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.


  1. Those 2 images of the sky at St. Marys' are truly outstanding and the "picture" you painted of the whoopers even more so.
    You got what you deserved going out and braving the elements don't need rarities to have a cracking day out. This is where these twitchers miss out. Its about nature..........get out there and grab it !
    A cracking posting........y marra looks frozzing.

  2. Cheers John. I was very pleased with the last two shots. It was simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
    I think I'll be stopping in again today as the snow continues to fall! This global warming is a real nuisance! :-) Brian