Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Rambling with Brambling

29th Nov.  The early morning was bright, clear and frosty, although by the time Sam and I began our walk at Holywell in mid morning, the sun was showing only periodically.  I found the changing light added to the atmosphere of a late autumn day, although as far as I’m concerned we are now into winter and if you had sat with us in the public hide at the pond you would I think, agree.  Before leaving Holywell on our way to Backworth via the dene we were back under clear blue skies and sunshine and this didn’t change until the light began to fade as the afternoon progressed.

Gadwall.  One of many.

Our journey had included passing numbers of geese in the fields opposite Backworth Flash.  I knew that we could check these out later in the day so wasn’t too concerned at having not identified them.  On arrival we headed for the public hide where we found local birder and photographer JL with whom we always enjoy a good chat.  I didn’t feel as cold at any time during the day as I felt in that hide!  The discomfort was more than made up for by the changing light conditions.  At times it was as if a veil was being lifted and dragged across the area as shifting cloud allowed the sun to light different parts of the landscape before us.  It was a light that with the cold air again suggested winter.  The family of Mute Swans had been the first birds we had seen on our approach and they flew across the fields as we neared the hide.  I noticed the feeding station was not stocked with food, unfortunate in such conditions, and only a couple of Dunnock and the odd tit attempted to seek any remaining feed.  The pond held Mallard, numbers of Gadwall close to the edge, Wigeon, Teal, Tufted Duck and Goldeneye.  A few gulls made an appearance and a Grey Heron stood sentinel like close by.  I saw at least one other Grey Heron lift from the reeds before dropping back down and becoming invisible to the eye.  After a while Sam and I moved off to look over the fields and hedges, intending to retrace our steps later.

Winter light is by far the best light.
The field were very quiet as were the hedges.  We did see a small skein of Pink footed Geese and a Great Spotted Woodpecker fly by before we headed down the track to the dene.  Skylark and the odd Redwing were also seen.  As we approached the dene the hedge to our right began to look as though it might prove more fruitful in our search, first of all giving us a sighting of at least three Reed Buntings and then a female Bullfinch.  Then Sam got his eye on a Brambling, then another and another.  Brambling seemed to make up the majority of a mixed flock of passerines including, tits, Chaffinch  Goldfinch and Tee Sparrow, the latter species which we missed but which was seen by another birder we later spoke to..  It was the Brambling that kept us watching at some length.  We estimated that there were approximately twenty Brambling, mostly female.  They seemed to disperse to various areas of the woodland and we only picked up the odd call from them.  Without doubt Brambling was our species of the day.  As I have often commented, it is my favourite of the commoner winter migrants.

 Our thoughts about retracing our steps were forgotten and we decided to keep to the dene area.  Thankfully the muddy pathway through the gate was frozen hard.  A Treecreeper was seen and no sooner had a comment been made about poor light, when the sun came out from behind cloud and stayed out for the rest of the walk.  As we walked through the tree lined area the light was wonderful as was the remaining colour.  Leaves continued to fall rather like butterflies, making me rethink my thoughts about the arrival of winter as the sun and leaf fall definitely gave an autumnal feel.  The recent fall of poppies on Remembrance Day came to mind.  We eventually pressed on and Dipper was among birds seen.

Our walk to Backworth was without any real birding interest, but pleasant none the less.  On arrival we took note of the only building now left standing at the area of the old Fenwick Pit.  The engine room I seem to remember is dated 1946, that being the date of Nationalisation of the mining industry, and of course the year after the end of the Second World War.  Sam had been doing some research into local history and in particular a local brickworks which no longer exists and we wondered if the bricks used for this building had come from there.  I believe this building is going to remain, although the area is scheduled for, yes you have guessed, house building.  I can’t help but feel that this building having been ‘done up’ would make the ideal museum to record local history.  Does anyone on the Council agree I wonder?

Our industrial heritage plus artwork/graffiti.  What remains of the buildings at Fenwick Pit, East Holywell.  Some may see an old building, I see history and a museum.
The area of Backworth which used to be a good site for birds appears to have become extremely tame now.  We saw little in the way of birds as we continued our walk.  A Common Gull at one point broke deadness.  It wasn’t until we completed our lap of the area that we found a sizable flock of Teal on the remaining water and the on the flash found good numbers of Pied Wagtails and Meadow Pipits which seemed to feed well off the frozen flash.  There was no Water Pipit!  We had watched a Kestrel from a distance as it perched on a post and now we were closer to it.  No doubt conserving energy in the cold weather it seemed to be hunting from the post and when it dropped down it returned to another post with what appeared to be a vole.

Backworth flash, with Earsdon in the background.
Before we returned home we were able to confirm that all of the geese in the field opposite were Greylag Geese.  We had heard the call of Common Snipe once or twice earlier and I guessed there were probably a number hidden in the area.  Just before we left three Common Snipe flew high over our heads.

I arrived home in time to watch the parties of corvids flying to roost and later in the evening we made a decision to visit Druridge with Lee the following day.  Hopefully those Shore Larks will be showing well.  I’ll let you know.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Northerly Patch

27th Nov.  I decided to put down my copy of Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water (I’ve never read this book before, although I remember watching the film as a youngster.  Both the book and the film are very much of their time i.e. 1950s) and head north on patch before the light disappeared this afternoon.  Walking northwards you soon reach the end of the old pathway that runs very pleasantly through the estates.  Hedges and trees hide the sight of housing in some parts.  Once across the busy road you’re onto track-ways through farmland.  This northern part of the patch is on the whole farmland which happily still retains plenty of hedging and is crisscrossed by many tracks and pathways.  It’s an old mining area and it is difficult not to think of miners walking these tracks in days gone by.  Some of them now lie in Killingworth Church grounds.  Thankfully it is now one of the quieter areas of the patch and today I passed only one dog walker, one jogger and one lady leading her pony.  It is usual in this quiet area to at least acknowledge strangers passing by and I am always surprised that the odd person can pass you by without doing this.

It was milder today than of late and looking north over Northumberland, grey cloud seemed to suggest rain although only a small sprinkling appeared in the air whilst I was out walking, the sky eventually clearing to blueness and suggesting possibly a cool night ahead.  In this are you are on high ground and the rain water flows down towards the River Tyne.  The North Sea, only a few miles away can be seen easily on clear days as can the hills of Northumberland.  It’s an enjoyable area to walk in even when there are few birds about which was just as well today.  On my outward journey I saw little other than corvids, pigeons and fields full of Black Headed Gulls which were accompanied by a few Common Gulls.  Blackbirds, Robins, Starlings and the odd Mistle Thrush was the only other birds seen until I reached the northern border of the patch.

I could see from a distance that the northerly field was flooded and that this had attracted flocks of birds.  I made up to the last hedge to look to see if these flocks contained waders.  In fact the entire flock of 130+ birds were Lapwings.  Before I reached the hedge Fieldfares began to fly out and into the higher trees.  Eventually I counted about 35 Fieldfares.  I eventually began to retrace my steps and this was when I felt the light spray of rain on my face as I watched the changing wide expanse of sky.

I passed the old ruin of the Tower House again and caught sight of a the only raptor of the day, it was what appeared to be a cloth cut out placed in the field by the farmer and it did appear to be effective in keeping the gulls out of that field and in the fields to the south of it.

Burradon Tower
The following information appears on the Historic England website

Tower houses are a type of defensible house particularly characteristic of the borderlands of England and Scotland. Virtually every parish had at least one of these buildings. At many sites the tower comprised only one element of a larger house, with at least one wing being attached to it. These wings provided further domestic accommodation, frequently including a large hall. If it was incorporated within a larger domestic residence, the tower itself could retain its defensible qualities and could be shut off from the rest of the house in times of trouble. Tower houses were being constructed and used from at least the 13th century to the end of the 16th century. They provided prestigious defended houses permanently occupied by the wealthier or aristocratic members of society. As such they were important centres of medieval life. The need for such secure buildings relates to the unsettled and frequently war-like conditions which prevailed in the Borders throughout much of the medieval period. Around 200 examples of tower houses have been identified of which over half were elements of larger houses. All surviving tower houses retaining significant medieval remains will normally be identified as nationally important
A little further along the muddy potholed track I noticed a male Pheasant in the field to the right of me and this took my eye to a small covey of 5 Grey Partridges which were between me and the Pheasant.  They carried on feeding as I watched.

Then it was a brisk walk back home passing another 10+ Fieldfares and once again passing a number of areas of polystyrene packaging scattered around the area.  Now I wonder how they got here.  Could there be some thoughtless resident that has allowed this to happen.  Surely not!!!

Saturday, 19 November 2016

By the Lake

19th Nov.  Bright sunshine but strikingly cold today I met up with Sam down by the lake.  Frost remained in a few areas where the sun had not managed to break through.  The smaller of the lakes held a good number of birds including a pair of Wigeon, two pairs of Shoveler and five Gadwall, three of the latter birds being male.  Perhaps there were three pairs and we missed one of the females.  Whilst I remember the odd Wigeon visiting the lake years ago it is a species that vanished for some years and it is only in recent times that they have made a return.  Gadwall and Shoveler  (I’ve given in and have begun to spell Shoveler with one l) are both quite new species to the lake in recent years.  Other species included Mute Swans, numbers now dramatically reduced by the measures taken to ensure that this occurred, Moorhen, Coot, Mallard and Tufted Duck.

The larger lake by contrast to the smaller was very quiet indeed.  A few Mute Swans, one male Goosander, a Great Crested Grebe, a lone Cormorant and a lone Pochard were easily found on a quiet lake surface.  Approximately ninety Canada Geese were in two parties at the far end of the lake and an odd Greylag Goose was amongst them.  Gulls seen were Black Headed, Common and Herring.  A single male Reed Bunting was seen in the trees by the side of the lake and not far from here a Grey Heron moved to and fro along the edge of the water to avoid us.  A return walk through the trees brought little, apart from calling Long-tailed Tits hidden somewhere in the tree tops.

I walked across the fields towards the church grounds on my return home and apart from finding Dunnock and hearing a little of the song of Robin there was little to report, although I did find a couple of apple trees which I must have passed by hundreds of times without realising what they were.  My hour or so on patch had been cold, but enjoyable.  It was the type of day I enjoy and I was warmer by the time I arrived home.  I found it hard to believe that a week has passed by since our visit to Musselburgh and Aberlady and Sam and I have given a talk concerning the islands of Northumbria mid week.  Having put fresh seed out this morning along with some fat from yesterdays chicken and having chased the damn cats the garden was still quite active with birds.  I caught a glimpse of a male Bullfinch lit by the sun, as well as the visiting Song Thrush

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Musselburgh, Aberlady and Waxwings

12th Nov.  Sam and I joined the RSPB Group trek to Musselburgh and Aberlady today.  These treks for us are now as rare as a mega rarity on patch, but we had on this occasion been attracted to the possibility of visiting George Waterston House, the SOC centre at Aberlady, where we knew there was an excellent library and a fine collection of used birding books for sale.   We have both read a good deal about George Waterston’s work on the protection of the Osprey in Scotland, his work with the bird observatories on Fair Isle and the Isle of May and his interest in birds during his confinement as a prisoner of war.  Much gratitude is owed to George.  So we left Newcastle’s dampness behind us and ignored the skitty remarks about new members turning up.  We were soon into dryer and clearer weather and a Little Egret, Common Buzzard and Kestrel were possibly the star birds of the outward journey.

Waxwings at Aberlady, courtesy of Samuel Hood

I’ve been to Musselburgh on a number of occasions now, but can’t remember having been on such a sunny and warm(ish) day, perhaps because I’ve usually been there in winter rather than the back end of autumn.  The timing this year I guess accounted for the lack of birds on the sea.  It was certainly far quieter than any visit I have made in the past.  Although quiet in terms of seabirds, it was far from such in terms of folk, as there was at least another two groups visiting, one of them from Yorkshire and another from Edinburgh led by a friend of Sam’s.  Sam and I tried in vain to avoid the crowds   most of the time, but as it happens enjoyed some good chat along the way.  Some time you just have to surrender and be sociable I suppose.  Soon after our arrival a skein of sixty Pink-footed Geese flew in the distance.


As we left the river behind and joined the sea-wall I’m told a Kingfisher flew over my head and yes, I missed it.  Canada Geese had been feeding on the bank of the river.  The tide was high so the usual area I have watched waders was under water.  We did eventually have reasonable to good sightings of Common Scoter, Velvet Scoter, Long Tailed Duck, Great Crested Grebe, Red Throated Diver, one Guillemot and one Razorbill.  All these species were few in number.  I may have caught sight of a Slavonian Grebe (or Slav Grebe as people kept insisting on calling it) but my bird dived so quickly and disappeared that I won’t be counting it as a definite sighting.  Even the numbers of Eider Duck and Goldeneye were well down from that of previous visits.  I was enjoying the day despite low bird numbers and it helped that I had to loosen clothing because of the warmth.  One of the birds of the day for us were the Twite found by Sam and I near to the pathway.  A local couple asked what we were watching and my reply brought a disinterested response and advice as to where to find Waxwings!  The Twite showed wonderfully well and we were able to put a very pleased Yorkshire Group onto them.  We reckon that initially there were five or six of this species and certainly four perched on the wall together at one point.  We watched them for what seemed like twenty to thirty minutes and they weren’t at all fazed by watchers.  One or two Reed Buntings showed well and Meadow Pipits showed well too, one of the latter species being in pristine condition, and a Skylark sang.  Then it was eventually time to move on.    Redwing were heard.  A Goosander flew across the sea with four Redshank.

As we approached the lagoons four Bullfinch flew from the bushes and Goldfinch showed.  The hides at the lagoons were unusually busy as each group seemed to reach them at about the same time.  I found that if you are going to sit in the concrete hides it might be best to have water-proof trousers on!  As the tide was high we were treated to a good showing of waders with great numbers of Oystercatchers taking the eye.  Another notable sighting was a late (possibly over wintering) Sandwich Tern.  Other waders included Lapwing, Dunlin, Redshank, Black-tailed Godwit and Curlew.  A skein of Greylag Geese lifted as we watched.  Despite the crowded hides I thought it time to have some lunch.

There was a quick route back to our coach, but Sam and I decided to walk back along the sea wall and we did have close up views of Long-tailed Duck, Great Crested Grebe, but as we had to put a spurt on we had little time to scan the sea again, but in any event it appeared that there were still few seabirds about.

Aberlady Bay 

Our nest stop was to be the SOC Centre.  I’d not been her before and had been hoping to spend some time there.  It seemed that it was likely that the library was not an option because of a photography course, so a half hour proved long enough although not long enough for me to decide upon any second-hand books I wanted.  Sam had a better idea as to what he wanted and ended up spilling the cash and bringing home some books.  I require another visit with more time.  On this occasion we were able to leave our boots on our feet as there was no mud and I can’t help feeling that in any event George Waterston, a practical man, would not have been in the least concerned about a little mud on the floor.  We then set off for Aberlady Bay passing some Waxwings in the village but only having a fleeting sighting.  We had already been told that there were 200+ Waxwings in the next village and we had the directions as to how to find them but it seemed the coach was not going to stop there.  I’ve no idea why that wasn’t possible, as it was on route and a fifteen minute visit would not have been a problem surely, but there you are that is my gripe about coach trips.  Not to be beaten Sam and I walked back to the Waxwings we had passed and had a really good sighting of at least 150 Waxwings.  Good to listen to the calling as these restless birds moved about from time to time.  A dream of mine would be to be amongst thousands of these calling birds.  That type of experience would put any sighting of rarities into the shade as far as I am concerned.  Eventually a Sparrowhawk really spooked them and they lifted en-masse and didn’t return for quite sometime.  I was surprised we had only been joined by three other members of the group.  We had an interesting chat to a young guy from, I think the Motherwell area, as we watched the Waxwings fly catching.  As we left on the return walk a a small proportion of the larger flock of Waxwings flew around the area for sometime, occasionally flying though shafts of light from the now very low sun.  This showed them wonderfully well and I can’t help feeling that many of our fellow group members had missed the treat of the day. 

Wawings at Aberlady, courtesy of Samuel Hood 

We would not have had time to walk very far around the bay so we enjoyed a slow walk back and watched the changing light and skies over the bay and the flocks of waders lifting.  Our discussion centred on the splendour of wide open areas such as we were experiencing and the importance of taking in a sense of place.   That was better than making a forlorn attempt at finding the Surf Scoter which just wasn’t going to happen in such limited time.  It had been reported at Aberlady in the morning and there had been no sign of it at Musselburgh.  There was a large flock of Lapwing flying for sometime and I wondered if they had been put up by a raptor, but I saw no sign of one.  The light really was wonderful just before the sun fell and set behind the trees.

Aberlady Bay 

Aberlady Bay

I ignored the eating on the coach is ‘verboten’ instructions I had been made aware of and ate my crisps and Sam’s chocolate anyway, being careful not to drop any crumbs and have them lead a trail back to me as goodness knows what the penalty would be.  I noted that I wasn’t the only one to break the rules so if I’m found out I’ll take the others down with me.  These RSPB members can be a militant lot you know!  Light soon disappeared apart from that of a full or almost full moon that seemed to accompany us homewards, but you will be glad to know I stifled any thoughts of breaking out into song.

Aberlady Bay

Blue moon
You saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own

Perhaps in the circumstances on this occasion Blue Moon should be replaced by Super Moon.


  I dozed for much of the journey and so it passed quickly.  I had really enjoyed the day and was still taking in our final minutes of this particular trip.  I’ll be surprised if I don’t see more Waxwings during what is building up to be a real Waxwing winter.  The group had run an enjoyable and well organised trip.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Wider Perspective and Oh What a Shower!

Oct.  My recent trip to the coast didn’t coincide with a migratory fall, but it was no less enjoyable despite the soaking I received and I did on this occasion manage to find a Yellow browed Warbler.

The rain that was falling as I left home was a predictor of what was to come and the bright sky that greeted me on arrival at St Mary’s Island was simply an interval to make the most of while allowed.  The walk began at the Crematorium grounds, the hedges to the east of there and the area around the old railway bridge, where I found the Yellow-browed Warbler.  There was no sign of Goldcrests, seen in such numbers on my previous visit.  I later spoke to a birder who had counted one Goldcrest at the wetland near St Mary’s Island.  That was one more than I saw today.  Birders were almost as rare!

Oh, it'll just be a shower! 

After the deluge!  Storm now over Blyth
Having watched Stock Doves in the fields, a small flock of Golden Plovers and other waders I prepared for a soaking.  The rain clouds were approaching from the south-east off the sea and any thought of this been a quickly passing shower soon evaporated as the greyness surrounded me.  To cut a long story short, I can report the rain stopped as soon as I entered the fish and chip restraunt at Seaton Sluice.  Pools of water gathered on the floor around me as I placed my order.  The only bright spot between St Marys Island and Seaton Sluice had been the fleeting rainbow which appeared stretching from the island to Blyth, or so it appeared.  It was an ephemeral sighting during which the colour showed only faintly, so faintly I didn’t even bother to reach for the camera.  I did catch some images later however, as by then the skies had brightened.  It’s amazing what a difference this wide angle lens makes to your view of things!

The wide angle gives throws a very different perspective onto Seaton Sluice Harbour

7th Nov.  Winter had now replaced autumn and Sam and I were soaked in a blizzard as we approached the headland at Seaton Sluice.  We faced rain, sleet and worst of all wind blown hailstones that felt like someone was firing grit into our faces.  All that for not a lot found during a short sea-watch.  I missed the only Little Auk that passed, although the Kingfisher on the cliff edge made up for that.  Otherwise it was the usual Gannets, auks, Red-throated Divers, Eiders et al.  Visibility varied, very poor at times as rain and mist dropped, then quite good as the cloud lifted and moved on for short periods.

Through the dene
After a lunch a walk through a pleasant dene still with a good showing of colour on the trees offered little in the way of birds, although Redwing and Grey Wagtail were amongst birds which were seen.  The burn was running fast and being fed by small tributaries bringing water down from the farmland.  The rain eased for much of the walk, but come back in torrents by the time we were in the public hide at Holywell Pond.  There was a bit of colour here too with a Mandarin Drake showing very nicely in front of the hide near the island and another rainbow appearing as the rain eased.  Perhaps the very same Mandarin that was here last year.  The pond also held Teal, Gadwall, Mallard, Tufted Duck and Goldeneye, with the likes of Grey Heron and Moorhen also making an appearance.  The rain eventually forced us to the back of the hide in order to avoid a further drenching, although perhaps by now it didn’t really matter.  Little was seen from the private hide, but for a few minutes the light across the pond and adjoining area was wonderful.  This area and the coastline offer wonderful weather watching opportunities especially if you’re prepared to be out in it.  I’m always mindful at these times of the lengths that the artist J M W Turner went to in foul weather to secure stunning artistic masterpieces.  On one occasion at sea tying himself to a ship's mast during a violent storm.  He would have felt at home with Sam and me. 

A hide with a view and on this occasion an en-suite shower too if  close to the window!

Time to go home.
I came home to view requests for payment to wildlife related organisations I support.  I’ve decided to prioritise in 2017 and only pay up to organisations where I judge my cash is being put to good use.