Saturday, 16 June 2018

Hebridean & St Kilda Odyssey..Pt3.. S & N Uist & Benbecula

28th May.  Our hotel at Lochcarnan, South Uist was well situated for our exploration of not only South Uist, but also Benbecula, North Uist, Berneray and Eriskay, islands all joined by causeways.  We were soon heading off towards RSPB Balranald on the coast of North Uist finding our first Whooper Swans of the trip along the way.  On arrived at the reserve quite early and there were few people about as we checked out the information centre.  I was pleased to note that there was no cafĂ© or gift shop to be seen and I don’t recall seeing any staff.  It didn’t feel like a reserve and in my opinion that is the way it should be!  We were soon listening to Corncrake and photographing the sub species of Starling and soon watching and listening to Corn Buntings.  We then set off on the almost three miles of farmland, coastal and machair path.  I have to say that at the end it seemed more than three miles in the heat and we were pleased to have the cooler atmosphere near to the ocean for a good part of the time.  A wonderful and rewarding walk.


Corn Bunting

I thought this a wonderful reserve with fine views and excellent machair areas.  From the coastal path we were able to watch Great Northern Divers 10+, Fulmer, Gannet, Shag, Grey Heron, Shelduck, Eider, Red Breasted Merganser, Kittiwake and other gulls, and Arctic Tern, and find our first Rock Pipits of the trip.  In the bays we found our first Ringed Plover, Sanderling, Turnstone and Dunlin of the trip, along with Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Common Sandpiper, Redshank, Curlew and Snipe.  As we rested at times on the machair we were able to photograph Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Wheatear and listen to Cuckoo, Skylark and Meadow Pipit.  Both Grey and Common Seals were also seen along the coast line.  We weren’t the only photographers and we got chatting to Alex, a visitor from Hamburg, Germany.  Alex was carrying a heavy load of equipment and was probably happy to stop for a rest and chat.  We found that he had visited Northumberland and had friends living there.  He told us he really had a desire to photograph Slavonian Grebes and we told him of our close encounter and photographs of them in Sweden at a nest site to which he showed great interest.  I think Alex was surprised by Sam’s knowledge of German common names for birds which helped the conversation along, although I have to say Alex spoke perfect English.  After a long chat we all moved on, but we bumped into Alex again whilst awaiting a ferry and he asked us again about the Slavonian Grebes in Sweden and give us his email address, so we could send him details.  Afterwards we walked past an Arctic Tern breeding area where the noise and threatening flights towards us reminded me a little of the Farne Islands.  I seem to remember that we saw Wigeon, Teal and Tufted Duck in the area too. We ended the walk feeling that we had passed through and excellent reserve and it restored some of my confidence in the RSPB.

Ringed Plover



After lunch on our drive back we stopped at Committee Road in the wild upland area and Sam got out his Swedish army stove again to make us cups of tea.  This area is renowned for raptors, but initially we found little.  Then Golden Plover was heard, and Kestrel seen hovering.  Kestrels are not at all common in the Outer Hebrides.  As we left we had a decent but short sighting of our first Hen Harrier (male) of the trip, as it flew and dropped behind the hills.  Time didn’t allow us to return to the area.  We visited Dun An Sticir which is two small islands in a loch which are connected to the mainland by a rather tricky rocky causeway.  It is an area of historical importance with some remains of a Broch on one of the islands.  We explored parts of Benbecula too.

In the evening we returned to the heathland and mountain area that we had discovered the previous night and as well as the scenery and birds, enjoyed sightings of Red Deer and watched the full moon over the mountains before watching a wonderful sunset again and listening to birdsong and watching Short Eared Owls at 10:00pm.  Later we realised we had seen 7+ Short Eared Owls today.  Sleep was welcome.

Red Deer

Full Moon over mountains

Hebridean Sunset

29th May.  We began today again under sun and clear skies and found a rather nice wetland site as we set off to further explore the Uists and Benbecula.  We were watching the site when someone told us there were Red Necked Phalarope visible from a little further along the road.  As you might imagine we didn’t hang around and sure enough we soon had good close sightings of 5 Red Necked Phalarope.  This was a UK tick for me as I had missed them in Shetland.  A car stopped, and I initially thought the guy was going to complain about where we were parked, but no, it was the land owner who talked about the birds on his land.  We were able to put him right on how many Red Necked Phalaropes there were.  The guy was clearly proud off his patch.  Almost as rewarding as the phalaropes were breeding plumaged Black Tailed Godwit, Dunlin and Ruff, also new for the trip list as was the Little Grebe that was heard and the Shoveler seen.  Other birds seen included Grey Heron, Mallard, Teal, Moorhen, Redshank, Snipe, Curlew, Ringed Plover, Cuckoo, Skylark, Swallow, Meadow Pipit, Pied Wagtail, Wren and Hooded Crow.  We decided to visit again in the evening.

After our good start to the day we took a walk to a rocky inlet which on reaching we felt looked ideal for Otters.  We found a comfortable spot to sit and we waited.  We watched Common Seals and enjoyed the sight and sounds of birds in an otherwise silent area, but we saw no Otters.  Another scenic area brought us sighting of Red Deer and a very attractive view of the mountains.  During our drive we had a very nice sighting of a male Hen Harrier as it carried prey away before dropping again and eating it in our view.  The bird eventually disappeared after showing well again in flight.  We found that we would visit wild areas and often not have much luck with the likes of Hen Harrier and Short Eared Owl but suddenly find them near buildings including our hotel and on this occasion the Hen Harrier had been hunting near to the community centre.  Red Throated Diver was also seen on a loch today.

In the early evening we returned to the Red Necked Phalarope but didn’t have quite such good sightings as in the morning.  We did enjoy some great sights and sounds on this very warm evening including calling Cuckoo, singing Dunlin in display flight, drumming Snipe, calling and displaying Redshank and calling Curlew.  Then a highlight, a very distant White-Tailed Sea Eagle being mobbed by a Common Buzzard was picked up by Sam.  Although distant there was no doubt what we had, so we drove closer to the area that it was flying but sadly didn’t re-find the bird, but we had had our first White Tailed Sea Eagle of the trip.

We returned to our now regular evening haunt beneath the mountains.  We saw the Shetland ponies again and on our return enjoyed another amazing sunset and watched Short Eared Owls.

30th May.  We decided to spend our time on South Uist today and began by exploring the raptor viewing route we had found on our first evening.  We met the Shetland Ponies on the way and this is where I think I lost my ‘super cool’ sun glasses.  If your passing by this area and see a Shetland Pony wearing sun glasses, they will be mine!  I was a bit concerned as you really do need sun glasses on the island because of the very intense light, but I coped in the morning.

Heath Spotted Orchid

We didn’t climb really high, but we did have a decent walk into the foothills and although no raptors were found apart from Common Buzzard we weren’t disappointed in what we did find which included some very nice Heath Spotted Orchids, our first Twite of the trip, Wheatear, Stonechat, Four Spotted Chaser Dragonflies and Large Red Damselflies, oh yes, and a Frog.  I really enjoyed this walk and we talked to a couple exploring the area, the man being a retired Geologist who had worked in Edinburgh.

Four Spot Chaser Dragonfly

Large Red Damselfly

Large Red Damselfly

I was a wee bit concerned about my eyes, so we asked an assistant in the restraunt where we had lunch if she knew where we could get some.  She didn’t, but suggested we try ‘The’ Eriksay shop, which seemed to suggest it was the only shop and thankfully this shop did have a selection of sun glasses, a pair which I now possess.  Maybe not as cool as my lost pair, but they served the purpose.

As we returned we stopped at a sandy bay.  We found a blind hill in the road suddenly came to an end and there was a drop to the beach.  I wonder how many unsuspecting tourists have ended up on the beach?  We watched a few birds from this area including Lapwing, Redshank and Ringed Plover and most importantly Hen Harrier.  We saw both male and female Hen Harrier today.

Whooper Swans

As we were later driving along Sam suddenly said ‘Whooper Swans with cygnets which brought little response from me, but an ‘aye’ he had to repeat his words three times before it sunk in as my brain had interpreted it as Mute Swans.  Anyway, we both now have our first ever sighting of Whooper Swans with cygnets, five of them!  Just near this spot we drove up a rather beautiful glen and found a small patch of woodland which held both Common Flycatcher which we saw and Redpoll, which we heard, both new for the list.

Short Eared Owl

Hebridean Sunset

We eventually arrived back for dinner having watched Red Deer coming off the mountains in a line with some fine stags amongst them, and yes, later enjoyed more Short Eared Owls and another beautiful sunset.  The midges were out in force tonight!  Tomorrow was to be an early start as we make our way to Berneray to catch the ferry for Leverburgh, Harris and more adventures.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Hebridean & St Kilda Odyssey..Pt2,,Mingulay, Barra & Vatersay

26th May.  It was February and snowing when we booked a boat trip to Mingulay with Barra Fishing Charters and it was to happen today under sun and clear skies.  We got down to Castlebay early and met up with six companions for the adventure.  While we waited Black Guillemots were watched in the Bay and it seemed they may nest in Kisimul Castle which we intended to visit tomorrow.  With dingy attached to the back of the boat and life jackets on we were soon out of the harbour on a calm ocean.

Leaving Barra

Its far from a boring sea boat trip as we passed by the small and now uninhabited islands of Pabbay and Berneray and watched good numbers of birds adding Puffin and Great Skua (10+) to our list and seeing many more Black Guillemots.  Also seen were Fulmer, Gannet, Shag, Greylag Geese, Shelduck, Kittiwake and other gulls, Arctic Tern, Common Guillemot and Razorbill.  Before being dropped off at Mingulay we landed one member of our group, Craig from Motherwell, onto Barra Head the most southerly point of the Outer Hebrides.  This was good, as it meant we can say we visited the most southerly point and saw the lighthouse.  We met Craig later in the week on a ferry, as you tend to do in these parts and during conversation we learned that he had been visiting the islands for 30 years, I guess from his teenage years.  Like many other people we were to meet, this guy loved the islands and spoke about them with passion.  He was cycling northwards towards the Butt of Lewis.

The bay at Mingulay

As we approached Mingulay we spotted the colony of Grey Seals laid out on the sandy beach.  They clearly knew we were to land and they made for the water.  The landing was by dingy and not onto the beach but up and over some very slippery rocks.  It was too late to check to see if my insurance policy was up to date!  All seven of us survived and made off in our separate ways.  The population of Mingulay left the island for good in 1912 and a little of the village remains.  I always find the remains of such places both haunting and thought provoking, so I enjoyed the wander around here.  Sam and I ate lunch on the white sandy beach whilst watching the Oystercatchers and later taking some photographs of them.  Later we climbed to higher ground and watched the Grey Seals in the turquoise ocean below us whilst they kept note of us too, clearly used to occasional intrusions by humans.  A little further along was the Puffin colony which was very active with comings and goings.  There were some interesting plants on the island including Sundew species, Common Milkwort, Butterwort and Scarlet Pimpernel along with masses of Primrose, Marsh Marigold and of course Thrift.  We checked out the building remains again whilst listening to the Skylarks and Meadow Pipits and finding WheatearSedge Warbler was also heard.  Our time on the island went amazingly quickly and had been one of the most relaxing aspects of our trip so far.  As we waited to board our boat a Thistle Group who were now to camp on the island unloaded their goods, including beer which we were told was non-alcoholic (we believe you!) Sam and I got talking to a mother and daughter from our boat.  We found we all had a love of books and the elder lady recommended a book called The Road to Mingulay which I noted.  By then it was time to return to the boat.  If getting on to the island was difficult it was nothing to getting back on, which involved negotiating a rock ledge, but we did it without accident.

Grey Seal

Oystercatcher cools feet, while we lunch

Village remains

Bay from above

I was thinking the trip very good, but I was not expecting what was to come.  Our return included a slow boat trip round the western side of Mingulay which has some of the tallest cliffs in Britain.  I’ll let the images speak for themselves, but in truth the sheer scale of these cliffs is difficult to show in a photograph.  It certainly brought on feelings of vertigo.  There were of course many birds to see on the return too.  Donald the boat owner didn’t have much time once we got back to Castlebay, so I was unable to thank him for what was a very special trip.

I'm told they do this for fun!!!

After a cup of tea at a local hotel overlooking the harbour Sam and I explored Barra again, but also Vatersay, an island joined by a causeway to Barra in 1991.  Vatersay is a beautiful area with magnificent beaches and surrounded by blue and turquoise ocean and inlets.  We found our first Great Northern Diver (immature) of the trip on a rock in one of the inlets.  We sat and watched it at length.  We also saw our first Raven of the trip today.  We also heard more Corncrakes  and other birds seen included Eider, Common Buzzard, Lapwing, Redshank, Curlew, Snipe, Common Sandpiper, Pied Wagtail, Wren Stonechat, Blackbird, Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Hooded Crow, Linnet, Goldfinch, and Reed Bunting.

Great Northern Diver enjoying the sun

What we had not expected to see tonight was the remains of a RAF Catalina aircraft.  Having stopped to look at what appeared to be a  memorial we found these remains of the aircraft which crashed during World War 11 killing three of the 12 crew, all named on the memorial.  We found it both remarkable and moving that so much remains untouched and intact.  This later led to a long conversation with the hotel owner who told us the history.  Apparently, the aircraft had taken off from Oban with depth charges on both wings on night exercise, possibly testing radar equipment.  At a later enquiry the navigator stated that he had informed the pilot that the aircraft was flying too low.  Whether the navigators story was true or not would never be established as the pilot was dead.  We also learned that 20% of the menfolk of Barra, and presumably Vatersay, had been killed during the war.  Many were in merchant navy positions and it took many years for their sacrifice to be fully recognised which personally I put down to typical British elitism.  Because of the common use of similar name’s, the War Memorial now includes the name of the deceased’s mother and deceased’s nickname so that identification is clear.  We decided to visit the memorial in the morning.

Some of the remains of the Catalina aircraft

 Following dinner, we took a walk along the beach, listened to the waves creep up the shore and watched a wonderful sunset again.  I discussed the concept of the ‘green flash’ when the sun drops below the horizon at sea, but we didn’t see one!  Dolphins (species) had been in the bay tonight, but we had missed them, being too busy enjoying dinner.

27th May.  Before leaving the hotel for the last time, we were to catch a ferry to Eriksay today before driving to South Uist, I looked out at Mount Beinntangabal, watched the sun lit white sands of the bay, felt the cooling breeze through the open window and listened to singing Skylark, calling Oystercatchers and the gentle wash of the Atlantic waves.

Our boat trip to Kisimul Castle, seat of the Macneils, took only minutes.  We found that the lady in the shop was Donald the boatman’s wife, so we were able to pass our thanks to him for yesterday’s trip.  We also visited the modern war memorial before visiting Vatersay again, this time spending some time on one of the beautiful sandy bays where I scraped my calling card into the sand i.e. KILLYBIRDER BLOGSPOT.  We had a laugh when someone came along and photographed it.  I may be famous yet!
Corncrakes were heard again today and at some point, we found our one and only Black Throated Diver of the trip.  To cut a long story short, we eventually caught our ferry to Eriksay, on which we saw at least 10+ Great Northern Divers and then drove through Eriksay and across the causeway to South Uist, passing the sign warning of Otters Crossing.  By late afternoon we reached our very nice hotel at Lochcarnan.  Just before we reached the hotel we saw a Raven and as it took off I noticed it drop a feather.  I was determined to have it.  Sam set off to collect the feather but found the ground impassable because of boggy conditions.  From above I noticed a possible passable route to the feather and set off.  Sam reckons he has never seen me move so fast and well in difficult terrain.  Cheeky devil!  Anyhow, we have a very nice Raven primary feather with a story to go with it.

Castle in the sea

Beach at Vatersay

My calling card

A relaxing view on Barra before we head for the ferry

After dinner we discovered a beautiful area of Loch, heath and a little woodland at the foot of mountains which were seen in wonderful light.  A Cuckoo called from the patch of woodland and we eventually saw it atop of a tree, we had a great sighting of Peregrine Falcon flying low over the heath and we even had the company of Shetland
 Ponies and Emperor Moths.  This area was to become a favourite of mine.  There was a walk into the mountains which was a raptor viewing area which we decided was worth an adventure at some point.

Raven primary feather 15.75ins in length

There was another perfect sunset as we returned to the hotel, when an eagle flew up in front of us and was mobbed by a Short Eared Owl.  Initially we thought White Tailed Eagle, but in fact it was an immature Golden Eagle which perched not far from the road.  It was the only Golden Eagle we were to see during the trip, but a great sighting it was.  Before getting back to the hotel we had seen 3 Short Eared Owls.  So, it was to bed for pleasant dreams and thoughts of more exciting days to come.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Hebridean and St Kilda Odyssey..Pt1..Journey to Barra.

What is to follow over the next few blogs, I haven’t decided quite how many (at least 6), is a tale of the wanderings of two Geordie ‘boys’ as they discover the wildlife, culture, history and sheer beauty of the Outer Western Isles of Scotland.  Also included will be accounts of meetings with some wonderfully friendly and interesting people along the way.  I had thought about ‘Islands in the Sun’ as a title as we were blessed with sunshine and high temperatures throughout, but choose the title used as it seemed more appropriate.  I hope you will read on, stay with it and enjoy.

24th May.  As I waited for Sam to pick me up it was so cold that I put the heating on!  We were soon loaded up and heading for the border and thankfully before reaching Carlisle we were in sunshine and heat and beginning to count Common Buzzards, good weather and buzzards would rarely leave us throughout our trip.  After negotiating the Glasgow motorway, we stopped off at Dumbarton to visit the 1,500 year old castle built on the core of a 300 million year old extinct volcano, and stretch our legs.  I hadn’t realised just how much stretching would be required, as to reach the top includes the negotiating of 557 steps.  The climb was worth it for the views over the Rivers Clyde and Leven and the castle itself is very interesting.  Robert the Bruce died close by.  Birds seen included our first Arctic and Sandwich Terns and Oystercatchers of the trip.

King of the castle, Dumbarton

Our next stop short stop was taken at Loch Lomond for photos and we heard Cuckoo and on leaving saw a Cuckoo fly across the road towards the loch.  Loch Lomond is an attractive area, but not nearly so beautiful as Loch Awe where we took a longer stop prior to reaching our hotel.  More photographs were take here whilst we listened at length to Wood Warbler, more Cuckoos, Siskin, and Willow Warbler, and rather more briefly to Pied Flycatcher, all singing from old and attractive woodland.  By now of course Hooded Crows were common.  After a little more driving we checked into our Hotel at Connel for the night, a few miles from Oban where we were to catch our ferry to the island of Barra the following day.

Loch Lomond

Loch Awe

During the evening we spent some time at Airds Bay which on passing earlier looked good for Otter and sure enough we found Otter whilst admiring a view of the Connel cantilever bridge which I remembered standing on many years ago.  Common Seal was also seen, and birds included Grey Heron, gulls, terns, Grey Wagtail, Red Breasted Merganser and Song Thrush.  A cup of tea was enjoyed all the more, the water having been boiled on Sam’s Swedish Trangia Army Stove.  We had begun our trip wonderfully and I had forgotten the cold morning air of Northeast England as the sun lowered in a clear sky.

Connel cantilever Bridge

25th May.  It was a glorious morning and we had time to visit Dunstaffnage Castle which stands at the lip of Loch Etive.  Built around 1220 it was a stronghold of the MacDougalls and played a part in the struggle with Norway for control of the Hebrides.  When we walked to the ruined chapel in the woodland Sam found a Mole on the surface of the ground and we watched it working undercover of grass and leaves for some time.  Swift, Sand Martin, Swallow and House Martin were seen today, although they were few and far between from now on.  I remember a Bugle plant close by.  It was a relaxing morning prior to catching our ferry which would take us to Castlebay, Barra in just under 5 hours.  We were met at the ferry by an unhelpful and rude worker, but I allowed for the fact that he was carrying a very large chip on his shoulder which must have been tiring him and I guessed he hadn’t had his customer service training yet.  I’m pleased to say from now on we met with only politeness, kindness and humour throughout the trip.

Dunstaffnage Castle


On our way.

We spent most of the time on the ferry on the outside deck in the sun and at times cool wind and this paid off when Sam spotted a pod of at least 6 Common Dolphins following the boat.  Sam had everyone on the outside deck up out of their seats excitedly watching as he passed out information.  By now I needed to go inside and fetch my coat.  Common Seals were also seen.  Good sightings of birds were had including Fulmer, Manx Shearwater, Gannet, Shag, Kittiwake and other gulls, Sandwich Tern, Arctic Tern, Guillemot and Razorbill.  The five hours passed by very quickly during which we amused ourselves with spotting lookalikes for Gordon Sumner alias Sting and Jurgen Klopp.  We had a nice sailing on calm seas and once off the boat at Castlebay we made off to check into our hotel on the shore of the Atlantic and next to a wonderful little beach.  We certainly had a ‘room with a view’ and we received a warm welcome from the owners and the Oystercatchers.

Hotel and Bay

A bit of a wind had risen by evening during which we explored the island, in fact doing a full circle of it.  One of our first sightings was a pair of stunning Red Throated Divers on a small loch and we later had a great sighting of a female Merlin.  Numbers of Corncrake were heard each time we left the car and we found a very nice reedbed area where we found Sedge Warbler, Willow Warbler , Stonechat, finches and Reed Bunting and off course the now familiar call of Corncrake.  Other birds seen included Greylag Geese, Eider, Common Buzzard, Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Redshank, Common Sandpiper, Curlew, terns, Skylark, Pied Wagtail, Meadow Pipit, Wren, Dunnock and Hooded Crow.  Given more time we would no doubt have unearthed much more.  We took time to visit the island’s airport where the runway is simply on a beautiful stretch of sandy beach, and we enjoyed the views.

Sam at the airport!

We watched the sunsetting once again in a clear blue sky and where the North Atlantic meets the sky at the horizon.  We pondered over the fact that there was nothing between us and North America but the Atlantic Ocean.  We went to bed thinking of our planned boat trip to the island of Mingulay tomorrow.  We had arrived, and it felt wonderful.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

A Return to Harthope Valley

17th May.  We realised that we hadn’t visited Harthope Valley in the past two years (was it really that long?), probably because at the time we would normally visit, trips to foreign parts had been arranged, so today’s visit accompanied by Lee (he’d never previously visited the valley), Sam and I were keen to reach our destination.  A Kestrel and Common Buzzards were seen on the outward journey, but we later found little in the way of raptor life in the uplands!

Red Legged Partridges were seen before we had entered the valley, in fact I don’t remember seeing as many in the area before.  Once into the valley and driving along by the burn and flowering gorse we soon had sightings of Cuckoo, Whinchat and Sand Martins.  The air was full of bird song including Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and more Cuckoos.  As we parked up at the car-park at the bottom of Hawsen Burn our first Red Grouse were heard and a Song Thrush was seen on the river bank.  It was about 11:00am now and there was still a chill in the air, but we were soon to warm up!

We began as we always do and walked the climbing path up by Hawsen Burn.  The pathway on the right of the burn has deteriorated even more and is virtually impassable without some crisscrossing of the burn at its narrowest points.  We were soon listening to many more calls from Red Grouse and having gained some height we began to see them.  Seven or eight pairs of Whinchat were seen and one or possibly two pairs of Stonechat.  Thankfully there had been no recent burning in the area we walked as had occurred on our previous visit.  Our target bird was of course Ring Ouzel and we weren’t disappointed having sightings of male birds, at least five, the best sighting being on our return walk and near to the valley bottom.  We rested at the sheep fold, although I’ve learned that a better name for this is the Scottish term, sheep stell.  It was warm by now and at times silent.  There aren’t many silent areas about and I’m sure there are many who would struggle with silence, but not me, at least for periods.  Common Buzzard was seen although as I’ve already mentioned it was the only raptor seen in the upland area.  Meadow Pipits were seen at times and Skylark heard.  Some liquid intake and a share of Sam’s chocolate set me up nicely for the return walk.  The aroma was typical of this upland area and Willow Warbler and Wrens song was heard above the sound of the waters of the burn, relaxation at its best.  Both Slow Worm and Green Hairstreak Butterfly were found.   One male Wheatear showed nicely as we approached the valley floor and Lee found us a Hare.  We had seen no one on the walk, although there were plenty of visitors in the valley.  Our lunch was enjoyed by the river where only Pied Wagtail appeared on the rocks, but Redpoll and Siskin were both seen and heard in the trees and overhead.  We would usually walk up the valley past Langleeford, but on this occasion decided to drive back down the valley as we were a bit pushed for time if we were to stop at Druridge Pools on our return.

Carey Burn provided us with a pair of Grey Wagtails and eventually Sam had a fleeting sighting of Dipper, which I heard.  A Grey Heron flew up the valley and the sound of Cuckoos had entertained us.  The scent of gorse filled the air.  Probably because we had shortened the walking we missed out on the likes of Green Woodpecker, Common Sandpiper and Spotted Flycatcher and goodness knows what else, but there is always a next time and our time in the valley was well spent and enjoyed.  We intend to explore the path at Carey Burn on a future trip.

We headed for Druridge with Lee confident that we’d see the Glossy Ibis.  In my experience it never pays to be over confident as to birds and of course we didn’t find it.  However, we weren’t disappointed as we saw four Garganey, three of them drakes, two Little Stint and several Black Tailed Godwit amongst other waterfowl and waders.

It looked as though it was to be another stunning evening at the bay, but we had to head for home now passing the Avocets at Cresswell Pond.  It had been excellent day in some of my favourite Northumbrian habitat.   

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Reflecting Upon a Druridge Evening

14th May.  Sam and I made for Cresswell for a spot of early evening birding and expected that folk would be out in droves on such a stunning evening.  On arrival we were met by a singing Sedge Warbler and a small crowd at the parking area.  I soon realised that the crowd was part of the Barn Owl brigade and their plan was for yet more images of the most photographed owl in the Northeast.  We had different ideas and were soon in the hide which we had to ourselves and where we could enjoy peace and the song and sightings of many Sedge Warblers and Reed Warblers and equally nice sightings of Avocets which looked splendid in the sunlight.  Wheatears could be seen in the fields north of the pond and Ringed Plovers and Lapwings were on the mud.  I’d expected it to be cooler by now, but the wooden hide held the heat and the sun shone down on us, so brightly that it was difficult to watch anything on the western side of the pond.  Tree Sparrows were in the hedge.

Moving along to the other end of the pond we once again had closer sightings of the Wheatears and watched two Avocet dive-bomb a Grey Heron which stood its ground for a while at the edge of the pond.  The antics of the bobbing heron was good to watch, but even more interesting was the Grey Heron that caught an Eel.  We watched as the Eel curled itself around the heron’s bill until the bird disappeared behind the reeds.  My money was on the heron eventually overcoming the Eel’s tactics.  There were no rarities, but this evening did not require them.  A pair of Gadwall were nearby on the pond.  I did notice this evening that there was once again a distinct lack of hirundines.  Skylark climbed and sang above our heads.

There was more Sedge Warblers at Druridge Pools along with Common Whitethroats and Blackcap.  Perhaps the nicest sighting here was five Yellow Wagtails, one of them a Channel, which were seen at the feet of the Exmoor Ponies.  Nesting and displaying Lapwings were numerous and the Shovelers also put on a really good display and I came up with a good name for a group of goslings, ‘a pile’.  Oystercatcher s flew over and called, Water Rail was heard calling from the reedbed, whilst calls varying from birds such as Arctic Tern and Pheasant were amongst those we picked up.  Once again apart from a lone birder /photographer that we passed, we had the whole area to ourselves.

A 'Pile' of Goslings

We eventually took a walk through the dunes to look over the sea.  The sun was now going down quickly but the light was still bright, and Stonechat, Reed Bunting and Linnet showed really well.  The sea was a pale blue mill pond this evening and the colour overall was good to see, wit the horizon a narrow band of very pale red.  The beach was deserted apart from one passing dog walker and Coquet Island showed well in the clear air.  We picked up several Red Throated Divers, Guillemot, Sandwich and Arctic Tern.  I shared my packet of crisps with Sam as we took in the peace and quiet and stunning views.  It wasn’t easy to take our leave but leave we did.  As we passed Cresswell Pond we noted the crowd had left and we saw no Barn Owl, but we had experienced a great deal more.

On my arrival home I went to close the curtains and found that I was looking at a very large Hedgehog on the patio.  I left it in peace too.  Hedgehogs used to be regular visitors to the garden, but I don’t recall seeing one in recent times.  It’s tempted me now to buy the forthcoming New Naturalist book on Hedgehogs which is due to be issued in July.  The Hedgehog brought a close to a very enjoyable evening which seemed far longer than the three hours we were out.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Reflecting Upon a Holywell Evening

8th May.  The sunshine had disappeared, and the rain began as I was putting my boots on and preparing to leave for Holywell.  I had arranged to lead a small group around the area, all of whom had attended the ‘new to bird watching’ talks at the Rising Sun Country Park over recent weeks.  The rain was heavier when I arrived in the village, so full marks to everyone for turning up.  As we walked off from outside of the Milbourne Arms the rain ceased, although temperatures had plummeted.  Hirundines were few and far between as we walked through the village and only the occasional Swift was noted.  Swallow and House Martin numbers continued to disappoint as we approached the pond, and over the pond only a couple of Sand Martins were seen.  I feel that the reserve is looking a little worse for wear and the reed-beds looked a bit unhealthy and thin to me.  A flash in the west field near to the pathway held a pair of Gadwall and Pied Wagtail and there was only a solitary female Pheasant at the feeding station, although several other Pheasants were heard throughout the evening.

The pond area was quiet but did offer some nice sightings, perhaps the best being a pair of Great Crested Grebes.  I remember an attempt at breeding at the pond a few years ago ended in the death of one of the birds, I seem to remember that it had been caught up in something.  I don’t think there has been any breeding success by this species for some time at Holywell, but this pair did look as though they had been or were preparing to display.  The birds were several yards apart and looking at one another when we arrived although nothing much happened whilst we watched.  Our talks had included information on the Killingworth grebes, so I was pleased that everyone had a close sighting this evening.  I pointed out the Lesser Black Backed Gulls not expecting much of a response and was surprised at the excited calls from one of the participants.  Oh, he must like gulls I thought, that is until I turned around and found Keith’s excited and rather shocked response was a result of a black faced sheep having climbed up the outside of the hide and which was now eyeball to eyeball with him.  The inquisitive small flock of sheep had followed us around the reserve.  Other birds seen near the pond included Mute Swan, Canada Geese, Little Grebe, Grey Heron, Oystercatcher, at least two Common Terns, Mallard, Pochard, Tufted Duck, Moorhen and Coot.  Bird song was limited, but we did pick up the distant song of Sedge Warblers and Chiffchaff.

We later looked at the flash in the East Field and found Canada Geese, Lapwing and Pied Wagtail.  Bumping into A J we were told by him that there was a Common Sandpiper on the west side of the flash which could be seen from the Avenue.  We later found this bird, more Lapwings and a White Wagtail in amongst the Pied Wagtails.  Whilst on the Avenue we heard a close by Sedge Warbler and briefly saw some movement and had very nice sightings of Common Whitethroat, Linnet and singing Reed Bunting.

As we looked over the fields to the east and I mentioned this area as good for owl and geese species a gentleman approached us, and he had his very own Barn Owl.  It was a large Barn Owl tattoo on his leg!  With the benefit of hindsight, I thought that I ought to have taken a photo for the blog.  There gain, perhaps not!

There was little on the walk down to the dene apart from singing Chiffchaff.  The weather had improved however.  Once down in the dene a pair of Grey Wagtails were picked up almost immediately as they fed and on the rocks a pair of Dipper stood together perfectly still with no dipping at all whilst we watched at length.  The lack of dipping movement seemed to me to reflect what was now such a quiet and relaxed evening.  We took a walk along the footpath to find Blackcap but found none and there continued to be a lack of bird song.  We were rewarded with a wonderful sighting of two Roe Deer.  One of them was initially picked out by Heather as it stood at length watching us, again a reflection of the relaxed evening.  I thought this was a good point to call it a day and make back towards the village.  The Dippers remained on their rock as we passed by again.  I picked up a partial call from Yellowhammer and everyone had a good sighting of this bird lit by the now bright sun as it began to drop quickly towards the western horizon.  Heather and I discussed once again the idea of a sunset walk and I suggested fish and chips would be a good way to end it.  Well I would, wouldn’t I?  Anyway, it seems that more than one participant had knowingly seen their first Yellowhammer!

At the start of the walk I had passed my copy of Henry Beston’s The Outermost House to one of the participants.  Published initially in 1928 it describes a year spent Cape Cod by the author.  It’s a real classic and a great read and I set off on the walk with it very much in mind having polished it off over the past couple of days.  Beston used all his senses whilst taking in the passing year on the Atlantic coast of Cape Cod.  Much has been said and written of late about the distance between people and nature and my own experiences with people reflect just how true this is.  Many could benefit by reading Beston’s book.  Whilst many people I come across are good talkers, not so many are good listeners and users of all the senses.  So much can be missed if you fail to tune in to nature.  I also think people in general expect to be shown things rather than making their own efforts, perhaps having been brought up with easily seen nature on TV and social media and it has become the expectation that nature is served up in this manner.  It’s certainly not just young people with that attitude as I find my own generation even more inclined to act in this way.

A very nice evening, with very nice people.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Rising Sun Sunrise

Oh mother, tell your children
Not to do what I have done
Spend your lives in sin and misery
In the House of the Rising Sun
The Animals from a traditional folk song.

5th June.  I was loitering alone and with intent in the Rising Sun Country Park at 4.30am this morning.  My intent was to lead a Dawn Chorus walk beginning at 5.00am.  Probably a bit late in the morning but there was no expectation that folk would turn up for a 4.00am start.  By 5.00am all 20 participants had turned up on time and were ready for action.  This is the third year running that I have led this walk and I always make sure that participants are informed that this is an exercise for the ears and thankfully most people take notice.  We began the walk with song from Blackbirds, Robins, Song Thrushes, Wrens and Tits surrounding us.

It’s amazing how many folk don’t know the call of Chiffchaff so we can always be assured that this is one call that participants will (hopefully) learn before the morning is out.  Picking up the song of Willow Warbler was more difficult this year, but we did get there eventually, and Blackcap and Common Whitethroat were also heard well.

 As we walked towards Swallow Pond the drumming of Great Spotted Woodpecker was heard.  The pond itself was at its best with the back drop of a rising sun in a clear sky and a layer of mist over a still and cold pond.  Birds seen here included Mute Swan, Canada Geese, Great Crested Grebe, Pochard, Mallard, gulls and Ruddy Duck.  A Swallow appeared too.

Our youngest participant picked up the call of Common Whitethroat and he and I saw the bird fly from the hedge.  Numbers of Goldfinch were in this area as were Greenfinch and Chaffinch.  Starlings had nested in what seemed to be a hole caused by a woodpecker in one of the wooden pylons.

It was towards the end of the walk when the aroma of sausages and bacon seemed to be in the air that we finally had song from Willow Warblers.  Over breakfast we found a Tree Sparrow visiting the feeders.

We ended the day having heard and seen a nice selection of birds and everyone seemed t go away happy that getting out of bead at 4:00am was more than worth it.  The excellent weather, fine breakfast served by Graham and assistant and the group of very friendly and keen participants ensured that the morning was a success.  I really did enjoy the morning myself.  I left before the park run began and the ambiance of the park changed!  We had definitely been there at the best time.  The idea of a sunset bird walk is now under consideration.