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.
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?
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!