Friday, 31 December 2010

Walking on Ice

30th Dec. A couple of local group friends and I decided to walk the circular route from Monkseaton Metro Station which would take us along the disused Avenue rail line, through Holywell Dene, along to Seaton Sluice, then onwards to St Marys Island before returning to the start. It’s a route that North Tyneside council mapped out as worthy of a walk, although we added the trek as far as Seaton Sluice. It does take you though some very interesting habitat and having completed the walk in October I was aware that there was potential for lots of bird species.

We had soon ticked of a male Great Spotted Woodpecker near the beginning of the walk and the part of the avenue passing through the housing estate provided lots of garden birds, many perhaps attracted to the numerous bird feeders (good to see) along the route. Perhaps I’m dreaming, but I’m sure I heard over the last week of some research in Europe suggesting that garden birds should not be fed as it is making them obese! I must get the tape measure out and measure the waistbands of the House Sparrows that visit my garden. I do accept that the greed of many humans makes them obese, but I won’t be stopping feeding the birds. I haven’t seen any obese birds around this winter! Garden birds seen and heard on the Avenue included Song Thrush, Blackbird, Wren, Robin, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Long Tailed Tit, Starling, House Sparrow, Dunnock, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, and Goldfinch. Corvids and gulls were present also.

The pathway along the Avenue was still in the main icy although not too difficult to negotiate. Once out onto the open farmland there were few birds seen apart from large flocks of gulls. Small numbers of Curlew flew over. When we reached Holywell Dene we found the pathways still solid with slippery ice, to the extent that we chose not to enter the dene proper but walk along the path that runs parallel to the farmland. It was still tricky and tiring to negotiate. We did eventually find another Great Spotted Woodpecker which gave only a brief sighting as did a Treecreeper. I found a Little Grebe diving on th burn below us and a Cormorant flew down the burn. Other than that it was tit parties and Wood Pigeons in the main, although a skein of Greylag Geese did fly over.

The icy paths continued until we approached Seaton Sluice where the first Redshanks of the day were found and a lone Moorhen wandered along the bank. The cockerel called as per usual. I’m happy I don’t live next door to it! I don’t mind the call early in the morning, but this one just never seems to stop.

After having been fed and watered we were off along the cliff side and finding Eider Duck, large numbers of Redshank, the flock of Knot, Oystercatcher and Turnstone. Then it went extremely quiet again with the light already appearing to go in the early afternoon. The walk was enjoyable and tranquil as there were few people about but there few birds also. However at least now we were off the ice. It had been an energy sapping walk up to this point. A Grey Heron was seen flying from the sea edge towards the fields.

At St Mary’s Island we found the wetland pond still frozen. There were Mute Swans and numbers of Teal on the sea edge, and also three Goldeneye where present. There were quite large flocks of wader here also including Dunlin, Sanderling, Turnstone, Redshank and Oystercatcher. I managed to find one Purple Sandpiper and there were four Bar-Tailed Godwits feeding at the waters edge. So we were ending with a good number of wader species although I never saw any Golden Plover at all, and only very small numbers of Lapwing and assume these flocks to have been inland feeding.

Instead of making back to Monkseaton, initially following a route at the back of the crematorium, we decided to walk along the beach to Whitley Bay. The light was really low now. I was tiring and I reckon by the end of the walk we must have completed almost eight miles, much of it on very icy paths. We ended with a list of forty-six species. Not a great list, but it had been a really good walk. Probably my last long walk for 2010. I suppose it’s too much to ask to have a Redpoll in my garden on New Years Eve?

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Treecreeper and Bright Patch

A slow thaw taking place!
But the snow hangs on!

A winter sun adds some colour

29th Dec. As the thaw continues, very slowly, and the sun shines, I took my chance of a walk on patch today. I must say Wellington boots are wonderful things, but they don’t keep the feet warm! They did help me keep standing though and they must have been a blessing at Waterloo.

I made through the church grounds towards the smaller lake. It was starting to melt, but still covered by a sheet of thin ice which you wouldn’t want to skate on. A week or two ago I saw a guy walking across this lake with a little lad. Foolish in the extreme I thought. Daft enough for the guy himself to try it, but to take the risk with a child of around six years of age was crazy. There’s been little birdlife about here for weeks now and today saw only two or three Common Gulls fighting with a corvid over a bit of bread. The bread was dropped several times by different birds such was the squabble and I thing each one may have at least got a small piece. There were masses of gulls over on the larger lake and quite large flocks of them also being fed at the edge. I’m not sure that I’ve seen so many gulls here before and no doubt some have been attracted by the free handouts that the council have being giving out in the way of feed. Apparently Morrison’s have been donating some vegetables and fruit. Nice one Morrison’s. I’m only hoping that they are tastier than some of the fruit and vegetables I’ve been sold there at times! The gull flocks included Black Headed, Common, Herring and Greater Black Backed Gulls. I chose not to walk in the direction of the larger lake, so didn’t check for any rarer species. I doubled back on the much quieter route behind the village. There was a good number of Goldfinches about.

In truth there wasn’t much to be found, but the walk was enjoyable in the sun and the light was that which you only get on a winters day with a little mist in the air. The snow that remains, and there is still lots of it, was being lit up and it gave a sparking effect below the trees.

I checked out the fields which usually hold Redwing and Fieldfare, but I found only Jackdaws, Carrion Crows and Wood Pigeons and then found two Lapwings, hearing the second one before seeing it. A few horses stood in the corner of the field and not one of them moved an inch. They looked tired and almost frozen. A Robin was at their feet. One Redwing did eventually fly past me before I decided to move on, as my feet were as cold, as those horses looked. Looking over the field gave a really nice winter’s scene with the sun lighting the mist in the air. As often happens, the photograph I took just didn’t capture what I saw.

I continued towards one of the wagon-ways and decided to walk down it a way. Looking over the fields I found only gulls, pigeons and corvids, with Magpies being numerous as always, and they seemed to have taken up stations along the hedge. I heard tits, Blackbirds and Wrens. I realised that there wasn’t going to be much in the way of birds so I watched the sun lowering in the sky and took a few photos. The sun left me dazzled and when three or four birds flew across my path I assumed they were tits, although I seemed to have caught white markings on one of them. I thought it best to check them out and I’m pleased I did as one turned out to be a Treecreeper. I remembered P A had found one on patch recently. I watched as at first it remained at the foot of a tree, then watched it climb in circular fashion, before dropping and starting again. The Treecreeper has to be in my top ten of birds and one I have rarely seen on patch..

I decided it was time to make off home. It felt late, but was in fact only 3.30pm. To the left of me the sky in the distance was becoming a deeper shade of orange and the mist was thickening over the area of the Tyne. When almost home the sky looked ablaze as I looked through the trees. When I looked back through the park area the mist was gathering at the foot of the trees. It was much colder now and I reckon if it freezes tonight some of these paths will be like glass early in the morning. Two small flocks of Starlings which had been noisily calling in the trees joined one another and flew off. As I put the key in the front door I heard Jackdaws calling and assumed they had just taken flight. I closed the door behind me as I took one last look at the sunset.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Birds and Nature 2010/Top Experiences.

23rd Dec. If I watch the garden anymore this week, hoping for a rare visitor, I’m gonna become snow blind, so I thought it in order to take some time out to write up my top nature experiences of 2010. Few, if any of the experiences focus on a particular bird, but more the overall experience. They are in order of date only as I found it too difficult to put in order of most rewarding.

i) On a sunny day in February I found my self going through snow to the Ross Sands and Budle Bay area. From Ross Sands large flocks of Long Tailed Duck and Common Scoter were seen along with large numbers of Slavonian Grebe and a Great Northern Diver close to the shore line. I also found Bean Geese that day. Highlight of the day however was passing Budle Bay and finding hundreds of pale bellied Brent Geese in the fields which took off along with Greylag, Pink-Footed and Canada Geese, as I stood and watched the with the sun lit bay as a backdrop. I said at the time that this would be one of my top experiences of 2010 and nothing has altered my view of that. I hope to be back early in 2011.

ii) May saw me spending a sunny and hot week in Dumfries and Galloway with a small group of friends from the local group. Every day was good, but the highlight for me was the crossing to and viewing of the island of Ailsa Craig having being picked up at Girvan by RIB boat. Gannets were the main species seen, and lots of them, but there was a supporting cast of many other seabirds.

iii) Not long after my trip to Galloway and Dumfries I was up to Orkney and Shetland in June which provided more top adventures. It’s not easy to pick the best, but three of them feature here. First of all was the walk up to the edge of Hermaness cliff top reserve where I looked at the most northerly lighthouse in Britain and also braved the winds to watch as masses of Gannets lifted of the cliff ledges and appeared to drift like snowflakes in front of my eyes. The numerous Great Skuas added to the excitement with at least fifty of these birds lifting in a flock into the winds as I walked back down from the cliff edge.

iv) Then there was the boat trip at midnight to Moussa to watch the Storm Petrels in their hundreds return to the broch. The strange mechanical sounds made by the birds came from the dry-stone walls as we approached the broch. A wonderful experience and European Storm Petrel was a lifer at that! Blackbirds where beginning to sing when I arrived back at the hotel in the early hours.

v) A boat trip from Shetlands capital, Lerwick, took me around Noss and there were many more Gannets and other seabirds and seals. The day had blue skies and sun and I can tell you that was a rarity during the two weeks I was up there braving cold and gale force winds in June! I was sat yup in one of those revolving seats on the top of the boat for some of the time as we moved in and out of caves as we took in some of the underwater life too. A really good few hours spent on the water.

vi) Its difficult to pick one highlight from the walks that I do from Hollywell to and along the coast as I have had so many great walks on this route this year when I‘ve been soaked, dry, sun tanned and frozen on different occasions. Guess I’ll have to plump for the walk where Tom and I set our record (must be broken in 2011) number of species for the walk (seventy-six), which included lifers such as Red-flanked Bluetail and Dusky Warbler and also a massive fall of Goldcrest. A great autumn day birding in October. Some more recent of the walks in snow and ice were equally rewarding and atmospheric so not an easy choice this one.

vii) October also had me down in Durham and North Yorkshire where I had my best ever raptor watch in the UK. I was down there with Andrew and saw and watched three Rough Legged Buzzards at close quarters at Sleddale. With a supporting cast of Peregrine Falcons, Common Buzzards, Kestrels, Sparrowhawks and a UK first Great Grey Shrike it was certainly a days birding to remember.

viii) It not too surprising that Cresswell makes an appearance in the list. November saw Tom and me heading there via Ashington where we picked up the Waxwings. I remember it was freezing cold and perhaps an omen of weather to come this winter. It was a day for divers as we found at least seven Red Throated Divers and Tom took a dive in the burn himself. There were skeins of geese everywhere and we took in some great birding as we walked from Cresswell to Druridge pools and back. The day ended wonderfully withy at least seventy Whooper Swans on Cresswell Pond as the sun began to lower in the sky.

ix) A definite high point of the year was the December pelagic with Northern Experience Wildlife Tours. Tom and I managed to hit a rare calm day with perfect lighting conditions for a trip out to the Farne Islands to view the Grey Seals and then northwards to Holy Island. We had had some great sightings of birds including Little Auks (lifer), Long Tailed Duck, Great Northern and Red Throated Divers and much more. It was cold like many of my birding days this year but a great experience.

x) Any one of many birding/nature experiences could fill slot number ten so I think it fitting that I leave it empty.

As I say, the above aren’t in any order apart from date. The birding just gets better and better each year. This has been an especially good year and helped along especially by me fellow wet, dry and frozen birder and good mate Tom, and I’m thankful that he has motivated me into action at times. I’m looking forward to more adventures in 2011 although 2010 ain’t finished yet!

Merry Christmas and All the Best to Everyone for 2011.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Grey Partridge and a Red Nose!

Frozen fields and flash.
Cloud down the coastline.
The sun lowers and lights up the frozen fields and wagon-way.
A favored viewpoint for sunsets.

Ominous cloud still gathering.

18th Dec. With snow apparently closing in from north, south, east and west, I thought I would take this chance to walk on patch in the sun before the Government decides to ration everything and tell us we mustn’t leave our homes until at least March, unless our journey is essential! Although I am told that rumours that have the area of England south of Luton closing down indefinitely because it has snowed, and are not strictly true………………..yet!

Many paths on patch remain ice covered and in places this is dangerous sheet ice. The ground everywhere seems as hard as iron. It seems that this winter is going to be an even tougher one than last year for wildlife. However Christmas is coming and sadly I suspect that most folk, judging by the queues in the shops, will be to busy stuffing the turkey and themselves to give must thought to wildlife. Thankfully some of us do.

The walk up to the wagon-way was quiet, although I did find Goldfinch and Chaffinches, and it wasn’t until I got to the farm that I got my eye on a couple of Mistle Thrushes pecking around on the ground beside the frozen pools next to the farm gate. Two Fieldfares flew across into the trees. Then there wasn’t too much about at all until I found a Sparrowhawk in the lone tree which stands in the centre of the fields. Its long thin legs showing well as it seemed to jump up and down on the branches. I initially thought it was jabbing its talons into prey, but after watching it for a while I noticed that wasn’t the case.

I carried on past the second farm and along the Holystone wagon-way. Apart from a Robin I was by myself until a flock of ten Lapwings flew in and eventually landed on the frozen flash. There was another bird there, probably a wader, but I couldn’t make it out before it flew off. I hung around for a while as did the Lapwings and when they flew off giving a few calls, I too retraced my steps. Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of a bird land in the field. It turned out to be a Kestrel which took off again right away with prey dangling from its talons.

I looked across the fields to the west and watched corvids mobbing a gull until the gull dropped its food which seemed to be a large piece of bread. Another Sparrowhawk glided into a tree on the edge of the field.

The skies were clear apart from the belt of thick cloud that ran down the coastline. There was an almost full moon. The clear skies suggested another very cold night. The forecast I see, is for minus six! The cloud suggested that the forecast for snow along the coast tomorrow is likely to be correct. The sun was now low in the sky and I cast a long shadow across the fields. The light was still good and vivid. As I neared the road again I had not seen a sole on this part of the wagon-way, although now a dog walker was approaching. I found a group of seven Grey Partridges which appeared to be searching for food. They were right out in the open and were not going to fly off. Once they realised I was watching they stood completely still. I left them to the difficult task of finding food, as I made off towards the village to continue my circular walk. I caught sight of another Kestrel flying over the field and onto a pylon.

I took a small diversion to watch the sunset, half hoping that I might find Woodcock here, as I had at the beginning of the year. No luck with the Woodcock this time but a nice sunset. I walked through the trees to look over the fields and I’m sure I picked up the call of a Tawny Owl somewhere in the distance. I watched the cloud over the coast again before returning to the path. Not before a branch smacked me full force on my nose! Time to make off home I thought. The Jackdaws where making a right racket from high up in the trees as I neared home. I’d been out for three hours which had seemed to fly over.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Desert Island Books.

I came across an article written in a non birder blog which named five books that the blogger would like to take to a desert island. It was a kind of Desert Island Books thing. Desert Island Discs is a programme on the radio I like to listen to even though I think some of the choices rather odd and often wonder if the personality would really want to take such ‘stuff’ with them if they were going to be stuck with it indefinitely. Anyway the article did get me wondering which of my books (which are some way related to natural history) I would like to take with me for my own desert island discs. I may give some thought to music later. I’m going to stick to the format of eight and even cheat a bit as there is no one to stop me. It wasn’t an easy choice as I’d miss all of the others left behind, but I did definitely want stuff that would keep me occupied and keep the mind ticking over. So I plumped on the following that I have on my shelves and they aren’t in any particular order. I did discount any arty books, which wasn’t easy, as the work of people such as Keith Brockie has great appeal to me (I hear he has a new book coming out soon which is again focussing on the Isle of May). I thought in this respect I’d have enough visual stimulation exploring the island and looking at the prints in my other eight books.

Perhaps one the lightest books amongst the eight, but one that many years ago had me delving more into aspects of natural history and geology was David Attenborough’s Life on Earth. I still think the book and TV programmes are the best of the ‘life’ series (I have them all) although I accept that technological and other advances have been made since that issue, so some may fin Life on Earth a little old hat now. I found the information (and filming) on frogs especially fascinating at the time. The book has a bit of sentimental value too as I had it signed by the author when I bought it all those years ago, and all my life David Attenborough has fascinated me. He’s definitely the greatest communicator concerning the natural world as far as I’m concerned.

Next up would involve another great mind and that is Charles Darwin. I shall cheat here as I would want both volumes of Janet Brown’s Charles Darwin biography. The book shows how Darwin struggled to come to terms with some of his ideas and in fact it is well known he struggled on his famous voyage on the Beagle as he was often down with sea sickness. It is also shown how the ideas were built upon earlier thoughts of others. I’ve been meaning to try and get round to reading these volumes again, so being stuck on a desert island would give me the time.

A must take would be the BTO Migration Atlas. It’s a book that was put together in the main from information gathered by many people, many of them working on a voluntary basis. When anyone questions the wisdom of bird ringing this is one of the things I point them to. It gives much information on migration and the in depth migration patterns of the birds of Britain and Ireland. It’s a book I dip into time and time again, and even includes some Keith Brockie work.

Another two volume affair would definitely be wanting with me is the two volume (yes I’m cheating again) Birds of Scotland put together by the Scottish Ornithologists Club. Since purchasing these volumes I’ve given them only a cursory glance to be honest. I’ve seen enough to realise these are magnificently put together books with great photos, prints and maps. I could get well stuck into this. Scotland to me offers anything I would want in birds and nature, which includes great wilderness areas.

I choose something a bit different for my next choice and that is Jared Diamond’s Collapse. This deals in detail as to why societies have failed or survived and looks at many societies from around the world including Easter Island, Mayan, Viking and more up to date ones such as Rwanda. It goes into some scientific detail as to how the facts were worked out. A bit depressing in places, but it does end on a positive note at least to some extent. I’d definitely recommend this as a good read.

A book I have had for many years is the Amateur Naturalist by Gerald Durrell. It’s aimed primarily at young people, so as to involve them with nature in a practical way. I’d want this one to remind me that an interest in nature should lead to discovery, learning and most importantly, fun which keeps one positive. There is too much negativity around about nature and in my opinion too many people take themselves and their hobbies far too seriously.

Next is Biographies for Birdwatchers by Barbara and Richard Mearns. I’ve mentioned this one in my blog before. It deals with the naming of birds and the lives of those commemorated in Western Palaearctic bird names. It’s another book I never tire of dipping into and it’s made me consider some of the people concerned in greater detail. An interest in bird watching and nature isn’t just about identification.

Last one is perhaps an odd one to choose. It’s a book I picked up for a ‘fiver’ last year at the RSPB Local Group fortieth anniversary celebrations. The title is, A New Dictionary of Birds by Landsborough Thompson. The theme that runs through all of the books I have chosen is that they are ones for dipping in and out of and as I am going to have to survive alone on the island I may not have time to sit and read at length. Of course this is not so new now, but this A to Z is full of good factual information and I can cope with any bits that are now out of date. First word in there is ‘Abdomen’ which I’m sure needs little explanation. Last words are ‘Zygomatic Arch,’ and you can look that up! Learning, remember, can be fun. There’s lots of interest in between.

So there you are, that’s my eight books. It wasn’t easy to get the number down to eight and I feel eighty might have been more appropriate. If everything was washed away in true Desert Island Disc fashion, and I could only save one book, it would have to be Birds of Scotland, not least as I haven’t read much of it and it is a great two volume edition.

Now I could pick eight discs very easily. Picking eight that are bird and nature related might not be so easy, although I can tell you now that Albatross by Fleetwood Mac would definitely be in there. I do seem to remember that the Albatross in the title is not referring to the bird! However little things like that won’t put me off. It’s a classic. I may have a go at choosing eight discs at some point in the future.

Not sure how I’d cope all alone mind you

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Little Auks, Long Tailed Ducks, Seals and More.

Distant, snow covered Cheviots, as we set off.

No nesting birds, but plenty of Grey Seals and atmosphere.
Blue skies as we approach Holy Island.
Bamburgh Castle, with calm seas and sun.

11th December. With icy and snow covered roads causing the postponement of our pelagic last Saturday, Tom and I had had our fingers crossed all week. I’d written up the first paragraph of the report during a cold period during the week, but as the weather and seas were so kind to us today I have had to scrap the details of Captain Pugwash and first mates daring battle with massive waves and storms at sea. In the event the sun shone all day and only on occasions did the cold manage to get through the layers. A thaw had been well under way and our journey to Seahouses showed us that many fields were under water. We saw a few Common Buzzards on the way.

As we waited to board our vessel we found the first of the days Purple Sandpipers as three Shelduck flew southwards. Once on the boat and on the move towards the Farne islands we soon had a good sighting of our first Little Auk. The first of the day for us, and in fact, a lifer for both Tom and I. Not easy to admit that as a birder who lives near the north east coast! As the day went on we reckon we counted at least eleven Little Auks and all were seen well. Could have been thirteen, but we think Two may have been seen twice.

The journey around the Farnes was really interesting. Different of course from summer when every where is alive with nesting sea birds, but the atmosphere was none the less enjoyable. We did have lots of Shags to keep us company. The sea I guess could be described as calm, but still there was enough movement and seawater spray to add to the excitement of being out there. Once in amongst the Grey Seals I found the experience quite eerie, with the only the sounds of the water, the boat and the calling Grey Seals. There were of course pup seals around. The photographers amongst the party were well rewarded, but in the main I was happy just to watch and listen. We had a distant view of Long Tailed Duck, but needn’t have concerned ourselves as there were plenty more of those to come. Common Scoter and Eider Duck were plentiful. Golden Plover, Curlew, Turnstone and more Purple Sandpiper were seen on the islands as were Rock Pipits.

We eventually headed for Holy Island and this was when we started to get some really good sightings of numerous Long Tailed Ducks. One flock numbered about twenty-five. The boat got very close to them on several occasions before the birds were put to flight. I’d initially thought we had seen certainly over fifty Long Tailed Duck during the day, but on reflection I think we saw many more.

We found a few Guillemots but I didn’t catch up with the Black Guillemot although it was seen very briefly. It didn’t matter as there was so much to keep us interested. More flocks of Common Scoter, a pair of Scaup, Goldeneye, Red-breasted Mergansers, and both Great Northern and Red Throated Divers. A flock of Teal flew overhead.

The boat took us to Holy Island and it was interesting to look at this area from the sea. I missed the Slavonian Grebe but it was seen by others. I really felt the cold at one point, but that seemed to be put right by a bite to eat and a cuppa hot coffee. Bar-tailed Godwit was seen at St Cuthbert’s Island, where I have watched them before, but from dry land. Having had a good look around this area we then made for a return to Seahouses as a flock of pale bellied Brent Geese circled us overhead and many more Long Tailed Duck and Common Scoter appeared. We were surprised to find two adult Gannets. The sun was shining brightly in a clear winter sky. Conditions could not have been better and I commented at one point as we got close to Seahouses, that it felt as though we were on a gentle river journey rather than the North Sea in winter! However when I had tried to take a photograph Bamburgh castle and a wave had hit the boat I had been reminded of where I was. The castle was silhouetted against the sunlit sky.

I love being out on open water. I think it is simply the open space and quietness that does it for me. I have being developing a growing interest in sea birds, so today had been a great experience and once again an atmospheric day. I’ve been on pelagic trips in various parts of the world but never off the Northumberland coast. This one was of course organised by Martin Kitching and Sarah of Northern Experience Wildlife Tours Thanks go to Martin and Sarah and also to the crew of the Glad Tidings. I’d recommend this trip to anyone. I’d certainly like to repeat it and I am sure Tom feels the same way.

Before we left Seahouses we found a Grey Plover near to the harbour and a Grey Heron was standing close to the sea. Traveling back via the coastal route give us a chance to see more of the flooded areas along with at least one more Common Buzzard, Sparowhawk, Common Snipe and the flock of Pink-Footed Geese at Cresswell. A nice ending, to a great day.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Brambling a New Garden Tick.

Each winter for many years I've hoped to find a Brambling in the garden. It's never occurred until today when a female Brambling caught my eye, It was staking out the bird seed from the safety of the tree at the back of the garden. It didn't stay long, but long enough to give me a good sighting of one of my favourite winter visitors. So much classier than these chav like Waxwings in my opinion! :-)

It came to mind that it was not just a first for the garden, but a new patch tick as well.

A slow thaw seems to have set in this afternoon.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

My Tiny Patch Is Frozen!

No, not a scene from an Arctic expedition, its Killingworth Lake devoid of life.

6th December. The garden birds seem to be making the most of the free handouts and I’m pleased to see some of the neighbors putting out feed. Not so sure that the rest of the patch birds are fairing so well during the white out!

Returning from Forest Hall today, I had noted the damage done to the guttering on many homes by snow and ice. Just like last winter icicles hung from roofs. On my outward journey I’d seen a small flock of Long Tailed Tits, but apart from corvids, pigeons, gulls and Starlings there was little else about. Any thaw had been minor indeed and it was freezing again by mid afternoon. I took the chance to look at the lake which is a white out with little in the way of ‘life’ showing. It looked as though an Arctic Fox could appear at any moment! A small area of thawed ground near the smaller lake held three Moorhens and a lone Lapwing, all making the most of any food source available. There was no sign of the Common Snipes there, seen by Sedgedunum Warbler. The large lake held only a small flock of Common and Black Headed Gulls. A Cormorant flew over, but I don’t see it doing any fishing here for a while. The Mute Swans and Canada Geese et al had gathered on the snow covered grass area at the end of the lake and I could see that they were being fed. I didn’t bother to take the walk to that area.

As I returned home I had a good sighting of one Common Snipe as it flew near me by the school. That is a new patch tick for me. My walk had warmed me up, but now the warmth was turning to a cold dampness under my layers of clothing so I was glad to get back indoors. The snow shower forecast for Northumberland this afternoon has not as yet reached here, but the temperature is dropping rapidly.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Return of Two Deeply Frozen Birders!

Some sunshine, and a great morning to be out and about.
Yes, a mill pond!

Maybe that taxi driver was correct after all!

A desolate and frozen pond at Holywell

4th Dec. With Martin Kitching’s Seal and Seaduck Special having been postponed until next weekend (fingers crossed for a thaw) and icy roads a dodgy weather forecast for Durham ending thoughts of a trip to Saltholme and Teeside, Tom and I decided to return to our walk at Holywell and St Mary’s Island. As it turned out it was a wise decision as a number of unexpected bird species were thrown up as was another atmospheric walk amongst the snow and ice. I’m going to let Tom tell you about the birds in his relatively new blog at This is a kind of, read two get one free offer! :-) You may have to wait a day or two as I know Tom is busy and I don’t want to pressure him……honest! :-)

What I will tell you was, it was flippin’ cold at times, although not as bad as last weekend. There was no wind at the coast what so ever and the sea was like a mill pond. Oh, how I’m hoping it will be like that next weekend. Knowing my luck there will be fifteen foot waves to contend with!

The sun greeted us as we arrived at St Mary’s and even the wetland was unusually lively. Yes we did the walk back to front. We like variety! Another good choice as the tide was quite a way out but on the way in. Icicles hung from some of the cliffs ledges, reflecting out mini ice age of the past few days. Vey few people were about at all in the morning. Even the fish and chip shop at Seaton Sluice was almost empty. The walk was really enjoyable, but quite a trudge through deep snow and ice at times. Icicles hung in Holywell Dene too and Holywell Pond was frozen solid. By the time we reached the dene it seemed that a few people had begun to think it safe to venture out. Anyone not out earlier had missed a really nice morning.

Nothing from me this time about the birds, only mention of the fact we did hit the heights of three score and ten plus with the day list. Our taxi driver on returning home seemed to think that we will have minus degree temperatures until March and said that he had been told that if there is another four winters as cold as this it will be the beginning of a new ice age. I resisted the temptation to place a bet with him that he would be proven incorrect.

Another great days birding and one of many moods and no falling snow, except when it dropped on our heads from branches during a slight thaw! Note to self……..must try and get around patch this week.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Encounters with Nature by Two Deeply Frozen Birders!

A view from the village of changing skies.
Sunny on arrival, but a threatening dark sky over the North Sea.
Sunny by the burn, but looking a little threatening.
One of the deeply frozen birders, Tom, seeks cover!

It wasn't all dark skies, but none the less atmospheric.

Before the storm!

27th Nov. Waking to fair and clear skies, Tom and I decided that a little overnight snow wasn’t going to scupper plans of birding today. We were soon meeting up and off to Holywell Village, but not before Tom had described the Woodcock that had flown over his head as he was waiting at the bus stop in Heaton. Despite a further heavy fall of snow, a snowbound large vehicle and slithering cars attempting to block our departure out of Killingworth, it wasn’t to long before we arrived at a cold, but atmospheric Holywell. As we walked towards the pond area three waders in flight caught the eye. To be honest, I’m still not sure what species they were. A rather more exciting scene was that of a large skein of Pink-Footed Geese noisily flying overhead, soon to be followed by a flock of sixteen Whooper Swans. With these birds standing out so well, with a dark blue-grey sky as backdrop, I was reminded of Sir Peter Scott’s paintings of wildfowl. I’m sure he would have enjoyed paint this scene. The deep snow and the intense light ensured that birds showed well today. We were also soon watching a large flock of Skylark and Reed Buntings attempting to feed in the snow covered fields.

The pond was partially frozen and the hide cold. We managed to avoid another shower of snow whilst in the hide. The sky over the North Sea made it clear that we were in for snowfall at times during the day. The feeders had fortunately been topped up at the feeding station and visitors included a female Brambling, briefly seen. The predominant small passerines were Greenfinches. Birds on the pond included Mute Swan, Greylag Geese, Mallard, Shoveller, Teal, Pochard, Scaup and Tufted Duck. A Grey Heron gave us a customary fly pass. At times the sky cleared leaving above the pond, but cloud was always threatening. Skeins of Pink-Footed Geese and Greylag Geese were with us most of the day, all adding to the atmosphere. We next began to walk in the direction of the avenue, pausing only briefly at the public hide where gulls seemed to be the predominant species with lots of Great Black Backed Gulls about today. More Skylarks were found.

It wasn’t to long before we were in the dene and oddly enough, quite warm. Mind you, we had more layers on than a pickled onion! Very quickly we found Treecreeper and three Nuthatches. The burn was running quickly and deeply and I’m sure when a thaw sets in it will be gushing. The feeders seemed to be attracting Robins in the main but there were no shortage of tit parties including good numbers of Coal and Long Tailed Tits. A Sparrowhawk flew through the trees and numbers of Pheasant seemed to be taking refuge from a shoot taking place on the adjacent farmland. The shoot seemed to go on all day as we heard it still, as we left for home as darkness set in. We found a single Song Thrush and a single Goldcrest in the dene too.

As we eventually reached the path towards Seaton Sluice we came across a number of Rock Pipits attempting to feed near some thawed ground. Tom quickly got his eye on another female Brambling feeding nearby. This gave us excellent views as we approached and Robin like it just kept a few feet in front of us before eventually doubling back. A clear sign of the difficult conditions, although the bird didn’t look unwell or starved. It was definitely my sighting of the day along with the Whooper Swans and geese seen early morning.

Packed lunches had been given the elbow today as the thought of a warm up in the fish and chip café appealed. It was a good decision I think because by now the warmth of the dene had given way to bitter cold air come from the North East. The chips and pots of tea went down well during another heavy snow storm which we avoided nicely. The storm gave a perfect reason to have a second pot of tea.

Tom and I agreed that any sea watch would be a short affair today, but we did take a look from the point at Seaton Sluice. The large flock of Common Scoter were close to shore as were flocks of Eider Duck. There wasn’t too much else on the sea of any real interest. We did watch as heavy downpours of snow blew in off the sea and at one point took shelter behind the NTBC hide. At this point it was almost impossible to see the sea at all.

With cold feet we set off on the walk towards St Mary’s Island, thankfully with the wind to our backs. The list of waders began to mount and we eventually listed Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Golden Plover, Lapwing, Knot, Sanderling, Turnstone, Dunlin, Redshank, Curlew and Common Snipe. The Dunlin, as on our previous visit proved difficult to find, but an odd one was seen just before we left. By then with heavy snow falling I had been willing to give up on Dunlin altogether. The Common Snipe were on the wetland where we also added Gadwall and Wigeon to our day list. We had a good sighting of Kestrel flying blow us along by the cliff edge.

Despite the bitter cold, ice and snow I don’t think we felt the cold too badly today, although at one point Toms toes almost froze up so he might not agree.:-) It wasn’t an easy walk and I’m damn sure not many people, birders or otherwise, would have attempted it today of all days. However it was one of the most atmospheric days I can remember and with few people about we both really enjoyed the day. The light was wonderful and the skies changed by the minute and gave some stunning effects at times. I think we agreed that being out here in this atmosphere was as equally important as focusing on the bird life. It felt good!

As we neared St Marys Lighthouse the sky appeared like a watercolour behind the lighthouse. Was this the coming of Armageddon I wondered? No, I needn’t have worried, it was simply the build up of another very heavy snowstorm. I couldn’t help wonder what it was like to be out on that sea. The morning atmosphere along with the Pink-footed Geese and Whooper Swans had reminded me of the naturalist and painter Sir Peter Scott. The late afternoon sky to the east and the burning red sunset to the west reminded me of another artist, J M W Turner. The sky was certainly Turneresque. I remember reading about Turner putting himself through great discomfort, strapping himself to the mast of a boat during a storm at sea and sticking his head out of a fast steam train. The experience later produced some great paintings. I felt in a similar, if slightly less sadistic manner, that Tom and I had experienced a bit discomfort today, but that it would produce some good memories later.

The car park was a sheet of dangerous and jagged ice, and I was surprised to find anyone had even attempted to drive here. A few had. The stormy sky did eventually give up its snow and cover the blazing sunset. At this point it felt like an Arctic scene as a Sparrowhawk flew from across the fields in typical flapping and glide flight. We felt it best to leave now, but not before finding that Dunlin! We left with a list of 69 species of bird seen during what had been another great day. We didn’t find any great rarities and it just didn’t matter a jot!

28th Nov. Day of rest and football watching, in front of the telly.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Butterfly Interlude.

Marbled White

Woodland Brown

Common Glider

Blue-spot Hairstreak

Scarce Copper

Large Copper

Lesser Purple Emperor

It’s cold and it’s damp, so I thought a few butterflies would warm my blog. The shots were taken in 2008 when I stayed at Farm Lator in Hungry.

The Butterfly Bridge over the Derwent, which had been washed away in the floods of 2008, was on the agenda last weekend. It was so named because of the interest shown by entomologists in the butterflies of the area. No doubt it was a collector’s paradise in years gone by. I have developed a keen interest in butterflies in recent years and having just read Patrick Barkham’s interesting book, The Butterfly Isles, in which he sets off to see all the British species of butterfly in 2009, my mind turned to warmer days and insects. Patrick’s book is far more than a list of butterflies and he goes into some detail as to the lifestyle of each species and the difficulties involved in their conservation. The life of the Large Blue, from egg to adult, is especially interesting.

I imagined a group of Aurelians with nets on the Butterfly Bridge, which incidentally is to be replaced soon, and I found the following information on the internet…..

‘A select group of entomological collectors began meeting at the Swan Tavern in London’s Exchange Alley and by 1742 had founded The Society of Aurelians. “Aurelian”, originating from the Latin word aureus or aureolus, meaning golden or beautiful, was the name adopted by early members of the Society. This related to the iridescent sheen on the chrysalids of certain butterfly species such as the Peacock or Small Tortoiseshell. Tragically the premises in London were destroyed in the Great Fire, 1748, along with all the society records and collections.’

The origin of the English term butterfly is of some interest with numerous thoughts on the matter. Perhaps one of the most likely origins is it that it is related to the Brimstone Butterfly which has yellow colouring resembling butter. There is also a link with medieval superstition that there were that there were fairies or witches in winged form that stole butter and cream. Perhaps a rather less pleasant belief is that there is a connection with the old Dutch word boterschijte…butter shitter, because the excrement of some butterflies looks like butter.

The scientific name of the Brimstone Butterfly is Gonepteryx rhammi, meaning ‘the angle winged butterfly of the buckthorn.’ The Brimstone hibernates as an adult butterfly and is often on the wing as early as February and March. In calcareous areas it lays its eggs on buckthorn.

Lepidoptera is the name given to the order of animals that includes butterflies and moths. Lepidopteron is formed from two Greek words lepis meaning a scale and pteron denoting a wing. Butterflies and moths are distinguished from other insects in having wings composed of scales.

Fritillaries are some of the most beautiful of butterflies and whilst I have seen several species in Europe, I have to confess that I knowingly saw my first in Britain only last year, and that was the Dark Green Fritillary at Smardale, Cumbria. Patrick Barkham writes of his visit to Smardale to find Scotch Argus, another butterfly I saw during our fieldtrip. I now know that the term fritillary was given to butterflies as it is Latin for ‘checkerboard.’ The fritillary butterflies have checkerboard patterns on the upper sides of their wings

The Glanville Fritillary has an interesting history and was once found in much of south-eastern England and as far north as Lincolnshire and in fact the butterfly was once known as the ‘Lincolnshire Fritillary.’ It is now confined to the area of the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands. A small population in Somerset is thought to be an unauthorised introduction. The name of Glanville is derived from a highly respected entomologist by the name of Lady Eleanor Glanville who had collected some of the first specimens. Lady Glanville’s will was contested by relatives under the ‘Acts of Lunacy’ as the relatives argued that ‘none but those who were deprived of their senses would go in pursuit of butterflies.’ The case was found in Lady Glanville’s favour after leading entomologists gave testimony. Perhaps this does reflect the general feeling of that day about the butterfly collectors! Maybe it is a view of butterfly and bird watchers still held by some. :-)

One Butterfly tracked down by Patrick Barkham is the Mountain Ringlet. The only population of this species in England is high on Lakeland fells, including Fleetwith, near Honister Pass in Cumbria’s Lake District. I spent most of my holidays as a child on the farm at the foot of Honister Pass and as I got a bit older I backpacked in the Lake District and have been up on Fleetwith several times. Sadly, even though I have been up there on some very hot summer days I have never seen the Mountain Ringlet. In fact butterflies were the last thing on my mind at that time. Even if I had known they were there it is doubtful if I would have seen them. In cooler weather, and I seem to remember it is often cool in the Lake District, they hide low in the grasses and are almost impossible to find. They require matt-grass. Such are the needs of butterflies that conservation can prove difficult and our changing climate is going to affect them and cause headaches for the conservationists. I do feel a trip up Fleetwith Pike needs to go on my list of things to do next summer however. This short interlude with the butterflies has been enjoyable, but now I must get back to some winter bird watching.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Return to the Derwent Valley

Mist greets us on arrival.
A touch of colour below the viaduct.
It might be raining, but the thought of lunch brings a smile.
Pastel shades.

20th Nov. A very different atmosphere today as I arrived at Winlaton Mill, but an atmosphere none the less. The rain had stopped, but looking towards the west there was low lying mist and it seemed that it wouldn’t be long before some rain fell again. There was to be showers throughout the four hour walk, but nothing that would put off anyone other than the most fair weather of birders. I was joined by another eleven keen and adventurous participants, which made for a nice round and friendly group. Two of us counted three Common Buzzards before anyone else arrived, all perched high on the tree line to the south. After a quick introduction we were off in the direction of the Nine Arch Viaduct.

I noticed that there were far fewer Jays showing on this occasion, but we did eventually see a couple and later heard at least one. The autumnal colours of October had been replaced by a more pastel like winter colour in the trees. Cormorant, Grey Heron and Mute Swan were all seen in flight and the lake held a female Goldeneye along with numerous Moorhens and Mallards. We found where the Butterfly Bridge (so called because the area is renowned for its butterflies) had been washed away in the 2008 floods, but an initial check for Dipper went unrewarded. Dipper was eventually seen. I’m told this area of the river is good for odonata. Goosanders were seen flying above the river and eventually at least one was seen by the group on the river. Long Tailed Tits were heard before being seen and Treecreeper appeared. Several quite large flocks of Siskin were seen both in flight and feeding. Goldfinches were spotted amongst these flocks. One or two participants spotted Bullfinch.

By the time we were up at the Red Kite viewing area near the viaduct the rain was coming down quite heavily and I began to think it unlikely that the kites would be seen. In fact we did eventually see three or four Red Kites, but not as closely as had been the case in October. A Sparrowhawk also flew overhead, and a flock of Redwings was seen. The odd Mistle Thrush was about. The rain meant that the planned lunch stop was delayed and we later ate lunch in the Thornley Woods visitor centre. Thanks go to the guy working in the centre.

Having made the dramatic crossing of the A694 (all survived) out side of the centre, we all visited the hide. Tits were numerous including many Coal Tits. A Nuthatch was eventually found and a Roe Deer seen crossing between the trees. The usual Grey Squirrels were numerous. It strikes me as odd that in some areas great efforts are made to dispatch Grey Squirrels, yet in other areas they are left alone. This doesn’t make sense to me! Maybe I’m being to simplistic. I do understand the idea of refuges for Red Squirrels, just don’t think it will work. As we sat in the hide the rain became heavier and it looked set to continue. We decided to move on and most took the quick route along the road back to Winlaton Mill. I was tempted to jump on the bus for Newcastle, but the rain stopped and I continued the walk as planned retracing some of my footsteps along the by now very muddy woodland trail. Mud and peace appealed to me far more than busy traffic and noise A couple of us saw the female Kestrel, looking a bit forlorn in a tree. Probably the same one I came eye to eye with in October.

During a horrendous journey home through the Metro Centre traffic jams, I at least had tomorrows birding to keep me focused, even if tomorrow may be another wet day. Another wet day birding would in any event beat shopping in the Metro Centre hands down. I was later sent info from one of these GPS fitness measurement devices. If correct we had walked almost five miles. It didn’t seem that far to me. However isn’t modern technology a wonder!

I am now in possession of my 2011 Expedition Ardnamurchan callendar personally delivered by Holywell Birding. If you haven't got your copy best be quick before stocks run out. It'll be no good complaining later. It's very good.