Thursday, 29 August 2013

Mimicry, Macro & Me

Aug.  With some time on my hands this month I was drawn into doing some tidying up of the garden and I still have plenty to do yet.  Perhaps subconsciously, in order to delay the working time I was occasionally taken by some of the garden wildlife.  It’s certainly not the same as being on safari in Africa, although when I got around to trimming the overgrown Holly Trees it did seem as though I was in a forest!  On the whole it was the little things that drew my attention and as anyone with any real interest in nature will know, the little things really do matter.  My recent entry into macro photography has led me on various directions and pathways and I’d argue that if time is spent looking at the little things and studying them they can provide as much reward and excitement as any safari to far away places, and I say that as one who has been to quite a few far away places.  I accept that my small garden may not have too much to offer the naturalist, but I have to say that I do think that the UK has a great deal to offer anyone interested in nature, just so long as you have the waterproofs and thermal gear handy.

Still B' practicing!
One other thought I have is that it is easy to make a joke of what some perceive as Robin strokers and garden birders.  If I’m honest I’ve done so myself occasionally.  I’m mindful however that was where at least some of my interest in nature came about, and I’d be surprised if many more serious and skilled naturalists/birders didn’t experience the same passage at one point.  Elitism is something I really dislike and unfortunately it creeps into most walks of life, and natural history pursuits are no exception.  Anyhow, as I’ve often said, most folk are not going to be seriously involved in natural history issues, be it bird watching or anything else.  However, for nature to remain in safe hands for future generations it is the masses that need to be encouraged to at least take some part in helping conserve our wildlife and environment.  I know from experience that with a sizable minority this is not only hard going, but virtually impossible, such is their outlook on life and their unwillingness to listen to/or do anything which doesn’t fit in with their own immediate needs, but there are many willing to listen and even a fair number willing to act if given sound reasons.  All groups and organisations should in my view be reaching out to this latter group.  Inclusiveness is the way forward.  Individuals need to feel wanted, that they have a role and are an important part of groups and organisations or they just won’t bother to join them and then everyone loses.

I’ve included a few photos taken in the garden during the latter part of August.  It didn’t take a lot of effort to capture the images, just patience, a bit of free time and on one occasion a bit of a balancing act.  Some I’m quite pleased with and already they have led me into checking a few facts out.  I hope they show that nature does already have a home in my garden, but I know I have some work to put in.

Painted Lady Butterfly.  Neighbour gave me some funny looks (often does) as I stood on a chair in my socks trying to capture this image.  I did have other clothes on!  
Autumn is definitely on the way as I had a Willow Warbler on the move through the garden today.  A Painted Lady Butterfly (which required the balancing act to acquire its image) and more Speckled Wood Butterflies visited this morning too.  The Painted Lady Butterfly was only the third one of this species I have seen this year.  I wonder how far this one will get on migration south.

Speckled Wood Butterfly
The Hoverflies kept me occupied for sometime.  I need some more practice to capture one hovering beside a flower.  Well, to be like any standard suitable to put on my blog.  Maybe next year as the dark nights will see me doing some reading on more specialised macro work I think.  Hoverflies are as I’m sure you all know a very good example of mimicry.  In this case Batesian mimicry.

An old favourite Helophilus pendulus aka sun fly or footballer
Batesian mimicry is named after Henry Walter Bates a colleague of Alfred Russell Wallace (I have to say I was expecting to hear far more about Wallace this year, it being the centenary of his death).  Bates and Wallace explored the Amazonian area of South America.  Wallace came back to Britain years before Bates.  Wallace was unlucky and lost his collections when his ship caught fire.  Bates returned with thousands of species, many of them insects and about 8,000 new to science and he gave the first scientific account of mimicry in animals.  In Batesian mimicry palatable species mimic an unpalatable or noxious species in order to confuse predators.  In the case of Hoverflies they mimic the colour and shape of Wasp and Bee species.  It is known and proven by experiment that one predator certainly not fooled by this is the Spotted Flycatcher which often feeds on Hoverflies.

Eristalis pertinax or Tapered Drone Fly
Another form of mimicry is Mullerian mimicry which is named after Fritz Muller who explored Amazonia some years after Bates and found that in some poisonous species two or more poisonous species mimic each others warning signals.  If for example a predatory species encounters a noxious species as prey and then thereafter avoids it, there is no benefit for species that are not avoided.  Therefore there is an evolutionary benefit to species not avoided in a gradual approach to similarity in appearance of the two or more prey species. 

Episyrphus balteatus or Marmalade Fly.  I remember advice from Sam that not everything has to be frame filling to be a good image and I agree, as I prefer the first image of this one.
There are other forms of mimicry such as self mimicry in which a species may evolve to have markings such as false eyes, such as in some butterflies, so that predators will be confused.  It is all very interesting and worth delving into in more depth.

Delilah me friendly spider
Note to self…Must read more about Hoverflies, mimicry and camouflage in animals and plants

Please don't hesitate to mention if I have the names wrong, but best leave Delilah alone as she's quite touchy about such things.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Weekend Walking, Watching, Waiting and Wading

25th Aug.  Sunday saw Sam and me making a trip to Gosforth Park Nature reserve with the intention of moving onto another area afterwards.  As the weather improved and the temperature rose we did our usual lap of the reserve passing only one other person until we reached the hides where we briefly met another two.  Peace and quiet is one of the things very much in the reserves favour.  It also gives us opportunity to exercise our wider naturalist interests with little to no disturbance and there aren’t many local spots where this is possible these days.  Having said that there is one drawback in the reserve during summer, especially after rain, and that is the damn Mosquitoes.  I managed to get my insect repellent on quickly, as my allergy makes sure I lose no time.  Sam isn’t usually bothered by insect bites, but he paid the price of being a bit slower with the repellent.

We saw little in the way of birds until we reached the hide, but we noted numerous Speckled Wood and Wall Brown Butterflies and a single Small Copper Butterfly as well as the White species.  All very flighty, so no photographs were possible, but we did manage some macro photography of other inhabitants.  The only real birding interest of more for a while was listening to a Common Tern apparently being chased by a Sparrowhawk.  A Grey Squirrel was seen at the same time (record left at the reserve), as we heard what was thought to be a Roe Deer disappearing into the woods.

One of many small young frogs (I only have eyes for you)

Common Green Grasshopper I believe

A mug for the 'Ugly Bugs Ball'.  This one is courtesy of Samuel Hood, Under the Hood Photography

The first hide we entered didn’t keep us long as the Mosquitoes had taken over this area.  We headed for the second hide not realising just how long we would stay there.  The sun was up now, we had the hide to ourselves and we had hopes of the Kingfisher visiting.  Any thoughts of moving on were dismissed.  Now I would have argued until recently that watching from a hide is not my favourite form of watching nature.  I think the truth is it is hides where there is constant chat from numbers of users that I don’t like, so as we were by ourselves most of the time I really enjoyed the afternoon vigil.  Having spent quite a number of hours in the hides recently at the reserve, Holywell, Cresswell and the Tower Hide I think I have to confess I’m getting a liking for it.  I also think I’m more laid back these days and not one for chasing all over the place in the pursuit of species.  The Kingfisher never did call by so we enjoyed what was on offer which included numerous fly bys from the Sparrowhawks.  Judging from size when two were in the air together there must be a family of them in the reserve.  The female was seen but when two were in the air together they were of the same size.  We also watched as one of the Sparrowhawks seemed to be almost enjoying annoying the over head Common Buzzard.  All afternoon we had the calls from what I think was at least two adult Water Rails and possibly juveniles, at times very close to the hide.  Two Southern Hawker Dragonflies teased us as they hawked right in front of our eyes, but at no time settled.   A Common Darter Dragonfly did settle.  Other birds seen included Little Grebe, Grey Heron, Common Tern, Wigeon and Teal.  The Mute Swan family entertained with a balancing act on the small floating island as did the Moorhen perched where we had hoped for a Kingfisher.  We left the reserve early evening, relaxed and content.

26th Aug.  We headed to Holywell Pond at lunchtime hoping to reach St Mary’s Island at least a couple of hours before high tide.


 The single Greenshank at the pond gave us an excellent sighting in good light as did the very attractively marked Lapwings.  Eighty-five Greylag Geese and circa fifty Canada Geese were close by.  The Lapwings lifted from time to time and the geese eventually took to the water.  As yesterday, we watched a Common Buzzard flying with a Sparrowhawk.  Eventually two Common Buzzards were seen flying together and occasionally mewing calls could be heard.  Swallows and House Martins were hunting over the pond and other birds seen included Little Grebes in number, Grey Heron, Mallard, Gadwall, Pochard, Wigeon, Teal, Tufted Duck and gulls including Lesser Black Backed.

Greenshank with Lapwing

A Grey heron makes its usual appearance

  Wall Brown and Speckled Wood Butterflies were with us from the outset today, especially the latter species.  Phil Gates comments on Speckled Wood Butterflies on his excellent blog here
I’ve read a little more about the Speckled Wood Butterfly and it seems to me that it was far more common as north as Scotland in the past but then became restricted to small areas from which it is now spreading from once again.  I also seem to remember that it was found in North Northumberland long before it appeared in North Tyneside.  Anyway, this does underline the need to protect small areas and populations and not just assume that remaining populations, no matter how small, will become extinct.   We need to protect what we have for when times change.  A lesson which perhaps many do not take on board.

Holywell Dene provided little excitement on the bird front and I have to say that this year we have found little in the way of odonata in this area.  We did find Common Hawker, Common Darter and Common Blue Damselfly today.  As yesterday, we added Small Copper to the butterfly list and once down at the coast Peacock Butterfly was added.

Small Copper Butterfly
Once down at the coast we found little in the way of movement over the sea, but we did find plenty of waders.  Our lone Greenshank and flock of Lapwings were joined on the list by Oystercatcher, Golden Plover, a lone Grey Plover (very well spotted by Sam behind a flock of many hundred Golden Plovers), Ringed Plover, Knot, Sanderling, Turnstone, Redshank and Curlew.  We ended the day watching the tide bring in a few Sandwich Terns and also watched as the Golden Plovers were forced of the islands in North Bay and flew into South Bay in small flocks.  Little beats watching large flocks of waders, especially Golden Plovers in good light.  A few of these birds still retained much of their summer plumage and one in particular stood out from the flock of hundreds.  Just before we left we bumped into a group of birders including AS, BD and MF obviously out on a Bank Holiday jaunt!  The atmosphere was better now that many of the Bank Holiday crowds had gone.  I have to say it had been a wonderfully sunny and warm day without cloud.  We were both tired by now so decided to make for home once again more than content with our lot.

Juvenile and adult Common Tern on patch
27th Aug.  I hadn’t intended going anywhere today having been hard at work in the garden where incidentally I found two Speckled Wood Butterflies.  I was about to put my feet up after a job well done when Sam informed me he had found a patch tick in Yellow Wagtail.  I was up and out quickly as this would be a patch tick for me too.  Unfortunately a search by us failed to re-find the bird, but it was a very nice find for Sam.  I can’t feel envious……..or well, maybe just a bit!  At least I did find the Little Grebe and was able to watch the four now well grown Great Crested Grebe juveniles.  One of them was being fed a rather large fish by the male adult.  The juveniles seem far more independent, but still sticking close to the nest site.  Large mixed flocks of gulls flew high over the lake.  An adult and juvenile Common Tern allowed a close approach on the edge of the lake.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

A Lynx from the Links

20th Aug.  Sam and I begun our walk from St Mary’s Island and soon afterwards we were watching a Lynx.  It’s always good to have Sam’s encyclopaedic knowledge of such flying machines at hand.  I’ve since looked at some airborne flips from this machine on the internet which where quite spectacular.

Courtesy of Samuel Hood...Under the Hood Photography (as is the info).   'An Army Air Corps. Helicopter although the Royal Navy do you use them, usually the easiest way to tell them apart is most of the time the AAC Lynx has skids on the bottom whereas the navy use wheels on the bottom of their helicopters. The standard production version I believe has a cruising speed of around 150-175 Knots at top whack, whereas the special adapted lynx that broke the speed record got up to 249MPH. If I remember rightly the reg number for the aircraft was G-LYNX, but can't remember if that is correct or not.

It was good to have the Lynx flyover as on the whole sea watching proved non-productive.  Eiders, Common Scoter and Gannets were amongst birds seen.  The tide was at its highest point so waders were not easy to find although the flock of Golden Plover behind the island, had amongst it Dunlin, Turnstone, Ringed Plover and Curlew. A quick look from Seaton Sluice brought us little in addition, but we had seen several Wall Brown Butterflies.

After tea we made through the dene as we planned to spend some time at Holywell Pond.  We heard both Barn Owl (I think it had been disturbed by corvids) and Great Spotted Woodpeckers.  A juvenile Grey Wagtail was found on the burn and the regular sighting of Stock Dove was made.  Willow Warble was seen briefly as were more Wall Brown Butterflies.

The evening at the pond was to be once again a rewarding one.  The hoped for passage waders didn’t make an appearance, but Sam and I were happy to watch the regular waterfowl, the single Common Snipe and the two Curlews that flew into roost.  We paid special attention to the plumage of these birds, something in my opinion can often be overlooked by many in the chase to find rarer birds.  The birds showed well in the evening light and I’m pleased to say it was much warmer than on my previous visit.  There was no sign of Greenshanks on either the main pond or East Pond this evening so maybe these birds have now moved on.

We remained until 8.30pm by which time two Curlews had become forty-seven and hundreds of hirundines were flying over the pond and over the surrounding fields.  Sand Martins, Swallows and House Martins were feeding and drinking prior to roosting.  I don’t think I have ever seen quite so many in the area as I did this evening.  There were plenty of insects about, one of which managed to give me quite a bite on my face.  As we watched the swooping birds on our walk back to the village more Curlews flew in to roost making the total about eighty-five birds.  We then heard the distant calling of geese.  The sound of Greylag Geese gradually increased until several small skeins flew overhead and onto the pond.  We estimated that there were at least two hundred Greylag Geese.  By now the light was leaving us, as the long days of mid summer are no longer.

So nothing in the least that would be considered rare, but none the less it is evenings like this that ensures my passion for birds and nature doesn’t diminish.  Not to mention the fact that we don’t often begin our walks by watching a Lynx.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Raining Greenshanks

18th Aug.  I paid a late afternoon visit to Holywell Pond in the hopes of finding passage waders.  As I passed Backworth Pond flocks of Lapwing flew overhead.

On arrival at Holywell I found that the water had risen since my last visit perhaps making the scrape rather less appealing to waders, although I immediately found two Greenshanks showing well and they were soon joined by a third.  Definitely the bird of the moment in Northumberland.  One Dunlin fed amongst the Black Headed Gulls and later three Common Snipe appeared from the meadow and the evening light showed off their plumage at its best.  By the time I come to leave it was difficult to judge how many Common Snipe were actually present at the pond, as four flew together at the point, leaving one alone at the ponds edge and another on East Pond.  Single birds were seen in flight throughout the time I was there.

A hide with a view
Although the Greenshanks were flying between the main pond and East Pond, I found only one Common Snipe at East Pond when I took a walk down to look.

I found little from the members hide, although most of the Little Grebes were in this area.  The calls of juvenile Little Grebes in various stages of growth were with me all evening.  Numbers of Teal may now be starting to build up.

I ended the evening back at the public hide with only one Greenshank now visible.  I waited in hopes that more waders would fly in, but it didn’t happen this evening.  When I had left the house I thought I’d be far too hot in my coat, but I found I was glad to have taken it.  The wind at times gave a cool autumnal feel to the air.  I watched as rain cloud built up in the west and showers fell in the distance whilst the sun set giving a yellow rather than orange glow to the sky.  A single Grey Heron turned up as did three juvenile Pied Wagtails that bathed at the edge of the pond as the light dulled.  Swifts, Sand Martins, Swallows and House Martins fed over the pond, but in smaller numbers than on my previous visit.  There were no more waders seen, although Curlew was heard in the distance.  With the Common Terns apparently gone from the area long with most of the Pied Wagtails which had been about on my last visit, there was far less action in general this evening.  Still, there is plenty of time for passage waders to appear and I shall be back.

This scene was yet to be tarnished by the aroma of takeaway food
The wind got up again as I left and made for the village.  I smelt wood-smoke in the air giving more hints of autumn as I passed the line of houses.  The only birds moving now were the occasional hirundines and the Wood Pigeons disturbed by my passing by. The rain clouds were approaching although there was still clear blue sky down the coast line to the east.  I no sooner arrived at cover in the village when a cloud burst above me.  The rain was heavy, but not long lasting.  A rainbow lit up the sky and a rather watery sunlight lit up the building opposite.  A courting couple joined me in the shelter and ate their takeaway meal.  The aroma of the meal filled the surrounding air.  Happily I was soon on my way home.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Great Crested Grebes...An Urban Family

I’ve watched the Great Crested Grebes on Killingworth Lake for a few years now, but even more intensely for the past two years, as I’ve been so inspired by my fellow patch birder Sam, who I confess has done more watching and definitely more photographing of these grebes than I have.  We both have a growing knowledge of the grebe family of species in general as a result of our efforts and subsequent reading.  Without doubt the Great Crested Grebes attract the attention of folk who would take little interest in the lake otherwise!  Having led over fifty people around the patch over the past two or three years ensures (I would hope) that I can’t be accused of a selfish outlook on patch birding.  There is a great benefit in this attention, in that the birds and situation are being watched and people are taking an interest, more so this year than in any previous year I can remember.  This can only be of benefit to the birds and all concerned in a growing urbanisation of this area, so the more photos and comments seen about the wildlife that exists here the better.  It reminds the powers that be that there is interest and that folk are watching!  I’m still none the less disinclined to give too much away about what I find on patch, as I believe the best way to learn about nature is to go out and watch it for yourself and make you own discoveries, or share this experience with like minded people.  



Laying the first egg
Sam and I have been asked how we know that we are watching the same pair of grebes in recent years.  The simple answer is that we can’t scientifically prove we are, but because of the nature of the behaviour and nesting habits of these very productive birds, we are positive that it is the same pair that has returned over the past few years.  I’ve mentioned some weeks ago that the pair was a month late in nesting this year, probably because of the very cold spring temperatures.  The first nest was abandoned for reasons I have also mentioned in previous blogs, but a second nest was built soon afterwards and two juvenile birds fledged and subsequently dispersed. Dispersal  took place very quickly this year, bringing at least one comment from a visitor that dispersal could not have taken place and that something may have happened to the juveniles prior to it happening.  Sam and I are quite sure that these strong and healthy birds did disperse.  It so happened that a juvenile Great Crested Grebe was reported at Arcot Pond about this time and we are believe it was more than likely one of the Killingworth juveniles.  Whilst the juvenile birds have tended to remain with the parent birds for longer periods prior to dispersal in recent years, the literature suggests that the juveniles can be independent by age of six weeks.  I also believe that the parent birds, having been delayed with the first nest, where ready to follow their usual pattern and lay a second clutch and this is likely to have encouraged the juveniles to move.

The Great Crested Grebes were found building a second nest by Sam on 4th July.   This nest was attached to the floating structure (once the floating reed-bed, but what many would now call a floating eyesore, and I can’t resist saying so once again).  This meant that the nest was very close to the main road and footpath and so easily seen.  We decided to keep this information to ourselves so as not to encourage unnecessary disturbance (I am of the opinion that our silence on discovering the nest site last year, it was in a very vulnerable position on that occasion, ensured that the second brood was a success, so I don’t deny silence can bring positive results), but of course anyone with any interest would in 2013 have easily seen the nest and the bird’s activity.  Perhaps not surprisingly many who pass this area just don’t look.  Some do of course and have kept watch on the grebes activity, none more so than Sam and myself.  I’m a little surprised as I’ve sat watching the activity at how many people have commented on ‘the ducks over there’ when referring to the grebes.  The good news with regard to the floating structure,  that is the council have a grant and intend to renew the reed-bed,  caused Sam and I  concern about the grebes welfare, as we knew this work was to begin at anytime.  We informed a council officer with whom we have trust in and we were assured that no work would begin until appropriate, thus the work has been delayed.  This promise, as I expected, has been kept.  Hopefully the eyesore will be dealt with in the coming weeks.

On the 5th July Sam and I watched grebes for about one hour during which time we saw nest building, display, the female lying in typical fashion on the nest inviting the male to mount, mating and best of all, the laying of the first egg!

And then there were five
We have continued to watch the grebes on a regular basis and the birds have been incubating five eggs.  Sam had the pleasure of finding the first chick on 30th/31st July and there were two chicks on 1st August.  On the 3rd August I was told by another onlooker that there were now three chicks although after an hour of watching I had seen only two, although only two eggs were still being incubated.  I don’t know where the third chick had been hiding, but on the 4th August I found the parent birds with four chicks and still incubating the fifth egg.

Mouths to feed

Gratefully accepted

 This pair of Great Crested Grebes are fortunately well used to the presence of humans and don’t seem too troubled by it.  Wildlife and humans can live close to each other without too much stress if common sense is used.  Sadly common sense is not always apparent.  I’m told that at least on one occasion some idiot with two dogs allowed them to chase Mute Swans in the lake nearby the nest.  A lady who had been watching the grebes tried to stop this and was met with a torrent of foul mouthed abuse from this ‘gentleman’.  This small lady clearly wasn’t going to be intimidated by this obviously ‘brave gentleman’ and his two dogs and so took his photograph.  Sadly Killingworth has its share of foul mouthed ‘brave gentlemen’ whose only defence when clearly in the wrong is to resort to foul language, shouting and intimidation.  Sounds a bit like schoolyard bullying behaviour or perhaps a scene from the House of Commons.

It was interesting to note that the pristine white eggs soon become stained.  To my eye making them look more attractive.  I’ve noted that even after the earlier chicks hatched that the male and /or the female bird continue to fetch weed to add to the nest.  Perhaps some of it is being used to cover the remaining eggs/egg.  The chicks seem to be well fed and at times don’t seem too interested in taking the small fish brought to them.  The parent bird at times seems to be acting in a confused manner, swimming to and from at the nest, but this seems to be the adults way of encouraging the chicks onto the water, in similar fashion that I have watched other birds encourage chicks to leave the nest and fly.

The 5th August saw almost constant and at times torrential rain fall so I shall visit again on the 6th August.  The rain only became heavier and by tea-time the paths outside were flooded.  Sam informed me that the lake was flooded.  Now he’s in Dumfries at the moment and knew more about the patch than I did!  By mid evening the rain had cleared and the sky brightened so I decided not to wait until a new day and I made for the lake.  I’m so pleased I made the decision as there were maybe eighty to one hundred Swifts taking some of the many insects in flight as a Grey Heron stood at the corner of the lake.  I made for the Great Crested Grebe nest and saw that there were no birds there.  The last egg had hatched.  I caught sight of the pair of grebes in the centre of the larger lake and I could see that there were youngsters on one of the birds backs.  I did get a bit closer.  I believe it was the male preening and the female carrying the young.  They’d made a wise move to the centre of what was a very flooded lake after the heavy downfalls of rain.   I walked home deciding to try and check numbers tomorrow.  I was rewarded with one of the best sunsets I have ever seen over the lake and I took some images to prove it (shown in a previous posting on this blog) as did another photographer who had been wise enough to realise what might occur once the rains had cleared.  What a wonderful summer 2013 has provided.

Keeping busy

Then there were four

Having now visited on the 6th August and found the adult grebes with four juveniles I think that the fifth chick may have perished.  The Grey Heron is paying close attention to the area, but I think the likely cause may have been the weather.  It was good to find four healthy chicks, the first to hatch looking considerably larger than its siblings.

I was able to confirm for definite that four of the juvenile grebes have so far survived.  I watched as all fours changed from the back of one parent bird to the other as the sun shone onto the lake.  There has been two days of dry sunny weather since the torrential rain.  There seems to be plenty of small fish being taken to the young.  Good to see that on 13th August the family were together at the nest site with the four youngsters being fed and growing quickly.

You can do it

Down it goes
A rather long blog this time for which I’ll make no apology.  Perhaps the nest is not in picturesque surroundings but it is the success of the pair that matters.  If you’ve got to the end I hope that you enjoyed it as much as Sam and I have enjoyed watching the Great Crested Grebes over the years.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

A Return to Hadrian's Country

10th Aug.  Along with Sam and my brother, I did a reccy of a walk from Walltown, near Greenhead, in February.  The actual RSPB walk was to take place in August, which at the time seemed such a long time away.  The day arrived today.  The outward journey to the venue included sightings of Common Buzzard and Weasel along by the Military Road.  The song of Willow Warbler greeted us on arrival.

The Walltown Quarry car park lies below Walltown Crags alongside Hadrian’s Wall and is an area of vastly changing moods.  February had been cold, misty and damp.  Today was a mix of hot sunshine and at times ominous storm cloud.  We began the day with a quick mention of some interesting facts about the old quarry which the Great Whinsill Ridge cuts through, and which holds much botanical interest and fossils many millions of years in age.  I noted that the last walk I had lead was at Spindlestone where the Heugh also lies on the Great Whinsill Ridge.  Much work has been put into this area by the National Trust and by volunteers so perhaps we ought not to grumble about the £4 car-park charge.  I do think it a bit steep though considering that it is £4 no matter how short a time you stay there!

Walltown Crags from Walltown Quarry
A Sparrowhawk was seen as we began the walk and numbers of Meadow Pipit flew nearby as we headed towards Thirwall Castle and Tipalt Burn.  The walk through the woodland at Tipalt Burn was almost unrecognisable to what I had found in February.  Woodland birding is not at its best in August, but we found a pair of Dipper, Grey Wagtails and Pied Wagtail on the burn and other birds included Blackcap, Willow Warbler, Wren, Robin, Blackbird, Chaffinch, Linnet and Lesser Redpoll.  When we stopped for lunch the sun shone and soon had us feeling hot.  One of the party ensured his head was well protected at which point the dark cloud came over from the west and the air chilled.  The calls of Curlew were heard and Lesser Black Backed Gull was seen.

As we prepared to continue our walk over the open farmland everyone got there eye on a very large brown bull.  Happily to was concentrating on grazing and didn’t have anytime to take an interest in bird watchers.  I had my plans ready though and suggested that it was definitely ladies first!  The second Sparrowhawk of the day was seen as we crossed the bridge.  The walk was a circular walk and as we crossed the burn onto more farmland we found numbers of Pied Wagtails, many of them juvenile birds, as we also watched the low flying Swallows and House Martins.  White species of butterfly had been with us all of the time and we also saw Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Ringlet and Meadow Brown Butterflies.  Passing the farm, birds seen included more Pied Wagtails and Goldfinch.

Once back at Walltown Quarry we inspected the fossil area, soon finding samples of the small fossils.  We were able to add three species of tit and a couple of Goldcrest to out list before finding Mallard and Moorhen on one of the pools in the quarry.  It being an RSPB walk the day was nicely ended by a visit to the cafĂ© in the quarry where we watched young Swallows in their nest.

Rather like RSPB Group members, these guys are ready for their tea!
My personal bird list was by normal standards a rather small thirty-four species, but these walks are never about numbers of birds seen, but rather enjoyment of good habitat.  It had been a very enjoyable four hours in very good company.  Thanks to all who supported the day, and more importantly the RSPB.  Thanks also to Sam and my brother for helping with planning the day.

Friday, 9 August 2013

An Evening with Birds in S E Northumberland

8th Aug.  Isn’t August a great month for watching birds?

I was out with a friend late afternoon and early evening with the intention of checking out a planned New Year walk in January 2014 and of course also to take a look at the birdlife around the South East Northumberland coast at present.  It all reminded me of what splendid habitat we have on our doorsteps and the work done by local organisations and volunteers.  We began at East Chevington where we immediately bumped into old friends PT and DY who had both seen the Grey Plover in summer plumage on North Pool, but which we missed  by minutes.  The water was high, but we found a large flock of approximately five hundred Lapwings with a few Dunlin amongst them and a Common Snipe later joining them.  A Greenshank and two Ruff were a little more distant, but still providing good scope sightings.  Both Common and Sandwich Terns were found.  Curlews flew overhead.  As we left the Lapwing we put to flight, I think by a passing dog not on a lead.

Next stop was Hauxley reserve where we parked up and walked down to Hadston Carrs and towards Druridge Park.  This was the area I wanted to check out.  Hauxley provided a good selection of common waterfowl and waders.  Common Sandpiper was seen just outside of the Ponteland Hide, as a Reed Bunting flew past.  Tree Sparrows, Willow Warbler and a family party of Common Whitethroats were seen in the area.  As we walked along the path and beach at Hadston a little casual sea watching brought us good sightings of three Manx Shearwaters flying north, a flock of Common Scoter and Eider Duck and numbers of Gannet.  I took a look at the archaeological dig with interest and I’m wondering if I might be able to include a tour of this site when the RSPB walk takes place in January.  I shall check this out anyway.  There were lots more terns about of course. And as we walked back towards the area of Hauxley and looked at Coquet Island, the air near the sea cooled us down a little.  We found a dead Seal near the waters edge.

Common Sandpiper outside of the Ponteland hide

One of several hundred Lapwings seen this evening.  This one is outside of the Ponteland hide

Sadly this was the only seal I saw this evening.
Having made use of the picnic tables in the reserve for a very relaxed tea as the sun shone down on us and the Teasels towered above us, we then made for Cresswell.  I mentioned to my companion that we might be lucky enough to find the Barn Owl if we were around late enough.

When we arrived at the pond I suggested a stop at the north end.  I had noticed however that the water was very high.  It was fortunate that we stopped here as just as we got out of the car Marie spotted the Barn Owl flying closely beside us.  We watched it for some time.  This was Marie’s first ever Barn Owl seen in the wild so an exciting find for her.  We walked across the road but could see no Avocets but did find lots of Grey Wagtails and amongst them two Yellow Wagtails with one juvenile.  We eventually made for the parking area near to the hide.  Once there we watched the Barn Owl which at times hovered very near to us.  There were more Pied Wagtails and Tree Sparrows, one of the latter feeding young at the nest.

I’ve experienced quite a number of good and warm summer evenings this year and this was yet another.  This is a wonderful area to be in on peaceful summer evenings.

From the hide a Sedge Warbler could be heard, but not seen, and it wasn’t long before I was counting Greenshank.  There were five here in total, at times showing very well.  Two Ruff were at the north end of the pond.  Then out of nowhere, five Avocet including one juvenile appeared at the north end of the pond.  They eventually flew down the length of the pond and fed to the right of the hide.  Other waders watched included Lapwing, Dunlin, Oystercatcher, Redshank in some numbers and a lone Curlew.  Birds on the water included Little Grebe, Shelduck, Mallard, Gadwall, Tufted Duck and Moorhen.

We had the hide to ourselves for most of the time until a photographer joined us.  He asked if the Grey Heron had been seen and as he asked one flew from the reed-bed, then another and then another.  As the sun began to lower towards the horizon numbers of Swallows suddenly increased as they fed outside of the hide, then just suddenly the area was clear of them.  We decided that it was time to leave and as we walked along the path we caught sight of the Barn Owl once again.  We didn’t hang around and felt it best to leave the owl in peace.

Barn Owl had been a year tick for me along with Manx Shearwater and Ruff.  The Barn Owl had been an even more exciting tick for Marie.  It had been an excellent few hours.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

All Weather Birders Go on a Seawatch

6th Aug.  Tom and I decided to put in a little sea watching from the Tower Hide at Seaton Sluice.  I have to say that ‘sea’ watching was what we did much of the time we were there!  It was a nice evening however and not totally without reward as very soon after arriving we found a very distant Sooty Shearwater flying south.  My thoughts that this was setting us up nicely for some exciting sea watching were some what dashed by the time we left at 8:30pm.

As it was quiet we decided to go for our tea and return later.  At this point having spent some time attempting to lock the hide door and eventually being successful we bumped into BB also sea watching from the headland.  This was quite fortunate because after chatting for a short time we had our best sighting of the evening when a dark phase Arctic Skua appeared and harassed the terns.  It gave us a very close sighting at one point.  Tom had initially picked it up on the sea.

We returned to find that BB had recorded Manx Shearwaters and Velvet Scoter.  Afraid we saw neither species all the time we watched.  Commoner birds seen included some variable sized flocks of Common Scoter both on the sea and in flight.  I’d estimate the largest flock contained about fifty birds.  Gannet is one of my favourite sea species and we watched them on the water and flying north and south in some numbers during our watch.  Both Guillemots and Razorbills were seen with young.  Fulmars were quite numerous as were Kittiwakes.  Common Terns out numbered Sandwich Terns this evening.  A few Teal were seen and a single Shelduck and the Eider Ducks of course.

Waders seen included Oystercatcher, Turnstone, Knot in summer plumage, Golden Plover, Redshank and Curlew.

So a quiet evening but a pleasant one never the less with the rocks and waders been lit by the sun at one point, Blyth looking almost picturesque in the pastel colouring, Seaton Sluice Beach just begging to be photographed in stunning light (I didn’t have the gear tonight) and St Mary’s Island and lighthouse being lit by the sun as it dropped in the west.

Photo courtesy of Tom M.
We noticed lots of standing water on our journey.  Backworth Pond overflowing almost to the road and the Bee Hive Flash full, as were other temporary flashes along the Beehive road.  Someone had recently told me that the Beehive Flash and been drained and was no more.  Well it was certainly extant last night!  I do know the plan is for drainage of this flash eventually.  Sooty Shearwater is an addition to my year list.  I did feel a bit of a chill during the evening, perhaps for the first time in some weeks.

7th June.  I was pleased to look out to day and see so many butterflies on the garden ‘butterfly bush’.  These included numbers of White species, Peacocks (which I haven’t seen at all for a while) and Small Tortoiseshells.  The bush is part of my offering a ‘home for nature’ as per the RSPB campaign.  It’s a bit difficult to offer a home for nature around here with all of the killer cats around, but it won’t stop me trying.  I intend to put up some homes for bees ready for next year.  Can you imagine what a difference this would make to nature if everyone in the UK actually took some interest and did their bit for wildlife?  Sadly this won’t happen as there are just too many folk who don’t understand and worse than that, simply don’t care.  Thankfully some of us do.