Monday, 1 April 2019

Greeting Goliath and a Scent of Spring

26th Mar.  Today saw Sam and I down at North Shields Fish Quay for a close encounter with Goliath alias the Glaucous Gull.  OK, I can hear you all saying, ‘I’ve been there and done that’, but readers will know we always take a laid- back approach to bird watching and wait until everyone has moved along.  As it happens we weren’t the only birders to have seen this bird for the first time today as we were joined by another interested birdman from Gateshead.

Glaucous Gull

We had had other business before going to North Shields so I didn’t have my camera gear, but Sam had some of his and was able to get some good images, a few that I have included here, So, all images are courtesy of Samuel Hood.

Glaucous Gull

We found the Glaucous Gull not at all phased by the approach of people, cars and machinery, but apparently nervous of approaches from other gulls, so keeping itself very much to itself in that respect.  It certainly wasn’t interested in handouts of fish and chip scraps thrown out by passers-by, but simply stood back and watched whilst other gulls got into a frenzy of feeding.  The Glaucous Gull seemed to watch them with some distain, perhaps feeling it ought to rise above such unseemly street behaviour.  Perhaps I’m allowing anthropomorphism to creep in just a little.

Glaucous Gull

Sam and I spent some time with Goliath and agreed it was probably the best sighting of a Glaucous Gull we have ever had.  Whilst we were there it flew from the roof of the Fish Quay sheds to the wall of the quay carparking area, flew a short way along the river and back and across to South Shields, but it did seem to prefer the company on the north side of the river.  I’m sure it could tell us a few interesting stories of what it has seen already in its relatively short life, and even I can be fascinated by the thoughts of where this bird has been and grant you that some gulls can be very interesting.  Kittiwakes are of course another example and I heard my first Kittiwake calls of the year today and watched as numbers of them flew along the Tyne.  There was also a sizeable flock of Eider Duck on the river.

I’ve always liked North Shields and its community, a place of character and characters and in the main a friendly atmosphere.  Massive changes over recent years of course, but the character remains.

27th Mar.  We decided to visit Druridge today and our first stop was Widdrington Pool which seems to me to be attracting more and more birds.  Throughout our few hours in the area the scent of new growth was in the air, giving a real feeling that spring had arrived despite the grey cloud and cold.  The most distinctive fragrance was that from the Gorse, much of it in flower now and along with Hawthorn blossom there was a touch of bright colour to be found.  I do think Gorse is a far better term than furze, which always suggests to me an old fellow’s stubble.  I’ve noted that there is some rather expensive Gorse fragrance in a bottle for men and women available.  It might be just what some of you birders out there want!  I’ve no wish to smell like a coconut with a touch of citrus, so I’m keeping clear of it.  I’ll save money and simply have a shower!

We had some decent sightings at Widdrington, our best of the day in fact, including 2,000+ Pink Footed Geese in the fields, 12+ Whooper Swans, Great Crested Grebe, 3 Scaup, Kestrel and Common Buzzards flying low along the ridge of the hill opposite.  With many of the waterfowl ready to return to breeding areas it gave the feel of change which was added to by the calling Chiffchaff.

Chatting away we missed the turn off for Druridge Country Park and so ended up at Hauxley by accident.  We didn’t stay long, but it was good to see the numbers of Tree Sparrows.  For some reason or other the birds remaining in mind are Lesser Black backed Gull and Long tailed Tit.  The car-park was almost full so something is being done correctly on the reserve, perhaps it’s the tea and cakes.

From Druridge Country Park we looked over East Chevington North Pool.  Along with a lone dark bellied Brent Goose, a lone Sandwich Tern spotted only by Sam and more Great Crested Grebes we found a few other species of wildfowl and heard Water Rail and Little Grebe.  A quick look out over the sea brought us sightings of a couple of Red Throated Divers.

Having taken a break for a bite to eat at the Drift café, yes we were able to get in on this occasion, we passed a Grey Partridge on the wall near Cresswell Pond as we made for Druridge Pools which once again we found very quiet, with no waders to be seen except an odd Curlew.  There was plenty of pairs of Shoveler too, engaged in circular feeding.  Sadly, we may have missed the Bewick Swan in a field of Mute Swans, the former being reported the following day.

Cresswell Pond was quiet again too, but we managed to count 8 Avocets.  A stop at Newbiggin brought us nothing of real interest and it was then homeward bound from what we judged to be a quiet day.  A later count showed that we had still managed to list 65 species today.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Spring Equinox in Wild Northumbria

20th Mar.  It was the spring equinox today and our plan was as much to explore some wilder areas in Northumberland.  We soon found that a watch over Harwood Forest from Winter’s Gibbet was probably not going to offer much in the way of reward as the wind blew and we veiwed low cloud in poor light.  It wasn’t meant to be like this.  Skylarks sang and a few Meadow Pipits were seen, as I imagined how bleak it must have been when Mr Winter’s body hung here in 1792.  We moved along quite quickly with the intention of making a return later.  Several Common Buzzards had been seen on our outward journey and continued to be seen during the day.

Wild Northumbria

The sky had cleared a little and there was even a sign of the sun by the time we took a walk at Fontburn Reservoir.  Redpolls were heard as we left the carpark for a walk and numbers of woodland birds were seen, including Long Tailed Tits.  Skylarks continued to sing.  Perhaps the most interesting sighting was of the Wren displaying which brought back memories of the pair of Wrens I once watched fight almost to the death.  Cormorants, Oystercatchers and Lapwings were seen and I caught sight of a bird high on the ridge which I wondered if it could have been a Little Owl, but there was no certainty there.  This is certainly a site for a return visit.  Peacock Butterflies were seen, but not for long enough to photograph. A return visit to Harwood brought no extra sightings other than a Kestrel.  Sam had had a very good sighting of Goshawk here a few days earlier.

Winter's Gibbet

Our best sighting of the day was of at least 90 Whooper Swans on Sweethope Lough.    A stunning sight even though we had to watch from the road and through the trees.  Little Grebe was heard here.  I’ve recently learned that Sweethope was once owned by the industrialist Charles Parsons who is buried in Kirkwhelpington Churchyard, only a few miles away.  C A Parsons was founded 130 years ago and in 1968 employed 16,000 staff at the Heaton Works.  Makes me wonder where everyone works these days!  My father was employed at Parsons all his working life and as a child I used to enjoy looking at the Turbinia, built by Parsons, when it was in the museum in the Exhibition Park.  It can still be seen in Newcastle.

      But now they drift on the still water,
      Mysterious, beautiful;
      Among what rushes will they build,
      By what lake's edge or pool
      Delight men's eyes when I awake some day
      To find they have flown away?
      Wild Swans at Coole/W B Yeats

Next stop was the River Wansbeck at Wallington, although on this occasion we didn’t visit the gardens and hall.  A walk from Paine’s Bridge along the river brought sightings of Dipper, my first of the year, and a pair of Grey Wagtail.  The woodland here was holding high numbers of Nuthatch, many were heard and some seen.  A pair of Treecreeper was also seen and at 13.10 hours precisely a Tawny Owl give out a call.  High on my reading list for 2019 is a book by Laura Trevelyn, The Trevelyn’s and Their World.  It was after the death of local politician Charles Trevelyan, that the Wallington Hall estate was passed to the National Trust.

Paine's Bridge

As we drove away from Wallington I noticed that the weather was taking a turn for the worse and mist and rain soon set in so we passed Colt Crag Reservoir, but didn’t stop, although thought it an area well worth exploring in the future.

Capheaton was our last stop of the day as I wanted Sam to see the lake here, which is part of Capheaton Hall estate where Algernon Swinburne the poet used to visit his grandfather and who was also a regular visitor to Wallington Hall.  My brother lived at Capheaton some years ago so I know the area quite well.  Birds we found on the lake included 2 Whooper Swans, Wigeon, Tufted Duck and Goldeneye.  Our first Chiffchaff of the year was heard calling here too.

We left for home in what can only be described as inclement weather, and drove along Silver Hill.  The name Silver Hill may refer to the hoard of Roman silver, though to be possibly from a temple, found here in the eighteenth century.  Much of the treasure was melted down soon afterwards, but some of it remains in the British Museum.  I remember when Silver Hill held a line of massive trees which in leaf was quite a stunning sight along the road edge and it was always a good area to find fungi.  The trees had to be cut down because of disease and what remains now seems to be in the main Silver Birch Trees.
Whilst a shame that the weather changed for the worse it had been a good interesting day and we will return.

   The swallows of dreams through its dim fields dart,
   And sleep's are the tunes in its tree-tops heard;
   No hound's note wakens the wildwood hart,
  Only the song of a secret bird.
   Algernon Swinburne

Monday, 25 February 2019

Tranquillity, Light, Borders, Raptors and Ring-necked Duck

24th Feb.  Sam and I decided to leave behind the fog and a probable busy coastline, we guessed Lindisfarne would be especially busy over half term so decided against a visit and instead headed west to the less inhabited and more rugged inlands of Northumberland, and as it turned out Cumbria too.  Our journey began in fog and it wasn’t until we were well along the A69 and the Tyne Valley that the sunlight began to break through.  We found a Peregrine Falcon flying into trees close to the road, a Kestrel, a flock of Whooper Swans flying north and the first of many Lapwings to be seen today.  We found ourselves in and out of fog as we proceeded along the Tyne Valley until we eventually found more permanent sunlight.  Once on the moors the light was bright, the air quite still and in sheltered areas warm.

We’d certainly left the crowds behind us and were able to enjoy the calls and songs of birds in peaceful surroundings.  Perhaps the most noticeable song was that from the numerous Skylarks, but other notable calling came from Red Grouse, Lapwings and Curlews.  The open moors and brilliant light gave a feeling of real freedom.  I was surprised at the large number of Lapwings mainly in two sizable flocks and the numbers of Red Grouse showing well at times.

We spent two periods on the high moors, the periods been split by some time spent on lower ground in search of the reported Ring-necked Duck.  We were unable to find it on the pond, but amongst numerous wildfowl we did find at least six Whooper Swans here.  A Kestrel was watched hunting nearby and Sam caught sight of a flock of distant Golden Plover.  Fieldfare were also seen.

On return to the moors it wasn’t long before we had a decent but quite brief sighting of a Hen Harrier (ringtail) hunting in very typical harrier habitat.  Merlin was also seen at some distance and I watched it swoop towards a crow and disappear behind the mounds, not to be seen again by me at any rate.  Our raptor count was doing well but we had been unable to sight the recently reported Rough Legged Buzzard or at least we can’t be sure.  A buzzard was seen briefly at great distance but it was possibly Common Buzzard.  We’ll never be certain.  We continued to enjoy the other bird life, especially the Lapwings, which when lifting with a flock of Starlings had put us onto the Merlin.  The sound of Skylark and Red Grouse continued to fill the clear air.  Well at least clear until the smoke from heather burning began to fill the air.  If we hadn’t seen the initial burning sites and been able to smell the smoke in the air we could have mistakenly believed there was haze in the air.  It didn’t spoil the atmosphere, but one must question what on earth this does to the environment!  One of the sightings of the day for me was a Raven seen well.  It flew off eastwards, but later Raven calls were heard.

Retracing our tracks we returned to lower ground and eventually crossed the border into Cumbria.  At the Hamlet of Tindale, we found Siskin in the trees.  Deciding not to walk from here to Tindale Tarn and having seen the sign ‘Bull in Field’ I can only express relief at that!  Instead we made off to Geltsdale RSPB Reserve.  On arrival we found the car-park full.  This surprised me as on previous visits there has never been anyone else about.  We ate our lunch and then set off for a walk towards the centre and Tindale Tarn.  At this point the light was still good so when Sam found the Ring-necked Duck on the tarn accompanied by four Pochard, even at great distance we had a fine sighting.  We were later told by a local birder, the only ‘real’ birder we came across on the reserve, that although present on the tarn off and on since January, the Ring-necked Duck is a first for Geltsdale reserve.  On the way along the path we managed much closer sightings and found a Peacock Butterfly, our first butterfly of 2019.  When we were at the reserve a few years ago we had also had our first sighting of a butterfly for the year, on that occasion a Small Tortoiseshell.  Other birds on the tarn included Goldeneye, Tufted Duck and Mute Swan.  On our return walk we walked with a couple who had been in the hills all day.  Having seen few people on the reserve I assumed most of the parked cars had held walkers rather than birders.  There were in fact few birds about but we intend to return later in the year and in any case we had our Ring-necked Duck on the list!  During our visit to the reserve I had enjoyed some moments of complete silence, a rare opportunity these days even in the countryside wilderness.

By now the light had changed again as clouds had almost filled the sky.  It was time to make our return home, but not before we had stopped at Grindon Lough back in Northumberland.  Even in the duller light we enjoyed our time in Hadrian’s Wall country and during our time at the lough the cloud cleared to give us wonderful, if a little weaker, lighting conditions.  The air was again filled with bird calls, this time in the main they were calls from Canada Geese, Wigeon and Curlews but just before leaving we heard the mewing call of Common Buzzard.  Again, there were numbers of Lapwing in the area and a Sparrowhawk had been seen on the way to the lough, giving us quite a list of raptors today (six species).  We also added Pink Footed Geese to our list a few seen both on the ground and in the air amongst the Greylag and Canada Geese.  It was still very mild when we left Grindon Lough having spoken to two birders whilst checking we had missed nothing of rarity.

Hard to believe it is still February, but I’m not complaining.  We had without doubt made a good decision to head inland and keep away from the busy coastline.  It had been a very special day in my two favourite counties of England.  Bird of the Day?  Well that title must go to the Ring-necked Duck, a very attractive bird indeed, but it did have some stiff competition!

Monday, 18 February 2019

Not Quite Spring at Druridge

17th Feb.  Despite the sunshine and song from Skylarks, stepping into the air at Widdrington Pool today gave the first unsubtle hint that bird watching in tee-shirts wasn’t on the menu.  I was still cold despite putting on outer layers and my hat.  The highlights here were the juvenile Peregrine Falcon and probably the largest flock of geese I’ve seen in Northumberland this year.  In the fields north of the pool, they were mainly Pink Footed Geese, but may have included other species, too far away to identify.  The bleak area held enough birds to keep our interest including a sizable flock of Wigeon, Goldeneye, Red Breasted Mergansers and calling Goldcrest.  A Great Crested Grebe was changing into breeding plumage.  I’m now reading my copy of The Peregrine Falcon purchased when I was in the SOC centre at Aberlady, signed by Derek Ratcliffe in 1980, so I felt that it was apt that we saw the peregrine today.

In comparison to the bleakness we left behind, it seemed almost balmy at East Chevington.  The Pintail on North Pool took little finding as there was little else on the water.  The walk to the burn warmed us a little more and we found Meadow Pipit, a sizable flock of Sanderling and a flock of thirty-five Ringed Plovers.  We chatted about the possible uses of a grant to improve the area.  I’ve always liked this area anyway, but my priority would be to improve control of water levels (very high in North Pool at present), not to bring in rarities, but for birds in general.  The rarities would in any case follow.  Of course, the hides could do with replacing too, but I don’t envy the folk who must put their mind to indestructible hides in this area, probably an unrealistic prospect!  Thankfully I am guessing the grants will not be enough for such things as centres to be built, and that is a blessing in my opinion.  A centre would spell café or restraunt and that the area can certainly do without.

Our next stop was the Drift Café, yeah OK, so I’m a hypocrite!  Serves me right that the place was so packed we couldn’t get in and had to later make do with our sandwiches and crisps up by Druridge Pools.  From the open hide we faced the winds to search without luck for the Green Winged Teal.  I decided that this hide is the worst one I can remember for birding from when it’s windy.  When we moved to the hide at the north end we still had to face winds, but at least here we eventually had a good sighting of the Green Winged Teal that we had been after.  There were certainly plenty of Teal about, Curlews, Shoveler and Black Tailed Godwit et al.  Water Rail was heard.  Druridge Pools were looking more like they ought to, having been very quiet on some recent visits, although the pool at the north end was unproductive.

By the time we arrived at Cresswell Pond the winds were getting stronger and the water was almost up to the hide.  Not looking too welcoming for returning Avocets!  Apart from a Reed Bunting visiting a feeder the hedges leading down to the hide were absent of birds as was the pond, apart from a Little Grebe (there was another on the smaller pool) near the hide and the odd Goldeneye, Mallard and Tufted Duck.  All the other birds present had sought sanctuary on the west side of the pond, and these included Lapwing, Oystercatcher, Dunlin, Curlew, Wigeon and Teal et al.

We’d seen Common Buzzard and Kestrels to add to the raptor list today, and we'd seen a number of flocks and skeins of geese (mainly Pink Footed Geese), but overall it seemed very quiet and the birding was somewhat affected by wind to the extent our day proved rather short.  I’m looking forward to enjoying the warm weather I’m told we are having!

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Holywell After Rain

7th Jan.  I was up and eager to leave for Holywell before sunrise, but once I had heard the forecast for drier weather around 10.00am it seemed more appropriate to delay my walk until a little later.  I arrived at Holywell just before 10.00am and just as the rain was ceasing.  I have recently had cause to discuss walking repeatedly in familiar surroundings, and it is something that I believe can be enjoyed to the full rather than becoming boring.  I find myself watching for changes from day to day and season to season and giving thought to the historical aspects of the areas I walk in, especially in respect to those who have trodden the area over the years, often no doubt because of need rather than simply pleasure.  Anyway, today began with the good intentions of walking down to St Mary’s Island, a walk I have completed on many occasions and always enjoyed.  Good intentions are not always achieved and today was one of those times.

On arrival and finding Curlews feeding in the field alongside Canada Geese, a Great Spotted Woodpecker fly into the trees next to me, and much in the way of bird calling and song, I was optimistic that there could to be much to be found today.  My optimism dropped somewhat once in the members hide and finding an almost deserted pond outside.  From my place on the bench I could see a pair of Mute Swans, a single Teal, Mallards and a few Tufted Duck and I find, as I have said before, that the area directly out side of the hide is not what it used to be, although there was a Pheasant here today along with Moorhen and a few tits and a Wren.  I had seen a Common Buzzard on a fence as I walked towards the hide and on looking to see what had disturbed the gulls and Lapwings near to the public hide, I saw what was likely the same Common Buzzard stretching its wings whilst perched on the fence.  It would have made a good photo had I been much closer.  The white boards behind me had written on them something along the lines of ‘mark sightings here’, under which there was nothing at all written.  I waited a while in the hope that something else might appear on or over the water, but saw nothing else of note.  I’ve has some excellent sightings from this hide over the years, but not today. 

Walking down to the public hide I found that the Common Buzzard had left and apart from a few more gulls, Teal and a single Grey Heron on the island, I found nothing else to add to what had been seen previously.  I didn’t see the Buzzard again but throughout my time in the area I did hear Buzzards calling from time to time.
A skein of Pink-footed Geese flew eastwards as I continued the walk and a skein of Canada Geese flew towards the pond.  By now I realised I wasn’t feeling on top of the world which maybe explained my ‘cup half empty’ attitude, and so I decided to call off my walk to St Mary’s Island and instead concentrate my efforts in the fields north of the dene and in the eastern end of the dene in search of my target bird, the Dipper as I had reasoned that given  a little time I would more than likely find it here.  On the Avenue I had a rather nice encounter with a pair of Bullfinches feeding on the brambles.  The female being much the most confiding of the pair.  Without any scientific study to back me up, I would make a guess that the Bullfinch as a species has done quite well locally in recent years.  I base that idea simply on the numbers I now see.     I felt rather happier having watched the Bullfinches and photographed the female.

Bullfinch (female)

I walked a good way northward into the fields and with the wind in my face.  I found little to nothing until a small flock of calling Fieldfare flew overhead.  The bright yellow of the gorse added some cheer to barren surroundings.  Then later as I walked southward towards the dene I found the flock of Reed Bunting flying from feeding in the field to the hedge where I had seen them on my last visit.  On this occasion they were accompanied by a Yellowhammer.  As I walked along the path they lifted on several occasions to stay a reasonable distance ahead of me until they eventually doubled back to the feeding spot.  Then I met the mud, which was to stay with me of and on throughout my time in the dene.

Area almost devoid of birds.

Gorse at least gave some colour.

Whilst the dene still has that winter look about it there also seemed to be a feel of coming spring.  Nuthatch calls were the first sounds to greet me as I made my way to the culvert.  I stopped in this area for a bite to eat and watched for signs of Dipper.  Of course, I know they may well be nesting at this time of year.  I heard no Dipper song and had no sightings.  I decided after a while to walk up stream thinking this would give me my best chances of a sighting and at least the water turned out to be clearer here.  I watched for a while at the other side of the culvert where I had good sightings of Grey Wagtail.  A pair of Mallard were settled in the area too.  Still no Dipper so I carried on walking eastward checking out all the likely rocky areas.  I did find the likely looking white markings left by Dippers, but no birds.  I was walking carefully on the muddy banked paths as I feared slipping and ending up in the burn.

Grey Wagtail

I eventually called it a day having developed an aching back and a very sore toe, but despite my aches and failure I felt more cheerful after my walk.  I made off home with Dipper still not on my year list, but at least now the sun was shining and it was quite warm.  I must complete the full walk down to St Mary’s Island soon.

Just before leaving the dene I spoke with a local who seemed quite taken aback that he had seen a Common Buzzard over the village area.  This is certainly not the first-time locals have expressed surprise on seeing this species.  Common Buzzards have been around this area for all the years I have walked here so the surprise shown is strange.

Friday, 1 February 2019

Industry Meets Nature and Three Species of Owl

31st Jan.  January 2019 really has delivered an outstanding month of birding as far as I’m concerned, with days of brilliant winter light showing some wonderful species at their very best.  Sam and I have put in the effort, often in freezing temperatures, and it has paid dividends, and I can’t remember a better January in terms of my bird sightings.  It has been a month that will take some beating.  As Mick Jagger once sang ‘it’s all over now’ and it ended with a trip south into industrial Teesside and a visit to RSPB Saltholme and Teesmouth.  My first visit to Saltholme was prior to work beginning on the centre, which was then simply a pile of mud.  At that time, I remember many critical comments being made by birders about RSPB plans.  I’ve not heard any such comment recently!  Having not visited for some time I was pleasantly surprised at how the reserve is developing and we were certainly given a warm welcome by staff/volunteers on arrival.  Surrounded by what is left of industrial Teesside, and there is still a great deal, this reserve has a rather surreal feel about it, especially on such a clear winter’s day.  The industrial surroundings are an attractive sight in their own way, which I know some people will understand and others will not.  To watch flocks of waterfowl flying across a background of chimneys, pipes, girders and rising smoke is to my mind an exciting and attractive picture, almost as rewarding as watching over the Solway or similar areas of ‘wild’.

Wrapped in multiple layers of clothing we headed off towards the area of scrub which holds the Long-Eared Owls, passing by several frozen pools.  In my eagerness to get to the scrub area I perhaps overlooked some waterfowl, but the vast majority seemed to me to be Wigeon and Teal with lesser numbers of Shoveler, Mallard, Pochard, Tufted Duck and Canada Geese.  I’d previously noted a skein of Greylag Geese.  As we searched for the official viewing point for the Long-Eared Owl, we found a hunting Kestrel, but better still a Barn Owl, initially being harassed by a Carrion Crow.  The Barn Owl eventually showed well and took our minds off the frustration of not yet having found the viewing point.  We did find it quite quickly although the RSPB guide had apparently left for his lunch, so it was left to us and a few folks who joined us to find what was proving to be an elusive Long Eared Owl.  As we looked another guy rang his colleague to ask for some exact directions as to where to look.  Eventually the roosting Long Eared Owl was found, as is soften the case with this species, it was so well camouflaged some folk were having a problem seeing it even through the scope.  Well, not my best sighting of Long Eared Owl, but we at least saw it and I’m happy with that.  Sam scanned for more owls, we knew more had been seen, but no more were found.  By now, my umpteen layers were working too well as I stood in the sun and still air and I became too warm, perhaps it was having sightings of two owl species in such a short space of time that made me sweat.  During our search Sam had seen a Weasel.  We eventually made off towards the centre again, me suggesting that what we needed now was Short Eared Owl.


Along the way we had an overhead calling Common Snipe, a skein of Barnacle Geese flying above Canada Geese, Stonechat, Fieldfare, Linnets, Goldfinch and Greenfinch et al.  We had limited time as we wanted to get along to Seal Sands so we gave the main frozen pool a miss.  We were informed that a Water Vole was showing well so we shot into the hide to watch shifting, still frosted grasses being moved around, probably some nest weaving going on inside what was obviously the Water Vole’s nest which in its self was of interest with an opening clearly visible for entry, a worn pathway towards it and a clear slide like pathway to the pool from the nest.  The Water Vole showed on several occasions, but I found getting a sharp image of it non-too easy.  Another guy with a mega lens complained that it was all too close for him and he gave up!  I can’t remember seeing a Water Vole since 1971 when I visited Beamish Museum in its opening year!  I do remember having been told years ago that one of the objectives that the RSPB had set for Saltholme was that it ought to have a healthy population of Water Voles.  I’m glad that this objective has met with at least some success and it certainly, to me, makes more sense than rewilding ideas of Lynx and Wolves, ideas that have been put about recently.  Perhaps best to concentrate on the more realistically achievable (with success) than spend time on the more difficult, especially giving that the latter  would require a change of attitude from many.  While we watched for the Water Vole, a Water Rail showed well on the ice and flew directly in front of the hide to the reeds before making that unusual ‘alarming’ call that it has.
We took lunch in the restraunt where once again staff where very friendly although my soup was rather tepid.  It was good to see the restraunt quiet and almost everyone out on the reserve, it proves to be so often the other way around.

Water Vole at nest

Wanting to spend our last hour in the area at Greatham Creek and Seal Sands we made off in that direction and once parked up in the car park, much changed since my last visit, we found right away at least twelve Common Seals lying out in mud, plus more Shoveler.  We walked down to the hide from where we saw little on the water apart from Red Breasted Mergansers and Shelduck, although way in the distance there were many more Shelduck along with other birds impossible to make out. A single Grey Seal was seen in the water and more Common Seals had been seen in the creek.  Waders seen around this area included some nice sightings of Black Tailed Godwits, Oystercatcher, Redshank and Curlew.  A Grey Heron flew towards the bridge and Lapwing were numerous.  The pools here were in the main still frozen.

Whilst in the hide we saw that Hen Harrier had been recorded the previous day and I felt that the reed-beds opposite looked the perfect spot for one to roost.  We never did see this species, but as we were preparing to take the walk back towards the car park, there was insufficient time to tackle the Long Drag, Sam got his eye on a Short-Eared Owl quartering the reed-bed I had been watching.  So, we did end up having a decent sighting of a Short-Eared Owl as I had hoped for, this been the third owl species of the day for us.

So, where industry meets nature can have its rewards, that I have never doubted.  Whilst the frozen ponds perhaps kept the days list down, what we had seen were once again quality sightings.  A great way to end a great month.  We could have done with a bit more time as we were aware of other species that we could have tracked down, but you can’t do everything, at least not if you want to enjoy what you do see, and there is always next time.

As I type I can almost feel the sun on my face (which is a positive feeling as it’s now snowing), and hear the skein of barking Barnacle Geese, whistling Wigeon and the evocative calls of the Curlew and Lapwing.  Can anyone not be excited by nature?  Oh, and by the way well done RSPB, you don’t by any means get everything right, but when you do you do so very well.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Border Crossing in Search of Scoters

28th Jan.  Rising at 6.00am on a cold winter’s morning is not my usual pattern of behaviour, but by 8.00am Sam and I were braving the icy cold temperatures as we stood atop of Cheswick Dunes on the Northumbrian coast watching the sea for signs of Black Scoter.  A sighting wasn’t to be and all that was seen over the sea was a lone Guillemot and a Red Throated Diver.  Nevertheless, our short vigil was worth it if only to see the sun rising, the Cheviots lit by early morning light and breath in that biting air.  A flock of Greylag Geese were in the field adjoining the car parking space and we gradually warmed up as we travelled further north towards the border, Musselburgh, East Lothian being our objective.  We noted Common Buzzards and skeins of Pink-Footed Geese along the way, the latter giving a real feeling of winter as they drew letters in the clear sky.  It didn’t seem long before we were admiring distant views of Bass Rock and the Island of May.  The corpse of a Badger was seen on the road, sadly quite a regular sighting these days.

Bar Tailed Godwit

Bar Tailed Godwit

We were soon parking up near the sea wall at Musselburgh having passed by Wigeon on the bank of the river.   We began our walk along by the sea wall by watching waders in the still bitingly cold air.  Oystercatcher was the most numerous species and small flocks of them were in flight over the sea throughout our walk.  Also seen were Ringed Plover, Grey Plover in numbers, Knot, Sanderling, Turnstone, Redshank, Bar-Tailed Godwit and Curlew.  Flocks of Goldeneye were close to shore on the water and their colours showed brilliantly in the clear air and sunlight.  I’ve completed this walk on several occasions over the years, but never have I found it so cold as today and I was thankful for the little warmth there was from the sun in sheltered areas.  There were only a few hardy folks about until later in the morning.




It wasn’t long before we were having close and stunning sightings of Velvet Scoter, about in some number.  There were no Common Scoters to be seen.  We searched the flocks of Velvet Scoter for the reported Surf Scoter, but it remained elusive.  There were some very good sightings made of Long Tailed Duck and a single Great Crested Grebe was found as well as the Eider Ducks and Red Breasted Mergansers.  Rock Pipits occasionally lifted from the sea wall or flew close by it.  We spoke to a photographer who had taken images of Velvet Scoter and he asked us to identify what they were.  I was watching over the sea just before we turned off to visit the lagoons and I suddenly realised that I was surrounded by people.  It seemed to be a group being led by maybe the RSPB.

Ringed Plover

Our visit to the lagoons was cut short when we found them frozen solid and holding only a Wigeon and two or three Curlews.  The lagoons were originally created by Scottish Power as a place to dump fly ash from a local power station and now offer a good bird watching site, but not on this occasion.

By the time of our return walk the tide was way out and the waders more dispersed.  Sam may have had a distant and brief sighting of Slavonian Grebe, but chose not to count it as a definite sighting.  We had been surprised not to have seen any of this species.  On our way to Aberlady we stopped for another look over the sea but found little.  Then a visit to the golf course found us and one or two other birders failing to find any sign of the reported Shore Larks.  Our next stop was at the SOC Centre at Waterston House where I enjoyed looking at the books and gaining some warmth.  I couldn’t resist parting with some cash in exchange for a signed first edition of Derek Ratcliffe’s Peregrine Falcon (Poyser).  It’s been on my list of wants for a while.
We decided to miss out the walk at Aberlady in search of Short Eared Owls and make straight for Gullane Point before the light faded.  We’d heard there was a large concentration of Common Scoter just off shore here and that it contained a Surf Scoter.  Once parked up we tried three pathways before we found one that gave us decent height for viewing flock of Common Scoter which seemed to mount to 2/3,000.  Along the way we saw Fieldfare and heard Stonechat.  It became apparent why we saw no Common Scoter at Musselburgh, they were all here!  No easy task finding a Surf Scoter amongst this raft of birds, but Sam managed it.  I could not initially get my eye on it but persevered and once found wondered how on earth it could be missed.  To use the birding parlance ‘a cracking sighting’, a lifer for Sam and a UK first for me.  It was almost like a lifer for me, because although I saw many of the coast of Vancouver in 2001, they really are just names on a list and I don’t have any real memory of them.  This Surf Scoter at Gullane will not be forgotten.  The fact I did eventually find it prevented any tension on the way home!!! ha ha.  There were a few Velvet Scoter amongst the larger raft of Common Scoter.

Bay at Gullane

A last visit was made again to the golf course at Kilspindie in another attempt (failed) for Shore Lark.  Pied Wagtail and Tree Sparrows on the feeders were the best things on offer and no one else we spoke to had had any luck.  Sam pondered over the name Aberlady and wondered if it had any religious or romantic derivation.  I’ve since looked it up and it is in fact derived from Gaelic, Obar Lobhtach/Lobhaite, meaning Rotten River Mouth.

The light was now dimming and so we made off on the two-hour journey home passing the odd flock of Pink Footed Geese.  The temperature reached zero, the bright reddening mass of sky gave way to darkness and the roads had been gritted near home.  Frost was beginning to set in.  It had been a great day in great surroundings on both sides of the border and we had almost forgotten our failure to find Black Scoter this morning.

Sad News. 
As I was typing this report Sam called me to let me know that he had read that our friend Brian Robson had died earlier this month.  We have both known Brian for several years.  My own first meeting with Brian took place during a time when Birdforum was in its heyday and there were local birding trips arranged, very much a thing of the past now as is my involvement in the forum.  I think the first outing that I saw Brian on was when we watched for Roseate Terns at St Mary’s Island.  In his younger years I think Brian had been a bit of a ‘twitcher’, but more recently his views of birdwatching were more in line with my own and he concentrated on his local patch at Killy and St Marys Island.  He was a good knowledgeable birder and a good man and I know he often read my blog.  Brian’s knowledge went back many years and I remember him telling me about his early bird watching at the Rising Sun when it was managed to encourage birds.  My last meetings with him were over tins of food in Morrison’s as we did our shopping.  You will be missed Brian.  RIP.