Thursday, 31 March 2016

Late Arriving and AC Swinburne

And time remember’d is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten.
And in green underwood and cover
Blossom by blossom the spring begins
A C Swinburne 1837-1909

31st March.  I got out on patch today and after a couple of earlier failures on short walks near the village I at last picked up the song of several Chiffchaffs.  I may have missed these in the past day or two but chat with a couple of other keen patch birders confirmed to me that this species has been very late in arriving on patch this year.  I was pleased also to find my first Lesser Celandine of the spring.  I haven’t been getting out much of late so this too was a real pleasure to find as it reflected the light from a warm sun.

 I walked across to the lake to find it very quiet once again, but with two pairs of Great Crested Grebe showing well.  I don’t suppose that news is new to many, as I hear that photographers have been visiting from far and wide.  I didn’t walk the whole length of the lake so I’m not sure if the fifth grebe was still present.  Pochard, and a few Goldeneye were still about and the odd Lesser Black-backed Gull put in an appearance.

I was exercising my hearing as much as anything today as Sam and I have been asked to lead the Dawn Chorus Walk at the Rising Sun Country Park at the end of April which will mean a 4am start for us. Our fee will be donated to the NHSN.  Songs and calls I picked up today included Nuthatch, Robin, Wren, Song Thrush, Blackbird, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Greenfinch, Chaffinch et al.  Greenfinches were especially noticeable.

I felt the lines above of A C Swinburne sent to me by my friend and blog follower Hillary T were more than apt for today.  Swinburne was a member of the Swinburne family of Capheaton Hall, Northumberland.  He appears to have lived most of the time in other areas, but viewed Northumberland as his home.  Capheaton Lake will be known to most locals, and whilst visiting Capheaton I used to enjoy watching this private lake from afar.  I always found the area around Capheaton very good for fungi, especially under the old trees which formed an avenue as you approached the village.  Sadly these trees were lost to disease several years ago.  I’ve been reading about the patch and its history, especially that related to mining and as Swinburne was alive during the time I was reading about it is appropriate that he came to mind as I walked some of the area I had read about and that I gave some thought to as I walked today.  The patch has a fascinating history not least in relation to George Stephenson and for anyone interested the short books I’ve read (on loan from Sam) are Killingworth and West Moor Remembered/Robert Mitchelson and How Long Did the Ponies Live (The story of the Colliery at Killingworth and West Moor/ Roy Thompson.  Whilst long aware of much of the history after reading these books I’ve established the whereabouts of a number of sites now greatly altered and learned a good deal about the mining operations.  I’ve been asked to lead a few folk around the lake next month so will be placing the lake in its historical context.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Reflections of an Eastender (2)

Some of my early natural history education is beginning to return to memory. Visits to the Hancock Museum, when in my opinion it was at its best, were certainly always a great experience.  The surrounding area offered very different views than it does today.  My two main recollections are the mummified figure and the old draws with lift up lids full of butterflies from around the world.  The museum had a wonderful atmosphere and as I type I’m imagining the place as it then was.  It still seems to pull the crowds in, but it just isn’t the same, but I’m not a youngster now and it’s youngsters that it ought to be attracting so it’s doing a grand job in that respect.  I am pleased however that the decision was taken to keep the name Hancock even if it is secondary now to Great North Museum.  Little did I know as a child I would become a member of the Natural History Society which I suspect in those years was very highbrow and formal indeed.  Literature from the society at that time whish I have read certainly suggests that to be the case.  Change can often be positive in many respects.

An old guide.

Keeping it simple, but none the less exciting.  I noted that you could have become a life member of the society for £40 then, so I slipped up!

 One trip I remember very clearly as a child was to Derby to visit my brother who was receiving training in agriculture in that area.  Diesel trains were used on this journey but I do remember at a younger age taking my I Spy Book on a previous steam train journey at a time when rail travel was exciting.  I never travelled further south than Derby until I was eighteen or nineteen.    My parents and I stayed in a rather ‘posh’ hotel in Derby, the first time I had ever stayed in a hotel, and I remember the breakfast room very clearly as it had windows which opened onto a garden which led down to a river.  You could put your shoes outside of the bedroom door at night to have them polished, although I never did.  Well, good grief you never know who could have nicked them!  Derby is significant as on a walk on the Sunday morning I heard my first ever Cuckoo as the church bells rang in the distance and the sun shone.  Interestingly I am presently reading Cuckoo, Cheating by Nature/Nick Davies and it’s proving to be a very interesting book and I may have some comments to make on it at a later date.

I’ve written before about my second home being West Cumbria and we had many visits there during my childhood.  We usually stayed with my aunt and uncle and I was introduced to amphibians as at certain times of year the damp area at the back of the house was Toad central.  The village was/is called Sandwith, near to St Bee’s, and I of course had many opportunities to visit the red-sandstone cliffs, initially largely unaware of the different species of seabird I was able to see there.  We were able to walk from the back of the house through fields to the cliff edge and overlook the Solway Firth.  The coastline was very different from what I was accustomed to having experienced frequent trips on the train to our own Tynemouth and Whitley Bay which were often packed with holiday makers in those years.  The wide open spaces of Cumbria had a great effect upon me and to this day my preference is for open land and seascapes.  What I remember best of all was the rookery next to my aunt’s garden and the sounds that came from it at times.  Sadly the rookery met its demise many, many years ago when the trees were felled by the farm owners to allow space for buildings which have now gone along with the farm too, and after years of stagnation the space is being used for housing.  In recent years I became friends with a guy who attended St Bee’s School and who just happens to be a member of NHSN.  St Bee’s School has sadly recently closed down after several hundred years of history.  My parents and I once holidayed in St Bee’s itself and would walk up to the area on the head which as far as I’m aware wasn’t a reserve at the time and the RSPB was a relatively small outfit then.  I’ve always found the red-sandstone cliffs exciting and although I haven’t visited in recent years I know that the heavy rains in that area have done quite a lot of damage in terms of subsidence.  In later years I have done quite a bit of bird watching from this area where Peregrine Falcon and Raven can often be seen along with the seabirds.  My memories of this area could fill a book quite easily.  I’ve always found the people of West Cumbria to be great characters, straight-forward and friendly.  The area has many similarities to the North East.  I had my first ever Stoat sighting right outside my aunt's house.

Photo of Fleswick Bay at St Bees Head taken circa 1950s and kindly passed on to me a few years ago.
My brother eventually began working as a shepherd at Buttermere in the Lake District so holidays were also taken on the farm which had over 2,000 sheep, mainly Herdwicks.   I would have been nine when I first visited Buttermere and at that time the farm had no electric and you went upstairs to bed carrying a candle.  Over many years the sheep were clipped by hand clippers rather than electric shears.  Not because of the lack of electric which was soon installed, but because the thought was that electric shears would cut too close to the skin of the Herdwicks.  My own thought now is that the owner was trying to save money.  All sorts of chemicals were used in the sheep dip which I’m sure are now banned.  Shearing must have been hard work when there are over 2,000 sheep to get through!  There’s no money to be made from Herdwick Sheep wool these days and I understand they are heavily subsidised.  If my memory serves me well I knowingly saw my first Common Buzzard flying over the fells at Buttermere and also my first Grey Herons in the valley under the fell known as Haystacks, on the top of which Alfred Wainwright (he of guide book to the fells fame) asked for his ashes to be scattered.  I was watching a TV programme just this week and found that a guy is planning to re walk all of the fells and update the Wainwright Guides.  I’ve enjoyed watching Grey Herons ever since my first sighting of them.  I doubt I knew at the time that they nested in trees and to this day I always find that they look out of place there. On one visit to Buttermere I learned just how large Pike can grow and I have a slide somewhere of me holding one that had been caught in the lake and it was almost as long in body as I was.  The Lake District in the 1960s was a very different place than it is now with far fewer people and cars about and you could almost have Buttermere to yourself of a Sunday morning.  It was a place where the imagination of a child could run wild and mine often did.  On a hot summers day now, it is sadly more like Blackpool (mind you I’ve never been to Blackpool so that’s a guess).  The best time to visit is winter when folk aren’t about in number.

My brother at work in the 1960s
Holidays even closer to home included a week in a chalet in the dunes overlooking the sea at Cresswell where you stepped from the chalet and walked straight down to the beach.  There’s a photo in the house some where of me and my brother sitting having breakfast on the chalet balcony.  It would have been August as that was when my father always had his annual holiday.  I confess I don’t remember any wildlife but I did have some shells off the beach until recent years.  I checked with my father today to see if he could remember what year it was we took that holiday and he thinks it was either 1957 or 1958 which is interesting as I believe it was 1958 when Cresswell Pond formed.  I don’t remember any sign of a pond nor do I remember any sign of industry nearby, but I guess there must have been mining going on at Druridge Bay during this period.

Breakfast at Cresswell 
An uncle and aunt had a caravan at a fixed site at Lucker next too the Apple Inn where I used to (for some reason) collect the tops off beer bottles during the two or three stays we had there.  I remember bringing these tops home with all sorts of ideas as to what I would do with them.  I eventually chucked them out.  As well as as collecting beer bottle tops I spent much time exploring the river/stream nearby.  It was during one of these stays that I visited the Farne Islands for the first time and I guess it will have been with Billy Shiel’s.  I hadn’t realised until I checked that the Shiel’s family having been running boat trips to the Farnes since 1918, although it was the 1930s when the business really got going.  The Sheil’s family took Queen Elizabeth from the Royal Yachtto Brownsman Island in 1958 and the Queen Mother over to the island in 1962, but we didn’t bump into either one.  We were unable to land on the islands because of the tides, but I saw the Grey Seals for the very first time.  I have to say I don’t remember being hoarded into a boat along with the crowds for a very uncomfortable boat trip as happened to me last year.  I don’t remember the birds either but as this was the 1960s I do know there was only a fraction of the number of Puffins there are now and it would have been past the breeding season anyway.   I checked out bird numbers in the 60s when I wrote an article for Northumbria Magazine a few years ago.  Everything in Seahouses seems to have a Puffin on it these days, but I can’t recall what was popular then, although the gift shop opposite the car-park was there and the fish and chips were very good back then, and they still are.  Less attractive to my taste buds or for that matter eyes were periwinkles or winkles as we called them.  I remember collecting lots on one of our trips to bring home to cook.  After cooking I remember taking one look at them and they were thrown out.  The look and smell was disgusting and funnily enough I heard a presenter on Radio Newcastle just last week talking of the same experience as a child.  I did go through a period of enjoying pickled mussels way back then but these days I find shell fish of most types pretty disgusting to even think about as a food.

At Bamburgh Castle with my father (R) and uncle.  Circa  1960.

Grace Hickling of NHS at Farne Islands monitoring Grey Seals.  Image from 'Cumbria' Magazine 1967.

So if you have stuck with me through part one and two of my east-ender reflections you will have noted that my youthful years were not engrossed in natural history matters, but nevertheless there were a few highlights, a few of which I have included.  Not everyone has the same opportunities either during childhood or adulthood and our interests begin at different stages of our lives, and whilst the terms diversity and inclusiveness tend to be in words at the moment, that’s exactly what I think the world of natural history and birding interests should be.  I dislike exclusiveness and elitism in all of its forms.  Levels of knowledge will differ from one person to the next, but all should be welcomed to the fold and I’ve always found that it is likely that those with real knowledge are often only too pleased to share it.  I feel any organisation involved with nature /conservation that does not focus attention upon the young especially is failing in its task.  Suggestions that young people in particular, but others as well, are not interested are often an excuse for inaction in my opinion and I’ve met with this outlook several times and it isn’t easy to overcome. 

The world has changed a great deal since my childhood and that was brought home to me when I recently dug out two of my books from that period Children’s Encyclopaedia of Knowledge and the New Wonder World Encyclopaedia.

Hope you enjoyed the read.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Reflections of an Eastender

Raised in the east-end of Newcastle, no one is surprised when I tell them that in a natural history sense there was little to watch other than House Sparrows and the occasional Robin.  I exaggerate of course, and on reflection if I had been of a mind during my childhood there would probably have been quite a bit of nature to take interest in, as after all there was a park and large cemetery within fifteen minutes walk of my home and the River Tyne wasn’t much further away.  Yes, perhaps I could have become the original Urban Birder had I but tried.  There were certainly more of many species when I was a youngster (although I don’t recall seeing many them) and you just have to look at recorded statistics to confirm that, however there were problems then too and all was not good with the environment (for example just think pesticides and pollution and the damage done by both), so I’ll never be one for looking back wearing rose coloured spectacles as that is not the way to encourage the interest of new generations. 

You didn't mess with the Eastenders.
Near by my home were large gardens and allotments which probably played some part in supporting the only wild mammals that I can recall seeing locally, that is Brown Rats, House Mice and the occasional Hedgehog,   The imagination of a small child made the Brown Rats, even when not present, motivation for making a winter evening visit to the outside toilet in the backyard (backyard in the British sense, not the American sense) a short procedure.  Aye, we weren’t pampered when I was a lad, but we were kept glowing from a paraffin lamp used to prevent the cistern from freezing up.  However before anyone gets the idea I lived in some kind of slum area, I can assure you I didn’t and the Brown Rats were only a very occasional nuisance and were soon dealt with by a posse of neighbours and no doubt what ever system of pest control operated at the time.  I well remember my mother and the lady next door using their own method of pest control and throwing buckets of water from a safe distance over one drenched and eventually drowned rat that I seem to remember disappeared down a drain, I’m unsure if it was dead or alive.   I don’t remember seeing any other wild mammals from near home (there must have been Rabbits or there again maybe not, as myxomatosis was  running rife, although when I was very young the Grainger Market was always well stocked with Rabbit and other game hanging over counters), I don’t count the almost feral mongrel dogs that were in those days allowed to wander the streets uncontrolled and of course the more exotic mammals on David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest which I remember watching in black and white from an early age.  Many of these early programmes are still viewable on the internet, at least in part.  I can also remember early editions of Peter Scott’s Look series, but strangely not later editions.

Every childhood should include a wigwam.
Our backyard did attract some birdlife as we fed the birds scraps in winter (resources weren’t spent on bird seed as far as I remember), but I can really only clearly recollect House Sparrows and Robins.  I did for some years think that Robins only turned up in winter and probably associated that with the connection to Christmas cards.  I’m sure I wasn’t alone with that thought.  The large garden opposite give me an early opportunity to watch the local domestic cats toying with and eventually dispatching House Sparrows.  I remember watching dispassionately, where as today I’d be out there chucking something (soft of course!) at the moggie.  There must have been numbers of corvids and gulls.  If the gulls were heard I recall my mother saying that the weather at sea must be turning bad and there was probably a good deal of truth in that as I’m sure at the time gulls didn’t appear inland as much as they do now.  They were of course all seagulls to me.  The backyard was also provided interest of the entomological type.  I remember lots of insect types under the damp stones and in the brick compartment under the outside stone steps.  They tended to catch my interest when I was playing down there.  The spaces in brick walls made wonderful hideouts for my toy soldiers and many a battle was won.  I remember playing down there on one occasion whilst my father’s mates from work had come around to watch Newcastle United on the TV, which I believe may have been the last time they ever won the FA Cup or any worthwhile domestic competition for that matter!  Another vivid memory I have is of my brother rescuing an injured House Sparrow (could it have been damn cats again?) and keeping it in a cardboard box overnight with water and food available.  Sadly by morning it was dead and soon disappeared, either binned or buried.  Either way, I was once again quite dispassionate about the event.

I used to occasionally do some work in the large garden opposite or sneak in there to collect balls.  It was a mecca for caterpillars.  A few local folk were really into home grown food possibly a habit from the war years that weren’t that far in the past, so I assume many of them were caterpillars of the Cabbage White Butterflies.  All white butterflies were cabbage whites to me at that time.  I don’t think after my early years that I have ever seen caterpillars in such number again in such a small area.

In the garden opposite with my mam, big brother and cousin.

Now, there must have been a few bird species around the area as I clearly remember the dawn chorus which as a schoolboy used to annoy me by causing noise outside of my room, much more noise it seemed than the passing early morning trolley buses.  Not even I go as far back as the old tram system.  Thankfully I have different views on the Dawn Chorus now.  My other recollection is the calling of the Tawny Owl from trees across the road.  I’m guessing that there were probably several Tawny Owls about the area, but I was in my early teens before I actually saw one.  Speedway was my big interest at the time (I couldn’t name many birds at the time, but I could name most of the speedway riders in the then National and Provincial leagues, and I still can name quite a few of them from those days) and it was as I walked back with my father from a Speedway event at Brough Park that we caught sight of a Tawny Owl on top of the lamppost outside of what was then Taylor’s (I think) fish and chip shop.  It was a good many years before I ever saw another Tawny Owl.

My walks to and from school took me past many a garden which more often than not had privet hedges and there was House Sparrows everywhere.  Gardens tended to be well cultivated or in a few cases left to go wild and there were few examples of today’s gravelled or wooden areas.  Some of the garden improvement programmes on offer over more recent years have a lot to answer for and many people these days either don’t seem to know or care what a positive difference well managed  gardens could make to our urban wildlife.  Some may think my school days would have introduced some interesting natural history information.  In fact if you discount a few minutes given over to photosynthesis and tadpoles (I remember one lad in particular often brought tadpoles to school and gained great kudos in doing so), then I think that about sums it all up.  Oh yes and I recall a debate the class had on the issue of Fox hunting which was organised by two student teachers, where the same views were aired that are issues to this day.  If I ever feel an urge to change my left leaning political stance I simply think about the educational system of my childhood and I instantly pull myself together, although on the whole modern political personalities of what ever persuasion leave me cold.  I always recall that as we approached the end of our education at Secondary Modern School those of us who chose to sit examinations had to pay for each Northern Counties exam taken whilst those at Grammar school of course didn’t pay.  How’s that for fairness and equality?  I remember that out teachers thought it scandalous.  One of my teachers was Doug McAvoy who many years later became General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers (1989-2004).  His wife was my year teacher too and one of the best teachers I ever had.  On a positive note many of us caught up on education later and it perhaps owed much to the encouragement of teachers of that ilk giving us the confidence that we could.  From what I know of the education system of today I feel it is still pretty dire in getting over an interest in natural history to many youngsters.

The Beach Boys.
On Sundays I would occasionally make a trek south with my father which entailed a trip on the ferry from Walker to Jarrow.  As Jimmy Nail once sang, it was a big river then, and in relative terms a dirty one.  I find it interesting to reflect that about this time John Coulson would have been beginning his interest in the Tyneside Kittiwakes.  I have in the far recesses of my mind images of large black birds, Cormorants I assume, but no other birds, but I’m sure there would have been plenty of birdlife about.  Another Sunday outing would have been around the area of Bigge’s Main, once a colliery area but what I remember now was farmland and ‘countryside’ perhaps better described as ‘waste land’.  Our walks took place some years before the modern Coast Road was built.  I always remember on one of these walks my father telling me that if you ever needed to get rid of a human body it would be best to feed it to the pigs that we were passing.  I’m not sure what book he had been reading the night before!  I’ll have to ask him, he’s 96 now so the walking and his cycling to work did him good.  I suspect Bigge’s Main held quite a bit of wildlife, but it all passed over my very young head.  I’ve just checked out Bigge’s Main on the internet and must do some reading up on the area.  It seems the colliery closed there in the 1850s after flooding and the village which held over 600 residents in 1910 and was taken over by Wallsend Council in that year.  William Bigges who had owned the mine and leased it to others had lived a rather aristocratic life in Little Benton.  Many years after my walks with my father I used to take part in school cross country running at Bigge’s Main and during one run one of my friends was savagely attacked by an escaped guard dog, seriously injured and missing from school for a lengthy period.  I suspect the police were involved but all was kept from us youngsters.  Soon after I left school and took up work in the city.  That sounds good, but in fact I was basically a dogsbody in a Chartered Accountants and hated it.  On reflection I feel that the office and how it was run could have been lifted from a Dickensian novel.  The only positive point was that it allowed me good sightings of the murmurations of Starling during the winter months which in those years roosted all over the centre of Newcastle and were a great sight and sound.  I also used to take an interest in visitors to the old YMCA buildings, one of whom was Bobby Mitchell who played on the wing for Newcastle United FA Cup winning team in the 1950s.  Running errands did allow me to get to know the city really well, although much of it has now disappeared.  Many of the offices I visited where similar to the one I worked in and you could almost imagine staff pulling out their quill pens.  Just as today there were many characters in the city.  The doorman at our office complex was always in uniform when he greeted you at the door in the morning, as was the bloke and his young assistant at the Turks Hotel on Grey street and the blind accordionist was always on Northumberland Street as was an elderly lady who it was rumoured sold gentlemen something for the weekend in little brown packets (this may or may not have been a ladish myth of the time).  It’s rather frightening to think that new modern buildings of that time have already been replaced by newer ones, the city library being one of them.  Part 2 will deal with a few childhood holidays to far flung places such as Cresswell and Lucker and a trip overseas to the Farne Islands.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

A Unique View of the Aurora Borealis

I know that there are lots of images on show of the Northern Lights as seen from the Northumberland coast in recent times, but I think that it’s  a fair bet that there aren’t many (if any) that were taken from Coquet Island.  In fact there can’t be many people in recent times who have viewed the Northern Lights from Coquet Island.  Sam had the privilege of watching the lights from the island whilst out there volunteering for a week, helping prepare the island for the return of nesting birds including of course the Roseate Terns.  Sam has kindly sent me a few images and I asked if I could put a couple on my blog.

Courtesy of Samuel Hood
I know Sam has learned much from his experiences on Coquet Island and has received great support from the staff who manage the island.  None of us ought to forget the work of staff and volunteers that goes on behind the scenes on places such as Coquet Island, whilst we enjoy watching birds and other wildlife in Northumberland.

Courtesy of Samuel Hood
Hopefully the Roseate Tern population will have another good breeding season on Coquet Island in 2016.