Thursday, 19 April 2018

A Tale of Two Feathers

I’ve been quite neglectful of the blog recently and thought I ought to get something written.  In part my neglect has been down to the fact I’m involved in leading a series of presentations at the Rising Sun Country Park which are aimed at people new to bird watching including some of the wardens who had shown interest.  The images that I’m using are in the main provided by Samuel Hood, so it is a joint effort and in fact Sam is leading the next with what promises to be a very interesting presentation.  If it is all a success, and folk seem to be enjoying it up to now, the whole thing may be repeated, and I understand we have a few names listed of interested parties who were unable to get a place this time around.  Another reason for my absence from the blog is simply lack of birding recently.

I’ve for some time now been thinking of putting a talk together concerning feathers, a very interesting and fascinating subject in my view, but I’ve yet to get around to doing this.  I did in my opening presentation last week include some information on feathers and it is one of the links I keep going throughout the talks.  I was able to include some information on the avian relationship to dinosaurs, another fascinating subject in its self.  I had a selection of feathers at hand of course, and two had special stories behind them.

The first tale/feather involved a trip taken many years ago to the Cairngorm area of Scotland.  This was and, although I haven’t been up there for some time, remains a favourite area of mine, not least because of some of the speciality birds of the area.  The real pleasure the trips provided was often getting out before sunrise with the son of a friend of mine, Lee who I still occasionally bird with.  We’d begin about 5.00am and often not see another person until afternoon.  On one of these early mornings we were determined to find ourselves a Capercaillie by walking the tracks of Abernethy Forest.  We did find a female Capercaillie and did have a short sighting as it flew into the forest.  We never did find a male and it was some years after that I saw my first wild Capercaillie males at the viewing site at Loch Garten.  The search was never the less always exciting and did bring other rewards.  We passed by a very large black feather, and yes, I should have known its significance!  The following day we decided to leave early in the morning once again, but this time we visited one of my favourite walking areas around Loch an Eilein (Loch of the Island) in Rothiemurchus Forest.  We almost always found Crested Tits and Crossbills in this area and on at least one occasion watched an Osprey fish here.  The island was one of the last refuges of Osprey prior to extinction in Scotland and they haven’t returned to this nest site.  The nest was a target for egg collectors and there are several stories about this.  We looked in at the small building which at the time held a few natural curiosities and found a feather exactly the same as the one we had seen the previous day.  It was a Capercaillie feather, and no I certainly don’t have that one!

It was raining the next morning and we had planned a later start anyway, but instead of getting a few hours extra sleep we got going again about 5.00am and set off to find the feather we had passed by.  For some reason the walk seemed much longer, and I began to think we were going to be out of luck, but we did find it and it found a new home with Lee.  Lee has since passed it on to Sam.  I’m happy to say I’ve since had close encounters with male Capercaillies and occasionally with the feather.

The second tale/feather relates to a more recent find, this time the adventure was in Finland.  Sam and I had starts as early as 4.00am o this trip but I don’t recall this particular morning being such an early start, but it did involve a rather difficult walk through forest to a Great Grey Owl nest.  Finding the Great Grey Owl on the nest is one of my best ever wildlife experiences.  We were lucky enough to have as our leaders Killian Mullarney and Dick Forsman.  Dick had become aware of Sam’s keenness so was always at pains to point things out and give an explanation, so it was good that he was at hand when Sam came across this particular feather.  It was found not far from the Great Grey Owls nest and turned out to be from a Goshawk.  Dick explained the pattern on the feather showed that it was from the Russian stock and quite different from what would be found on a British or Western European bird.  Another participant claimed that she had seen the feather first, but as she had shown no inclination to pick it up, if she thought Sam was going to pass it over to her she soon found out that that was not to be!  The feather remains a prize possession of Sam’s.

Happily, these two feathers and several others seemed to capture the attention and imagination of the participants last week.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Double Day...Ducking, Diving and Plodging at Druridge and Lindisfarne

7th Mar.  The road down to East Chevington North Pool has been done no favours by the recent severe weather.  More potholes than ever and pre-existing small ones have grown.  The whole area looked badly hit by the weather.  Happily spring was once again in the air and the sounds that greeted us on arrival was the calling of Reed Buntings, a pair was seen in the hedge by the flooded car-parking area, singing Skylarks and calling geese, in the main Pink-footed Geese.  We walked to the mouth of the Chevington Burn which has once again changed course in the forever moving sand and no doubt melting snow accounted for the fact that it was running deeply and fast towards the sea.  The sand banked up at the sides of the burn was every now and again crumbling and it felt that we were watching geological change in action, which of course we were.  Surprisingly not even Pied Wagtails were feeding on the sea litter on the beach, but we did watch a large raft of Common Scoter directly in front of us and close to the tidal edge.  Ringed Plover and Sanderling were on the shore at the tideline and Eider Duck, Red Throated Diver and Guillemot were amongst birds seen and there was also a possible sighting of Black-throated Diver, but that is surrounded with some uncertainty.  Watching from so low down did not help with identification, nor did the waves and the diving and the diver quickly disappeared.  Flocks of Oystercatcher flew by.  We both agreed how good it was to be out again in relatively mild conditions.  As we walked back and along the path between the dunes and North Pool a single Scaup was seen on the otherwise quiet pool that did not appear to hold anything out of the ordinary, although numbers of Goldeneye remain.

On our way to Druridge Pools we watched five Common Buzzards as they displayed over the fields south of North Pool.  One of these birds was especially active.
We were to have another try for these Water Pipits at Druridge Pools.  As I joked that we might not get to the hide we found just how true that was to be the case.  The place was flooded.  We were aware of floods, especially further north and so should have known better and taken out Wellington Boots.  At least we could hear the whistling Wigeon and watch through the trees from the road side.  I took some comfort in a fellow birder telling us he had visited 10 times before seeing the Water Pipits.  The other path was also flooded, and in any event, we were feeling hungry so made off to the café, but not before being reminded about the two Great Northern Divers on the pool at Widdrington Moor and being told that a Marsh Harrier had shown there today too.

Well fed we moved off to the hide at Cresswell Pond.  After having passed here several times in recently in conditions not conducive to birding, it was good to find the place a little more settled, in sunlight and with even a bit of mud showing.  Also, good to see a knowledgeable youngster in there with his mum, both avidly watching.  By now we had seen large numbers of Pink-footed Geese, Greylag Geese and Canada Geese and here we found my first Lesser Black Backed Gull of the year and large flocks of Teal and Wigeon.  No sign of an Avocet when we were there.  I enjoyed the time in the hide which I had not visited for some time.  I remember reading that a judgement was to be made by the 5th March about the proposed plans for the Banks Opencast Site.  Have I missed something or have things been bogged down in the usual red tape and delays? 

Great Northern Diver courtesy of Samuel Hood (Scoped)

Anyway, we didn’t forget the Great Northern Divers and took a drive to the moor where we had an excellent sighting of what turned out to be bird of the day.  It was like spring now as we stood at the side of the road and enjoyed the sunshine as well as the divers.  An excellent day as per usual, but no sign of a Marsh Harrier for us.

Colourful Lapwing.  To many folk see things in only black and white!

11th Mar.  After the dismal weather of yesterday it was good to see the sun shining as we left for Lindisfarne.  The usual wonderful light was met as we arrived at the island and oh how different it was from the freezing conditions of our previous visit.  We set off along the lonnen and possibly because of the flooded conditions had the area to ourselves for most of the time as we tried to dodge the puddles.  A plodge was occasionally necessary, the waterproof boots going a good job.  We’d been met at the car park by a stunningly marked Lapwing and the sound of Skylarks, Curlews and Oystercatchers.  The song of Skylark was to accompany us for much of the walk, although in general it was a very quiet day in terms of bird numbers.  It was nevertheless an excellent walk and having completed it I felt I had earned my bacon sandwich, piece of cake and bottle of a type of coke that tasted more like ginger beer, very nice.  The walk had ben enhanced by the sight of a group of 14 Roe Deer (I honestly don’t remember having seen such numbers together in Northumberland before), my first Rabbit and Frogs of the year.  Best sighting was of the Brent Geese with the priory in the background.  The island is one of my favourite places in Northumberland and I enjoy the fact that no matter how many visitors are converging it is always possible to get away from the maddening crowd and find one’s own space.

Some plonker plodging along the lonnen

A look across one of the bays and out to see brought sightings of Great Northern Diver, Red Throated Diver, Eider Duck and Red-breasted Merganser.  It was noticeable by now that mist was encroaching from the sea and it wasn’t long before temperatures plummeted considerably.  We noticed that a good deal of work has been done to protect the pool on the island from Otters and Foxes.  Sadly the only birds on the pool at the time we were there was one Coot and one Red-breasted Merganser.  Behind the pool ducks could be seen and included Wigeon, Teal and ShovelerWe continued our walk and enjoyed watching the Brent Geese before making back to the village and preparing to set off for a stop at Fenham Flats.  The sun was still breaking through at times, but it seemed that the weather was on the change.  A number of Common Buzzards had been seen during the day.

This colourful guy was was better equipped for the conditions.

The birds at Fenham Flats gave in the main only distant sightings, the best of them being many Brent Geese strung out along the shore.   Both black and pale bellied seen today. I reflected that the period from October to March has provided us both with some wonderful experiences with geese, both in Dumfries and Northumberland.  In fact, over recent years I’ve seen geese in habitats that I once thought I’d never see when I used to look at Peter Scott paintings in books I have.  This winter has been the best I’ve had watching geese.  Deciding to give Stagg Rock a miss we now made for home more than happy with our trip.  By the time we were nearing home it almost looked as if the darkened sky held within it a storm, and the rain has come today.  Bird of the day?  Brent Geese.

Brent Geese

Thursday, 8 March 2018

A Vampire Rabbit

6th Mar.  I was on a pilgrimage of sorts with a friend today, our plan being to explore the interior of St Mary’s Cathedral and St Nicholas’s Cathedral in Newcastle City.  Nothing at all to do with wildlife I know, but its strange how things turn out.  First, our entry to St Mary’s Cathedral was impossible as there was funeral service about to begin.  We instead looked at some of the interesting buildings in the area between the two Cathedrals before taking a quick look inside St Nicholas’s.  The city has changed a lot since I was a lad, but there is still much of interest to explore and who would have thought the centre of interest would be a Vampire Rabbit, or is it a Hare?

Vampire Rabbit

The Vampire Rabbit, which I believed to be a hare, (just look at those ears!) is above the decorative doorway of one of the buildings to the side of St Nicholas’s Cathedral and only yards away from the site of what had been the workshop of Thomas Bewick, one of the great historic figures from the Northeast of England.  No local will need to be told who he is I hope, but it is surprising how many non-locals haven’t a clue!  I won’t go into detail that can in any event be found on the internet, but I will mention some tributes to Bewick that exist in Newcastle upon Tyne, not to mention the fact that the Bewick’s Swan was named by William Yarrell in Bewick’s honour.  There is of course Bewick Street in the city centre and several portraits of the man including, in the Laing Art Gallery, Literary and Philosophical Society and the Natural History Society of Northumbria.  The Bewick Society was responsible for placing in 2003, a copy of the Bewick ‘Chillingham Bull’ into the pavement near to the central station.  The bronze bust pictured here in my blog can be found at the site of the workshop I mention above, and I believe it is a copy of the marble bust held by the Lit and Phil Society in Newcastle.  There is also a statue of the man at a site which was once Boots Chemist on Northumberland Street (alongside Bewick here, there is Harry Hotspur, Sir John Marley and Roger Thornton).  There is more I know.

Bust of Thomas Bewick at Workshop site,

It is perhaps fitting that the Vampire Rabbit is found near to the site of the workshop of Bewick, a man so inspired by nature and wildlife.  I believe some think there may be some kind of link or tribute to Thomas Bewick, but the Vampire Rabbit seems to pose a bit of a mystery.  I have delved into this a little and found the following information, quite easily as it happens.

As to the question of whether this vampire is a rabbit or a hare.  Well, I had initially thought the ears to look more like that of a hare, but it seems that it may be a rabbit that has undergone cosmetic surgery!  It has also been suggested that the ears were replaced back to front.  I have seen a photo of the original and it seems that the ears were extended sometime in the 1980s.  So, if we settle for the fact that it is a rabbit it puts an end to one theory I have come across.  This theory was that the vampire is a hare and that it had some masonic symbolism in that it represented a friend of the architect.  The friend being Sir George Hare Phipson, a local doctor of some importance and Freemason.  It should also be noted that as well as having an ear extension the rabbit was initially the same plain colour as the surrounding stonework.  Everything has changed now as you can see and the rabbit has even been given a splash of red paint on teeth and claws to represent blood.

Vampire Rabbit

Another idea put forward simply suggests that the rabbit represents the coming of spring, much the same as the ‘Easter bunny’.  Or perhaps there’s some link to he tales of local grave robbers.  Or perhaps, did someone just not have much time for religion and placed the rabbit where it is to oversee and control the local inhabitants of the graveyard opposite?  Allegedly, some bodies in this graveyard were found face down.  It is thought bodies were buried in this way to prevent vampires in that when they tried to dig themselves out of the grave they simply dug themselves into deeper earth.

One final thought is put forward that the Vampire Rabbit was there near to the graveyard simply to remind all passers-by that no one can avoid death.  It is known that some Dutch paintings include depictions of dead rabbits to remind everyone that they are not immortal!

Well, I for one think it good that there is no clear explanation for the presence of the Vampire Rabbit.  Life would be less fun if there was an answer to everything.  I do know I wouldn’t like to meet this rabbit as I walked down Dog Leap Stairs in the darkness of the early hours.

Ahhhhh, spring is in the air again and Sam and I have been birding in a rather flooded and weather damaged Druridge Bay, but at least the temperature was up.  More of that to come later.

Friday, 2 March 2018

In Like a Lion

2nd March.  Yes, it is the 2nd March!  I must have mentioned that feeling of spring being in the air when I visited Holywell not so long ago, but that was of course before this beast from the east was mentioned.  I had thought initially that the beast from the east might possibly have been a new entrant into the Brexit negotiations, perhaps for negotiations you best read farce!  I now hear that even the waterfall at High Force has frozen up for the first time since 1929.  Do any of my readers remember that I wonder?  Anyway, I don’t intend to visit for photographs, instead I’ll await someone else putting images onto the internet.  I do hope to get out onto patch tomorrow.

Garden bird watching seemed to me to be a good idea over the past few days and I’ve watched the bird seed disappear at a rapid rate.  It reminded me of a comment made by someone some years ago on a forum regarding the feeding of garden birds.  Their thought was that whilst they enjoyed feeding the birds and watching them in the garden, they didn’t believe that such feeding made any difference what so ever to the birds or their survival.  I thought that showed a complete lack of understanding of bird behaviour and needs and I won’t bore you with some obvious facts.  In recent years Song Thrushes have returned to my garden, usually around the end of the year and they or probably best to say it, as it is usually a single bird tends to become more active as far as song goes as the new year progresses.  I remember one of these birds singing in the early hours of a New Years Day not so long ago.  I noticed this year it’s song began in early February.  As per usual this bird is dominated very much by the Blackbirds, but still manages to get its share of feed.  The beast from the east has put a stop to any song and has also made this Song Thrush appear far less nervous, or at least more desperate to get at the feed.  I noticed today that it has taken to coming and sitting near the window as if waiting for more food to be given out and its seems to favour cheese.  At the moment it is looking very healthy and the neighbouring cats have stayed clear, touch wood.  Just as this bird is benefiting by a bit of help during this cold spell, I’m sure there are many species also benefiting around from handouts around the country.  Just in case anyone is wondering, I’m positive that this Song Thrush is the same bird as it is easy to tell by its behaviour pattern.

One thing the snow has done is to help show of this Song Thrush at its best.  I think it is something about the light that is reflected from the snow which has done the same for the Fieldfares which have appeared along the road and in the bushes outside of my home.  They appear to be making the most of a few remaining berries.

Late this afternoon a small flock of six Long-tailed Tits passed through the garden.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

New to Bird-Watching Course at Rising Sun CP

This short course may be of interest to anyone just starting out with an interest in bird-watching.  It's to take place at the Rising Sun C P centre on 10th, 17th, 24th April and 1st May (6:15-7:30pm)

Details of how to book can be found here

Half of takings from tickets are to be donated to Natural History Society of Northumbria.

Only one place remaining.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Holywell to St Mary's Island, Including White-Fronted Geese

18th Feb.  The Grey Heron is among a small number of bird species that helped hook me into becoming a birder many years ago.  It was during a summer holiday in the lake District that I watched a small number of these birds for several hours as they sought food in a beck between rests, with Fleetwith Pike to the north and the fell known as the Haystacks to the south.  Incidentally, Alfred Wainwright’s ashes are scattered on the top of Haystacks and my hat may still be there, one I left behind accidently in the 1970s.  I’ve since always found herons of any species interesting and usually attractive, so it was very rewarding when we found an unexpected Heronry on our travels yesterday.  We certainly weren’t aware of the presence of a heronry so wonder if it is just being established.

Our walk began with the sighting of the day in the fields west of Holywell Pond.  I estimated that perhaps there was a flock of between 400/500 Pink-Footed Geese, although having moved further along the footpath and found that behind the slope in the field the flock became denser, I revised my estimate upwards.  There were scattered numbers of Greylag and Canada Geese among the flock, but best of all two European White-Fronted Geese which we saw well.  Skeins of geese were to be heard or seen at stages throughout the walk today.  The presence of Wigeon on the pond was quickly giving away by their whistling calls.  Also present were Mallard, Teal, Tufted Duck, Pochard and Little Grebe.  Water Rail was heard and the feeders at the members hide were busy with Tree Sparrows and a couple of Reed Bunting along with tit species.  A pair of Canada Geese seemed determined to protect their space and acted to try and remove another pair which landed without much success.  By the time we were down to the public hide there was a large flock of Canada Geese on the water along with a White-Fronted Goose, one of the two we had seen in the field we assumed, but could not be certain.

Sam heard Yellowhammer as we walked down to the dene but there wasn’t much else about the hedges.  By the time we had settle din place in the dene on the look out for Dipper it felt and sounded like spring was in the air and it appeared that the area was in between the deadness of winter and new growth beginning to mark the new season.  It felt pleasantly mild following the cold days that had gone previously and there was much calling and song from the birds, most notably Song Thrush, Nuthatch and the varied calls of Great Tits.  I remembered back a few years to when we had stood in this area and Sam had recorded bird songs, which he tells me he still has.  One of the real pleasures I think is to stand or sit and let the birds come to you, there is far too much chasing after species in the modern birding scene in my opinion. It wasn’t long before we had two Dippers fly up stream whilst in song.  They were quickly followed by another Dipper.  We wondered if two pairs were having a territorial dispute.  We waited for at least one of the birds to reappear, but it never did, and we were unable to find a fourth bird which would have confirm two pairs were active, but perhaps that bird could have been at the nest site.  We know that it is now usual to have two breeding pairs in the dene.  It’s good that they cope with the constant disturbance.

The dene didn’t provide large numbers of species but by the time we had reached Seaton Sluice Bullfinches had provided some interest with calls and tentative attempts at beginning song.  From my observation Bullfinch seems to be doing ok in this region at present.  Nuthatch was seen hammering as if at an anvil and there were the usual large numbers of Robin, a Coal Tit among tit species, as well as the Long -Tailed Tits at the feeders.  It appears that friends of the dene have been busy with clearing ponds and forming a new one on the approach to Seaton Sluice, and a very good job they have done.  This should prove to be a very good area for dragonflies once there is some growth.   Redshank were found before reaching the harbour.

Our only disappointment had been the realisation that the Fish and Chip restaurant was closed on a Sunday now.  Not to be beaten we went to the café for a toastie and piece of cake.

The tide was higher than I had expected and there was very little in the way of passage over the sea.  Waders seen at Seaton Sluice were Oystercatchers, Turnstone and Purple Sandpipers.  We walked along to St Mary’s Island picking up Stonechat along the way and stopping at the cliff edge to watch several FulmarLapwings and Curlews were in the fields.  Once at the wetland it seemed that there were as many ponies on the sites as there were birds.  I had a laugh when one anxious dad told his small son to be quite so as not to disturb the birds.  I felt like saying ‘oh, it’s OK mate, there aren’t any birds here to disturb’.

A Kestrel hovered before flying along the low cliff edge and as we made off a female Sparrowhawk flew low over the field and perched for a time on the fence.  Once disturbed by passers- by, it flew off and landed some distance away.  It ended our day very nicely. 

We got a taxi home and had an interesting conversation with the driver about garden birds, the differences between Dartmoor and Exmoor Ponies (her brother had apparently been bitten in the stomach by a Dartmoor Pony…oooch) and the shambles North Tyneside Council are making to the green land that remains in the county.  Our friendly taxi driver seemed to know much about Dartmoor and its wildlife and I’m wondering if she would act as a guide. 

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Bay Watch

12th Feb.  We were greeted by the calls of Pink-footed Geese, ice sheets, potholes and puddles on arrival at East Chevington today, but the brisk walk to the mouth of the burn quickly warmed us through and the chill air was soon forgotten.  The reward was excellent sightings of the flock of Twite which to me seem to be getting more and more accustomed to folk passing by and certainly giving the watcher far more opportunity to study and/or photograph these birds than the flock used to further down the coast near Bell’s Pond.  There were no rarities among the flock, but the Twite were enough to please us after having visited in strong winds recently and found no sign of them.  There was a little wind today and the sunlit dunes made all the difference.  A small raft of Common Scoter and the odd Red-breasted Merganser appeared on the sea directly in front of us although waves made for difficulty in picking them up.  Sanderling and Ringed Plover were feeding along the tideline.  Two Skylark flew south along the dune line.  To the west the Pink-footed Geese lifted at times and flew amongst the wind turbines.  Having spent a good bit a time  by the mouth of the burn and having chatted to interested passers by we found that the geese had landed in the fields behind us and so we took a short walk south to take a closer look.  The majority of these birds were Pink-footed Geese, although there was also a sizeable flock of Greylag Geese.  Our checking of the geese paid off as Sam picked up a Red-breasted Goose at the back of the Pink-footed Flocks.  Such a smart species these Red-breasted Geese and its going on my year list, whatever the thought.  Full marks to Sam for picking it out as we weren’t aware that it was being reported here.


Beauty and the Beast

We took a walk along the east side of North Pool but didn’t find a great deal in the area or on the pool.  There was a number of Goldeneye, the odd Little Grebe and a few regular birds on the pond.  Our next stop was to be Druridge Pools.  As we approached the pools we passed an old friend of ours, but he must have been day dreaming and didn’t notice us.


We have still to catch sight of the Water Pipits!  There were numbers of Shoveler on the pools and of course numbers of Wigeon and Teal and we found a male Pintail.  Common Snipe was also seen.
We’ be getting a bad name as the café near Cresswell Pond was our next stop for a bacon sandwich and a chat to another old friend of ours who we met inside.  If that café issues shares I’m going to grab some!  It’s always full and I wonder where folk went before it opened.  After we had had our fill, the coffee cake was tempting, but the bacon sandwich filled me up, we returned to Cresswell Pond.  Once again there seemed to be little about and the water was of course high.  After watching the sizeable flocks of Wigeon and Teal at the north end of the pond and the Curlews in the fields to the East we decided to return to patch and check out the lake, but not before watching the Kestrel being harassed by corvids.



There are numbers of Goldeneye on the lake along with a small number of Goosander and today we found at least four Gadwall.  We remembered when Gadwall were never seen on the lake until maybe the last two or three years.  Best of all a Great Crested Grebe had returned, which to para-phrase the poet Ted Hughs, shows that the globe is still working!

A very enjoyable day, although even I (as one who likes winter) am looking forward to some warmer days.