Saturday, 31 May 2014

Conservation Matters/Bishop Middleham

30th May.  Not every day begins by standing beside a Black Rhino, but today was one of the few that did!  I’m rather ashamed to say it was really the first time that I had paid full attention to this sculpture in the Hancock Museum grounds.  I have begun a day once before being just as close to a Black Rhino, although on that occasion I was well protected in a Safari jeep in Zambia.  I remember well the amount of conservation work being done and just how tightly guarded this species had to be because of fear of poachers.  Our first Skydancer Project presentation was given quite successfully this week to the Dry Stone Walling Association of Northumberland.  I’m pleased to say we raised some awareness of the plight of the Hen Harrier in England and the plight of raptors in general.  You don’t have to travel the world to find persecution of wildlife, as there appears to be plenty on our own doorstep!  Anyway, today was to be spent in an area where conservation is taken seriously.  You may want to keep an eye open for the peaceful protests planned in August concerning Hen Harriers.

Black Rhino
Having been picked up in Newcastle I was soon heading for Bishop Middleham to carry out a reccy of an RSPB LG trip to the area on 12th July.  I needed to refresh my mind as to the route of the walk and facilities.  We began the walk from the village and headed to wards Castle Lake as Swifts flew overhead.  Whilst watching the Shelducks with what appeared to be a crèche of young birds and listening to numerous Oystercatchers, I caught the sound of Corn Bunting and quickly found it on the wires and flying about the area.  Well OK, not a Black Rhino but still well worth a fight to conserve.  I was with GL who picked up the calling of another Corn Bunting further along our path although we never found this one.  Some excellent conservation work is done around the Castle Lake area by the likes of Durham Bird Club and the local farmers. The lake seemed to me to be quieter than on previous visits, but I admit we didn’t spend a great deal of time watching.  A Common Buzzard flew in the distance and waders were well represented by numbers of Lapwing and Oystercatcher.  Sand Martins flew around us.  We failed to identify two waders seen in the distance in poor light.  Lesser Black Backed Gulls were present and the water held numbers of Shelduck, Mallard and Tufted Duck with fewer Gadwall and the odd Little Grebe.  Canada Geese were about in numbers and Grey Heron and Mute Swan were also seen.

I’m expecting much more botanical interest in July and given some sunshine many more butterflies, although I seem to think a rough area that provided much interest in the past seems now to have been cultivated, although maybe my memory is playing tricks.  As we continued on the walk we either watched or listened to Common Whitethroat, Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Reed Bunting and Yellowhammer.  A great Spotted Woodpecker flew across.  Tree Sparrow was seen and Song Thrush heard.

The route is a pleasant circular walk back to the village taking in not only Castle Lake, but other ponds and small reed-beds in the area.  We couldn’t find the pic-nic tables that used to be about so it will be lunch on the hoof on the day of the walk.

Once back into the village we had a pleasant talk with a couple holidaying in the area who had marked out a number of birding walks to be tackled over the course of their stay.  We then headed for the unused magnesian limestone quarry which closed down in the 1930s.  The massive quarry still operates on the periphery and seemed to be very busy today.  Once into the old quarry though you are in a peaceful and tranquil area which I’ve found in the past has few visitors.  Pity that some dimwits had chosen to discard an unwanted mattress and other junk in the parking bays.  I would love to be able to drop the rubbish back on their living room carpets.

Cinnabar Moth
We realised a visit to the quarry at this time of year was not ideal for botanical interest and because there was low cloud and no sunshine were weren’t going to be treated to lots of butterflies, and in any event we were to early for the Northern Argus.  I had hoped to find Dingy Skipper Butterfly, but this isn’t easy when there is no sunshine as this species tends to hide away and sure enough there were none to be seen.  We did find more than one Cinnabar Moth and a few Wall Brown Butterflies.  Rock Rose, the plant that the Northern Argus Butterfly depends upon for larval food plant was in flower in places, as was Milkwort.  A Green Woodpecker was very briefly heard and seen, Great Spotted Woodpecker heard and Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff and Yellowhammers were all in song.  Sand Martins were also about the area.  The mews of a Common Buzzard could be heard.

Having done the necessary and set timings, routes and rest stops we were soon back on the road towards home.  It had been a very pleasant day in really good surroundings.  Given some sunshine on July 12th it will be so much better.  Fingers crossed.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Cresswell to East Chevington

27th May.  My days out have been curtailed somewhat recently, so it was with great expectations that I looked forward to getting up to Cresswell with Sam today.  After considering the weather forecast last night we ignored the threat of heavy rain and decided to go anyway.  There was no rain at all and in fact we experienced very pleasant weather and although neither Avocet nor Yellow Wagtail was found (two of our target birds) we were more than happy with what we did find.

A quick look out to sea from near Cresswell Village brought us sightings which included Red-throated Diver, Guillemot and lots of Eider Ducks.  House Martins, Sand Martins and Swallows flew around our heads as we looked out on a calm and flat sea.  An Arctic Tern was on the rocks a little to the north of us and Sandwich Terns flew nearby.  It felt good to be out.  We’d passed Greylag and Canada Geese as we approached Cresswell.

The walk to Cresswell Pond brought us our first of three male Stonechats seen today (how good it is to seeing numbers of this species recover from the severe winters) and the first of many Lapwings, Common Whitethroats, Skylarks, Meadow Pipits, Sedge Warblers and Tree Sparrows.  The latter species showing again in numbers nearer to the pond.  Linnets and Reed Buntings also made an appearance.

Tree Sparrow

The pond itself had much to offer today.  Sightings included a pair of stunning summer plumage Grey Plover (the female with some white flecking in the black marking and the male appearing solidly jet black), around forty Black-tailed Godwits, a lone Curlew Sandpiper, two Little Gulls and a male Garganey.  We decided that the Grey Plovers beat the Garganey to star bird.  Other sightings here included many Shelduck, the odd Wigeon and an unexpected Common Gull.  A Reed Warbler sang from the reeds behind the hide.

We eventually headed off in the direction of Druridge Pools finding no sign of Avocets or Yellow Wagtails as we passed the northern end of the pond.

The sun was breaking through as we neared Druridge Pools and had stopped for a lunch break.  I quickly got my eye on the Spoonbill which put on a fine display for us and I was really pleased that Sam had finally found this species which he had been hoping for (for quite sometime).  Shoveller and Teal were amongst other birds present.  After a walk up to the hides we found a couple of stunningly coloured insects and I began to wish I had taken the macro lens!  Wall Brown Butterflies were also in flight.  Other butterflies seen today were Small White, Green-veined White and Peacock.  We narrowly missed seeing a Red Admiral in the same area as the Wall Brown Butterflies.

Wall Brown Butterfly

Our walk continued towards East Chevington as we passed many more Common Whitethroats, Skylarks and Meadow Pipits.  Goldfinches were on the wires and more Reed Buntings were seen.  Two Gadwall flew overhead, two of the many we had seen today.  North pool provided us with two pairs of Great Crested Grebes, one of the pairs carrying at least two young on there back making them slightly ahead of our patch pairs.  There were a good number of Sandwich Terns on the island and a few more bathing in the shallow part of the pool.

As we made off towards Red Row the song of Yellowhammer was heard.  As Sam would say, we were probably in the presence of a White Tailed Sea Eagle today, but we saw no sign of it nor did we see any other raptors today.

It had been a great day and one of my best birding days of the year so far, perhaps enhanced by the joy of not having to face the expected heavy rainfall, not that this would have knocked us out of our stride.  We found numbers of orchids today which I think were Northern Marsh Orchids and I do think I need to take some extra time to look at the botanical interest in this area.  It is an excellent walk from Cresswell up to East Chevington, as indeed is the continuation up past Druridge Country Park and onto Hauxley.  We’ve agreed that we’ll get back up there and repeat the exercise soon although we have one or two excursions to complete beforehand.  Our day list of bird species came to sixty-one.  Aye, boring though it may seem to some I still always keep a day list and today it included two lifers for Sam.  That pair of Grey Plover were truly stunning, but beaten to star bird of the day by the Spoonbill.  I’m afraid the Garganey had stiff opposition and came third.

It’s good to walk (and talk)!

Monday, 19 May 2014

Chasing Butterflies

19th May.  None but those deprived of their senses would go in pursuit of butterflies’.  So said the relatives of Lady Glanville (the lady who collected the first specimens of Glanville Fritillary in Linconshire).  The relatives were contesting Lady Glanville's will under the Act of Lunacy.  I’m pleased to say that the courts did not find in their favour.

I could be seen chasing a Green Veined White Butterfly in the garden, or should I say sitting waiting for it to land beside me which it did several times so attracted as it was to the feeding on the Spanish Bluebells.  This species of butterfly can be so easily overlooked and yet when seen closely, like many of the white and yellow butterflies, it is very attractively marked, as I hope the images show.  The images show a female British Green Veined White.  There are many sub-species of this butterfly and three of them can be found in Britain and Ireland.  These are the British Green Veined White sabellicae, The Irish Green Veined White britannica and the Scottish Green Veined White thomsoni.  As well as the three sub species differing in appearance, the presence of different types of scent scales can be used to identify the sub species.  These scale scan only be seen through a microscope.  On the British sub-species there is only one type of scale present where as on the Irish and Scottish sub-species there are at least four, none of which are the same as the one on the British sub-species.

I found this interesting information and a lot more on Wikipedia……………

Recent research has shown that when males mate with a female, they inject methyl salicylate along with their sperm.  The smell of this compound repels other males, thus ensuring the first males paternity of the eggs, a form of chemical mate guarding.  After the female mates, they will display a mate refusal posture that releases methyl salicylate during a subsequent courtship.  The release of this anti-aphrodisiac will quickly terminate courtship.  Males are very sensitive to differences in methyl salicyate levels, and will use this sense to influence mating behaviour.  However a virgin female displaying a very similar posture will release a different chemical which will prolong the courtship ritual.  Males are sensitive to these chemical and postural differences, and can discriminate between a receptive virgin female and an unreceptive mated female.

Males emit a sex pheromone that is perceptible to humans, citra, the basic flavour imparting component of lemon peel oil.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Sense and Sense-ability at Hawthorn Dene

10th May.  I wish I had £1 for every time I have heard someone say ‘I wish I could identify bird song’.  We live in a world where the visual takes predominance so much over our other senses, that very often they simply aren’t used to the full.  I think everyone would benefit greatly if the emphasise was changed and I think this is something that the educational system should make a priority in doing.  When it comes to being out with nature I believe all the senses can and ought to be put to use and it’s for this reason Sam and I always encourage this on the walks we lead.  Yesterdays poorly supported walk at Hawthorn Dene was no exception.  There is at least benefit from having low participation in that those who do attend can certainly sharpen up their listening skills.  Some people are far better than others in picking up this skill and perhaps it is of benefit if you begin to practice at a young age, but unless individuals have a hearing disability and I appreciate some do and that ageing is also a factor, then I believe if efforts are made, that folk can learn how to identify at least commonly heard bird songs and other sounds in nature.

The weather forecast for the day was varied depending on where you looked for it, but the best one I could find was for heavy showers and sunny intervals.  The worst prediction was simply for heavy rain.  Sam and I headed south fully expecting a soaking, as did the other participants.  Our soaking did not materialise and we enjoyed the walk under sun and partially blue skies for much of the time, with only the odd passing quick shower when clouds built up.

Wood Violet ???
Hawthorn Dene is a wonderful area of ancient semi natural broad-leaved woodland and limestone hay meadows.  Such areas that mindless bureaucrats seem to think can easily be replaced in alternative areas by planting a few trees.  Don’t you have to wonder just what type of person gets into these official decision making positions when they hold such ridiculous ideas?   The path through the dene leads eventually to the North Sea and an interesting, if not beautiful bay.  Botanical interest began with the first of many Early Purple Orchids seen today.  The olfactory sense was alerted by the smell of the carpets of Wild Garlic all along the route (not a scent I enjoy so mercifully the scent was weak today).  Carpets of Bluebells added to the colour.  Violets (Wood I think) where everywhere and Wood Horsetails were of interest.  We hadn’t timed the walk for the butterflies for which this area is well known, but we did find Small White, Green Veined White, Orange Tip, Peacock and many Speckled Wood Butterflies.  All were very active especially the Orange Tip species, so images were out of the question.

Wood Horsetails  (Fascinating plants)
Before we set off on the walk we had already amassed a good list of birds collected as we stood at the starting point.  This list included Kestrel, Yellowhammers lit by the sun, Song Thrush seen close by as another sang from high in the tree canopy, Mistle Thrush, Common Whitethroat, Blackcap, tits and finches.  Skylark was heard.

 Participants soon realised why we emphasised the listening skills today, as birds were never going to be easily seen today such is the nature of this thickly wooded area.  By the time we reached the meadowland near to the sea where we stopped for lunch in the sun we perhaps hadn’t seen lots of bird species, but we had seen much of interest and certainly heard lots of bird song and calls.  Blackcap and Chiffchaff had been numerous and we did see the odd one.  We did wonder about Garden Warbler, but it got no further than wondering!  Nuthatch had been heard and Treecreeper seen before it disappeared we think into a nesting site.  The high pitched calls of Goldcrest had been picked up but the birds themselves remained dark outlines in the thick greenery.  Sam and I caught sight of a Sparrowhawk flying over the tree tops.  Great Spotted Woodpeckers were heard calling and drumming.

As we had our lunch we heard Green Woodpecker and watched and listened to a Common Whitethroat.  We then crossed the railway line and I was mindful that the senses were required here too, as the curve on the line meant that the speedy trains approached around the bend very quickly.  Care must be taken here!  We enjoyed a watch of the sea during which we saw Red-throated Diver, Fulmar, Gannet, Black Headed Gull, Herring Gull, Kittiwake, Razorbill, Sandwich Tern and a Wheatear as it flew along by the cliff edge.  We decided to give the walk down the very steep and rather tricky steps to the bay a miss (it was the thoughts of the upward climb that put me off).

Our return walk was a much easier, but pleasant stroll, than the undulating outward walk which followed the undulating pathway along the ravine.  We found more Common Whitethroats and the only Willow Warblers of the day in this area.

We all finished the walk with muddy boots, but dry.  I’d worn my new boots and I’m pleased to say they fit wonderfully.  My thanks go to those who came along and hopefully enjoyed what is such an interesting area.  Special thanks to Sam who shared the lead.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Here Comes Summer

Yes, this week has offered the signs that summer is on the way.  Speckled Wood Butterflies in the garden, fifty plus Swifts over the lake (thanks for the tip off Sam) and two pairs of Great Crested Grebes at the lake  I know that the grebes now attract numbers of photographers.  (Sam and I have had another request to present our presentation ‘A Focus on Great Crested Grebes’ later this year.   The title speaks for itself I’m sure, and includes many of Sam’s excellent images as well as information on grebes in general, but primarily on Great Crested Grebes which we have both watched on Killingworth Lake for several years.  Please feel free to contact us if you know of any groups which might be interested in the presentation.  I certainly learned a great deal about grebes whilst helping to put it together.  An interest in natural history ensures that the learning never stops).  Then of course there were the other signs of summer, in that I got soaked as I watched the Swifts as dark rain clouds burst over the patch and evening temperatures dropped.  I came home to find Snails on the garden path.

Up close to a Snail
I can certainly remember a time when Speckled Wood Butterflies would have been a great rarity on patch.  The first one I saw around here was a few years ago in the church grounds in the village.  What is happening to our wildlife and its habitat locally, nationally and internationally can be very depressing, so to find that some species appear to be expanding range and doing quite well is always enlightening (hopefully we’ll have another summer helpful to butterflies in general).  Speckled Wood Butterflies are now common place in North Tyneside.  The question as to why they are doing well is not easy to answer, although inevitably at least one of the causes often mentioned is climate change.

Speckled Wood Butterfly looking pristine.  No time to grab the macro.

To ignore the damage to habitat and species is simply burying your head in the sand and taking on no responsibility often on the grounds that ‘we can’t do anything about it’.  In my opinion, an easy way out of doing anything positive, but an excuse I’ve often heard.  To ignore positives where there are improvements maybe to habitat or species numbers/quality is equally negative as far as I’m concerned, as this is likely to come across as doom and gloom to those who might otherwise become interested, especially the young, thereby putting them off an interest in natural history maybe for life!  There are certain forums I have looked at where doom and gloom often prevails.  The widening range in Britain of the Speckled Wood Butterfly is in my mind a real positive.  

There are a number of Speckled Wood Butterfly Pararage aegeria subspecies and A M Riley in British and Irish Butterflies notes that there are three sub species in that particular area tircis, the Scottish Speckled Wood oblita and Isles of Scilly Speckled Wood insula.

Speckled Wood Butterfly
The flight period of the Speckled Wood Butterfly is between March and October, but now is probably as good a time to watch for them as any, as they are likely reaching the peak period of their first of three annual broods.  Both sexes of this butterfly feed from aphid honeydew in the tree canopy, but males in particular become very conspicuous when defending territories at lower elevations.  Intruding males are challenged and the dispute can lead to a spiral ‘dance’ high into the trees.  The males are also very easily found when they patrol in search of females.  My best watch of spiraling Speckled Wood Butterflies was in dappled sunlight Northumberland Park, North Shields, a year or two ago.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Nice Weather for Ducks

'If I hear another person on Northumberland Street say that it's nice weather for ducks I'll go quackers.'
'I know pet, but I did say we ought to have flown to Benidorm for the Bank Holiday!
'Nah pet, rather stay here!'

Photo courtesy of my friend Hilary, courtesy of her daughter.