Sunday, 18 December 2016

Winter, Walking and Watching

17th Dec.  I remember a time when I walked, often long distances, admired the scenery, but if I’m honest didn’t take in too much of my surroundings.  Watching (and listening) is paramount now and has been for some years and for me there is no better time to do this than on clear winter days such as today has been.  The walking element is still important to me, but is far more focused on the natural world around me these days.

To the hide.
Today’s walk began at Holywell Village and of course led to the area of the pond.  Temperatures had dropped considerably from yesterday’s mildness and the light was sharp and clear in the late morning sunlight.  The tree lined pathway to the hide was far busier than usual with small passerines including Tree Sparrow.  The reason why became clear when we met trust volunteers in the hide who had just topped up the feeders.  We saw the first of a number of Reed Buntings outside of the hide and the family of Mute Swans were beneath the windows.  The coldness of the hide overcame any temptation to settle too long here and we made for the public hide having heard the call of Water Rail and overhead the call of Fieldfare.  The pond was relatively quiet and only three Wigeon appeared to remain, and no Teal were seen today.  Gulls, Black Headed, Common, Herring and Greater Black Backed, flocked on the surface of the water along with wildfowl which included Greylag Goose, Tufted Duck, Goldeneye, Mallard and Gadwall.  A solitary Grey Heron stood on the island.
Pink-footed Geese
All was silent apart from the distant call of a Curlew as we headed out into the open fields.  Two skeins of geese then flew overhead, the first may have been Greylag, the second definitely thirty-five Pink-footed Geese, their calls clearly heard.  Then Sam picked up the call of Grey Partridge which we failed to sight as we scanned the ploughed field.  A Kestrel hovered and a Sparrowhawk flew northwards from the dene.  I had just been joking about my failure to sight a single Yellowhammer in the UK throughout 2016, at least in part as my outings have been hampered at times, when a Yellowhammer flew across the field and into the hedge.  It was a relief to get this on my list and it was followed by at least two more in quick succession.  It’s good sometimes to have to wait for such sightings of common birds then you don’t take them for granted, of course the Yellowhammer is far less common now than it once was.  Such was my pleasure in watching this species today I’ve included a few lines form a John Clare poem.  Perhaps it is a bit unseasonal as the poem is about nesting Yellowhammers.  John Clare certainly used his eyes and ears when watching the natural world around him and cared about it deeply and I have my friends Hilary and Kelsey to thank for introducing me to his poems.

Five eggs, pen-scribbled o'er with ink their shells
Resembling writing scrawls which fancy reads
As nature's poesy and pastoral spells—
They are the yellowhammer's and she dwells
Most poet-like where brooks and flowery weeds
As sweet as Castaly to fancy seems
And that old molehill like as Parnass' hill
On which her partner haply sits and dreams
O'er all her joys of song—so leave it still
A happy home of sunshine, flowers and streams.

The pathway to the dene differed greatly from the solidly frozen walkway we had followed on our previous visit and it was deep mud and waterlogged in places.  We were soon watching more passerines in the hedge including Chaffinches and Reed Buntings.  The sun shone dazzlingly through the now leafless trees and made our sighting of the flock of Brambling difficult viewing.  There appeared to be a slightly larger flock than on our previous visit, but the birds were very flighty and it was difficult to estimate numbers, although we thought about thirty.  A Dipper sang as we watched the Brambling and other woodland birds including Long Tailed Tits and Nuthatch.  We eventually made a descent into the dene where the light was already beginning to lessen and the colour was predominantly that of winter, umbers and browns.  The walk to Seaton Sluice offered little in the way of birdlife once we had left the flock of Brambling and other woodland birds behind us.

Dene path

After a very late lunch we walked to the headland.  It was difficult to believe it was December as there was no hint of a breeze and the sea was flat calm, emphasised by the very stable passage of a small fishing boat leaving harbour.  As we are approaching the shortest day of the year the sun was dropping low in the sky, but there was still a good amount of light and in contrast to the dene quite a range of colour.  The deep blue of the sea was cut at the horizon from the much paler blue of the sky, just as if someone had drawn a curved line with a pencil where the colour changed.  What small amount of cloud there was over the sea and coastline was patchy, thin and mauve in colour, but looking south the thin layers of cloud behind the lighthouse was becoming a deeper shade of orange as the minutes went by.    We were stood on rock slightly below the top of the cliff so we were protected from any sound coming from the passing traffic.  With no wind there was silence apart from a lapping tide below us, with a larger wave occasionally raising the sound level and pounding on the cliff to the north.  The surf made varying patterns as it ebbed and flowed over the almost flat table like rock surfaces.  Even the small flock of Oystercatchers stood motionless and without calling until two or three lifted, flew south and made their familiar call.  A lone Curlew and a number of gulls passed over the sea, again apparently silently.  Small pools of seawater trapped on the rock reflected an almost silver light.  Sam pointed out the steps apparently carved into the rock which came to a sudden stop where the cliff dropped steeply to rock below.  I had never noticed these steps before and wonder how old they are.  It would seem that there have been changes in the structure of the cliff for them to end so sharply with a sudden deep drop at the edge.  Perhaps the steps were put in at the time the Deleval’s altered the course of the harbour?


Sam in action

 As we walked back to the village it felt a little like returning from a long trip.  The sun wasn’t far off setting as we travelled home and I was thinking that there would be a good sunset to view this evening.  Temperatures were dropping.  Perhaps some may be surprised, but my bird of the day was without doubt the long awaited Yellowhammer!

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Gosforth Park Nature Reserve

6th Dec.  We were drawn to park life today despite the cold air and poor light.  The feeding station close to the entrance was surprisingly quiet and according to PD, has been in recent days, the birds clearly finding plenty of natural food.  Both Nuthatch and Treecreeper showed well among some other common woodland birds.  Sam and I had heard that there maybe up to five Bitterns in the reserve at present and it seems even that might be an under estimate, so it seemed more than possible that we might see one today.


We eventually left the hide at the feeding station and headed out on our usual circular walk.  The reserve was quiet in terms of both people and birds, and the atmosphere was typical of a winter’s day.  This time last year after heavy rain I seem to remember that the paths were extremely muddy, but today there were relatively dry and covered in fallen leaves.  In the quietness of the still wood I stopped as I heard a breeze drift through the trees.  It was if someone had opened a door and allowed a light draught to enter the woodland.  I turned to look back along the pathway and watched momentarily as leaves fell, from what I believe was an oak tree.   The leaves reflected what little light existed and drifted slowly and erratically down to the ground in the manner that snowflakes fall on a calm windless day.  The silence helped tune me into the habitat around me and it was all quite magical.  Shortly afterwards Roe Deer ran at speed across our path and were lost sight off as quickly as they had appeared in view.  The squawk of invisible Jays broke the silence as did our own speech.  There is still a good amount of leaf still to fall and very noticeable was a hazel tree holding what appeared to be almost new green growth.  I noticed that the ruins of the old boat house are now more clearly seen after work to clear the area.  The fact that this ruin is no where near the edge of the pond now,simply reflects the changing habitat over the years.  When we did look across the pond we found it still frozen in many areas.

We were walking anti clockwise so came to the small hide first.  The one and only occupant that we met there and chatted to informed us that at least two Bitterns had been active.  After a short time we had sightings of two, maybe three Bitterns, one of which flew across in front of the hide before dropping into the reed-bed.  Wrens called on either side of us, a Goosander flew around above us apparently trying to find open water on which to land and Sam was sure that he heard Siskins fly over the hide.  Sure enough when we left the hide we found a mixed flock of birds nearby which included a numbers of Siskins, Long tailed Tits and a Goldcrest.  The flash outside of the reserve held Teal, Tufted Duck, Coots and gulls.

A short stop in the other larger hide was not rewarded with sightings, although by now the light was rather better and the winter colours of the reed-bed and backing of trees showed more clearly.  We left, completed the circular walk of the reserve and decided to walk back to our own patch where we found two male Goosanders on the lake along with the likes of Gadwall and Shoveler.  It had been an enjoyable refreshing and atmospheric walk and I’m only too pleased that I can complete these walks now as there have been times this year I could not.

The Natural History Society talk last Friday had been excellent.  Nick Davies passion came across really well as he talked about the habits of Cuckoo’s and we were managed to get our books signed by him.  If you haven’t read the book it is certainly worth a read and its title is simply Cuckoo, Cheating by Nature.

On a slightly different note I was sorry to see James Littlewood leave the role of Director of the Natural History Society, but wish him well in his new employment.  I feel under James directorship the society has greatly modernised its outlook and style.  Long may that continue.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Geordie Shore Lark at Druridge Bay

30th Nov.  Lee, Sam and I were three men on a mission today.  We headed for Druridge Bay with Shore Larks on our mind.  I also reminded my comrades to keep an eye open for the Hen Harrier, not that they needed reminding.  It was only slightly milder than yesterday, but the light was perfect.  A small skein of geese, probably Pink-footed Geese flew over as we journeyed north.

No sooner had we parked up at East Chevington and I looked across the open space and immediately called Hen Harrier.  The ringtail initially distant flew directly at us and past us onwards to the dunes.  It was a perfect sighting to begin our day and we had further good sightings of this bird seen in perfect light as we walked to and arrived at Chevington Burn.  Then it wasn’t long before the seven Shore Larks returned to the area giving a very good showing on the sands.  To the south east large skeins of Pink-footed Geese lifted in the vicinity of one of the wind turbines.  I’m sure these turbines are breeding!  Individually these massive objects have a beauty to behold, with that wonderfully curved design of the blades.  On mass they are a blot on the landscape.  I half expected to see an irate Don Quixote ride by on Rocinante.  A flock of Twite and a flock of Goldfinch flew close by, a Kestrel hovered to the west of us and on the sea Red throated Divers swam, one or two very close to shore.  Guillemot was also seen.  The Kingfisher also made two or three appearances.  Our walk back to the car brought sightings of Redwing.  North Pool proved to be quiet, Mute Swan, Wigeon, Teal, Gadwall and Little Grebe were among birds seen before we headed for Druridge Pools.

Hen Harrier

Hen Harrier

With time limited now our visit to Druridge Pools was fleeting, Common Snipe and Pintail being the highlights.  We actually spent more time in the dunes overlooking the sea and walking a short way along a sun lit beach in order to get close to Red throated Divers which were swimming very near the shore.  A Long tailed Duck was also seen.  Our first pair of Stonechats for the day also showed really well in the sunlight.

Pink-footed geese
Our next stop was Cresswell Pond where we found a Little Egret at the north end of the pond.  Another Kestrel, this time perched on one of the posts south of the farm.  Once in the hide we found the pond fairly clear of birds although two Red-breasted Mergansers and an odd Goldeneye were about.  Large numbers of Wigeon edged the water, a flock of Lapwing joined by a few Golden Plover stood on the mud area and a Common Snipe was seen on the edge of the reed-bed.

Druridge Bay

Red-throated Diver

 The day ended quietly as we walked past Tree Sparrows in the hedge, but our mission had been successful and enjoyable and we thought there were many less rewarding ways in which we could have spent the hours.  The sighting of the Hen Harrier would have been my bird of the day had it not been for the appearance of seven Shore Larks.  Winter birding at its best and Druridge Bay seen at its best too.