The Birds of Millhouses Park
**For details of the next BIRD WALK, please click HERE**
Just over three miles from the city centre and visited daily by hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, the park perhaps isn’t an obvious place to watch birds. However for even the most casual observer there is much to discover. With a bit of patience and preferably an early start to the day it’s possible to come across between 20 and 30 different species in and around the park depending on the time of year.
The key is the variety of habitat. Though much of the park is given over to areas of well-managed grass it’s the combination of river and neighbouring woodland that proves attractive to a variety of birds.
The River Sheaf usually provides some of the best birding. On a good day it’s possible to come across all of the Millhouses Park’s “big three”. Kingfisher is perhaps the star attraction though more often heard than seen. In most years recently a pair have bred in our near to the park and individuals are usually present throughout the winter. Dipper, a bird more usually associated with upland streams, is another resident as is grey wagtail, of the three, the one most likely to be seen along the river. Other water birds that are frequently encountered are grey herons, visitors from the colony in Ecclesall Woods, mallards, and moorhens, watch for them with their young in spring and summer in the quiet stretch between the two weirs. And a recent colonist that’s taken a liking to the park is the mandarin, a really attractive small duck that has begun to breed at several locations along the Sheaf.
The trees alongside the river and the scrub areas on the eastern bank probably hold the biggest range of species. Resident throughout the year are all the common tit species: great, blue, long-tailed and particularly where there are conifers, coal tits. In winter they frequently form mixed roving flocks along the river and these often include one or two nuthatches, treecreepers and goldcrests, another species with a liking for the conifers elsewhere in the park. Robins, wrens and dunnocks also occur in good numbers along the river and elsewhere in the park, as do blackbirds and the ubiquitous wood pigeons, magpies and carrion crows. Less common but often heard singing from mid-winter onwards are song and mistle thrushes and wherever there are tall trees and bushes in the park parties of greenfiches and occasional chaffinches and bullfinches occur. The larger trees also prove attractive to visiting great spotted woodpeckers and jays. At night, tawny owls call from neighbouring woodland.
The grassed areas support the least variety of species though many of the birds described above will feed there particularly in the early morning. The two grass specialists are pied wagtails, often occurring in small loose flocks on the cricket pitch in winter and starlings, though incredibly these have now become something of a park rarity. Two other species: house sparrow and collared dove, which have also shown a decline in numbers, sometimes venture into the park from their preferred garden habitats. On the other hand, a relatively new visitor to the park, lesser black-backed gull has begun to show a liking for the grass areas in the early morning possibly, like the crows and magpies, feeding on discarded food.
There are of course seasonal differences in what the park has to offer. The winter months often see small parties of siskins and occasionally lesser redpolls feeding on the riverside alders. In cold spells, the berry bearing bushes attract good numbers of redwings and very occasionally fieldfares and every few years a party of superb exotic looking waxwings descends upon the bushes at the back of the Wagon and Horses, lingering for several days until the berry supply is exhausted.
Late March sees the arrival of the first of the summer visitors: chiffchaffs, which sing their name from the trees in Hutcliffe Wood followed by blackcaps, possibly the most attractive songsters in the park. By late April and early May the house martins and swifts are back, breeding in nearby buildings and feeding over the park though sadly in much reduced numbers in recent years.
Indeed, looking upwards as well as forwards can produce interesting results. Sparrowhawks often flap/glide over the park with sightings of kestrel and common buzzard a much rarer event. In the autumn given a south westerly breeze and a partially cloudy sky, flocks of winter thrushes can be seen heading south westwards over the park with occasional meadow pipits and skylarks following a similar path. More obvious are the skeins of pink-footed geese that commute high over Millhouses in autumn and winter between feeding grounds in Lancashire and North Norfolk but for sheer spectacle, in winter the sight of huge flocks of rooks, jackdaws and carrion crows flying over the park en route to the evening roost in Ecclesall Woods takes some beating.
And finally, tales of the unexpected. One of the pleasures of bird watching is that it can be unpredictable. Some days can be totally unproductive. Millhouses Park can seem devoid of birds and that is often the case in July and August when birds aren’t singing and many are moulting and as a result stay as inconspicuous as possible. But the park can just as easily produce surprises often after adverse weather. Recent examples: a cormorant that spent several days on the river, a shoveler also on the river, a couple of migrant yellow wagtails feeding on insects in the flower beds, a common sandpiper en route presumably to a breeding territory in the Peak District and the occasional lesser-spotted woodpecker following a roving tit flock.
OK, they’re the exceptions but there’s just as much pleasure to be gained by stopping, listening to the incredibly varied birdsong in spring or watching closely the comings and goings of familiar bird like moorhens and robins. Enjoy the park,enjoy the birds and if you do want to find out more come and join one of the organised bird walks through the park and part of Ecclesall Woods each spring and early winter. Look out for details on the website.