Birds and bird watching in the Yorkshire Dales

Marsh tit

The National Trust cares for a variety of habitats in the Yorkshire Dales attracting both resident birds and summer and winter migrants. A typical visit in May walking along the riverside, through ancient woodland and scrub or across moorland might include species such as kingfisher, dipper, common sandpiper, pied flycatcher, redstart, tree pipit, cuckoo, curlew, black grouse, ring ouzel and golden plover.

Kingfishers regularly breed at Hudswell Woods, look out for a flash of blue flying low and fast over the water.
Kingfisher
Kingfishers regularly breed at Hudswell Woods, look out for a flash of blue flying low and fast over the water.

The Trust looks after habitat that includes moorland and upland heath, upland hay meadow and pasture, ancient woodland and wood pasture. We also look after the National Nature Reserve at Malham Tarn and a number of riparian environments including a SSSI section of the River Wharfe. Together these offer excellent opportunities for birdwatching and spotting wildlife. It’s important to pick a nice day for your visit and an early morning start is often worthwhile as birds are generally more active before 11am, although a few species such as woodcock are best seen in the evening. It’s hard to beat a warm sunny morning in late May when all the migrants have arrived, but any time of year has its high points and there is always the chance of seeing something special.

Moorland

Beginning on the fell tops the first challenge is often finding suitable weather for birdwatching. As little wind as possible is ideal but this is often hard to come by in the Dales and of course good visibility is also useful. As with much of the Dales the fell tops under Trust ownership are generally void of trees (although we are trying to slowly rectify this) and are usually either grazed rough pasture, blanket bog or patchy heather moorland. These habitats can sometimes be very quiet with meadow pipit being the most frequent sighting. The mournful call of golden plover is certainly a possibility and on Darnbrook Fell red grouse are often found in reasonable numbers. Moorland like this can also support merlin and short eared owl although the latter’s fortunes are often linked to vole numbers and bird of prey persecution. Indeed, the Dales as a whole has a shameful record for Bird of Prey persecution and whilst red kites and buzzards should be widely seen across the whole National Park their numbers are still not what they should be. If you spot anything suspicious then please contact us or the local wildlife crime officer. See Operation Owl for more information.

An icon of the uplands in the Yorkshire Dales the curlew was once widespread as a breeding bird across lowland meadows but now moorland seems to be one of its last strongholds.
Curlew
An icon of the uplands in the Yorkshire Dales the curlew was once widespread as a breeding bird across lowland meadows but now moorland seems to be one of its last strongholds.

Moorland may also support the odd pair of stonechat and migrant wheatear. Old walls, sheep folds and other areas of exposed stone are a good place to look for wheatear, their gravelly stone grating call not dissimilar to that of the stonechat. In areas where the terrain becomes a little more steep, heather topped craggy gullies are perfect habitat for ring ouzel, listen out for their flute-like song. The most evocative and distinctive bird call on moorland and over upland pasture and hay meadow is that of curlew which in late spring is often seen calling as it performs its gliding display flight. Curlew are now considered of conservation concern but we are lucky enough to still have reasonable numbers in the Dales. Snipe may also be heard drumming in the vicinity of displaying curlew as they prefer similar habitat and if there are patches of shorter sward then lapwing may also be encountered, as may skylark. Displaying ‘drumming’ snipe can often be heard in spring on Fountains Fell, above Cray in Upper Wharfedale and over the wet areas on the north side of Addlebrough. Lapwing are widespread throughout the Dales and are often found breeding on grazed wet pasture. Breeding redshank may also be encountered in these areas and a few pairs of yellow wagtail also regularly return to the hay meadows near Malham Tarn.

Black grouse
Black grouse
Black grouse

Woodland

Native woodland is scarce in the Dales. Upper Wharfedale still holds areas of limestone woodland and fragments often exist in steep gills, the deeply cleft scars in the landscape that have been eroded by streams or becks. Where trees meet moorland or pasture is often a good spot to look for black grouse. If you are lucky and it’s early on a fine spring morning you may be treated to the unforgettable display (and sound) of a male bird lekking. The often open, scrubby woodland that spills out of the gills is also a perfect place for migrants in spring; chiffchaff, willow warbler, redstart, tree pipit, cuckoo all join many of our common resident birds that we associate with woodland and gardens. In some locations pied flycatcher and spotted flycatcher are also seen and the odd tall tree, usually a scots pine or spruce, may hold the nest of a raven. Redmire Wood and the immediate surrounds in Upper Wharfedale can be an excellent place for many of these birds in spring. Hudswell and Hag Woods near Richmond is also a good location for woodland birds including pied and spotted flycatchers and this area also supports a healthy population of tree sparrow in the field hedgerows that extend south of the woods.

Fieldfares descend on the scrubby hawthorn in Upper Wharfedale. Often joined by the smaller redwing these thrushes descend in flocks devouring the winter crop of berries.
Fieldfare
Fieldfares descend on the scrubby hawthorn in Upper Wharfedale. Often joined by the smaller redwing these thrushes descend in flocks devouring the winter crop of berries.

Rivers

On the watercourses in the valley bottoms, dippers, kingfishers, goosanders and grey and pied wagtails are all likely birds to see. Walking along the Swale at Hudswell Woods or along the Wharfe downstream of Buckden are both ideal locations.  In spring these species are also joined by common sandpiper, oyster catcher and sand martins. In Wharfedale the surrounding flood plains hold snipe, redshank, lapwing and curlew but more reliable sites will be on the land that is not intensively grazed or cut for silage. Wet scrubby areas may support sedge warbler and in the winter stands of alder are worth scanning for lesser redpole and siskin.

Dippers hunt for invertebrates in the Swale; look for them perched on rocks that break the surface of the water
Dipper
Dippers hunt for invertebrates in the Swale; look for them perched on rocks that break the surface of the water

Malham Tarn

Malham Tarn National Nature Reserve (NNR) is a pocket of fen, raised bog, wet woodland and open water habitat. The surrounding woodland usually holds redstart, flycatchers and other open woodland specialists. Lesser redpole, reed bunting, garden warbler and sedge warbler can be encountered on the NNR boardwalk, the latter two as summer migrants. All five resident owl species have also been recorded here but some luck is required! Mallard, Canada goose, little grebe and tufted duck are all resident on the Tarn but greatest interest here is from visitors which include whooper swan, goldeneye, gadwall and pochard. The inflow bay and outflow is often a good place to look for migrating waders on passage. Although not a bird it’s also worth keeping an eye out for otter, good views can often be had from the bird hide on the north east shoreline.

For winter bird watching Malham Tarn NNR is potentially one of the more exciting locations. Whittled down to our resident birds many of the habitats across the Dales become a lot quieter. However, we do receive big influxes of redwings and fieldfare, and sometimes in competition with our own resident thrushes they swirl around Wharfedale from hawthorn to rowan to blackthorn devouring berries as they go. Short eared owl, woodcock and brambling can all arrive in numbers from the continent also and it’s always worth scanning mixed flocks of tits and finches as you never know what might turn up. Malham Tarn itself is a good place for unexpected visitors, there’s always a chance of something unusual dropping in and spending a few days on the open water, and if not then just relax and enjoy a good walk.