Saturday, 25 January 2014

Seaton Sluice Soaking

25th Jan.  Sam and I began today’s walk at Holywell and despite a forecast of heavy showers the morning was bright, mild and even sunny at times.  We hoped to add a few species to the year list.  Scaup wasn’t to be one of the new species, as once again we failed to have any sighting of these birds which appear to be being reported regularly on the pond.  We did find a large number of Gadwall once again along with numbers of Wigeon, Teal, Mallard and the odd Pochard and Tufted Duck.  Mute Swans approached the hide as if expecting to be fed.  A Grey Heron was seen on the island and a Reed Bunting fed on the feeders.

No Tree Sparrows were found at the feeding station, but were seen along the hedgerow.  A lone Curlew fed in the fields to the south of the pond and earlier a flock of Lapwing were found in the west field along with numbers of Great Black-backed Gulls.  A Yellowhammer was heard as we looked over the fields north of the dene from where we saw a good number of Pink-footed Geese flying in the distance.  They initially looked as though they were coming our way, but suddenly dropped down to the ground.

The hoped for Dipper wasn’t seen or heard in the dene, but we soon found Treecreeper and a couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers.  There was little in any of the feeders, but what was there had attracted tits, Robin and Dunnock.  The walk from the dene to the fish and chips shop was uneventful birdwise apart from a skein of Pink-footed Geese flying towards the sea which we thought were part of a larger flock that we had seen earlier.

As we finished off our lunch the heavens opened and as there was a long queue of folk waiting to get a table we felt obliged to leave the warmth and dryness of the café and venture forth.  Just as we crossed the road to make for the cliff the rain increased.  We were soon soaked.  Our reward was to see a good number of waders feeding as the tide went out.  Waders seen below the cliff were Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Knot, Sanderling, Turnstone, Purple Sandpiper, Dunlin and Redshank.  Birds seen on or over the sea included Red-throated Diver, Teal, Eider, Common Scoter, Kittiwake, Guillemot, Razorbill and Puffin (by Sam only).

By now the rain was feeling increasingly uncomfortable as the dampness seemed to reach higher and higher, so despite the storm passing over and a better afternoon looking distinctly likely, we chose to make for home rather than carry on to St Mary’s Island.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Hen Harriers

It was good to see the issues surrounding Hen Harriers were brought up on Winter Watch.  I’d been waiting with anticipation to watch this footage and hear what was said.  Great that it was that this piece of footage was included, I can’t help feeling that the BBC in typical fashion were rather loathe to say too much about the problems of persecution and the reasons for it and I think that the brief comments made will have gone over many viewers heads unless they were already aware of the situation.  Having heard Iolo Williams in full swing whilst speech making, I reckon if he had been left to his own devices he would have had some very strong comments to make.  At least it will hopefully ensure that there is much discussion on the forums. 

I did enjoy Winter Watch as a whole, which included some interesting points and some very good photography.  I don’t subscribe to the thought from some that the programme is dumbed down nature on the box.  Anything that reaches the masses and involves them gets high marks from me.  For those thinking that is below them there are always some good books to read!  Now on the subject of books………….

I’ve almost finished reading the Poyser edition of The Hen Harrier by Donald Watson.  I feared that it might be dry and full of facts and figures, but very much to the contrary it is a very enjoyable read.  Donald Watson was of course an artist as well as ornithologist and in the accounts of his study areas you can almost feel that he is seeing the birds through an artists eye and some fine detail is given, especially of birds on the nest watched from a hide.  Donald Watson began to watch Hen Harriers in the 1940’s so you can’t expect the latest facts and figures, but that does not in anyway negate what is an exceptional read. I have a tendency to skim read books on first reading, so it will be lined up for a second reading soon, but not before I’ve read the more recently written The Hen Harrier-In the Shadow of Slemish by Don Scott.  This provides some detail from Don Scott’s study of Hen Harriers in Northern Ireland over more than two decades and includes some information on tree nesting Hen Harriers.  Whilst yet to begin reading this book a cursory glance has shown rather interestingly that sixteen species of harrier are now recognised worldwide in comparison to the nine or ten species recognised  by Donald Watson’s book.  Splitting seems to have provided some with a number of armchair ticks!  My aim is to eventually to move on to Harriers of the World: Their Behaviour and Ecology/OUP.

Some memories of very memorable harrier sightings have flooded back to me including the Northern Marsh Hawk (Norfolk), Pallid Harrier (Zambia and possibly ranking as the most exciting, found just before torrential rain and high winds sent us scattering back to out huts for shelter from the storm), African Marsh Harrier, numerous sightings of Montague’s Harrier in Europe (one of the best seen harassing a Golden Eagle in Extremadura), several Hen Harrier sightings in the UK and my first ever harrier, a Marsh Harrier seen at Leighton Moss many years ago on a hot summer evening when I had came across Leighton Moss completely by chance.  I fell in love with reed-beds and harriers that evening.  Great memories of great sightings.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Go West.....Geltsdale

Go West…..Geltsdale.

There where the air is free
We'll be (We'll be) what we want to be
Now if we make a stand
We'll find (We'll find) our promised land
Lyrics courtesy of The Village People

18th Jan.  Sam and I were invited to RSPB Geltdale today by Blanaid Denman, Project Leader of the Hen Harrier SkyDancer Project.  As we are now volunteering with the Skydancer Project it was a good idea to visit and view the small art exhibition showing at the reserve and of course grab some time out for bird watching.  I’m sure I don’t need to tell anyone who has visited Geltsdale that this upland reserve is superbly managed by the RSPB (well all with an interest in our natural wildlife will I think/hope agree).  Although not heavily visited and lacking facilities in the form of cafes (in my opinion making it all the better for that!) this is a wonderful area.

The rain poured down heavily as we travelled westwards along the A69, but as if by prior arrangement with some controller in the heavens the sky brightened as we neared our destination.  As we travelled I got my eye on a bird lifting and it turned out to be a ringtail Hen Harrier.  One of two we watched today.  A perfect compliment to what the whole day was about.  On arrival and after a cup of coffee and a rather nice piece of ginger cake baked by Blanaid, and prior to the talks and presentation, Sam and I had the chance to walk a small area of the reserve along by the beck where we had Grey Heron, Lapwings and Merlin fly over the area.  It was dry by now.  I sensed this area would fit nicely into novels by the Brontes.  Grey, but changing skies lay heavily above the fells and there was little sound carrying in the cold air.  Sam and I were also filmed and interviewed for a forthcoming RSPB video concerning Hen Harriers.  Perhaps it is too late for me to become a star, but by no means is it too late for Sam.  Watch this space and I’ll keep you updated on any progress concerning the video.  I purchased an RSPB Hen Harrier badge to wear during any future Skydancer presentations Sam and I make. 

It was time for another coffee and piece of cake by now before listening to some talks and looking at the Ghost Bird exhibition.

Pictures from an Exhibition

 The talk of course was focused upon the plight of the Hen Harrier in England.  The introduction to the Ghost Bird exhibition was interesting and thought provoking as was the small exhibition itself.  I believe the exhibition will remain at Geltsdale until 4th April.  The title of the work referred to the ghostly grey feathers of the male Hen Harrier and the increasing absence, due to suspected persecution, of nesting pairs in the trough of Bowland’ (and elsewhere). ‘Ghost Bird celebrated the bird’s beauty whilst drawing attention to its sometimes fragile existence in the north of England.’  The informative notes from the exhibition makes reference to the Pendle Witches and the following comment makes clear the analogy between the situation of the Pendle witches and the situation of the Hen Harrier.  I became interested in how these 12 (the witches) were seemingly hunted down through fear, prejudice, ignorance and the pursuit of power.  I was made aware of the Hen Harrier – a beautiful bird close to extinction (in England) due to fear, prejudice, ignorance and the pursuit of grouse’.

Afterwards Sam and I were filmed again as we walked down towards Tindale Tarn.  The light was forever changing with dark thunderous cloud threatening a soaking of grand proportions whilst never actually carrying out the threat, as the sun tried eventually to break through lighter cloud.  Birds seen from the hide at the tarn included Goosanders, Goldeneyes, Mute Swan, Mallards and Tufted Duck.  We later added Common Buzzard and Kestrels to our day list of raptors.  One other top sighting of the day was the single Black Grouse (female Grey Hen) that we had fine views of.

A hide with a Tindale Tarn
Our day had been spent with knowledgeable people who care about Hen Harriers and their plight, and of course conservation of our natural heritage.  It had been a really enjoyable few hours and I’m sure everyone made for home wondering how best to improve on the present plight of the Hen Harrier.  I’m sure all would agree that such action must include the raising of the awareness of the general public to the Hen Harrier.  A major factor in the aims and objectives of the Skydancer Project. 

Lets all make it a duty to spread the word about the plight of the Hen Harrier and not only the plight, but also the right that this species has to live free of persecution.

The day included three very good year ticks for Sam and me in Hen Harrier, Merlin and Black Grouse.   My thanks go to all concerned and especially Blanaid Denman for the invitation to Sam and I to join her at Geltsdale.

Addendum.  Forgot to mention my first butterfly of 2014!  It was a Small Tortoiseshell probably disturbed by the ever so mild temperatures so far this winter.  Mind you having stood outside for a while I didn't feel it was that mild myself!

Friday, 17 January 2014

It's Good to Read!

Only in my case I just wish I had more free time to do so!

I did have enough time to look by the lake this week and on the 15th Jan there were at least thirteen Goosanders and eight displaying Goldeneye on the water.  Many of the Coots had congregated on a grassy area to feed and I counted between seventy-five and eighty of these birds tightly packed together.  They made for the water as soon as anyone passed by and would then return once the folk had passed.  Numbers of Pochard were close by and two Mistle Thrushes also fed in a near area.  The church grounds held flocks of Chaffinch, Greenfinch and Goldfinch.

The 17th Jan saw me at a presentation concerning the Cheviot Wild/Ferral Goats, although I was reminded during the talk that neither the term wild or feral is very appropriate.  Perhaps even better than the presentation in my opinion was the chance to look at some used books which were available for small donations.  Sam struggled to carry his home such was his keenness and enterprise.  I picked up only one, but it is perhaps one of the oldest books I now own.  It was printed in 1895 and is The Naturalist on the Amazons by Henry Walter Bates.  It wasn’t until I read the first line of the first chapter…I embarked at Liverpool, with Mr Wallace… that I realised that this is the same Bates that avid readers of my blog will realise I wrote about sometime ago concerning Batesian Mimicry.  Mr Wallace of course was Alfred Russell Wallace the great naturalist and explorer.  I shall look forward to reading this one.  Sam has done some research and found that a mint copy of the book could fetch a few quid.  Unfortunately my copy whilst in decent shape, is not in mint condition nor is it a first edition.

The little discovery above had me reaching for another old book of mine printed in 1893 named Wanderings in South America which was written by a rather eccentric traveller named Charles Waterton.  I bought this book after I returned from Guyana a few years ago as Waterton spent time in Guyana and I was keen to read about his adventures.  As it happens I still haven’t read it, but I understand he writes about those damned insects on the grassland that made such a mess of my legs until someone gave me powder which kept them well away.  I may be wrong, but I seem to be able to date my allergy to insect bites to about this time.

I found the following line about one of Waterton’s eccentricities…Waterton sometimes enjoyed biting the legs of his guests from under the dinner table, imitating a dog.  Sounds perfectly normal social interaction to me!

Yes, it is good to read so I must read both books.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Budle, Ross and Stag

11th Jan.  I entered the outside world this morning to find that for the first time this winter I really felt the cold and as Carmel, Sam and I approached Budle Bay we found that some of the side roads in places were frosty and icy.  So icy on one particular corner near Budle Bay that it appeared that one car had left the road and driven into the hedge.  This seemed to be confirmed on our return when we found that the fence and hedge had been smashed.

We’d sighted Common Buzzard on our journey north and a covey of twelve plus Grey Partridges as we entered the quieter roads.  A journey undertaken under clear blue skies and sunshine which ensured Northumberland was seen at its best and certainly that the view across Budle Bay was clear and picturesque.  We found Pink-footed and Greylag Geese in the far distance distance (some flew in the area), large flocks of Lapwing and a few Dunlin in the mid distance and closer to us numbers of Wigeon, Teal, Mallard, Gadwall,  Shelduck, Redshank and Curlew.

Ross Bank Sands

After Budle Bay we lost our way a little, but were soon making the walk from the hamlet of Ross, through the dunes and onwards to the sea.  I was still feeling cold, but the walk soon warmed me through.  The area was far drier than I expected and certainly drier than on my previous visit when we had to divert to miss flooded areas.  This has got to be one of the best beach and dune areas in England with views of Bamburgh Castle to the south and Lindisfarne to the north, and with the Farne Islands visible to the east and the Cheviots to the west.  All seen today under clear skies.  If anything the sun was too bright and certainly made for difficult viewing of the flocks of passerines flying around the wooded areas.  We later found most of them to be Chaffinches and Goldfinch along with the occasional Wren, Linnet and tit.  A sizable flock of Curlew were active on and over the fields.

Ross Bank Sands
We split up for a time as Carmel took a walk along the beach, Sam got on with landscape photography and I simply watched the sea.  I have to say sea-watching was frustratingly difficult today as the waves constantly hid birds that disappeared just as quickly as they were found.  We soon found Long-tailed Ducks and Red-throated Divers were everywhere.  Sam is pretty sure he picked up a Great Northern Diver in flight (unmistakeable feet) and I found Black-throated Diver.  Unfortunately neither of us was able to say we had seen all three divers that were present.  Also seen on or over the sea were Shag, Cormorant, Eider, Common Scoter, Wigeon and auk species.  We took a break for lunch as we walked back through the dunes.

We didn’t have too much time on our hands today so we reluctantly left the area.  We did have time for a short stop at Stag Rock.  Thirty plus Purple Sandpipers rested on the rocks out of the wind and gave excellent sightings and Sam managed to take an even better image of one of them on the tide line which I suspect may find its way onto an Under the Hood calendar in a future year.  I have to say it was an image worked hard for.  More Red-throated Divers and Long-tailed Ducks were seen along with a few Common Scoter and Goldeneye.  A sizeable flock of Wigeon flew across the sea before landing and Oystercatcher, Turnstone and Sanderling were seen near the tide line.

A Kestrel was seen hovering as we returned down the AI and I almost fell asleep as Sibelius’s Finlandia played on the radio (I don’t really think this little tune was meant to lull people to sleep!).  I believe Sam did fall asleep!  As we made for home and the sun almost blinded me, I reflected upon how lucky I am to live in Northumberland and enjoy what it has to offer with good friends.  In between such reflection I tried to reckon up what I had added to my year list.  Seven species I think, but that didn’t seem too important when put alongside the other factors.  It’s only 11th January and I remain a laid back birder as far as such matters go.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

RSPB...Druridge Walk

4th Jan.  Unlike English cricketers I was praying that rain wouldn’t stop play today.  As the clouds darkened overhead I was so sure that we were in for a drenching that I informed participants that Sam and I would finish today’s walk what ever the weather, but that I would understand if others wanted to drop out and return to their vehicles.  A Coal Tit fed in the pine trees as I spoke and as we left a Pied Wagtail flew in the car-park.  As we had approached our starting point we had found a large flock of Greylag Geese near Woodhorn along with Mute Swans, Wigeon and Gadwall.  A Kestrel was also in the area and another perched in trees just before we parked up.

We soon set off from Druridge Country Park car park and headed long the beach towards Hauxley with the wind behind our backs.  The warmth ensured that the beach walk was not as bracing as everyone had been led to expect.  The grey skies ensured that the light was not good for sea watching, but some good birds were seen never the less, including ten plus Red Throated Divers, one Great Northern Diver flying south (a welcome sighting as I hadn’t seen one during 2013), Eiders, Common Scoters, Red-breasted Mergansers, auk species and gulls.  Waders seen included Lapwing, Oystercatcher, Sanderling, Turnstone and Curlew.  As we left the beach and got back onto the pathway we found that there was a dearth of small passerines. 

Once up to Hauxley Nature Reserve the Ponteland Hide provided nice sightings of Goldeneye and a pair of Little Grebe.  There were large flocks of Curlew and Canada Geese near to the reserve.  I’d noticed the water in the reserve was very high.

We timed it nicely to ensure that participants could take their lunch in the hides.  I thought by now that they would all be glad to get out of the rain, but up to this point there hadn’t been any!  I think folk were impressed by the number of Tree Sparrows that were feeding and I’m pleased to say everyone had good close sightings of a Water Rail.  Participants seemed less taken with the over fed Brown Rats which are the first mammal to appear on my and Sam’s 2014 list.  The rats seemed to ensure that the Water Rail wasn’t going to hang around to long, although I noticed that the Moorhen wasn’t phased by them at all.  I found my first Chaffinches of 2014 in this area along with a beautifully coloured Pheasant.  Just to return to the Tree Sparrows I have to say that the work of NWT and others is to be applauded in ensuring that this species has been given a chance in Northumberland.

As participants watched the Wigeon, Teal, Tufted Duck and Little Grebes (I was unable to find the Black necked Grebe which may have been in the corner of the pool that we didn’t reach), one or two visitors seems shocked to find the hide full.

Having added some energy everyone was happy to make the return walk.  I couldn’t believe that it still wasn’t raining and folk were commenting on the fact that they were too warm as they removed gloves and hats.  Sam looked over the beach and found us Ringed Plovers and Bar-tailed Godwit to add to the list and at least one Goldcrest was found feeding frantically.  Wrens and Rock Pipits then took our attention and a Common Buzzard was watched flying before it perched on a fence.

We had a chat about the archaeological dig that has taken place in the area and before to long we were back at the car-park in Druridge CP.  We’d managed to find fifty-seven species during our four hour walk and I think everyone had enjoyed the habitat.  I do think a few had struggled with some of the seabird sightings, but it didn’t seem to concern them too much and Sam and I were always at hand with the telescope for those who wanted to share it.  Amazingly it still hadn’t rained!  Sam and I along with others enjoyed a drink in the café (Sam in shirt sleeves by now) which I hadn’t expected to be open at this time of year.  We then set off for a return which was to include a stop at Cresswell Pond.

Our stop at Cresswell Pond was a fairly short one but a very enjoyable one.  Sam had hoped for Whooper Swans today and despite missing the fifty plus which we have learnt were present on the pond in the afternoon we did at least have a nice sighting of three that remained.  Other additions to the day list were Song Thrush, Dunlin (around in numbers), Common Snipe and Collared Dove.  More Tree Sparrows were also seen.  This brought the list up to sixty-two for the day and gave me thirty-three new species for the year.

Three remaining Whooper Swans
We reluctantly left Creswell as the sunset and the Lapwing flock flew over the peaceful area whilst the rather handsome farm cat was on the prowl.

There were thirteen participants on the walk today.  It was a nice number to have.  When we get higher numbers the group tends to split making for a less friendly feel I think.  This is the third New Year walk that I have been involved with and thankfully the weather has been very good on all three.  I enjoy the walks because they tend to attract people who are really interested in birds, habitat and conservation rather than those simply looking for a day out.  My thanks to all who took part, especially Sam for his co-leading and general input.  We already have the plans made for our New year walk in 2015.

Once again I have to say….It’s good to walk!  It never did rain!

Friday, 3 January 2014

I Have a Dream for 2014

Jan 2014.  All birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts are born equal and remain equal wherever their interest lies.

I have a dream that a birders worth will be measured not by the size of their ‘list’, but instead, by the level of their knowledge and passion for birds and wildlife, and the extent of their contribution (in what ever form) to the conservation of biodiversity.  Remember, size really doesn’t matter!

I have a dream that everyone who shows an interest in birds and nature will be fully embraced and welcomed into the fold as equals and that elitism becomes a thing of the past and that the silly notion of ‘leagues for birders’ be kicked into touch once and for all.

I have a dream that I shall one day walk towards a bird hide and not be met by someone giving me a verbal list of birds that are to be seen (unless I ask for it) and that it will be accepted wisdom that I may wish to make my own sightings and that I can distinguish between a Ruff and a Redshank (on a good day).  (Saltholme RSPB Reserve take note!)

I have a dream that that voices in bird hides will be kept to a low level of sound, especially when those voices are slagging off people I know in the local birding community!

I have a dream that that the UK Government will announce that conservation of species is to be given a higher priority than the lining of the pockets of developers and that North Tyneside Council will be abolished unless seen to follow this edict from above.

I have a dream that those owners of 600mm (and above) lenses will see the error of some of their ways and not assume that they have a right to be ‘at the front’ because they want the best image on Flicker no matter how it is achieved  even if it is at the detriment of the subject.

I have a dream that Hen Harriers will produce young again and that these same young will be left to fly over England’s green and pleasant land without the fear of meeting lead shot and poison.  In fact I have a dream that all raptor numbers will be allowed to increase in number or at least remain stable and that those attempting to ensure otherwise face hefty punishment.

I have a dream that all dog owners will become less selfish when walking their pet/s and accept that their ‘Rover’s’ needs are not necessarily at the forefront of the everyone’s mind and that we don’t all like muddy paws up our trouser legs or to be charged at by their ever so adorable beast.  Remember, Nature Reserves are reserved for nature and not the running loose of your dog.  Gosforth inhabitants please take note!

I have a dream that when we arrange RSPB walks, that everyone who books a place on the event actually turns up or at least has the manners to inform us that they are unable to attend.

I have a dream that the next time the neighbour’s cats enter my garden to attack the garden birds and urinate on my plants, that some heavily built Magpie gives them a good pecking and that when the neighbour expresses horror I am able to say ‘it’s only nature’!!!

I have a dream that when ever I go out on birding adventures the cloud will clear from the sky and shafts of sunlight will brighten the day.

I have a dream that a mega rarity will appear at Killingworth Lake, but that only Sam and I see it before it flies off and that when the many doubters say ‘we don’t think they actually saw that species’ we are able to whip out copies of our first class images and show them whilst the doubters are struck by bolts of lightening sent from heaven.

I have a dream that all bird races will be won by a bird.

Ich bin ein Berliner………..ooops sorry, wrong speech.

I have a dream brothers and sisters…..I have a dream.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Laid Back and Listing (2014)

2nd Jan.  That’s right, the 2nd Jan.  A decision was made yesterday to postpone the patch walk until today.  As it happens it was a good decision as today was a sunny and bright one and extremely mild for the time of year.  It proved to be a fairly quiet start to patch birding for Sam and I, but that is a reflection on our laid back approach in general.  We found thirty-eight species today in contrast to forty-six species on 1st Jan and fifty-two species on 5th Jan 2013.  I get the impression that things are quiet through the North East and certainly not only species numbers were down today, but bird numbers in general were also low.  Notable absences from the list today were raptors in general, Greylag Geese which seem to have left the lake, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Song Thrush, Chaffinch, Yellowhammer and Reed Bunting.

There was still plenty to keep us interested as we walked around the lake, headed for the village area and then walked the wagon-ways.  The wagon-way was silent apart from the odd Linnet, a small flock of twelve calling Golden Plover which flew across the area for sometime, a single Redwing and a single Mistle Thrush and of course corvids, gulls and pigeons, although we found that even numbers of Wood Pigeon were low.

We did find Bullfinches in the area where we would expect them and the lake held the usual birds including Goosanders, the pair of Little Grebes and ten plus Goldeneye.  The small lake was taken over by large parties of Tufted Duck.

It was good to be away from the maddening crowd which is one of the benefits of patch birding in Killingworth.  Few birders apart from ourselves, few dogs, few cyclists (the one we did see fell off his bicycle into the mud) and few folk in general and no sounds from clicking cameras apart from when Sam took the odd photo.:-)

I had little time to look for birds yesterday but I’m pleased to say that the first one seen was my favourite garden bird, the Blackbird which was quickly followed by Coal Tit and Robin.

We had time to put a bit of a wish list for 2014 together today and I’m hopeful that at least some of the wishes will be granted.

Hopefully the RSPB walk at Druridge will fall between two days of what seems to be poor weather conditions.