Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2014 They Think it's All Over...It is Now (Almost)

To say that 2014 has for me been a difficult year is perhaps somewhat of an under-statement.  At times it has been stressful and distressing.  I’d first of all like to offer my sincere thanks to those close to me who have helped me through it.  Knowing that I have folk to fall back on has been more important this year than it has ever been and the folk involved know who they are.    Despite the difficulties, the year did provide enjoyable highlights and it is not a year that I would want to have missed.  Commitments meant that patch birding for me was on the whole put on the back burner as I devoted what free time I did have to getting out and about to other places.  Some of the highlights I mention below.

In January Sam and I were invited by Blanaid Denman to visit RSPB Geltsdale.  The focus of the day was to be Hen Harriers and happily we were able to watch two ringtail Hen Harriers that day.  Sam and I were becoming involved in the RSPB Skydancer  Project and we were filmed that day for an RSPB video.  I must find out if the video has been released yet as I’m sure you’ll all want to watch it!  The atmosphere at Geltsdale at this time of year was wonderful and we also managed to have sightings of the likes of Merlin and Black Grouse.  In February the focus was on a Mallard and a Bittern, and yes other locomotives.  That was the day I stood on a Mallard!  That early morning adventure was excellent and provided a great chance for photography as we joined the photographic event before the event opened to the rest of the public at Shildon.  Interesting enough, a blog about that day brought sixteen comments, more than I have ever had when the focus was on birds.  Maybe I need to try train spotting!


My UK highlight of the year was when Sam and I had another very early morning in April when we visited the Upper Pennines with Martin Kitching.  Sam had won  this day out as a prize in the North East Photography competition run by the NHSN and NWT and as in the previous year he invited me along as the second person on the photography day with NEWT.  We experienced a long and exciting day out in the field which began with sightings of Tawny Owl, Woodcock and best of all the Black Grouse lek.  The atmosphere was never beaten throughout the rest of the year.  Other notable highlights were twenty-two Whooper Swans, Rough Legged Buzzard, Red Grouse, Red-legged Partridge, Grey Partridge, Golden Plover, close up Common Snipe and Raven to name a few.

Common Snipe

Other highlights of the early part of 2014 were the walks Sam and I completed up at Druridge Bay.  Perhaps the best one of them began with us spending time at the start of the walk photographing Snow Buntings.  I can’t miss from my year’s highlights the breeding Great Crested Grebes on Killingworth Lake.  I wasn’t able to spend as much time with them this year as on previous occasions, but they would not have been lonely as it would seem that every camera owner in the North East has now discovered Killingworth Lake and pay a visit when the Great Crested Grebes are nesting!  Some, I’m pleased to say visit at other times and it was only yesterday when I was able to pass some time with Sedgdunum Warbler beside the lake, as John and I remembered our youthful sightings of murmurations of Starlings in Newcastle City centre.  Those were the days when bird crap on buildings was an accepted part of city life.  Now we have the wannabes complaining about a few Kittiwkes!

Move forward a little and I have two great memories of 2014.  The first of these is the trip to Hungary with Sam and Graham.  We started the Hungarian trip with a stay in Budapest which in my opinion is a fantastic city and it provided us with some decent birds, the best one being the Night Heron flying away at night from the Danube River over the brightly lit St Matyas Church.  Then of course there were the odd looks from locals as Sam and I spent so much time photographing Hooded Crows near the Royal Palace.  I have great memories of Budapest and even greater ones of the birding in the Bukk Hills and at the Hortobagy.  We were greeted on arrival by a Goshawk mobbing and Eastern Imperial Eagle and we watched the likes of Hawfinch and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers in the garden!  The greatest highlights were however our day on the Little Hortobagy with the likes of Black Stork, Spoonbills, Common Cranes, Short Toed Eagle and Red Backed Shrikes, and another day when we found a flock of European Bee-Eaters as we searched for butterflies.  Oh yes, the butterflies were wonderful, not least the Swallowtail Butterflies which allowed such good close up photo opportunities.  The trip brought us many a laugh.  Then there was the trip to Berlin and Prague with Sam.  Not a birding trip this time, but a cultural trip.  It wasn’t a trip without birds though and included the likes of Goshawk, Marsh Harrier, Tawny Owl (over the Brandenburg Gate at night), Black Redstarts and Pied Flycatchers.

Heath Fritillary (Hungary)

Black Stork (Hungary)
The trip to Berlin had me searching out Berlin-The Downfall by Antony Beevor.  What a great read.  I was so impressed I went on to read Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad, The Spanish Civil War, The Battle for Crete and D Day.  So not a lot of time for natural history reading at that point.  Oh well, no one wants to be a one trick pony do they?

Brandenburg Gate

Back home of course Sam and I found the first ever Black-Winged Pratincole at Holywell Dene.  Yes please note…6th July!  OK, we said initially that it was a Collared Pratincole, but come on!    So no one can take that one away from us.  It was a lifer (I’ve seen dozens of Collared Partincole :-))  My only other lifer this year was the Stilt Sandpiper at Cresswell Pond.  On another occasion I spent one of those wonderful evenings at Cresswell Pond and watched the likes of five Little Egrets, Three Spoonbills, Avocets, Little Ringed Plover, Yellow Wagtail and the Barn Owls further up the road at opposite Druridge Pools.  We were there until after the wonderful sunset.

Of course there was the annual evening trip to Slaley, this time with Marie, Tony and Sam.  It took us some time to pick up the sounds of Nightjars, but we did and we also had good sightings.

There were two memorable RSPB group trips this year.  One to Bishop Middleham and the old quarry and another to Threave and Mersehead.  Both led by Sam and I, suggesting that is why they were memorable! :-)  The day at Bishop Middleham was very hot and we had sightings of the Northen Brown Argus and many other butterflies and of course the Dark Red Helleborines.  The day at Threave and Mersehead was rather cooler but very rewarding with sightings including Whooper Swans, White-fronted Geese, male and female Hen Harrier, Pintails in great number and of course the Barnacle Geese.  It was a first time sighting of Hen Harrier for some participants and that is what I think RSPB groups should be all about i.e education and raising awareness about nature and conservation.   It was the first time I had explored Threave and hope it will be the first of many visits.
Dark Red Helleborine (Bishop Middleham)
So despite my traumatic year I’ve found I’ve managed to pack in quite a bit.  I’ll enter 2015 with no less passion for nature and no less determination to keep away from most of the technology that has crept into bird and nature watching.  Sorry it’s just not for me (except the bins, scope and camera gear that is).  I must belong to a different era.  Just let me do my own thing with good mates and let me read good books and I’ll be happy.  I have a pile of books ready to read in 2015 and I’m presently stuck into the New Naturalist Owls by Mike Toms.

No New Year resolutions for me.  Well none that I’m going to share.  I do hope to get round to buying new camera gear, but I said that last year I’m sure!

All the best to all for 2015.  Have a safe and healthy 2015 and keep reading me blog!

Monday, 29 December 2014

From Iceland to Holywell Pond

29th Dec.  I arrived at North Shields Fish Quay on a frosty and crisp morning only to find that it didn’t feel as cold as I thought it would.  Perhaps lack of wind, a bright blinding sun shining from a blue sky and my numerous layers of clothing all had some impact upon me feeling not too cold!  I met up with Tom and it wasn’t long before we were watching the Iceland Gull.  Unfortunately its appearance in the harbour part of the quay was limited to one or two fly pasts and the rest of the time it spent in amongst the flocks of assorted gulls on the riverside. Tempted no doubt, by the fish remains that were being dumped into the river.  Cormorants and Eider Ducks were nearby.  In any event, it was a nice sighting to begin the day.

Iceland Gull

Iceland Gull

Iceland Gull (this one courtesy of Tom Middleton)
We walked to the mouth of the Tyne passing little on the way until we reached the Black Middens.  The tide was fairly high.  At this point we counted Purple Sandpipers well into double figures, around thirty Ringed Plovers along with the Oystercatchers, Turnstones, Dunlin and Redshank.  It’s been a while since I completed this walk which offers such good views up the river.

Not much birdlife was found at Priors Park apart from the likes of tits, Chaffinches, Mistle Thrushes and Sparrowhawk which flew into the top of the trees and took some finding again.  As Tom said maybe its presence accounted for the lack of other bird life.  Our next stop was Seaton Sluice for some lunch.  A cup of tea warmed me nicely before our walk through the dene to Holywell Pond.

It was surprisingly free of folk in the dene for such a pleasant day. Calling Redshank were numerous at the start of the walk and we did find numbers of woodland birds including a party of at least five Bullfinches and four Goldcrests.  Great Spotted Woodpecker was heard, and at least three Nuthatches and two Grey Wagtail were seen.  Tit parties were at the feeders along with Dunnocks and Robins.

By the time we reached Holywell Pond the temperature was just beginning to drop.  The pond area was notable by what was not there rather than what we saw.  We found no Wigeon, Teal or Goldeneye at all and there was no sign of any geese in the area, not even an odd Canada Goose, although I admit we didn’t do a complete search of the fields.  Tree Sparrows were seen at the feeding station, two Kestrels were in the area and Mute Swan, Grey Heron, Mallard, Gadwall, Tufted Duck and a single Little Grebe were seen at the pond.

Not that many birds at the pond so I began to take an interest in the Rat.

 After we had watched a rather shy Brown Rat and a limping Mallard drake outside of the members hide, and having received a txt from Sam informing me of a nice sighting in Killingworth we made for home as the air began to bite.  The Iceland Gull had been the only one sighted by me this year.  It had been good to be out in the fresh air and shake off the lethargy of Christmas.  On the way home Tom got his eye on five geese (species) in a field, the only ones seen all day!

Monday, 15 December 2014

Return to the Rising Sun

15th Dec.  I can’t remember the last time I was at the Rising Sun Country Park, although I seem to remember at that time it was far warmer than it was today. 

I have to admit temperatures had picked up a bit from those over the weekend when I almost froze to the platform of North Shields Metro Station following a visit to The Keel Row Bookshop for a search through some old Natural History books.  If you’re a bibliophile the shop is well worth a look. 

Between cups of coffee, some very nice soup for lunch, passing over an Underthehood 2015 calendar and discussions about purchasing yet more books (this time nothing to do with natural history), I did manage a walk.  Bird life was pretty sparse but a large flock of Goldfinch (I couldn’t be sure that there weren’t other species in the flock) and some Jays showed very nicely as we walked down to the pond, passing the Stan the red stag along the way.

The pond held forty plus Gadwall and numbers of Shoveller amongst other waterfowl and gulls.  There was no sign of the Bittern whilst we watched which had been recorded yesterday.  A pair of Kestrel called as they mobbed something in the hedge on the opposite side of the pond.  A regular at Swallow Pond told us that there was a Harris Hawk there, and sure enough it did show very briefly, but it wasn’t until someone walked across the field carrying what looked like horse tackle that it flushed and flew off.  Dukes Pond held a few Mallard and an assortment of hybrids which were disappointed to find we hadn’t come to feed them!

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Brass Monkeys...Where are they all?

11th Dec.  I ventured up to Cresswell today with Sam and Lee.  Not a single brass monkey to be found and rumour has it that for some reason or other, they were all at home wrapped in blankets.  I have to say that despite being dressed and padded out like a Christmas parcel, I wished on occasions that I had also stayed at home!  The wind made the already low temperatures feel bitterly cold although thankfully the sky was clear and the sun shone.  An ominous layer of cloud slowly approached from the west and seemed to be biding it’s time before dropping its contents over South East Northumberland.  What had I been saying recently about really enjoying winter birding?  I really do of course.

Things started well with a Common Buzzard hovering in the wind as we joined the A19 at Killingworth.  Whilst the Common Buzzard is now seen by many as just that, common, I have to say they still excite me.  Fields nearby held a large concentration of Lapwings.

A short stop at Castle Island allowed us to taste the air.  There was little about although three Goldeneye flew up river.  The drive to Creswell has us passing Pink-footed and Greylag Geese near Woodhorn.

 The sea watch from Cresswell was cut short.  It was pointless trying to fight the wind and cold.  There seemed to be plenty of gulls on the sea, but little else apart from the odd Eider Duck.  Even the waders proved to be scarce although flocks of Golden Plover were seen flying north.  We made for the pond and found Tree Sparrows at the feeders.

Before entering the hide a skein of maybe 100/125 Pink-footed Geese flew north directly overhead.  A smaller skein of 7/8 were seen from the hide flying west.  The wind had cleared the pond of most of its birds but later we watched a flock of 500+ whistling Wigeon on the water.  I thought I had found Scaup but as the bird moved towards us it proved to be Tufted Duck.  There were a few Goldeneye about.  We picked up a well camouflaged Common Snipe in the reeds directly in front of the hide.  On taking a better look we found another two very well hidden birds.

One of the Common Snipe decides to show itself in the sun but another to the left remains hidden.
There was very little at Druridge Pools (although I did catch sight of a Grey Partridge crossing the road as we approached), so we headed for East Chevington.  As we turned right at Red Row both Lee and Sam got their eye on a male Bullfinch in the hedge.  Some how I managed to miss it.  Fearing that we would soon chill out looking over North Pool we entered the metal box.  Now, it would be unfair to expect hides to be homely, inviting, quiet and relaxing (we have some awful hides in Northumberland) and so it proves with this metal box.  As Sam suggested acoustics bear some resemblance to the Albert Hall.  I’ve been reading a little about torture treatment of alleged terrorists.  Perhaps sticking them in this box and playing recordings at full volume of X Factor vocalists would be a time saver.

North Pool held 50+ Goldeneye, Little Grebe, Mute Swan, Mallard, Gadwall, Tufted Duck and co.

We decided to head for home.  The wind had ensured that the birding was not at its best, but we’d still clocked up near enough fifty species.  A flock of Fieldfare flew over the fields as we headed back.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Great Northern

2nd Dec.  The highlight of a trip to the coast today was the Great Northern Diver flying north past Seaton Sluice and showing well.  It landed on the sea south of Blyth Harbour, but by then could hardly be seen at all from Seaton Sluice. Shortly afterwards a Great Northern Diver flew south.  Maybe, or maybe not the same bird.

Several short sea watches throughout our trip brought Sam and I sightings of flocks of Mallard, Wigeon, Teal and Common Scoter, with Red Throated Divers and Eider Ducks making an appearance too.  Sam spotted a single Long-tailed Duck flying north.

Winter had arrived as had a cold northerly wind.  We’ve all had it too easy for too long.  It was good to stand under the sunlight watching the sea and listening to the pounding of the waves.  The gloves were on for the first time this winter.  The Golden Plovers put on the usual show and Oysterctacher, Ringed Plover, Lapwing, Sanderling, Purple Sandpiper, Turnstone, Dunlin, Redshank, Curlew were all seen in some numbers along with a single Common Snipe which flew along the high tide line in South Bay.  Grey Seals were seen.

Stonechat was once again seen on the approach to Seaton Sluice and a Kestrel hovered above the dunes to the north.

The approach to Holywell Pond was fairly quiet and by now the light was going as we faced a blazing sunset.  I picked out a male Sparrowhawk amongst the flock of Jackdaws and Rooks.  Over the fields and a sizeable flock of Yellowhammers and Linnets had gathered in the hedges.

The pond held numbers of Mallard, Gadwall, Pochard, Teal and a few Greylag Geese and Wigeon along with Little Grebes.  We occasionally heard Pink-footed Geese calling from east of the pond.  It was soon dark and we were off towards home with a day list of fifty five bird species and the sound of Curlews in our ears.

I couldn’t help wonder if the the high number of Pochard at Holywell owed something to the birds from Killy Lake.  On Sunday we found not a single Pochard on the lake.  Most unusual at this time of year.  Mute Swan numbers were down to twenty-five (and of course we know why).  There were only two Goosanders showing, although there has been up to twenty in recent weeks and three Goldeneye.  A pair of Shoveller were showing near the still wired off floating reed-bed and a Great Crested Grebe remains.  Neither Sam nor I can remember seeing one on the lake so late in the year.

Male Shoveller

 One Hundred plus Canada Geese were on both the small and larger lakes.  My guess is they be next for the Nimby’s attention.  I ask myself is the scarcity of birds on Killy Lake at the moment down to the mild weather condition,   Swanbusters, Council action or water conditions.  As Sam suggested the lake is now looking very much like ‘a boating lake!’  Oh well at least we have Killingworth Moor and adjoining land on patch which provides good habitat for birds.  Well, at least we have it until it is put under concrete and housing as per council planning ideas.  Never mind we are still proud owners of a ‘Green Flag.’  I often wonder how!

Just a few lyrics below from Joni Mitchell below for Nimby’s and Councils everywhere (and of course for those who don’t give a damn also).

They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
Then they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see 'em
Don't it always seem to go,
That you don't know what you've got
‘Til it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Better news is that I have the Greenfinches back in the garden and on the feeders.  I had just been commenting about the lack of Greenfinches everywhere.  Also recently had a skein of Pink-footed Geese over the garden.