Sunday, 31 July 2011

Petrel...What's in a Name?

With some great sea watching behind me over the past two or three weeks, and a long time planned pelagic now approaching quickly, I’ve turned to my copy of Bird Families of the World/Albatrosses and Petrels across the World…Michael Brooke. (This is a copy which has been on the bookshelf for a while, largely unread until now). This along with televised cricket and a walk to the lake, filled in most of what on the whole was a none birding in the field weekend. With the European Storm Petrel passage along our coast seeming to be unprecedented with regard to numbers (within the memory of all/most), I found the opening chapter of the book interesting with regards to naming of birds.

The birds focussed upon by the book, which has some excellent colour plates, are all members of the order Procellariiformes, at least that is the usage adopted by the book. The term Procellariiforme is derived from the Latin procella which means storm, tempest or gale.

The actual origin of the term petrel would seem to be largely unknown. However there is some thought that the name is referring to when St Peter took a walk on the waters of the Sea of Galilee (Mathew 14 : 29). An alternative explanation for the name formerly referred to as ‘pitteral’ is that it is derived from the bird’s pitter pattering habits. Seamen used to refer to Storm Petrels as Mother Carey's Chickens. This name is a corruption of 'Mater Cara', the Blessed Virgin Mary.

It seems that in some coastal areas there was a belief that the souls of the dead transmigrate into birds, and this was directed especially to petrels. In Brittany fishermen believed that skippers who treated their crew badly were doomed to flutter forever over the sea as petrels. Shearwaters of the Bosphorus were known by the French as ‘ames damnees’ meaning damned souls and therefore treated with superstition. Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner is related to such myths.

The only Albatross I have seen in the wild is the Atlantic Yellow- nosed Albatross. It came close to the boat I was on during a pelagic off the coast of Namibia. On the same pelagic I remember both Wilson’s and White-chinned Petrels close by the boat also. The Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross is one of the smaller albatrosses in the group known as ‘mollymawks’. The term mollymawk is derived from the Dutch ‘mal’ meaning foolish and ‘mok’, meaning gull. The term was originally given to the Northern Fulmar which clustered in a feeding frenzy around boats, foolishly allowing themselves to be killed.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Watching the Lake

27th July. Alerted to the sighting of a Little Gull on Killingworth Lake, I took one of my rare power walks around the lake at teatime. I didn't make contact with a Little Gull, but there were at least thirteen Common Terns flying over the lager lake. It was a short but enjoyable visit as the sun had finally broken through the cloud. The family of Greylag were near the playground area and the adults kept an eye on me as I passed the youngsters. Swifts, Swallows and House Martins were also flying over the lake in relatively small numbers.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Watching the Sea!

26th July. This sea watching is addictive! Great evening at Newbiggin today with a great list of birds. Take a look at AughtonBirder for the list. Is it always as good and easy as this?

Monday, 25 July 2011

RSPB Saltholme Life(r)

24th July. Up with the larks today and on the bus to Saltholme at 8.00am. Sadly I had found out that the bus from the ‘Boro’ to Saltholme has been taken off completely on Sundays. Something to do with removal of subsidies, I believe. Seems sad to me that with what is supposed to be a prestige reserve on the doorstep, the buses to get there are removed! I rang up the day before to check out taxi fares and sad again I found that none of the three firms I rang initially could give me a quote. Two didn’t know where Saltholme RSPB Reserve was (hard to believe I know) and the third just couldn’t give me a quote until the evening! Eventually I was quoted £8.

On arrival at Middlesbrough things did not start well. I realised I’d left my lunch at home in the fridge, it was very cold, the bird that Tom and I had most hoped for had seemingly vanished over night (White-rumped Sandpiper) and I was asked for £16 for the taxi even though we got off before reaching the reserve. Two words come to mind the first being cheating and the second I’ll keep to myself! Anyway on me saying that I had been quoted £8 the day before I got the fare down to £10 which I reckon was still too much. All I can say is beware if you use a taxi in Middlesbrough! The day improved from then on.:-)

Having taken sometime to search for the White-rumped Sandpiper we were repeatedly told it hadn’t been seen since the previous evening. Whilst looking for it we did sight both Peregrine Falcon and Kestrel, although missed the earlier flyover Hobby. We decided to move on and try again later in the day.

The reserve was far quieter than I had expected for a Sunday. At one point we were in the main hide back of Saltholme by ourselves. Usually this hide is too noisy and busy for my taste. The vegetation on the reserve was high and very different from a previous visit. There weren’t that many birds around, but having said that we managed to see 6/8 Little Egrets (difficult to know exact number as they were moving around the site although there were three together at the Teesmouth hide), 2 Little Ringed Plover, Lapwing, Dunlin, Ruff, 2 Black-tailed Godwit and Common Sandpiper. The light and atmosphere was never good for bird watching at distance. Sedge Warblers were seen and Goldfinch seemed to be following us around the reserve. Other birds seen included Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe, Greylag and Canada Geese. Butterflies were flying in some numbers, mostly Whites but also Small Tortoiseshell, Red Admiral and Meadow Brown.

After a bite to eat in the cafĂ© (the busiest part of the reserve :-)) we took a walk back onto the road to take another look for the White-rumped Sandpiper. Such was all the comments that it hadn’t been seen all day, we weren’t in confident mood that we would find it and intended to walk back into the reserve.

After a while Tom found the Dunlin (we’d seen these in the morning) and a bird amongst them which he thought could be the one we were after. I have to confess that the viewing conditions were so poor in the sunlight that I doubt if I would have found it, so my congratulations to Tom. I took a look and agreed the bill was not right for Dunlin and neither was the plumage. We eventually managed to see it against the Dunlin and it was obviously a smaller bird. There was no way in the conditions that we were going to make out a white supercilium, but we were certain the primary projection past the tail was noticeable, as were some white markings on the mantle. We spent the rest of the afternoon considering this bird. The fact that everyone had said it wasn’t being seen threw us I reckon. The few people who turned up whilst we were there were not picking the bird up and the one or two who we got onto it just weren’t really aware of species type. After much thought and consideration Tom and I are in no doubt we had a White-rumped Sandpiper out there and having seen photographs taken within the last couple of days we feel supported in that decision. We also were made aware of one other reliable sighting at around mid-day. It has to be said it wasn’t one of our best sightings of a bird, such were the conditions, but I confidently say that the bird was still there during the afternoon. A lifer for both Tom and I. We spent a good deal of time finding it and once we did, lots of time studying it.

We never did get back into the reserve. In contrast to the cheat who had taxied us to nearby the reserve in the morning, a very friendly local guy drove us back to the bus station in Middlesbrough and we were very grateful to him for that. It had turned into another great days birding. Looking forward to getting out again soon.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Birds, Beer and Blogs!

19th and 20th July. I found my twitch returning on Tuesday evening! I received a telephone call from Tom (and a txt from AK) telling me that a Terek Sandpiper had been reported at Holywell. We couldn’t afford to miss such a bird in the area we walk so much, so it didn’t take long for us to get down there. My tea was left to heat up on return!

Such a ‘twitch’ could have brought us a ‘cracking’ bird and a ‘lifer’ for us both. Unfortunately it seemed that the bird had flown long before our arrival and we ‘dipped’. No one else that we met during the evening had had a sniff of the Terek Sandpiper, so at least no one could ‘grip’ us off. Someone we bumped into during the evening suggested that he may have seen a Red-necked Stint at St Mary’s. I suspect it was a genuine error and in fact the bird was more likely one of the arriving summer plumage Sanderling. Anyway I wasn’t going to follow that ‘string’. Yes I have all the twitching jargon now!

Despite there being no luck with Terek Sandpiper we had a very good evening anyway with yet another Lesser Whitethroat in the hedges not far from the public hide, one remaining juvenile Little Ringed Plover and good sightings of nicely plumaged Common and Lesser Black Backed Gulls. As seems common place there was the Great Spotted Woodpecker at the feeding station and small flocks of both Lapwing and Redshank. We missed by minutes, the two Little Egrets. East Pool held very little. We chatted to a couple of guys who regularly watch the area. I was pleased to hear that they had read my blog on occasions and those of others. I didn’t ask for too many comments.:-) As way of consolation for missing the Terek Sandpiper (I’m told there is a photo knocking about) we ended the evening in the pub). Time flew and I had a very late re-heated tea!

Wednesday evening was a planned seawatch before going on to the Rising Sun Country Park. Despite the usual ominous cloud threatening stormy weather we went for it and in fact it remained dry all evening. You can get the flavour of the birds seen on Tom’s blog at AughtonBirder. I’ll just say it included several Manx Shearwaters and Arctic Skuas. One of the later being a close in light phase bird. We’d started at St Mary’s taking in waders and terns and its where we bumped into BR who had also been on a seawatch.

After giving a bit of time to seawatching we warmed up with chips and then adjourned to the pub again. This time to celebrate Tom’s lifer in Manx Shearwater, which was also a year tick for me. I have to say I’m really getting into this type of birding. That is, both seawatching and beer and bird evenings.:-) So pleasant was the evening we never did make the Rising Sun. There’s always another time.:-) To tired to write my blog last night.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

All Weather Birders Chase a Record!

17th July. Despite this mornings rainfall Tom and I took the decision to head for the Holywell. Meeting up at Killingworth Lake at 8:30am we took a walk along by the side of the lake to in an attempt to find the Little Gull already seen by Tom before my slightly late arrival. There was no sign of it.:-( Never the less we were rewarded with a soaking plus Great Crested Grebes, seven Common Terns, three Common Sandpipers and numerous Swifts, House Martins and Swallows. Tom had also picked up a Sand Martin. We were soon off towards a wet Holywell although I had fingers crossed that the Met Office forecast would be correct and that we would have sun later in the day. We are always after our target of eighty species on this walk, having narrowly missed it recently with a total of seventy-nine. I can’t say I set off with confidence that we would make it today.

We had soon found four Great Spotted Woodpeckers near Holywell Pond and were glad of the cover of the hide. I counted seventeen Little Grebes on the water today, which included a pair with three young and a pair with two young. It seemed fairly quiet otherwise. Having walked down to the public hide it was a little disappointing to initially find no waders in what seemed to be perfect conditions for them. I’d spoken too soon however and a lone Redshank and two juvenile Little Ringed Plovers soon turned up. The latter being a year tick for me. Grey Heron was also seen. So the day was off to a good start and the rain stopped! We found a female Sparrowhawk and Common Buzzard in the area, but little of note on east pond. There were numbers of Linnet in the area and we began to find our first Common Whitethroats of the day.

We were soon listening to Yellowhammer song and at some point found a Lesser Whitethroat. We’ve been very lucky to find so many Lesser Whitethroats this year. It was fortuitous that we took the path across the fields today instead of walking down the avenue as we were given excellent sightings of the Barn Owl out hunting at 11.25am. No doubt it has hungry mouths to feed. A Kestrel was found and later seen lit by the sun in the trees of the dene. Yes by now it was warm and sunny. Once into the dene we had sightings of Grey Wagtail and Dipper. I’m confident we found two Grey Wagtail territories today. The latter bird being one of the rapidly growing juvenile birds. Other warblers included Blackcap, Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff. The day list was adding up quite quickly despite missing out on some common woodland species.

By the time we were at Seaton Sluice the rain had returned so we headed into the fish and chip shop for lunch. By the time we had taken our fill and stocked up with cans of coke, it had stopped raining. We were heading in any event for the luxurious tower hide. Before entering the hide we had found Oystercatchers, Turnstones, Redshanks and ten Knot resplendent in summer plumage giving us one of the sightings of the day. Once in the hide we spent longer than usual enjoying a really good sea watch. We’d soon found quite large numbers of Guillemot, several with young birds with them. Razorbill was also eventually picked up. Gannets were quite numerous and we found both Arctic and Great Skua flying south. I think we may have had two Arctic Skuas. Kittiwakes were numerous and Fulmar was eventually found. Most of the terns were Sandwich, but Common and Arctic were also seen. Tom picked up another Little Gull and this time I saw it, so any greenness I shown earlier soon vanished. I seem to remember another Common Sandpiper in this area and another one later on, plus Rock Pipit.

Well satisfied and with a growing day list we made off in the direction of St Marys’ Lighthouse. I have to admit I was still doubtful of any record breaking today. We got chatting to another birder and his partner who turned out to be fellow blogger, Howdon Birder. It was his talk of dragonflies that gave me a clue as to who it was. Good to meet you both. I must get my olfactory senses checked out as I got no whiff of the brut! Perhaps it hadn’t been splashed all over quite enough. :-) We’d all been watching Razorbills being dived bombed by gulls which were after their catch. Sandwich Terns were also diving down in the same area which must have held a shoal of fish.

I’m not quite sure when the target of eighty came into sight, but it did. By now we were picking up flocks of Golden Plover, Lapwing and Curlew and also had our first Meadow Pipits of the day. Chasing this record under a burning sun was now a sweat making business. So focused was I on this objective I’d almost forgotten the seals and butterflies seen today. I seem to remember the butterflies were Small White, Small Skipper, Speckled Wood and Meadow Browns. It was definitely a day given over primarily to the birding however.

Despite being roast by the sun the thunderous storm over Blyth was not far behind us and I wondered why some folk chose to walk in the opposite direction in shirt sleeves!

Once we had arrived at the wetland area we needed two more species of bird to hit eighty for the day. The Sedge Warblers were singing, but we already had them on the list. Unusually for this area it took some time to find Reed Buntings. We were now on seventy-nine and having found the pond almost devoid of life and scoured the small amount of shore left by the now high tide, it looked like we were going to be stuck one short of that record. There’s always another day I thought to myself and Tom and I agreed that despite failing to smash our record it had been another great days birding with new years ticks for both of us, and a lifer for Tom.

So we headed off towards the cemetery thinking that we might find number eighty there if very lucky. Then just a minute, Tom remembered………..he hadn’t added the one and only Pheasant that had seen sheltering under the feeders today. We’d done it. A new record had been set and we had hit the eighty species. I had been confident from the start.:-)

Now between you and I, I’m still not sure that Tom had left this Pheasant off the list deliberately in order to keep me on my toes and sweat over this. If he had it worked. I was sweating and tonight I am cream crackered so apologies if I’ve missed anything of importance. We didn’t finish until about 6.00pm. The all weather birders had had another great days birding as always. I wonder if ninety is a possibility!

Thursday, 14 July 2011



The wonders of evolution.

14th July. I found a nice group of Mallard feathers as I walked beside the small lake today. Such is my interest in feathers, that I have just in the past few days ordered from Amazon, the new book Feathers/Thor Hanson which is to be my next read. It’s in the post as I type. For sometime now I’ve been meaning to put together a talk on feathers and I’ve just not got around to it. Maybe the book will kick me into action, although I’m not so sure anyone would necessarily want to listen and that is what has led to my lack of motivation if I’m honest. I do know that when I have spoken to youngsters having a few feathers at hand has always grabbed their attention. I find that much better than endless images that are quickly forgotten. A feather can be held and marvelled over, and what marvels of evolution feathers are!

I heard two of the young Great Crested Grebes hungrily calling before I had reached the lake. They continue to make good progress. The third youngster was following the other adult bird in the opposite corner of the lake. There was no sign of the young Little Grebe today. The sports centre roof held numbers of Black Headed, Herring, Great Black Back and Lesser Black Back Gulls. As I watched the Swifts and House Martins flying over the large lake I got my eye on a pair of Little Grebe. Now I’m wondering if these were the parents of the youngster I found a few days ago. The Great Crested Grebe was alone again and I can’t see where the other one could be sitting on a nest. The floating reed bed has almost disappeared! The Common Terns flew over the lake. One flew off in the direction of Gosforth Park with a fish in its bill. I assume that these regular terns are part of the Gosforth Park colony which I don’t think has faired too well over the past couple of years.

I walked back in the sun, passing ‘butterfly alley’ where there are still numbers of Small Skipper. Whites, Small Tortoiseshell and Meadow Browns were also seen today. Bird song was now notable by its absence, although the sound of Chiffchaff was still heard.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Painted Lady Butterfly

12th July. I have just aborted a walk down to the lake this evening having found the sky filling with thunderous looking clouds. I was reminded of the heavy downfalls on Saturday. I may still make it if it blows over. My walk down the garden path was fruitful however as I found my first Painted Lady Butterfly of 2011. Unfortunately by the time I had my camera in hand 'the lady' had fled. Perhaps it too wanted to avoid getting soaked. A quick look at the migration map on the Butterfly Conservation website seems to suggest that Painted Ladies are about in some number now, but as I say, it is the first one I've spotted this year. It seems 2010 was a poor year in Britain for this butterfly.

Oddly enough I had just been thinking of Painted Lady Butterflies. My mind had being playing tricks and i was thinking it was last year when they were around in great numbers. In fact having checked it was actually 2009. Doesn't time fly? The Painted Lady Butterfly is a long distance migrant. In some years millions appear in Britain and in some other years relatively few appear. Another good year with millions of this species appearing was 1996. I think it was 1967 that only 100 records of this butterfly occurred. I seem to remember that much depends on conditions in the mountains of northern Africa where the Painted Ladies initially lay their eggs. There still seems to be a vague picture as to the return migration of the Painted Lady Butterfly, but it is now thought they may make a return migration around the period of September. The height of their flight may account for this return not being seen.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Marsden Moods

Marsden's changing moods.
Whilst digesting my tea and sheltering from the thunderstorm.

9th July. An early ferry from North to South Shields this morning brought me Common Tern, Sandwich Tern, and a flock of eleven Curlew flying up river. The north quay roof was covered in Great Black Backed Gulls and a few Cormorants were about the place as were the first Kittiwakes of the day.

The skies suggested possible showers, but by the time of arrival at Marsden Grotto it was still warm and dry, but it was clearly raining heavily along the coast to the north. It wasn’t long until it was raining heavily upon me! Happily the showers didn’t last very long and it had dried up again before I was anywhere near reaching Souter Lighthouse. I was surprised to see so many Razorbills on the cliffs and on the sea. Does this suggest a growing colony of Razorbill at Marsden in the longer term? Gannets were numerous and several were diving close to the shore. There were a few Guillemots and I found a Red Throated Diver flying south. Of course there were the expected Kittiwakes, Fulmars, Herring Gulls and Cormorants. A Kestrel was seen flying along the cliff edge. Two Rock Pipits were seen and heard. No Shags seen and few butterflies about apart from Meadow Browns.

I had a walk to lead today so eventually made back for Marsden Grotto determined to spend more time in the future exploring the area south of the lighthouse. I wasn’t expecting too many on the walk today and I was proved correct. However we managed to reach double figures, ten that is, and I guess it is quality that counts. We set off for the bay taking in the Sand Martin colony as the heavens’ opened on us, which all added to the mood and atmosphere, as did the thunder and lighting as we walked along the foot of the limestone cliffs. Everyone enjoyed looking at the Kittiwakes and their youngsters which were at various stages of development. Some, already efficient in flight. Another Red Throated Diver was seen flying south and Sandwich, Common and at least one Arctic Tern flew and dived close to shore. The Razorbills just kept coming. Gannets continued to dive close to shore and a few Guillemots were still appearing. The Kestrel re appeared on a few occasions. We made for the steps at the grotto and returned to the cliff top.

By now it was sunny and hot although storm clouds were never far away and rain could be seen falling over parts of the sea. We took a walk towards Souter Lighthouse. Unlike the rest of the Leas which is cut in lawn style and as a result is very boring, this area has been left to grow and has much more to offer botanically, including Pyramidal Orchids today. There were still few butterflies about but the odd Burnet Moth was found. Fulmars were watched as they flew close to the cliff edge. Ten had by now become seven. Was it something that I had said? :-) Weather wise this was certainly the best part of the day as the sun was out and it was hot! It had been good to spend the day in such a pleasant area and share its changing moods. Everyone went home with the sound of Kittiwake calls in their ears and in th most part, dry!

I ended up at North Shields fish quay for tea after which I had to take shelter from heavy rains and thunder and lighting. Roads in the area were flooded. I eventually arrived back at Killingworth to find that there had been little in the way of rainfall. Arctic Tern was a new one for the year list. The day list won’t be a large one but it had been a good day. I still have the scent of guano in my nostrils. As someone commented today, ‘it smelt better than the food cooking at Marsden Grotto’. No offence to the chef of course. I’m told the food there is good.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Birds do it, Bees do it.......

Busy as Soldier Beetles!

Small Skippers Rule....OK.

Haven't they done well?

Birds do it, bees do it
Even Soldier Beetles do it
Let's do it

5th July. As you can see the Soldier Beetles were active today as were the Small Skippers and Meadow Brown Butterflies. Some of the Burnet Moths were in flight whilst others remained still on the thistles. Small Skippers were something I was hardly aware of only a few years ago and now they are around in great numbers. I listened to Common Whitethroat as I watched the insects, and caught a sighting of it on my return.

The three young Great Crested Grebes were rather more active today, as they were calling and being fed by the adults. I happily noted all seem to be progressing well and all of equal size at present. They were soon back into the centre of the small lake to rest after a good feed and one was back up on the females back. I saw no sign of the two growing young Great Crested Grebes today. Could they have dispersed I wonder? What I did eventually find diving amongst the Amphibious Bistort was a young Little Grebe. With striped head seeming to fade somewhat I wondered if this bird had flown in from else-where. There was no sign of any adult Little Grebes although at least one has been around of late.

Five Common Terns flew up and down the lake today. The five Greylag Geese youngsters look as though they are thriving and looking more like the parent birds now.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Marsden and a lot of Steps.

Marsden Rock, Cliffs, Kittiwakes and Cormorants

La mer
Qu'on voit danser le long des golfes clairs
A des reflets d'argent
La mer
Des reflets changeants
Sous la pluie

Lyrics courtesy of Charles Trenet

3rd July. I paid an unexpected visit to sunny Marsden today and spent a pleasant couple of hours down there. The main object was to check out any botanical interest before a future walk. In fact there wasn’t that much floral interest. I was surprised that there were so few butterflies on the wing too although I did see Small Tortoiseshell, Common Blue (males and females) and Meadow Brown.

I walked down into the bay an along the shore watching and listening to the Kittiwakes as I went and taking note of the Sand Martin colony. The top of Marsden Rock was taken up in the main by Cormorants. I saw no Shags. There were a few Fulmars about. I got my eye on a couple of Razorbills on the ‘rock’. I eventually managed to count fourteen Razorbills coming and going from the rock ledges. There may have been a few more as I saw some on the sea, but was unsure if these were the same birds I had counted flying away from the rock.

Next time I’m down there will be more time for a sea watch. I walked up the steps at Marsden Grotto which took me back to the top of the cliffs. One-hundred and twenty-seven steps in all give or take one or two. The cliff scenery was at its best today. As I say, there wasn’t a lot of floral interest but plants which remain in mind includes Kidney Vetch, Rest Harrow, Birds-foot Trefoil, Common Spotted Orchid and Greater Knapweed. There were a couple of darker purple Orchids on the cliff side which were well past their best and I wasn’t too sure what they were and wasn’t prepared to risk my neck in order to try and find out.

Saturday, 2 July 2011


2nd July. A warm Saturday evening and all very quiet. A photographer taking shots of the Great Crested Grebes. Was it you? Four Common Terns flying up and down the lake. A family of seven ducklings in a straight line behind the female Mallard. Swifts and House Martins over the lake. Nothing out of the ordinary at all, but a very pleasant evening far from the maddening crowd.

Youngsters playing tennis on the courts in a not so Rafa Nadal style. The marks of a small fire on the playing fields surrounded scattered empty cans of strongbow cider and beer. I don't begrudge the youngsters their fun last night, far from it, as I wouldn't have minded a can of beer myself, but did they really need to scatter the rubbish around?

At least two Common Whitethroat in song. A few Chiffchaffs calling and a Willow Warbler giving a very short passage of song. The Burnet Moths seeming almost torpid on stalks of grass and a Meadow Brown still on the wing at 8.00pm. The most exciting event was the Sparrowhawk above me in typical flapping and gliding flight, seeming to be chased by a Swift.

Despite my general feeling that there have been more Grasshopper Warblers around this year, I still haven't seen or heard one on patch. Whitethroats too seem to have done well and these certainly have been well represented on patch.

Enjoyed the peace and listening to the birds.