Friday, 27 February 2015

Urban to Wild, Little (Egret) to Short (Eared Owl)

26th Feb.  Sam, Lee and I met up this morning and we left Killingworth, which was in a dull and damp mood, with a definite plan of action to explore South East Northumberland beginning with Cramlington.  We found the two Little Egrets on Hartford Burn within seconds of our first stop (almost as quickly as we had found a Redwing fly into the hedge), but weren’t so lucky in attempt to find the Great Grey Shrike at West Hartford.  This area was pretty dead this morning although the calls of Oystercatchers greeted us, as did sightings of Mallard, Teal, a pair of Kestrel and an overhead Meadow Pipit.  By evening time I’d lost count of the number of Kestrels we saw today.  More than twelve I believe.  A few years ago that would not have been unusual, but then we wouldn’t have been watching Little Egrets in urban Cramlington.

Little Egret

 Our next stop was for a little more urban birding, this time on an industrial estate in Morpeth, where we found the two Waxwings fairly quickly.  Having hung around for a while we had good close up sightings as the birds constantly returned to the berries.  The light remained poor throughout so good images weren’t possible, but I’m happy to have seen this species which has been scarce this winter.  I later wondered what percentage of the workers on the trading estate get along with their work without giving these birds a second look.  A high percentage I guess.  An exotic bird which I remember desiring to see after looking through Readers Digest Book of British Birds many moons ago.  It’s interesting to look at this book now and see the many changes in numbers, distribution etc of species.    There was a lot to fit in today so we headed off to the rather wilder area of Cresswell.  Incidentally, another interesting read by JC at NEBirder (can't seem to link) concerning the proposed opencast.

We did take a bit of a detour in search of Ross’s Goose near Stobswood but to be honest we didn’t know where to look so had no success in terms of geese, but we did find two Red-legged Partridge at Maiden Hall Lake.


There were plenty of Tree Sparrows at the feeders as we approached the pond, but generally the area initially looked quiet although we were soon been entertained by the large flock of Pink-footed Geese which initially made itself heard, then flew on several occasions directly over the pond and hide.  The geese were especially restless today with maybe thoughts of more northerly latitudes.  Spectacular moments once again with the geese.  A bitter breeze was entering the hide and it seemed to have cleared most birds from the water, neither were there any waders on the sand bank.  Hundreds of Wigeon edged the pond and maybe around a hundred took to the water and showed well in the sunlight.  Curlews flew past the hide and landed as a group on the west side of the pond whilst on the water we eventually found the likes of Shelduck, Teal, Gadwall, Goldeneye and Little Grebe alongside the whistling Wigeon.  A Kestrel hovered.

Pink-footed Geese from the hide

Next was a quick stop at Druridge Pools where we didn’t spend much time, but added Shoveller to our list and on moving off towards East Chevington we watched as a Kestrel flew across the road in front of us with its prey, a frog.  The Kestrel landed and was joined by its mate before both flew in the direction of the trees with Frog's elasticated legs swinging in the air.  I’d earlier picked up the call of Goldcrest from the viewing platform before we all had a good sighting of it.  Lots of Goldfinches were visiting the recently topped up feeders.  We talked to the chap who tops up the feeders or I ought to say he talked to us!  Friendly bloke, who we bumped into again in the country park.

We stopped at North Pool East Chevington and spent a short time looking for Marsh Harrier which we had seen in the area at an earlier date than this last year.  Nothing was found but Lee was pleased with the Black-necked Grebe which is still around.  Goldeneye seemed to be one of the most numerous birds in the area.  We welcomed the use of the ‘metal box’ hide as it protected us from the heaviest winter squall of the day.  I’m glad I wasn’t outside walking in that!  We viewed North Pool from both north and south as our next stop was Druridge Country Park.  The feeding station was very much quieter than on a previous visit this month by Sam and me.  Today I saw only Robin, Dunnock, Great, Coal and Blue Tit and Reed Bunting.  We thought we have an even better view of the Black-necked Grebe from here but in fact with the sun in our eyes we didn’t see it as well as we had from the south of the pool, and the fact that it was constantly diving didn’t help.  A pair of Red-breasted Mergansers was picked up along with the likes of Gadwall, Wigeon and Teal.  A couple of Canada Geese were on one of the islands and it was I think around this time that we saw a large skein of Greylag Geese.  There were of course more Kestrels.

Our next and final stop was to be at Warkworth gut.  Sam had noted the evening before those Short-eared owls had been seen in the dunes here, so we thought we would try for them.  I’ve only been to this area three times previously and I don’t think Sam and Lee had been before.  It’s a nice spot made even better by this evening’s sunshine.  Eider Duck and Grey Heron were seen as we drove along past the river towards Warkworth.  I remember thinking that it is now many years ago when I was in the castle.

Short-eared Owl
On arrival we found a few blokes with binoculars so I guessed that they were here for the same reason we were.  I guessed correctly.  Short-eared Owls had been showing.  A local told us that a Kingfisher had been seen that morning too.  We initially found the likes of Redshank and more Wigeon, but it wasn’t long before we were watching our first Short-eared Owl of the winter.  We eventually followed the path into the dunes and climbed higher for a better sighting into the dune area.  Two Grey Partridges were flushed.  We bumped into nature-northest who had counted three Short-eared Owls.  It wasn’t long before we were watching a Short-eared Owl, then two were up together with another some distance to the north of us.  What a way to end our days birding.  In the dunes with the sunlight at its best and three Short-eared Owls around us.  As Sam said, top moments of February!   As we were stood there a Brown Hare ran through the dunes only a few feet away from us.

Well all good things come to an end and we did need to get back home so we reluctantly began to make our way back to the car-park.  We of course were all able to watch Kestrel again and this time found two Stonechats.  I was just thinking what a great way to end the day when Sam called ‘Kingfisher’ as it flew from the small pool near the golf course and flew across in front of us, disappearing as quickly as it had appeared.  The atmosphere was forever changing as Sam picked up the call of the Short-eared Owl and we watched Mistle Thrushes on the golf course.

We’d began the day in dull light and dampness in an urban environment (and urban birding can be as good as any, even in poor light), but with some excellent sightings and we’d ended the day by the sea in sunlit dunes with more excellent species.  A day that will go down amongst the best of 2015 I reckon.  I have to say that there is something very special about watching owls in their natural surroundings.  We ended once again with sixty bird species and we hadn’t even attempted to look at the sea or for waders.  The geese were spectacular, the Waxwings were very nice to watch, but I think I have to agree with Sam that the Short-eared Owls can’t be beaten!  Oh, and I forgot to mention the flocks of Whooper Swan and Greylag Geese on the way home.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Low to High

21st Feb.  Very high tides today, although Sam and I arrived at St Mary’s Island when the tide was at it’s lowest point, exposing land that I can’t remember seeing for a long time.  Skylarks were singing as we approached the area and although wader watching was more difficult that usual as the birds were feeding so far out, we still managed to have decent sightings of the following between St Mary’s Island and Seaton Sluice, Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Golden Plover, Lapwing, Knot, Sanderling, Purple Sandpiper, Turnstone, Dunlin, Redshank and Curlew.

There was little sea passage to be picked  up. but I did manage my first sighting this year of Gannets.  Also seen were Teal, Goldeneye, Eider,Guillemot and Fulmar and Sam managed to pick up distant Red Throated Diver and a Kittiwake.

The skies had been cloudless throughout the day until we entered the dene and there seemed to be a threat of snow or rain as grey cloud began to build up from the west.  In fact we were hit by a shower of hail lasting only a few minutes before the sun was back out.  This area was very quiet except at the feeders which attracted Great Spotted Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Dunnock, Robin, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Blue Tit a sizable flock of Long-tailed Tits and Chaffinch.  The open farm land was also very quiet.

Holywell Pond was, yes you’ve guessed, pretty quiet too, but did have Canada Geese, one Shelduck, Mallards, Gadwall, Teal, Wigeon, Pochard, Tufted Duck and Goldeneye and we also heard sharming (word of the week) from the Water Rail.

I’d commented to Sam on a number of occasions on the lack of birds and as I did so again I got my eye on a Common Buzzard flying over the trees at the back of the pond.  It showed really well in the sunlight.  Sam got his eye on another raptor.  The Common Buzzard now perched in the trees and this other raptor was attempting to fly in and mob it.  We suddenly realised it was a Peregrine Falcon, the first I’ve seen in the Holywell area for a while.  The peregrine eventually flew off at some speed towards the coast.

So beginning with a low (tide) we’d ended our day on somewhat of a high with the Peregrine Falcon sighting.  Wonderful that these birds are once again seen so often but not so wonderful is the fact that they are still persecuted.  Once home and sorting out my day list of species I realised that such a quiet day had still managed to provide sixty-two species of bird. So maybe not so quiet after all.  It was bitterly cold by the time we arrived back home.

20th Feb.  I’d had much business to attend to on Friday so decided to take a short stroll down to the lake to get me into the right frame of mind for the day.  I’d heard that a Great Crested Grebe had returned.  In fact we’d had one on the lake very early in February (noted by Sam) but it had disappeared again.  I caught up with the species today.  It’s almost into summer plumage. 

It’s good to see Mute Swan numbers have increased again.  Someone was at the lake feeding from bags.  This won’t go down well at all!  However it did appear that the gulls took all the food and not the swans.  It’s disturbing to hear that there is some thought that the Mute Swans (twenty plus found dead) on the river at Chester-le-Street may have been deliberately poisoned with a lead based substance.  It didn’t sound to me as though there is any definite evidence of this and we may find that it is simply lead substances that have found their way into the river.

After a quick look over the lake I walked to the church grounds and it was spring like here with song from Song Thrush, Blackbird, Wrens, Chaffinches and tits, the corvids very active overhead, a Magpie carrying nest material and a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming.  Parts of the lawns were a carpet of Snowdrops along with a few Crocus.

The cold air, getting colder by the minute tonight, informed me that spring has not quite arrived as I headed back home to get on with the work.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Rallus Aquaticus

Now wouldn’t it be good if all scientific names were as easy as this one to remember?

As promised, some images taken at WWT Caerlaverock of the Water Rail plus some interesting facts.

The Water Rail was first described by Carl Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae in 1758 under its current scientific name, Rallus aquaticus.

The oldest known fossil of an ancestral Water Rail are bones from Carpathia dated to the Pliocene period…5.3-1.8 million years ago.

The Water Rail’s main and well known call is known as sharming

Ooh, yeah! All right!
We're sharmin':
I wanna sharm it wid you.
We're sharmin', sharmin',
And I hope you like sharmin', too.

With apologies to Bob Marley

When researchers played recordings of the Reed Warbler at night to attract that species for trapping, they found Water Rails and other wetland birds were also grounded, despite a lack of suitable habitat, suggesting that the rails and other nocturnal migrants recognised the warbler’s song and associated it with the marshy habitat in which it is usually found.

 The Icelandic population of water rail, R. a. hibernans, became extinct around 1965, as a result of loss of habitat through the draining of wetlands, and predation by the introduced American mink.

Water rails have been eaten by humans for thousands of years.  They were eaten by the Romans, and depicted in wall paintings at Pompeii.  Now that’s interesting, as I have visited Pompeii and didn’t see these wall paintings.  I did see many other wall paintings, some of the graffiti type of a rather rude nature (naughty folk these Romans), but the details are perhaps best left for another blog!

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Caerlaverock Ends a Good Week of Geese

14th Feb.  I’ve been to Caerlaverock most winters over the past ten years and I seem to remember that the last three times I’ve gone along with the WWT group from Washington.  It’s always good to see that the trip always attracts participation from a wide range of all age groups ranging from the very young to the more mature!  The level of knowledge amongst the group is at various levels but everyone seems keen to learn especially the youngsters.  The interest is there and can be utilised with just a little appropriate action, and I think that is something other groups could learn from.  Cater for folk and many will be hooked, don’t bother then just forget inspiring folk.  The evening before had provided another large turn out for a really good presentation concerning Beavers at the NHSN, another organisation which these days captures an audience of a mixed age group.  As I’ve mentioned before I believe efforts made to move this organisation forward into the 21st century has really paid off. Anyway, we left Washington with the song of a Song Thrush filling the rather damp air.  Before we had reached Carlisle and turned northwards the cloud had cleared and we were blessed with clear skies and sunshine for the rest of the day.  For the first time this year I didn’t bother getting the hat and gloves out.  Four Common Buzzards lifted in the thermals over a small area of woodland as we approached the entrance to the reserve.  Our first flock of Barnacle Geese were seen to the other side of the road.  Sparrowhawk and Kestrel had been seen on the journey.

Barnacle Geese

My previous visits to Caerlaverock have often met with rain and distant flocks of Barnacle Geese on the ground.  Today was different with the flocks of Barnacle Geese (I believe there were around four thousand on the reserve) up in the air and on one occasion passing directly over our heads, a sight enjoyed in sunshine.  Following our experience with the Pink –footed Geese at Druridge Bay, Northumberland earlier in the week, this has given Sam and I highlights for February.  We found the geese in one large flock of thousands later in the day.

Barnacle Geese

Barnacle Geese over the trees

The WWT doesn’t stand still, and it was the first time I had entered there new hide near the entrance.  Now I don’t rate watching birds from behind glass at the top of my list of wildlife adventures, but to be fair it does give the chance for good close up sighting of the wildfowl and in particular the Whooper Swans and with the talks being given by staff it is an excellent learning experience for all age groups.  Anyone with any real interest in a subject is keen to learn more, and education in my opinion should be at the top of the list of any organisation or group involved with wildlife.  There are some excellent hides at Caerlaverock giving excellent views over the entire area.

Whooper Swan
Other waterfowl seen today were Mute Swan, Canada Geese, Shelduck, Mallard. Gadwall, Shoveller, Wigeon, Teal, and Tufted Duck.  A look on Folly Pond before we left brought us good sightings of both Pintail and the Green-winged Teal.



Mallard   Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?
The large hide looking out to sea gave us sightings of Lapwing, Redshank, Curlew and two Little Egrets.  There was no sign of the Hen Harrier reported early morning.  A return walk brought out a pair of Treecreepers in the hedging, the pair giving a good sighting and in fact my first for 2015.  Sparrowhawk and Kestrel were both seen on the reserve as was a group of at least six Roe Deer.  Skylarks were numerous.  Grey Heron made occasional appearances.

There were far fewer passerines along the hedges and pathways than I recall seeing on several previous visits.  I think perhaps the mild weather ensured that many were finding feeding easy across a wider area rather than feeling the need to congregate in large flocks in small areas.  Most numerous were Chaffinches and Yellowhammers.

Towards the end of our visit we came across what was perhaps along with the geese, the sighting of the day.  This was a Water Rail making a grand appearance in the open to feed.  It was certainly attracting the photographers two or three who seemed to be camped there for the day!  Sam and I managed some decent images of what I think is for both of us our best and longest sighting of a Water Rail.  (images to follow in later blog)  At one point it ran along the grass at the side of the reed-bed and once hidden in the reed bed it continued to entertain with its pig like squeals.  It seemed that the Water Rail was content to keep re-appearing throughout the day.  After moving on we took a last look at the Whooper Swans before retuning to the coach.  A member of staff was still there giving out information to youngsters.

There was no time for a visit to the shop or to have a ‘cuppa’ tea, but we had visited the reserve for other reasons than sitting drinking cups of tea.  It had been a really good visit, if a little short and we returned with a day list of fifty species, three of which were new for my year list.  On our return a Song Thrush continued to sing from about the same position as when we left.

I can still hear those calls of the Barnacle Geese.  The Solway, whether on the English or Scottish side is a wonderful area.  Despite the sun today there was still traces of snow on the tops of the hills which added to a grand atmosphere.   It’s been a great week and I applaud the WWT and NWT, just two of the organisations which help ensure these habitats are worth visiting.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Druridge Bay, Waterfowl and Ermine

10th Feb.  I’d been looking forward to a return to Druridge Bay.  I wasn’t really expecting such a wonderful winter’s day of sun, warmth (at times), clear blue skies and lots of action.  Sam and I walked from Druridge Country Park to Cresswell and often seemed to have the area to ourselves

Druridge Bay looking south
Druridge Bay looking north
Even with the sun in our eyes we had good sightings across East Chevington North Pool with large numbers of Goldeneye and the Black-necked Grebe showing well along with Little Grebes, Teal and Wigeon.  The feeders were attracting Great, Coal, Blue and Long-tailed Tits, Goldfinch, Chaffinch, Great Spotted Woodpecker and a single Siskin and Reed Bunting et al.  From one of the eastern hides we eventually spotted the Long-tailed Duck and nearby found our first of several pairs of Stonechats seen today.  The first of many Grey Herons seen today was stood on the island and the large flock of Lapwing was restless.  Perhaps the highlight of the day was finding a Stoat in ermine as it appeared to hunt the Stonechats without success.  A little later another Stoat was found, this one in its brown coat.  Now the sighting of the Stoats had me asking myself some questions.  Until I checked I have to admit that I didn’t know that the change to white ermine is governed by the change of temperature and day length upon the Stoats pituitary gland.  I’m still asking myself ‘so why do some in the same area and habitat turn white and others don’t?’  I did find that in the winter of 2010/11 70 records of Stoats in ermine were sent to the NWT from a wide range of areas in Northumberland.
We eventually walked through the dunes to the open coastline where the sun shone brightly over the North Sea.  Sam searched for possible Snow Buntings where we had photographed them last February, but was without success.  Five Red-breasted Mergansers swam lose to shore as did Eider Ducks.  A lone Sanderling was found high on the beach feeding amongst the seaweed and I heard a Pied Wagtail before spotting it.  Oystercatchers were seen in the distance.  By now large skeins of Pink-footed Geese were flying overhead and they stayed in the air for some time.  This is one of the real rewards of winter bird watching.  Skylarks, Meadow Pipits and Goldfinch where numerous along with the odd Reed Bunting.  The views in the perfect light were wonderful and by now the sun was beginning to warm us.  There was no wind at all over the sandy beach.  We reluctantly moved on to continue our walk and as we headed southwards we listened to the calling Pink-footed Geese still in skeins in the air.  The occasional Kestrel was picked up. We later found a pair of Kestrels being mobbed by corvids.

Reed Bunting


East Chevington North Pool

Time seemed to go fast and by 1.30pm we were beginning to feel peckish so were glad to reach Druridge Pools and sit down to eat.  As we did so a Peregrine Falcon swooped across from the east causing flocks of Lapwing and waterfowl to lift.  It gave a good sighting as it took a level flight westwards over the pools before flying off into the distance.  The pools held Shoveller, Mallard, Gadwall, Wigeon, Teal, Tufted Duck and Grey Heron et al.  The larger pond to the north was very quiet and so we set off again.  We stopped at the viewing point just off the road and found a number of Common Snipe at the edge of one of the pools.

Pink-footed Geese were often with us.

Druridge Pools

It wasn’t long before we could hear Pink-footed Geese in the fields.  When we reached them there appeared to be at least 1,500 and very likely more.  They lifted at one point, but only moved a little before landing in the field again.  A wonderful sight and sound.  Ok, there may or may not have been Bean Geese in the flock.  We weren’t going to find them if they were there and I was too busy enjoying my day to feel overly concerned about that!

Pink-footed Geese Lift
Pink-footed Geese

We looked for Twite in their usual habitat and where Sam had watched them two or three weeks ago.  Unfortunately none were found and I think they may have been feeding in the dips in the sand dunes.  Only more Skylarks, Meadow Pipits and Goldfinches were seen along with corvids and gulls and Curlews.  The latter species seemed numerous and active today and weren’t often out of earshot.  House Sparrows were making a racket at the farm.  I began to wonder as to the effects of the proposed opencast mining in this area.  Having walked through an area that owes much to past industry, all I can say is that I remain positive for the future.  Anyone who believes that wildlife cannot survive alongside industry ought to read Michael Warrens Langford LowfieldsMy concerns tend to concern areas that are to be put under brick, concrete and tar and will be forever lost, as will its biodiversity.  Sadly this often happens without many folk giving it a second thought.

Sam and I eventually approached Cresswell Pond which was to be the end of our walk.  I’d got my second wind!  We soon found that there was large numbers of whistling Wigeon and Teal on the pond.  We knew we’d have time for a short watch from the hide so made towards it.  The hedges down to the hide were fairly quiet today but did hold good numbers of Treesparrows.

Records on the board in the hide included thirty plus Whooper Swans earlier in the day.  We were happy enough with the one Whooper Swan we found.  The sand bank held more Lapwings and Redshank.  Shelduck were added to our day list.  When I’d managed to prise Sam away from his favourite species, the Whooper Swan, we set off on our way home.  There was a line of three Grey Herons in the filed as we left.
A lone Whooper Swan at Cresswell Pond
It had been one of those great winter day’s in Northumberland.  What a fine county we have and what a wonderful area Druridge is for wildlife and scenery.  We were out for over five and a half hours and must have put a few miles behind us considering the diversions.  You see far more and take in far more on foot and we had perfect weather for it today and as Cilla would say, we had a lorra lorra laughs along the way.   The  Stoat in ermine was today’s star.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Fish, Chips and Black Throated Diver

7th Feb.  What turned out to be a quiet walk from Holywell village to Seaton Sluice ended with Sam and I having a look out to sea again, but this time with fish and chips in hand.  There appeared to be very little seabird passage over a calm sea today, but the fish and chips were as nice as ever.

We’d become so laid back counting gulls that it was a little while before I noticed that the Cormorant on the sea directly in front of us was in fact a Shag.  It remained there feeding for the entire time we were there.  A flock of about forty Common Scoters were found towards Blyth and a small group of four Common Scoters flew in and swam directly in front of us.  The last significant bird to be picked up was also bird of the day, a Black Throated Diver giving a very nice sighting indeed.  Apart from gulls, Razorbill, Guillemot, Eider Ducks and Cormorants were the only other species to appear.

Holywell Pond had once again been quiet although we’d watched tits, a Great Spotted Woodpecker and Tree Sparrow visiting a garden feeder as we approached.  A Water Rail was heard and a Grey Heron was on the island at the pond.  The pair of Mute Swans, Mallard, Gadwall, a pair of Teal, Pochard, Tufted Duck, Goldeneye, Moorhen and Coot were on the water.  Sam heard a Skylark which I failed to pick up and a couple of male Reed Buntings visited the feeders.

Coal Tit
The dene was quiet too, although not of people today.  A good search and a bit of hanging around failed to pick up Dipper.  Great Spotted Woodpecker was heard drumming.  We photographed the tits, but the Nuthatch was less helpful and it flew off to the other side of the burn making only brief appearances although calling at some length.  A Kestrel was seen in the Dene area.

Great Tit

 So after two hours plus having sat on the seat at the headland we returned home.  I was rather chilled and fell asleep with the Collins Bird Guide on my lap, as I completed our day list.  I could quite as easy fell asleep again this afternoon as I watched TV and the Magpies struggle on the pitch.  At least nature is never boring!

Monday, 2 February 2015

Short Sea-watch

2nd Feb.  Would you believe it, after my search for Song Thrush yesterday I had one feeding in the garden this morning.

Sam and I had a three hour trip to the coast today which began with a short sea watch from Seaton Sluice.  We’d watched a Grey Heron flying in Seghill on the journey.  Sam counted at least seven Little Auks and other sightings included a skein of eight Brent Geese, Fulmar, our first Kittiwakes, Guillemots and Razorbill of the year and a flock of Mallard.  There seemed to be a lot of movement of Great Black-backed Gulls.

We walked to St Mary’s wetland where we found the likes of Teal and Gadwall.  Flocks of Golden Plover and Curlew had been seen in the fields and our only raptor of the day was a Kestrel hovering near the cliff edge.  There were numbers of Rock Pipits about.  A large skein of Pink-footed Geese had been seen as they landed in the distant fields to the west of us.

It seems that high tides have changed the level of the sand in South Bay
In South Bay we watched Sanderling, Turnstone, Dunlin and Redshank before a brief but heavy shower of snow fell on us.  The light was already starting to go.  Very few folk about today.