britain’s Dotterel population is increasing. The likelihood of one being seen in the fields in the spring in the parish, on their way to their upland breeding grounds, has increased.

The most notable species losses since 1904 are amongst the geese, ducks and waders. The area known as Slingsby Carrs was gradually drained and brought into agricultural production, with the construction of flood banks adjacent to Wath Beck, which runs through the parish before joining the River Rye. The lowest lying land was, and still is, drained by pumping. Hence there is no standing water of any size, especially in the winter, to attract these water-based species in what was part of the flood plain. Thus such attractive birds as the Avocet, Water Rail and Shoveler are missing from the current list.

Nationally, Short-eared Owl, Long-eared Owl, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Nightjar have been in decline, although the Nightjar shows some evidence of local recovery of its numbers in the forestry areas of the North York Moors. All these species are to be found within Ryedale, but in reduced numbers. Pied Flycatchers are present just north of Slingsby parish and might, if conditions are right on Slingsby Heights, be recorded again. The Dipper would have been seen on Wath Beck, suggesting that in former times the beck bottom was more stony and the water flow probably more rapid. The 1904 list contains two subspecies, namely the Hooded Crow and the White Wagtail; to date only Carrion Crows and Pied Wagtails have been recorded. Yellow Wagtails are in serious decline in Britain generally and this probably accounts for them not been recorded from 1996 onwards. Likewise, the Ring Ouzel which is to be found on the North York Moors is also in decline.

The other listed thrushes, such as the Wheatear, Whinchat and Redstart, as well as the warblers, could still be recorded. Of the finch family, St.Clair Booth mentions the Lesser Redpoll. The Redpoll taxon has now been split into three species, the Lesser Redpoll, the British species, the Common Redpoll (what use to be called the ‘Mealy’ Redpoll), and the Arctic Redpoll. Hawfinches have been observed locally, but not in Slingsby parish to date.

Table 2

Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo
Mute Swan Cygnus olor
Greylag Goose Anser anser
Canada Goose Branta Canadensis
Goosander Mergus merganser
Buzzard Buteo buteo
Hobby Falco subbuteo
Red-legged Partridge Alectoris rufa
Coot Fulica atra
Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus
Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus
Common Gull Larus canus
Herring Gull Larus argentatus
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus
Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto
Little Owl Athene noctua
Marsh Tit Parus palustris
Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus
Siskin Carduelis spinus

Cormorants are regularly seen flying over on their way to Castle Howard lake. In the last few years a small nesting colony has established itself on the edge of the lake. As a feral species, Mute Swans are occasionally seen flying over Slingsby, usually in the direction of Castle Howard lake where they breed most years. Greylag Goose, once a winter visitor only, is a regular breeding goose locally; over 200 years ago greylags were a native breeding species. The Canada Goose, originally an escape from ornamental wildfowl collections, now breeds prolifically in parts of Yorkshire, including Castle Howard, so much so that in places it can be considered a pest species. Goosanders now breed on the River Rye and birds communicate between it and Castle Howard lake, flying over the parish in doing so. This is part of the colonisation of these saw-billed ducks on Yorkshire’s rivers in the past 30 years. Historically, it seems St.Clair Brooke did not witness the expansion of the ranges of these birds, although surprisingly not to have recorded the Mute Swan or the Greylag Goose.

Of the birds of prey in the 1990s onwards, the Buzzard has been recorded circling over the parish, but not breeding; whereas the Peregrine Falcon, present in 1903, has not been recorded since 1996. The former is gradually re-colonising North Yorkshire with the changing attitudes to avian predators; the latter could turn up anytime since its recovery in numbers from the 1970s crash. In 2004 a Hobby was seen flying around the village in pursuit of Swallows. These small migrant falcons are expanding northwards in England due it is thought to climate change and, like the Buzzard, were unlikely to been seen at the turn of the twentieth century. Since the R.S.P.B. captive-release programme of Red Kites in Yorkshire in the last few years, these birds, not so far recorded in both surveys, could be added to the parish overall list.

drawing of oystercatcherIn Yorkshire Oystercatchers have over the past 75 years started breeding inland and first bred on the River Rye in 1955 (Mather 1986). None of the gull species recorded from 1996 onwards bred in the area, but were seen as spring or autumn birds of passage, or, in the case of the Black-headed Gull, following the plough. It is, therefore, surprising that none of these birds were mentioned in the 1904 list. Collared Dove first arrived in Britain in 1955 as a natural expansion from continental Europe and reached Yorkshire by 1959 (Mather 1986). By 1996 they were well established in Slingsby. Although Little Owls were introduced in to midland Britain at the end of the nineteenth century, they only reached Yorkshire in any numbers by the 1950s (Mather 1986). Hence, like the Collared Dove, they would not have been recorded in 1904. A hundred years ago the Marsh and Willow tits were considered to be a single species (Mead, 2000). Thus Marsh Tits were not recorded in 1903. There were a few Yorkshire coastal eruptions of Waxwings in the 1860s (Mather 1986), but it seems that none were recorded in Slingsby during the latter part of that century. A small flock was sighted within the parish in February 2003. With the maturing of the conifer plantations on the North York Moors by the 1950s, so the Siskin established itself within the region as a breeding species. A flock of over 100 Siskins was recorded in Castle Howard estate in 1941, thus post-dating 1904 records. They are now regularly seen on our feeding table.

Brooke, A. St.C., Slingsby and Slingsby Castle 1904
Mather, J. R., The Birds of Yorkshire 1986
Mead, C., The State of the Nation’s Birds 2000

Drawings of Lapwing and Oystercatchers by Rhona Sutherland © 2006

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