Monday, 31 August 2015

August Reflections

One summer night, out on a flat headland, all but surrounded by the waters of the bay, the horizons were remote and distant rims on the edge of space.
Rachael Carson.

30th Aug.  Today was to be the ending of my outings for August.  I have some work to look forward to tomorrow.  It was another clear sunny morning as Sam and I looked out over the North Sea from St Mary’s Island.  The island was a flurry of activity of the human kind and a marquee had been erected for what looked as if it was to be a wedding reception later in the day.  A few familiar faces were about and children were enjoying the exploration of the rock pools.  It wasn’t a day for sea watching, but we watched anyway and we reflected upon what August had delivered us in terms of birds and other wildlife.  Grey Seals were attracting the attention of visitors, many of whom seemed surprised to see them here on the island.  A first count seemed to suggest a round a dozen seals, but there were twenty plus by the time we left.  Maybe the blubberous grouping simply made counting difficult, or more likely a few had slipped in unseen as we talked.  Common, Arctic and Sandwich Terns passed us in some numbers, hundreds of Kittwakes formed another raft on the sea south of Blyth, Common Scoters passed in small flocks and Eider Ducks were eventually picked out.  Gulls, Gannets, Fulmars and waders completed the list, with the Golden Plovers putting on a mini display in the air.  There was also a fleeting glance at what was thought to be a Harbour Porpoise.  The view was completed by action on the water by fishing boats, yachts, RNLI training sessions and an overhead Hercules aircraft.  The hide on the island was open today so we made usage of it.  On enquiring however we were told that keys to the hide are no longer available to the public, as there has been problems caused in the main by youngsters it seems.  It seems a great pity to me that such a resource is not made full use off and the problems managed.

With help I can now ID this as Bee Moth

 Our walk to Holywell was interrupted by a short stop once again at the headland at Seaton Sluice.  Just before arrival here we found what appeared to be either three or four Kestrels which we thought was likely a family party.  Knot well into double figures now, were accompanied on the rocks below by other waders, amongst them Oystercatcher, Dunlin, Turnstone, Redshank and Curlew.  The general area also brought sightings of at least three Painted Lady Butterflies and the same number of Small Copper Butterflies and a number of Wall Brown and Meadow Brown Butterflies.  First records of both the former species for us this year, which on the whole has been a poor one for the butterflies.  Peacock and Speckled Wood were also added to today’s list along with Whites.  A female Sparrowhawk was chased by a crow across the headland to the dunes, the latter species showing no sign of giving up on the chase.

Garden Spider
Holywell Dene provided an enjoyable walk as always, but was uneventful in terms of birds.  Willow Warbler was heard and seen.  Whilst August is not the time for watching woodland birding, it is most certainly the time to be watching for migrant waders and this we did at Holywell Pond after chatting to passers by, including SP.  The public hide provided us with excellent sightings of four pristine Ruff, the adult male showing very well the size difference between the sexes, a single Whimbrel and a single Common Snipe.  Not the sightings of a few days ago, but nevertheless some fine birds and the privilege of showing a mother and son the birds through the telescope.  To my mind it is a privilege especially when folk are keen to learn.  The Lapwing flock was present, but not in great numbers today as I think many remained in the fields.  My mind was so fixed on the waders I didn’t give much attention to the wildfowl although the usual species were present and we saw Gadwall at close quarters from the members hide.  There were twenty plus Little Grebes present. 

Busy Bee
And so to our August reflections.  Sam and I both agree that this has been our best August in terms of sightings, Sam having some additions from his visit to Dumfries.  The month began so well with our sighting of the Bee-eaters at Brampton.  Then on 11th Aug we had both Osprey and Black Tern during a sea watch at St Mary’s Island and Seaton Sluice.  By the 13th Aug migrant waders began to arrive at Holywell in the form of three juvenile Ruff and on the 15th we had perhaps our best sighting of Green Sandpiper outside the hide in the sunlit area of reflected reeds, again at Holywell.  A Water Rail was there too.  Even better on 20th Aug when we found the Pectoral Sandpiper at Holywell along with Curlew Sandpiper, Dunlin, Common Sandpiper and Ruff, having earlier see four Whimbrel on the coast.  On the 23rd Aug the Pectoral Sandpiper was seen again along with four Common Sandpipers and a Greenshank was heard calling over Holywell Dene.  Perhaps best of all at Holywell was 24th August when we watched the Pectoral Sandpiper once again, but this time along with twelve Common Sandpipers, Dunlin, Green Sandpiper, Curlew, Common Snipe, and Ruff, with Greenshank also being seen near the temp flash caused by the storm and a Wood Sandpiper having been heard in the same area.  Our list of waders at Holywell this month is as follows Lapwing, Dunlin, Curlew Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper (H), Green Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Curlew, Whimbrel, Common Snipe, Ruff and Pectoral Sandpiper.  Rarity and numbers are secondary to the excellent nature of the actual sighting often in very good light at close quarters.  Then we mustn’t forget some wonderful sightings at Druridge Bay which included our second Osprey in Northumberland for the month, a wonderful summer plumage Red –throated Diver, Cuckoo and Minke Whale.  The icing on the cake was our finding of both White-letter Hairstreak and Holy Blue Butterfly in Holywell Dene.  Roseate Terns are among a supporting cast seen on the coast along with the likes of Manx and Sooty Shearwater (a lifer for Sam) and Arctic Skua.  Can September be as good?

Busy Insect :-)

Red Admiral
It’s now Bank Holiday Monday and unsurprisingly dull and wet so to brighten things up I’ll upload a few random images taken in the garden during August.  The more astute readers of my blog may have noticed that I have been rather lax in the image production of late!

Friday, 28 August 2015

Osprey and Minke among Druridge Delights

27th Aug.  Having sighted an Osprey on migration earlier in the month I wasn’t expecting another today, but that’s’ exactly what Sam and I found as we walked from Druridge Country Park to Cresswell.  We’d found the Country Park fairly quiet as far as birds were concerned and we hadn’t expected much on the water at North Pool, but we were rewarded with a swarm of Common Darters as we walked to and from the hide.  The most I’ve ever seen in one small area.  Amongst them was a Southern Hawker which posed at length for us and reminded me why I so much appreciate the beauty of odonata. We examined this one at length which for me made up for the lack of sightings this year.  Butterflies were also showing well and our list for the day was Green Veined White, Large White, Small White, Red Admiral, Wall Brown (by far the most numerous throughout the day), Meadow Brown and Speckled Wood.

Southern Hawker Dragonfly courtesy of Samuel Hood
It was as we walked south between the dunes and north pool that both Sam and I called Osprey at exactly the same moment not long before 11.00am, as the Osprey lifted from the pool harassed by a crow and thus dropping a fish catch.  It showed wonderfully well giving me my best sighting of Osprey for some years.  Sam has some experience with Ospreys having volunteered many days at Threave, Dumfries and he believed the Osprey to be a juvenile as the upper wing was so pale (although we can’t rule out lighting conditions having an effect) and we weren’t able to confirm whether or not there was a bar on the inner under-wing which would of course indicate an adult.  Our Osprey flew south over the pool before diverting eastwards over the dunes and North Sea where we finally lost sight of it.  We spotted another birder taking photographs of the Osprey and caught up with him at Druridge Pools.  Amongst other birds seen around the pool were Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe and Common Sandpiper.  A cold wind blew off the land.

Record image of Osprey courtesy of Samuel Hood
A sea-watch brought us our next wow factor.  As I watched over the sea I caught a movement in the water and some white marking.  On closer inspection we found two cetaceans.  We are in no doubt our findings were Minke Whale.  Large, but with small dorsal fins.  It’s not uncommon for Minke Whales to feed as a pair although in this case we think as one appeared to be smaller it may have been an adult and calf.  This gave me only my second sighting of Minke Whale.  The first being from the back of the night ferry to Lerwick, Shetland.  That one was seen I believe by only myself and a lady willing to brave the cold on the back of the ferry that evening, as most people were in the warmth of the dinning room, lounges or bars.  I remember it very well as it breached fully out of the sea which is unusual for this species.  A report of today’s finding is going to Martin Kitching.  Despite it being the norm for me to have quiet sea watches today’s  were also rewarded with summer plumage Red-throated Diver fairly close to shore, a single Manx Shearwater, at least two dark, phase Arctic Skua, numbers of Common Scoter, Gannets, Kittiwake and other gulls, Guillemot, Puffin, Roseate, Arctic and Sandwich Terns and Red-breasted Mergansers.  The Red-throated Diver was the pick of the seabirds for me, divers in summer plumage being very special.  We’d found a nice warm spot in the dunes for our first watch of the day and I became quite settled so it wasn’t easy rousing myself for the walk onwards to Druridge Pools.

Somewhere along the way a Stoat ran across our path.  The Druridge Pools area had plenty of mud, but not a lot on it if I’m honest.  I have to be honest too and say that our sighting of what we were convinced was a Wood Sandpiper was nowt of the sort.  I tell you though, it did have the markings that suggested it was.  The legs were hidden in water for sometime and when they did show well there was some discussion as to colour.  Well to cut a long story short and convince our fellow birders in the hide that there is no stringing   here on Killy’s blog, we confess our first sighting of Wood Sandpiper in 2015 is still to be had!  Confession is good for the soul, or so I’m told!  Apologies from us for any confusion caused.  We did have Ruff, juvenile Redshank and Dunlin to keep us happy (ish) and a close by fly past of Sparrowhawk with freshly caught prey.

We were soon on our way south towards Cresswell Pool and now I remember it was just before we reached the road workings that we saw the Stoat.  We also found a pair of Stonechat and then another later at the pond.

As we approached Creswell pond we had distant Greylag Geese in flight and calling giving me some desire for the coming winter months.  Kestrel was also seen as were two Common Sandpipers at the north end of the pond.  Best of all however was a sighting of a juvenile Cuckoo flying and perching at the back of the dunes.  This bird, I assume it was the same one, later gave us an even better if fleeting sighting as it flew across the field south of the pond and disappeared behind the farm buildings.

We spent a good bit of time alone in the hide before taking time out for another watch over the sea and then returning.  The sandbank held the flock of Lapwing which had amongst it a few Dunlin, Oystercatcher, just into double figures Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew and growing numbers of Shelduck.  Two Little Egrets were present and almost now seem to be taken for granted in the area.  They flew to and from the sand dunes.  Wigeon and Teal were amongst the waterfowl seen.  Chiffchaff was heard and Wheatear seen in field at the north end of the pond through the scope

Well after many hours in the field it was time to leave for home at 6.30pm.  Tired but undaunted and certainly well rewarded by some great sightings, as is always the case in Druridge Bay.  I was very grateful for having received lifts to and from the area which allowed a well planned walk and extra time in the area.  Despite being vehicle- less I reckon we do more than OK on the sightings front and as I’ve indicated before, I believe being on foot is far more productive in the long run anyway.  Getting to and from can sometimes be a nightmare however, such is the local public transport system, or in many cases lack of a system would be a better description!  We were home by 7.00pm after 10 hours on the move.  We had with us a bird list of a nice round 70 species and of course some nice mammals and insects were on that list too.  A great day was had, as per usual.  Good to chat to those we met along the way.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Magic in the Air and Magical Migrant Waders

One dream, one soul, one prize,
One goal, one golden glance of what should be,
It's a kind of magic
Queen Lyrics

23rd Aug.  With the thunder storm of the evening before out of the way, Sam and I met up with Tom at St Mary’s Island at 6.15am.  We’d watched the sun rise as an orange glow in the sky as we approached the coast and the light blindingly bright as we walked towards the island.  It was a truly magical morning, warm with little wind.  A heavy fall of rain last night without doubt, but there had been no heavy fall of migrant birds.  Perhaps we were just too early!  We did find a number of Willow Warblers (and possibly Chiffchaff) and Common Whitethroat.  Other than that it was in the main numerous Linnets and a few Reed Bunting showing.  Initial sea watching wasn’t especially easy with the bright sunlight in our sights.  The flock of Golden Plover circled the area of the lighthouse and the usual coastal waders (with summer plumage Knot standing out) were watched before we made for Seaton Sluice.  A Kestrel hovered over the cliff edge and a couple of naked bathers enjoyed the morning air.  I can’t imagine myself ever deciding to bathe naked on the shoreline, no matter how pleasant the morning and I’m sure readers will be relived to hear that.  I shudder to think how the cold rocks would feel on the posterior!

A sea-watch from the headland at Seaton Sluice brought sightings of Sooty and Manx Shearwater, although I missed the former, Red Throated Diver, Shag, numerous small flocks of Common Scoter both north and south and flocks of maybe 300 plus Kittiwake which eventually rested in the bay south of Blyth.  Terns, gulls, Fulmars and Eider Ducks were the supporting cast.  We chatted to fellow birders who advised us that a Merlin had been watched and we later picked up a brief sighting of this magical species as we prepared to head towards Holywell.  Despite the wind having picked up somewhat on the coast the heat of the day continued to rise.

Pectoral Sandpiper courtesy of Tom Middleton
More Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff and numbers of tacking Blackcap were seen in the dene along with two or possibly three Dipper and a Kingfisher.  A dark butterfly was seen flying around the tops of trees and after the excitement of a previous visit perhaps there was some wishful thinking this time as to species.  It was never identified, however we had plenty of White species around us, Red Admiral, Wall Brown, Meadow Brown and Speckled Wood were also seen as well as a number of Common Darter Dragonfly.  An unmistakeable Greenshank call was heard, but the bird wasn’t sighted. 

Common Sandpiper courtesy of Tom Middleton
The Pectoral Sandpiper that Sam and I had found was still showing well when we arrived at the pond as were four Common Sandpipers and a Dunlin.  Water Rail calls were heard once again and are now becoming almost expected when we visit.  Other bird life on and around the pond was similar to our previous visit, although the two Pintail have moved on.  Eight hours in the field passed very quickly.  Another great day, providing us with a day list of 73 bird species.

Pectoral Sandpiper courtesy of Tom Middleton

24th Aug.  After a quiet beginning it turned into another magical day.  The quiet beginning so Priors Park, Tynemouth as quiet as I have ever seen it with even the local Sparrowhawk seeming a little lethargic.  A walk down to the pier gave Common Whitethroat below the Priory and we watched Kittiwake, Fulmar, Redshank, Turnstone and Rock Pipit before we headed off to Holywell Pond.  We weren’t aware of what magic awaited us.

The public hide was busy with folk, I guess some drawn by the Pectoral Sandpiper (which remains) and other migrant waders.  Yes Holywell Pond continues to deliver the goods aplenty.   Sam and I chatted to some very nice people today (especially nice were the ones who read my blog :-)) among them Joe (JL) who I’ll dedicate the mention of the eleven Common Sandpipers too.  All eleven lined up on the fence at one point and many of them stayed there for over an hour unmoved by the frequent lifting of the Lapwings and other waders.  By the time we left eleven Common Sandpipers had become twelve!

We’d planned to walk down from the pond to Seaton Sluice but we couldn’t pull ourselves away from the waders so we spent the afternoon at the pond.  The Pectoral Sandpiper was rather overshadowed today by a stunning Spotted Redshank which will be I’m sure one of my birds of the year.  It was catching and eating fish almost continually, taking only short naps in-between feeding.  A beautiful bird giving a fine sighting.  Also present for all, much or part of the time were Green Sandpiper, Ruff, Dunlin, Curlew and Common Snipe.

Spotted Redshank.  Phone scoped courtesy of Samuel Hood
Sam and I departed the public hide for a break during which we disturbed a bird as we passed along the path to the members hide and by the temporary flash formed after the recent storm.  Its flight call was very distinctive and we wondered if it could be Wood Sandpiper.  A fellow birder helpfully played us the call later when we returned to the public hide, but not until now have have Sam and I had the chance to listen at leisure to recordings.  We are confident that we heard Wood Sandpiper which we know had been seen earlier in the day at Holywell.  One of many in the UK at present of course.  The water had risen a great deal near the members hide in comparison to last week when we had such fine sightings of the Green Sandpiper.  This end of the pond was very quiet today, but we did hear Water Rail once again and watched Common Buzzard fly over the pond.  Sparrowhawk was seen from the public hide and Kestrel was also seen in the vicinity.

As we left for home we checked out the temporary flash again.  As we were preparing to leave a wader flew into the field and landed amongst the gulls.  It was a Greenshank!  This took our list of waders seen at Holywell this afternoon to eleven.  Days like this don’t come along very often.  I reckon that Merlin we saw yesterday had worked some magic!

Friday, 21 August 2015

Roseate, Blue, Hairstreak, Pectoral and Curlew Sandpiper add to Colourful Day

20th Aug.  I’m sure that I don’t need to repeat that the area between St Mary’s Island and Holywell Pond provides my favourite walk in the area.  Mid morning Sam and I left Killingworth expecting no more than an average day and in fact I’d wondered if we ought not to try something less predictable.  We’d put off a trip to Druridge Bay until a later date.  I certainly didn’t expect an initially overcast day which was threatening showers to turn out so colourful.  Early on it was grey in more ways than one, with a Grey Seal stretched out at St Mary’s Island.  Some children were getting excited by the rock pools after they had netted a rather long worm like beast.  I wish I could have told them what it was.  Sam guessed at some type of Sea Leach but he's looked it up now and it was a Hag Fish.  We were soon watching lots of terns fishing close to the island, Common, Arctic and Sandwich Terns, but the colour here was added by an adult Roseate Tern which appeared to be accompanied by a juvenile flying south past the island.  At some point I got my eye on what I thought might be a Curlew Sandpiper which landed alone on the rocks.  Such was its shape and stance, long in the neck and heavy in the bill, I reached for the telescope, but it was gone in a second or two.  That was going to be a year tick that I wasn’t ever going to confirm unless it returned, which it never did!

Tall Ship out of Blyth
A few Common Scoter were seen and lots of waders, Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Golden Plover, Lapwing, Sanderling, Turnstone, Dunlin, Redshank, Curlew, but best of all four Whimbrel found checking the area out before continuing to fly south after giving a very good sighting once we had reached Seaton Sluice.  There were good numbers of Fulmar along the coastline which seemed to be dispersing.  Kittiwakes were around in small numbers, a Guillemot swam fairly close to shore and there were numbers of Common Scoter in the flocks of Eider.  A small number of Teal were seen flying over the sea.  A few Knot were in amongst other waders below the headland.

As we began our walk up through the dene the most noticeable colour was that of the pale blue-purple of the Sea Asters.  A salt loving plant that grows abundantly in this particular area.  I have to say I’ve never seen such extensive carpets of them here before, perhaps all the rain of late has helped them flourish.  A number of other salt loving plants grow in this area and its well worth exploration.  White Butterfly species were very evident and we also came across a Small Skipper and Meadow Brown Butterfly.

There definitely seemed to be a movement of Willow Warblers/Chiffchaff in the area, as we heard much calling.  Sam caught sight of Sparrowhawk and we found a single Wigeon on the burn.  I suggested that perhaps it had dropped in to rest up.  Otherwise apart from the Rooks and Jackdaws we didn’t see or hear much in the way of birds as we walked through a very verdant dene.

Holly Blue record courtesy of Samuel Hood

 I’d like to think it was my intuition which suggested that we pick a particular area to rest for five minutes, although if I’m honest it was simply the fact that I was feeling knackered with the growing warmth and humidity.  As it turned out it was a very wise decision to take a breather.  We almost immediately found two mating Green-veined White Butterflies and watched the male as it fluttered above and to the side of the female before mating took place.  I then got my eye on a Comma Butterfly and then two of them.  Both fairly settled, but in habitat including bramble and other ground plants which was impossible to penetrate if you valued your own welfare and that of the habitat.  The scalloped deep orange form of the butterfly indicated individuals of the standard second brood form.  We weren’t finished yet, as I got my eye on a blue butterfly initially flying in from some height, quite clearly a Holly Blue Butterfly.  Now the fact that I’ve had this species in my garden over the past few years suggest a growing coverage by this butterfly, but I reckon it is/has been at least very uncommon in the dene.  I certainly haven’t seen this species here before.  Oddly enough I had seen Holly Blue in my garden again the day before, 19th June, and earlier in the year I had recorded the species in the garden on 20th and 23rd of May.  In May I felt that they may have just emerged and I wonder if one returned to lay eggs on the 19th August.  Well anyway, we weren’t finished yet because as we watched the Holly Blue, a dark butterfly appeared in the same area and a little careful watching showed this to be the best sighting of all, a White-letter Hairstreak!  If this has been recorded in the dene before we know nothing about it and I contacted Holywell Birder (CS) to check if he had ever heard any reports and he had not.  We couldn’t get close to the White-letter Hairstreak either, but have record images of it.  It remained settled for long periods so we were able to study it at length.  Once again it was difficult to leave an area, but eventually leave it we did.  The presence of both Holly Blue and White-letter Hairstreak will be reported and we will await feedback with interest.  It is significant that bramble, thistle and ragwort were all present in the habitat.  The latter butterfly was a lifer for me and both species were new to Sam.

White-letter Hairsteak record courtesy of Samuel Hood

So off we went, feeling rather pleased with our finds.

Holly Blue record 

Comma record

 It wasn’t long before we reached Holywell Pond and as we approached the public hide we could here the calling of numbers of Lapwing.  It wasn’t long before we had picked up a single Dunlin later joined by another, a single Ruff and best of all a single Curlew Sandpiper.  Now I wondered, could this be the unconfirmed bird I had seen at St Mary’s Island?    Well possibly, or possibly not, but certainly a big coincidence.  We had an excellent sighting of the Curlew Sandpiper, especially as it stood next to the Dunlin and allowed text book comparison.  Two female Pintail added nicely to the scene.  Other birds seen included Greylag Geese, Canada Geese, Mute Swan, Grey Heron, Little Grebe, Mallard, Gadwall, Teal, Pochard and Tufted Duck.  We decided to move along to the members hide where it was very quiet, although we picked up the calls of Water Rail on two or three occasions.  We entered our records and noticed that Wood Sandpiper had been recorded the day before.  Perhaps that played some part in our return to the public hide before leaving.  Initially we thought little had changed then a new wader flew in.  Sam identified it almost immediately, which was quite an achievement as it was a juvenile of a species he had never recorded before.  It was a juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper showing really well.  Our bird of the day I guess.  Also newly arrived was a Common Sandpiper.  We quickly forgot about Wood Sandpipers and will hopefully catch up with that species another time!

Pectoral Sandpiper record courtesy of Samuel Hood
Too soon it was time to say farewell to Holywell Pond and make tracks for home.  You won’t hear me ever say that Holywell and the pond doesn’t deliver (well not very often).  It’s all too easy to take local areas for granted and I don’t take a lot of interest when I’m told things aren’t what they used to be.  I’ve grown up with that saying, as we all do.  I think we should all make the most of what is there now and enjoy it, whilst of course taking interest in historical records.  There’s still great birding to be had locally and in Northumberland in general.

So there you are, what we thought might be a very routine day turned out to be a very colourful and exciting day for Sam and me.  Decisions not to go to Druridge Bay and Gosforth Park and to take a rest just at the right time and spot paid off wonderfully well.  A great day!

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

The Devil's Bird

This is an article I wrote to be used elsewhere, but as it wasn’t I have made some changes and additions so that it’s good enough for my blog. :-)  My thanks go to Sam for the added images which are  much appreciated.   The Swifts are leaving now of course, but they will return.

They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
Still all to come –
From Swifts Ted Hughes

Last night I was watching Swifts Apus apus flying in numbers over Killingworth Lake.  I know I’m not alone in welcoming the first sightings of these birds each year as they return to the UK.  The sun was setting behind scatterings of cloud that was edged with varying warm tones of red, as light rain fell on yet another cold spring evening.  Whilst watching these birds not long back from central and southern Africa, neither the cold nor the drizzling rain was in my thoughts.   Samuel and I were preparing to give a presentation for North Tyneside Parks Department so we were both out to gather some inspiration.  The Swifts proved to be a good subject and a species that will definitely be included in a small section of our talk.  Interesting and exciting facts about birds along beside Samuel’s stunning images tend to capture participants attention and that’s how we tend to focus our growing programme of presentations.

Why the title of the Devil's Bird?   Well, it seems that the reasoning behind the name has been lost in the distant past, but until recent years the Swift has been a species little understood, leading to mystique surrounding its lifestyle, so perhaps that indicates some connection to the title.  Birds Britannica by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey refers to the following vernacular names, ‘devils bitch’, ‘deviling’, ‘devil’, ‘devil bird’, ‘skeer devil’, ‘screacher’,  ‘screemer’, and ‘shriek owl’.  History would suggest that any bird with association to the Devil would be heavily persecuted, but Cocker and Mabey suggest that there is no evidence that the Common Swift has been a target of such practice.  The scientific name Apus Apus stems from Ancient Greek and simply means without feet, and any understanding of the morphology of this bird will immediately give clarity as to why this name came about.

Once a young Swift fledges it is on its own to find food on the wing and its way to its wintering quarters in Africa and it may not land again until it is ready to breed, maybe three years later.    During this time it will eat, sleep and may even mate on the wing.  A French Airman in the 1914-18 war was gliding down in his plane with engines turned off so as to avoid detection when at 10,000 feet he found himself amongst birds which were apparently motionless.  One of these birds was found the following day caught in the engine and found to be a Swift.  My own best sighting of Swifts gaining height in flocks was at Newton Stewart, Scotland some years ago, as I watched other breeding Swifts fly into nesting sites under the eaves of housing.   That legs and feet are not a priority in design of this bird is of little wonder   Swifts mating on the wing was first described by the naturalist Gilbert White (1789).  Edward Jenner (inventor of vaccination) was convinced that Swifts migrated at a time when it was still thought by some that they simply disappeared into mud or pools for the winter.  Jenner marked some Swifts by cutting their toes off (how ethics change!).  He found that they returned to the same place to breed in a fattened and healthy condition and was more than ever certain that his theory of migration was correct.  Moving on many years to 1947 and the renowned ornithologist David Lack began watching Swifts in Oxford and this became one of the longest such projects in the world and which continues to this day.  In 1956 this resulted in the classic book (which I am determined to get a hold of) Swifts in the Tower.  

A common misconception is that Swifts fly with their gapes held open in order to catch prey.  In fact such a tactic would not be sensible in terms of aerodynamics.  Swifts target individual items of prey, thus their twisting and turning in flight.  Swifts also gather all of their nesting material whilst in flight and on one occasion were seen to incorporate a live Large White Butterfly into the nest structure.  During the war Swifts in Denmark and Italy constructed their nests with shreds of tinfoil dropped by the RAF in order to confuse radar.  Incidentally, David Lack worked on radar research for the British Army during the war and the experience gained allowed him to use radar for observations of bird migration

During his study of Swifts Lack found that they probably eat more species of animal than any other British bird having found 400 species in the analysis of just 12 meals.  Meals brought to nestlings contained between 300 - 1,000 insects. A single Swift may deliver 42 meals in a day representing 20,000 insects caught in one day.  Should the weather deteriorate and food be scarce, nestlings have the ability to enter a torpid state during lean times, hence the differences in the length of incubation for individual birds.  One Swift found dying in Oxford was seen to have been ringed as an adult 16 years before, thus making it at least 18 years old.  It was estimated that during its lifetime it may have flown 4 million miles, or put it another way, it may have flown the distance to the moon and back 8 times!  The British Trust for Ornithology study of the Common Swift found that a bird took only five days to fly 5,000kms as it migrated from Western Africa to the UK.  No mean feat for a bird that weighs approximately the same as a Cadbury’s Cream Egg.  The average life of the species is 5.5years.

Numbers of Swifts have declined in the UK in recent years owing probably to many modern building not providing nesting sites.  The BTO point out that a third of British Swifts have been lost since 1995!  According to the new Bird Atlas of Northumbria, Northumberland has not had such a large decline as more southerly parts of the UK, perhaps reflecting less modern building work.  Swifts did of course historically nest in forest areas, but as these disappeared, the birds took to man made buildings.  One of the oldest colonies known to nest in a man made area is the one at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.  Be assured that Samuel and I will have mentioned to participants and staff of North Tyneside Parks Department the availability of Swift nest boxes and especially designed Swift bricks which can be added to modern buildings, thus offering nesting sites.  From small seed a mighty trunk may grow.  Conservation is important so we live in hope.

Addendum.  After seeking the inspiration our presentation was cancelled owing to lack of support i.e. nil bookings.  A lack of interest is always such a shame, but time with birds and nature is never wasted and we would have been out there anyway so we gain either way, not least in terms of learning and in experiencing all of the many rewards nature has to offer.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Green Sandpiper Pick of the Day

15th Aug.  It’s been a while since all three of the all weather birders had met up, but Sam, Tom and I were out in the sun today.  It was a slow start with little about other than Willow Warblers in the willows, although it wasn’t long until we were watching three Whinchat and a Wheatear west of the mounds as we walked towards New Hartley having spotted a few faces we know along the way.  I seem to remember a Kestrel catching the eye, but otherwise apart from the usual waders things were very quiet.  The wetland was being spruced up so we didn’t hang around there for long, although Tom had found Sedge Warbler there before we arrived and Pied Flycatcher had been reported.  We heard later that the Long Eared Owl had been seen again.

There were far fewer terns about over the sea today and I missed the small number of Common Scoter seen.  The flock of Knot at Seaton Sluice included one or two in partial summer plumage.  Other waders seen in the area were Oystercatcher, Golden Plover, Ringed Plover, Sanderling, Turnstone, Dunlin, Redshank and Curlew.  The excitement of the day was provided by two Weasels showing well at Seaton Sluice, one being a youngster.  We were uncertain as to the prey they had caught.  One of them went rolling down the bank towards the mouth of the burn.  Grey Seal had provided some mammalian interest too, although only briefly.

Holywell Dene was fairly silent, although we did catch sight of a Sparrowhawk flying across our path and we occasionally heard birds high in the trees.

We were hoping that Holywell Pond would provide us with some notable waders.  Before we arrived at the public hide we were greeted by large flocks of Lapwing.  A family of nine Grey Partridges out in the open field give a fine sighting with the male bird typically guarding the young which occasionally stooped down and were lost to sight.   Once in the hide and saying hello once again to BD we saw that the lone Dunlin and one of the Ruff were still showing although not as well as on the recent evening visit.  Swift, Sand Martin, Swallow and House Martins were feeding in small numbers.  The usual waterfowl, Little Grebes, Grey Herons and gulls were present.  Goldcrest had been heard.

Green Sandpiper courtesy of Sam.
A short walk took us to the members hide where we found Song Thrush along the path.  It wasn’t long before we had our best sighting of the day in the form of Green Sandpiper showing really well and close to the left of the hide.  I can’t say I have ever seen this species so well as this before.  I’m never quite sure what the intention is for area around the hide.  It certainly lacks the appeal of years gone by, but we couldn’t complain this afternoon, as dappled sunlight lit the area of reed, other vegetation and water, showing the Green Sandpiper at its very best.  We had just been talking about a possible trip to Blacktoft Sands, but on reflection perhaps we have better birding opportunities on our doorstep and I can’t eve remember seeing Green Sandpiper so well at Blacktoft.  Mind you there are Montague Harriers to consider!  Anyway our little scene at Holywell was perfect with the reeds and grasses reflected in the water and the Green Sandpiper giving such a wonderful display, seemingly relaxed although every now and again bobbing that rear end.  It was perfectly aware I’m sure of our presence.  The scene was completed when a Water Rail came along the edge of the reed-bed also giving a wonderful close sighting just behind the Green Sandpiper.  Unfortunately I haven’t had my photography gear with me on recent outings, but Sam has provided an image of the Green Sandpiper.  This was one of my special birding experiences and the type of birding I so much enjoy, quality rather than rarity.  It wasn’t easy to leave, but we had to eventually, shortly after hearing Common Snipe calling.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Ruff Evening at Holywell

13th Aug.  Our arrival at the public hide at Holywell Pond almost coincided with the arrival of three juvenile Ruff which flew in from the north to join the lone Dunlin already feeding at the edge of the pond.  The plumage of the Ruff was fresh and immaculate.  Apart from a few Curlew, small numbers of gulls and the usual waterfowl things were otherwise quiet.  A number of Little Grebe were showing along with Mallard, Gadwall, Teal, Pochard, Tufted Duck and a number of Grey Herons.  A Water Rail made a short appearance on the edge of the reeds to the right of the hide behind the wooden fence and a couple of Stock Doves flew in as did Linnets.  We spoke to BD before making off towards the fields where in truth we saw and heard very little although Yellowhammers were singing.

The light seemed to go early tonight and by the time we had completed our circular walk and returned to the hide the Ruff were not showing nearly as well in the dim light.  A flock of Lapwing had flown in by now as well as more Curlews which we had heard calling throughout the evening, and the odd Lesser Black-backed Gull.  We’d enjoyed a chat with a couple of passers by taking an interest in the birds.  One of them said he had been watching three juvenile Ruff with a single Dunlin at Arcot this afternoon, so we guessed that they would very likely have been the birds were had been watching.  Mammals had come in the form of another Fox, a very large Brown Rat and lots of Rabbits.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Osprey at 12 O'clock

11th Aug.  It wasn’t a typical evening on the Northeast coast, nor was there any suggestion that sea watching would be productive, but come on, who really wants to be soaked to the skin, cold and blown dry by a North Sea wind?  So it was perhaps with this in mind that Sam and I headed for Seaton Sluice, although I hasten to add that our proven credentials as all weather birders remains intact.  I’d heard a weather forecast suggesting that temperatures were going to drop significantly overnight, but the evening was still mild with little suggestion of even a slight breeze.  The evening eventually provided a glowing sunset and a mill pond of a sea that at times appeared frozen, such was the stillness and reflective nature of the salt water.  Yes an evening one would expect during the height of summer, but never the less so infrequent during a season that seems to have been of benefit to our gastropods.

Having took up position shortly after 6.00pm and expecting our list to contain the usual terns and Eiders et al, a bird flew into view from the north.  Well two birds actually, one being a Gannet and another looking surprisingly like an Osprey.  Then it happened, it dawned upon us that it was looking like an Osprey because it was an Osprey.  I wouldn’t say it was close to shore, but it was certainly close enough to pick out the detail of the plumage and the flight pattern was unmistakeable.  On a couple of occasions whilst directly in front of us the bird appeared to dive towards the sea and disappear from view for a short time before we picked it up again.  We were able to watch it for several minutes before it continued its journey south.  Certainly one of my sightings of the year and it just goes to show that a nice evening of sea watching in the sun can provide the unexpected.  Sam has been watching Ospreys in Dumfries, but I sensed his pleasure with this one was equal to my own, which had brought back memories of the Osprey I had spotted over Holywell Pond some years ago at a similar point in the year.

The Osprey was a highlight, but not the only reward the evening had to offer.  Common Sandpiper and Grey Wagtail were both heard and there was quite a movement of waders including a couple of Dunlin, a small flock of Sanderling and a flock of maybe two hundred plus Golden Plover, again flying right in front of us and showing so well that golden plumage as they were lit by the sun.  We were to see many more as we later approached St Mary’s Island.  Oystercatchers, Lapwing, Turnstone, Curlew and later Redshank were also seen and a flock of fifteen Common Scoter flew south, first of all in a tight group formation before stretching out into an almost straight black line of birds.  The Sandwich Terns were making the most of feeding and there were a number of fly through Common and Arctic Terns seen.  Numbers of Swifts, Sand Martins and Swallows were high.  Guillemots were seen close to shore and there was a large passage of Lesser Black-backed Gulls of various ages.  Common Gulls were seen in some number too.

Such was our enjoyment, a couple of hours flew by before we decided to walk along to St Mary’s Island, where for a time the lighthouse was brightly lit by the sun.  The light was still good although temperature change over the sea appeared to make for a thin mist out in the distance which did not help long distance viewing.  Gannets were still flying by in some number.

We were surprised by the lack of folk we saw on such a fine evening, although I’m never dismayed by that.  I was still warm when we arrived at the Willows.  We decided to check out the rocks south of the island for possible Roseate Terns, although as the tide was still quite a way out neither of us were confident of finding our target.  We did find more Sandwich and Common Terns, some of which were this years juveniles and then it happened again, we found the unexpected!  Sam got his eye on a Black Tern.  When I picked it up I found that it was still showing much of its summer plumage.  This was a UK first for Sam and I believer his bird of the evening although I reckon the Osprey has to remain mine.

By now the light was starting to go and we had thoughts of home as two Mallard flew overhead.  We found little on the wetland before checking out the fields behind as we thought the Long Eared Owl might be out and a bout.  We found no owl, but did pick up two Foxes which seemed to be enjoying the evening.  Such was their behaviour I thought there might be a family of them but I could pick up only two.  As we were watching I picked up the call of Whimbrel as it flew south high above our heads.  A very good way to close what had been a wonderful evening and we were still warm, dry and content.  We’re waiting for a really dreadful day of weather so we can still prove our credentials.  I’m sue we won’t have too wait long.  Although I don’t want to wish time away, I for one will be quite happy to get into autumn and winter and see the back of what has generally been an awful summer for weather.