Sunday, 31 December 2017

Memories of 2017.

Well, as yet nothing has arrived on the mat to suggest I have been named in the New Years honours list.  It could be an oversight, a loss in the post or some other technical hitch, so I haven’t given up hope just yet.  In any event I’m over joyed to note that Richard Starkey, better known to legions of admirers as Ringo, has been awarded a Knighthood.  Nothing less would have been enough to pay tribute to his classic musical renditions, such as the great Yellow Submarine, sung by us all when we take a bath I’m sure, and his equally great acting skills, surely warranting an Oscar, in the brilliant film of the twentieth century, A Hard Day’s Night.  Yes, these were gifts to humanity that should forever be treasured.

Shoveler on Killy Lake (Jan)

Mute Swan on Killy Lake (Jan)

Now then, time restraints have prevented me from completing the end of year blog that I had planned, so I have decided to include a few images that bring back very good memories to me of time spent during 2017 and I’ll also add a few short comments.

Long stay LBB Gull at North Shields Fish Quay (Jan) whilst watching Iceland and Glaucous Gulls

Wagtail at Druridge (Feb) whilst watching Shore Larks and Twite

Ferruginous Duck on Killy Lake (Mar)

Little Owl at Druridge (Jul)

Out for lunch with a friend (early summer)

I have begun with some images of local sightings, a couple that show Killingworth Lake can look good when caught in perfect light.  Sightings in Northumberland this year have also included species such as Pacific Diver (a lifer), a pity it came to a sad end, Bee Eater, White winged Black Tern, and of course the Hawfinches.  I have a keen interest in the history of ornithology and had looked forward to attending a talk at the NHSN concerning Northumbria born Canon Henry Baker Tristram.  Unfortunately, the talk was cancelled but I more than made up for this by reading the book by WG Hale called Sacred Ibis which coverers the life, travels and collecting of the Canon.  A great read especially for local birders.  I have on occasions heard the term hard core birder/s used, on occasions by some who think they show toughness.  I personally think it a rather silly term, but I think if anyone thinks of themselves as a hard-core birder, then they need to read this book and other like it to find out what tough birding really was in the past!

Ural Owl, Sweden (Jun)

Dotterel, Sweden (Jun)

Slavonian Grebes, Sweden (Jun)

Siberian Jay, Sweden (Jun)

A Room With a View, Sweden (Jun)

Sam, Sweden (Jun)

Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to have been able to travel a fair bit, in recent years along with Sam, and the past couple of years have seen us in Finland, Norway and Sweden.  This year was the turn of Sweden and some great adventures and many laughs were had along the way.  I think if I had to choose one area outside of the UK to concentrate my birding and travel on I would pick Scandinavia as it offers so much without the need for tiresome long-haul travel.  I’ve included a selection of images from the many taken.  An account of the trip is to be found in my blog, so I won’t start to recount details again.

Common Blue Butterfy at Mull of Galloway (Jul)

Evening at Threave Castle (Jul)

Osprey at Loch Ken (Jul)

Barnacle Geese, Dumfries (Oct)

Solway Sunset, Dumfries (Oct)

Closer to home, but across the border in Dumfries and Galloway, provided me with some of my best moments of the year.  Sam kindly invited me to stay as he has been working in that area.  I was up there in early summer and early autumn and on both occasions had some great days of watching wildlife, whilst also learning a great deal more about the history and culture of the area.  Difficult to say what the highlights were as there where many, but watching Golden Ringed Dragonflies on a red-hot day in July, an Osprey close by   catching a fish at Loch Ken, Peregrine Falcons and Ospreys seen and heard calling at the same time at Threave and of course thousands of geese in the autumn where up there with the best moments.

I have found that bird watching can take you along many different routes and I have developed many interests.  Whatever your interest, however far along the route you are and what ever time of life you begun, I hope that you have a very rewarding and interesting 2018.

Best wishes to everyone for the year ahead

Sunday, 17 December 2017

All Weather Birders Return to Holywell

It's a long time since we completed the walk from Holywell to St Mary’s Island, so to keep our reputation as all weather birders Sam and I decided to ‘walk the walk’ today.  Temperatures down to zero weren’t going to keep us at home.  As we headed for Holywell I noted a long band of heavy cloud along the coastline, otherwise conditions were perfect for a winter walk, bright crisp and perfect light.

A frozen pond at Holywell

We arrived at Holywell Pond’s members hide to find that the shutters were frozen, swollen and impossible to open, although with effort we managed to prise the centre shutter open.  We need not have bothered as there was little to see apart from an almost deserted, but picturesque frozen pond.  The ice was reflecting steel like hues.  The feeding station at the entrance was attracting numbers of Tree Sparrow and Chaffinch and a few other garden species.  Unsurprisingly we found the public hide empty, although because there was little wind it didn’t feel as cold as I have known it to be at times.  A small break in the ice had attracted Mallards, two Tufted Duck and gulls, but nothing else.  We did hang around long enough to have a very good sighting of a male Sparrowhawk which initially flew into the reed-bed before taking off again and flying up the pond and over the ducks and gulls before finally perching in a tree at the other end of the pond.  It was no doubt finding prey difficult to come by, just as we were finding sightings difficult to come by.

We eventually headed off towards the open fields finding very little in this deserted area.  We did find two Golden Plover attempting to feed in the field to the right of us and a loan Grey Heron standing by the hedge in the distance obviously it too was finding conditions hard.  We’d seen two Pink-footed Geese fly over on our arrival but found no more in the fields.  Greylag Geese were heard in the distance towards the coast, but they weren’t seen.  We were enjoying the walk and by now could even feel a little warmth from the sun.  Out in these open fields is usually the coldest part of this walk but as there was barely a breath of wind it felt almost mild today!  The ground however was solid and almost give a feeling of walking on pavement.  Just before we reached the dene we heard and then saw a pair of Grey Wagtails feeding on the frozen mud area.  One of the pair was seen really well and its plumage showed brilliantly in the clear bright light.  Our first of three, possibly four, Kestrels seen today had been noted as we walked down to the dene edge.

The walk through the dene was unusually quiet for the time of year although feeding stations along the way were attracting numbers of Great, Coal and Blue Tits and a few other of the woodland birds including Nuthatch which were quite vocal at times.  Great Spotted Woodpecker was seen along the way as was a Common Buzzard which lifted from the floor of the woodland and flew off over the burn.  One of the birds of the day was the Bullfinch we found.  It looked in perfect condition and again the light appeared to show this bird off perfectly.  A very under-rated species in my opinion and just like the Grey Wagtail having a stunning plumage.  Long-tailed Tits were heard.
We put on a bit of a spurt as we neared the end of the dene to ensure we arrived for fish and chips on time.  It was obvious from the number of Redshank we passed that the tide was high.  We hadn’t been to Seaton Sluice for our meal for ages and this was even noted by a member of staff!  The quality of the food here has happily remained high.

The tide was very high today, so we made off towards St Mary’s Island right away without looking from the headland.  The line of cloud seen on our departure this morning appeared to have moved eastward so wasn’t threatening.  We found Kestrel, Golden Plover, Lapwing and Curlew in the fields before reaching the wetland where the only bird of any note was a lone Grey Heron.

I love the atmosphere of winter days such as we were experiencing so the lack of sightings was of no problem to me.  I was enjoying the open spaces and winter skies and the clear view down to Marsden Rock and Souter Lighthouse.  Just before we made for home we looked across to the lighthouse which was lit by the setting sun and which had drawn quite a few photographers.  This must be one of the most photographed sites in the area and it is such a shame that the view now takes in wind turbines at sea.  I wonder who had the idea to plant them in that position?  The island held Oystercatcher, Sanderling, Turnstone, Dunlin and Redshank all standing at the tides edge.

By now it was bitter cold, and I reckon zero degrees at least.  We made for home as the sunset lit up the western horizon as if on fire.  There were patches of black ice on the ground when we arrived back in Killingworth.  A great day had been had as always.

Thursday, 7 December 2017


3rd Dec.  Anyone who has taken even a cursory glance at this blog will realise I’m not in the habit of making wild dashes to see birds, no matter how rare they may be.  Nevertheless, it surely would have been remiss of me if I had ended 2017 not having seen some local Hawfinches, there being so many of them in the UK at present.  So, it was off to Mitford today with Sam, and this time to the correct site!  The area was so very different from my visit a few weeks ago when autumnal colour was at its peak of brightness.  Today, the duller hues of winter were to be seen but it was quite a lot warmer.

Through the binoculars I caught sight of what was a Hawfinch at mid height in the trees to the left but a couple of blokes with telescopes had a look of doubt on there faces.  Anyway, I lost sight of the bird.  After a while Sam got his eye on Hawfinches, three or four, near to where I’d seen one on our arrival.  We had arrived kinda expecting easy and close sightings so had left the telescope in the boot, so Sam went off to fetch it.  We eventually had some very good telescope sightings as the birds fed although at no time did they come down to the Hornbeams directly in front of us which might have allowed photographs, so there are none.  The over all colour of the birds seemed to reflect the hues of winter.   I never had the camera out of the bag all day and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing in my opinion.  Sometimes best to watch nature and not feel you must capture an image of it.  At least one Hawfinch appeared in the hedge behind us and no one was sure where it, and possibly one or two others, had appeared from.

So once again we prove that you don’t have to be an early worm to catch the birds.  This was only my second sighting of Hawfinch in Northumberland, the other sighting being some years ago at the entrance to Hulne Park, which used to be quite a regular spot to find them.

There were lots of thrushes in the area today, in the main Redwings, but Mistle Thrushes and Blackbirds too, and Siskin were flying over.

The Hawfinches seem to have captured the imagination of the locals, quite a few of them out walking dogs.  From our experience I can only say watch where you put your feet!  We give one guy a chance to see a Hawfinch through the telescope and he seemed quite chuffed about his sighting.  We talked about the size of the bill and its strength and I wish I had remembered that according to Collin’s Birdguide it has a force of 50kg.  A lifer for him I reckon.  It’s good to share sightings with interested folk.

After a good while with the Hawfinches we left for Druridge and Cresswell, which we found extremely quiet, but we did enjoy watching the growing numbers of Twite at the burn entrance at East Chevington.  They were at their best flying in two or three separate flocks in the sunlight.  There were Sanderling, Dunlin, Redshank and Oystercatchers on the shore, but we didn’t find the reported Snow Bunting.  Later, we did watch a pair of Kingfishers at Cresswell Pond.

With my mind now on Hawfinch I checked out the Collin’s New Naturalist Monograph written by Guy Mountfort  issued in the 1957.  I saw the price on Amazon and decided I didn’t want it that desperately and that I ought to simply stick with the memories of good sightings of which I have several.  Unfortunately, time dulls the memory and until I looked back on my notes I had clean forgotten that I had sightings of Hawfinch in Poland and Romania.  I do have clear memories of the three Hawfinch seen in Sweden this year as they came down to a feeding station and those seen in Extremadura a few years ago when I clearly remember a walk across a bridge up to an old dilapidated building where we saw several Hawfinch in bushes near to the building.  My best sighting of all however was when Sam and I watched a family of Hawfinches early morning in the garden of our accommodation in Hungary two or three years ago.

The scientific name for Hawfinch is Coccothraustes coccothraustes which is derived from the Greek kokkos meaning seed or kernel, and thrauo which means to break or shatter.  The ornithologist Francis Willughby was first to use the common English name Hawfinch in 1676.  Haw referring to the red berries of Hawthorn.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

A Walk to the Lake

19th November.  It wasn’t as cold as I had expected when I followed the path down to the lake, past trees still holding their autumnal colours, if a little faded now.  The skies were blue, but the sunlight was already weak and low in the sky.  Despite the chill in the air such days are in my opinion far superior to the damp dowdy days we have had during recent summers.

There were approaching 130 Canada Geese in the field by the smaller lake, and more of them on and beside the larger lake, so in total approaching 150 Canada Geese, not far short of the largest number I’ve seen here.  The Canada Geese were joined by 6 Greylag Geese.  Notable birds on the lake included 1 male Shoveler, 2 pairs of Gadwall, 1 pair of Goosander, 1 pair of Goldeneye and a late remaining Great Crested Grebe.  Happily the Great Crested Grebes have had another successful breeding year on the lake as many photographers will be aware.  Most of the gulls were gathered on the still frozen corner of the smaller lake.

On my return most of the Canada Geese were on the water of the smaller lake with the 6 Greylag Geese and most of the ice had disappeared and the gulls had dispersed. 

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Naturalist Notes of Northumberland in November

3rd Nov.  We attended the NHSN talk on Slugs and Snails this evening.  My verdict is, yes you can make a talk on slugs and snails interesting and fun and I think the rest of the audience, which was approaching one hundred, would generally agree the talk was excellent.  I have the book lined up for winter reading.  It’s the New Naturalist Slugs and Snails by Robert Cameron.

5th Nov.  Sam and I headed north to Drudge, on what was a very cold, bright autumnal morning, where the highlight on East Chevington North Pool was a Slavonian Grebe.  We walked from the Country Park down to the mouth of the burn at East Chevington, which if nothing else warmed us up.  We spoke to several birders/photographers here including AJ, who had arrived for the showing of the Twite and Shore Lark.  There were now two Shore Lark showing very well in the sun along with a flock of Twite at times showing equally well, the flock numbering around eighty birds.  After returning to the Country Park, instead of heading for Druridge Pools and Cresswell Pond we decided to travel to Mitford with the hope of finding the Hawfinch.  No Hawfinch seen on this attempt, but it was worth going for the autumnal colours.  We also took time to look around the church grounds as Sam has family links to Mitford.  I too have links which are more tenuous and fleeting in the great shape of things.  We made off to Big Waters.


Autumnal Colour

There was no sign of the pair of Red Crested Pochard at Big Waters, but we did see a family of Whooper Swans and were given directions by MF to the field where the Red-breasted Goose was.  I know this bird won’t be listed but I’m guessing it to be as wild as the Red-breasted Goose a few folks made their way over the border to see while ago. :-) Does this bird have a ring on its leg or not?  I’ve read conflicting thoughts.  We did think we could see a yellow ring, but could it have been a trick of the light?  From Big Waters we made for Prestwick Carr.

I’m sure someone has stretched the long straight road at Prestwick Carr, or maybe I was just tired!  It was Late afternoon by now and very quiet, although we chatted to two or three birders out to find the Great Grey Shrike.  During our walk we saw both Redpoll and Bullfinch and heard Willow Tit.  Before we reached the turning for the sentry box we looked northward and with my naked eye I picked up a white smudge in the distance. A view through the binoculars suggested Great Grey Shrike and this was confirmed once we got the scope onto it.  Sam and I decided to continue towards the sentry box in the hope of getting a better sighting.  We did get a very good sighting as the shrike perched for a long time in the bush.  The light was fading to an extent, but seemed to offer perfect conditions for watching the shrike.   I guess this is the same bird we watched in January and in previous years.

Record Breaker.  Tallest Goat.

So, a good day with some good sightings.  We made off as the light dimmed even more and the temperatures seemed to drop considerably.  The red flags were flying, so if the sentry was in his/her box I hope he/she had a flask of tea with him/her. We reached the car and were glad to get into it out of the way of the smell of the usual leaking gas which was especially bad today.  I figured that we had walked quite a few miles today, so the availability of a car hasn’t made us lazy.  I thought of Prestwick Carr at a time when the likes of Thomas Bewick and later Henry Baker Tristram would visit, when the area was far greater and undrained.  I did do a bit of reading about this area prior to leading a walk there a few years ago so know that it has an impressive bird list.

9th Nov.  We made north again today, this time in the direction of Lindisfarne.  Again, it was a bright but cold day.  Before reaching Lindisfarne we stopped off at Budle Bay where the highlights were 3 Little Egret, Grey Plover, several Bar-tailed Godwit and large flocks of Shelduck.


Morning light

As we approached the causeway at Lindisfarne the sun lit up the water to south of us.  I don’t think I’ve ever been to the island and not had, at least part of the time, spectacular lighting conditions and today was no exception.  We stopped before crossing the causeway to admire the family of Whooper Swans accompanied by one Mute Swan, and to watch at distance the flock of Brent Geese.  It was a good start to our visit on what bird wise turned out to be in general a very quiet day.  We stopped again to explore the Snook and the massive area of the shore now that the tide had ebbed.  This is a wonderful sandy beach and we had it all to ourselves until a couple joined us with their dog.  By now the wind was up and sand blew low over the beach giving a desert like effect.  I almost forgot that we had to walk back and this time face into the wind!  Small pieces of vegetation floated across the area in the wind and looking back at our tracks I found the dunes behind me lit by the sun and a rather odd effect appeared along the sandy beach, where possibly because of blowing sand and other small particles of debris, there was a multitude of colours in areas along the sand.  I couldn’t change lenses on the windswept beach, but in any event these kinds of images invariably don’t reproduce what you see at the time, therefore the view remains, but a very good memory.  We found the historical site which I must learn more about and walked back following tracks in the dunes, not an easy walk.  We’d seen little in the way of birds, but it didn’t matter.  It was atmosphere that mattered, and we did find a lone Ringed Plover, Linnets and Rock Pipits, and the occasional Grey Seal watched from the sea.

Whooper Swans

I was feeling tired before we had even reached the island car-park, but after we had had a hot drink and a bacon sandwich I was back to my normal self and ready to go.  We visited the Priory, something neither of us had done for some years, before setting off past the vicar’s garden and around to the harbour.  It was very, very quiet, in fact as quiet as I’ve ever seen the island.  Passerines were scarce, there was few waders to be seen and there was little on the sea apart from Eider Ducks, Cormorants and the occasional ShagCurlews were few but in the harbour, we found Grey Plover, Redshank, Turnstone and Bar-tailed Godwit.  A rather torpid Red Admiral Butterfly attempted to warm itself near the upturned boats. There were few birders on the island, but the occasional one that we did bump into reported little.

Red Admiral Butterfly

We walked past Gertrude Jekyl’s castle garden, something I don’t remember doing in the past, and onwards towards the sea.  A short sea watch brought only Razorbill and Gannet.  As we walked back towards the village we watched a female Kestrel hunting over the hedges.  It became apparent to us that the Kestrel would wait until we had walked past birds in the hedge which were then disturbed, and the Kestrel would swoop low over the hedge.  This continued until we were at the end of the pathway.  The Starlings and Curlews in the field were certainly disturbed by this.  The seems to have learned this technique to perfection, although we didn’t see it catch anything.

We saw the occasional Fieldfare lift from the hedge trees, but it wasn’t until we reached the coach car-park that we saw numbers of Redwing and a fewer number of Fieldfare.

We were one of the last cars to leave the island but within plenty of time to miss the incoming tide.  There were again very good lighting conditions across the mudflats but again few birds.  We did have very good close ups of sunlit Curlews and Redshanks, but had left the cameras in the boot.  We were luckier that we had the cameras in hand when just before leaving the causeway and heading for home a small skein of Pink-footed Geese flew in our direction.

Pink-footed Geese

There was more to visiting Lindisfarne than birds and Sam and I agreed that we had experienced a good day and it was a shame that we had to leave behind what was going to be a very impressive sunset.

10th Nov.  We end as we begun with attendance at the NHSN for a presentation by photo journalists Ann and Steve Toon whose images where of excellent quality.  Mainly of African wildlife, but not completely so, as there were some from the UK and Thailand.  The talk was slanted towards conservation issues and included such items as the removal of Rhino horn in attempts to prevent poaching, and the vasectomies of Elephants to control numbers, controversial subjects indeed.  Once again there was a large audience present.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Ten Thousand Geese...Part Three.

One mighty flat undwarfed by bush and tree
Spread its faint shadow of immensity
And lost itself, which seemed to eke its bounds
In the blue mist the horizon’s edge surrounds.
John Clare 173-1864

Barnacle Geese at Caerlaverock

26th Oct.  This was to be my final full day north of the border, so we were hoping to make the most of it.  I have visited Caerlaverock WWT on many occasions, but surprisingly I’ve never visited Caerlaverock Castle or Caerlaverock NNR.  We intended to put that right today and on our drive to the castle via Dumfries and along by the attractive River Nith as it made it’s a straight course to the Solway, our chat included mention of Edward 1st, the Maxwell family, and the Scottish Covenanters, all having strong connections to Caerlaverock Castle.  For years I’d imagined Caerlaverock Castle to be a small pile of stones, instead of this I found a magnificent ruin, much of the building still standing.  After a very interesting wander around we took the nature trail to the ‘old’ castle foundations.  This older castle was abandoned because of flooding, it once stood close to the shore of the Solway which is now 800 metres away.  Our walk provided a calling Great Spotted Woodpecker and Nuthatch.

Caerlaverock Castle

Barnacle Geese at Caerlaverock

By now there was more sunlight and we made our way to the WWT where after a cup of tea we walked down towards the hide expecting to see a Great White Egret.  Sadly, it had not shown up this morning.  I was happy to make do with the Peregrine Falcon, perched out on the merse, preening at times and looking well fed.  Size told us immediately that it was a female.  A walk back to the centre brought a Red Admiral Butterfly sighting and afterwards we listened to the talk as we watched the feeding of the Whooper Swans et al.  Our first Gadwall of the trip was seen.  Pink-footed Geese were seen in flight as were the very flighty Barnacle Geese, initially disturbed by a flyover Common BuzzardCanada and Greylag Geese were also seen today.  Flocks of Black-tailed Godwit and Lapwing were also in flight on several occasions.  The Barnacle Geese continued to provide entertainment as they kept lifting, and at one point as we walked to the furthest hide they were right overhead and the sound was amazing, almost like machinery working above such was the din.  We never actually bothered with the furthest hide, but having seen more Black-tailed Godwit , Redshank, Curlew and a Grey Heron catching and attempting to swallow an Eel, and Roe Deer in the distance, we decided to return and climb the Tower Hide.  The usual waterfowl were in the pool below us, predominately Wigeon, as we looked over towards Caresthorn where we had watched the tower from a couple of days before.   We walked to the field where the Barnacle Geese were likely to be in number.  We weren’t disappointed, and more geese flew in whilst we watched on!  Leaving this spot wasn’t easy but we fancied another cup of tea before the centre closed.  No, no, it wasn’t an RSPB Group trip, we just felt really thirsty.  By now the sky was clear and the sun lit the whole area.  I felt a little sorry for the staff in the kitchen who only felt the heat of the ovens, but I suppose there are worse places to work.  Sam purchased a Peter Scott book.  At some point today, not for the first time we had seen numbers of Skylark.  There seemed to be quite a movement of these birds.  Meadow Pipit had also been seen although overall smaller passerines were low in number at the reserve duplicating the position at RSPB Mersehead.  I’m guessing that many more will be seen as winter approaches.

Whooper Swan

Barnacle Geese at Caerlaverock

It was now time to visit the National Nature Reserve which is just down the road.  We walked down the path which leads through a farm-yard.  The barking dogs were locked up.  It wasn’t long before we were into one of my favourite habitats, reed-bed, which seemed to stretch for miles.  We passed Redwings and another single Fieldfare which were in the hedges.  Stonechat was also seen.  Three Common Snipe flew over-head and Water Rail was heard.  A Marsh Harrier flew high along the coast as it was chased by corvids.  We wondered whether this was the harrier from Mersehead or possibly another.  There had been no harriers reported at the WWT.  The silence was broken only by the call of birds, Curlews especially.  It was all quite a haunting experience and I could barely believe we had this whole area to ourselves at the best time of day.  We looked across reed-bed and merse towards the Cumbrian coast.  The sky was now cloud free and the sun was dropping down towards 570m high Crifell and causing a lemon glow in the early evening sky.  A narrow silvery line ran straight below Crifell, and I took this to be the River Nith entering the Solway and reflecting the faltering light.  We watched as the sun faded to a dot and quickly disappeared behind Crifell.  The atmosphere provided everything I like about such occasions.  I could tell that the weather was going to be good the following day.  Sadly, I was leaving soon but not before more birding in the morning.  It was almost time to make our return and prepare for dinner i.e. change my shoes.  This had been a perfect way to spend my last evening.

Caerlaverock NNR

Caerlaverock NNR

Caerlaverock NNR

Dinner was another good one and I watched the Plough in the sky when we headed back to base.  That wasn’t the pub, it’s was the constellation.   On return we stood outside and looked at the stars in the very clear sky, but not for too long as it was almost freezing!  We heard a Tawny Owl calling again tonight, and a Fox also.  I thought it would be cold in the morning and it certainly was.

27th Oct.  We waited until 9.00am and for the temperature to rise to 4C before leaving for Threave.  It was bright and sunny as expected and we had hopes of finding White-fronted Geese.  Unfortunately the White-fronted Geese were not to be found this morning, but we enjoyed our walk around the reserve anyway and after the few days birding that we had experienced there could be no complaints.  Over two hundred Pink-footed Geese did provide a spectacular fly past.

Pink-footed Geese at Threave

We looked over toward the island on the River Dee and of course had a fine view of Threave Castle and the nest of the Ospreys which hopefully will now be enjoying the African Sun.  It just seemed like yesterday when I had been watching the Osprey family at the nest and Black 80 fishing at Loch Ken.

Threave Castle and Reserve

The reserve looked at its best today and there were to be some new birds for the trip list.  We saw Goldcrest and heard both Willow Tit and Redpoll.  The Red Kites have moved to their winter roosts and I thought I was going to be unlucky with that one, but no, a Red Kite flew across in front of one of the hides, its flight following the course of the river.
So, we eventually made off for Dumfries where we had lunch before Sam dropped me off to catch the train for Newcastle.  Unfortunately, Sam was working the following day.  I arrived back in Newcastle at 5.00pm to face the traffic jams, but more than happy with a trip bird list of ninety-six species and some great memories of birding experiences.  My thanks go to my guide, and more importantly, special friend Sam.

I had the idea for the title of these reports from Dumfries having noticed one of Sam’s books entitled A Thousand Geese.  It was written by Peter Scott and James Fisher and published in 1953.  It’s certainly thanks to Peter Scott and conservationists like him, of which I’m sure there have been many, that we can celebrate the success of species like Barnacle Geese.  Thankfully there are successes to celebrate amongst the doom and gloom that we continually hear about concerning wildlife.  Let’s remain positive!  My title could as easily have been, Twenty-five Thousand Geese, as Sam and I think that is at least nearer to the total number of geese we saw over the few days of the trip.  The quotes from the poetry of John Clare came to me as an idea having been directed towards Clare’s work by friends Hilary and Kelsey and having just read a biography of Clare by Jonathan Bate.  Clare had a difficult life and ended it in an institution, or as they called it in his day ‘a mad house’.  John Clare cared deeply for the natural world and had a wonderful eye for nature, and I can but wonder what he would have made of our adventures with the geese. 

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Ten Thousand Geese...Part Two.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
From Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

Otter Pool at Wood of Cree

             25th Oct.  Overnight rain had ceased before dawn and we left early under clearing skies for the long drive to Glen Trool which was to be a stop off prior to a visit to the North Rhinns and Loch Ryan.  I day dreamed of the adventures of Robert the Bruce as we arrived at the road into the glen, only to find the road closed, we surmised because of fallen trees caused by the recent storms.  Undaunted we decided to take the narrow road past nearby Wood of Cree.  Whilst we didn’t walk into the woods we did stop and visit Otter Pool.  There were no Otters, nor was there any other sign of life on the reflective still waters of the pool, but it did offer a rather pleasant autumnal scenic image.  Our visit wasn’t without reward in the form of birds however, as we added Raven, Jay, Nuthatch and Treecreeper to our trip list.  The Raven was heard before being seen very well as it flew past us with the woods as a background and then perching for a time before flying off into the distance.  Sparrowhawk was also seen.  The sun was now breaking through and the air was still, but cold.  The air was anything but still when we arrived at the edge of Loch Ryan as the wind blew off the loch and I was unable to warm up until we found some shelter in one off several stops we made to view the loch between Innermessen and Stranraer.

Brent Geese, Loch Ryan

The species that really caught the eye were the Brent Geese, first seen only at some distance and the wind wasn’t helping keep the telescope steady.  When we later moved towards Stranraer we came very close to these Brent Geese and could hear their calls very clearly.  This is perhaps as close as I have been to Brent Geese.  We initially counted about ninety birds, but more flew in as we watched and there were still some more distant birds, so well over one hundred.  The closest birds were on the water in front of us and quite close to the road and pathway, so they are clearly used to disturbance, although they were on their guard and ready to move should anyone try to get too close.  We found flocks of Scaup and the likes of, Whooper Swan, Mute Swan, Greylag Geese, Great Crested Grebe, Shelduck, Wigeon, Tea, Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Turnstone, Redshank and Curlew.  We eventually left for the northern tip of the Rhinns and Corsewell Lighthouse, thinking that we had even stronger winds to look forward to at this good sea-watching point.  The remains of Corsewell Castle, a 15th Century Tower House and in ruins for 400 years, were to the left of us as we approached the point.

Brent Geese, Loch Ryan.

My initial thoughts were that the northern Rhinns were not as attractive as the southern area that we had visited in early summer, but I had reason to change my mind especially on arriving at Corsewell Lighthouse, which incidentally holds an hotel.  It helped that on arrival we found that the strong wind had lessened to a refreshing breeze and it was, thankfully, much warmer now.  The Mull of Galloway is quite an experience, but Corsewell has an appeal of its own.  It’s not an easy spot to get too and I’m happy to say we had the area to ourselves throughout our time here.  The view is excellent, and we took in Northern Ireland, Kintyre and it’s Mull, Arran, Ailsa Craig and the coast-line of Ayrshire which at times was well lit by sunlight.  A few of these areas brought back happy memories of previous trips to both Sam and me.  There was no lack of sea birds with a steady passage Including Black Guillemot, Guillemot, Razorbill, Kittiwake and other gulls, Gannet, close-up Red-throated Diver in some number and Rock Pipit was seen passing by.  We also watched the ferries passing between Belfast and Stranraer which came and left on a regular basis.  It wasn’t easy to pull ourselves away from this wonderful seascape, but we had another stop to make for more watching of Loch Ryan, this time from ‘The Wig’, and time was precious.

Corsewell Lighthouse

There’s a pleasant circular walk at The Wig which takes you past the shore of Loch Ryan, so close you are warned of waves caused by the ferries, although I didn’t see any sign of them whilst there.  Nearby there the area of an RAF Airbase which was used during the war and where the great comedian Tony Hancock was based during war service (who can forget his classic line in the Blood Donor…A pint? That’s very nearly an armful!)  Parts of the runway can still be seen.  Loch Ryan was strategically very important during the Second World War.

Ayrshire coast in distance from Corsewell 

Our walk brought sightings of numerous passerines, Siskin was heard, and Redwings again seen along with a single Fieldfare.  This time even greater numbers of Scaup were seen, some rafts of them very close to us and we’d seen hundreds before we left.  Sam picked up our second Slavonian Grebe of the trip and there were numerous Red-throated Divers, Shags, and Red-breasted MergansersGoosander was also seen.  I think we would agree that our sighting of the day was in the form of Great Northern Diver (the Brent Geese not far behind) , six of them in a group and although some distance away, not too far to recognise that five of them retained most of their summer plumage.  The plumage of the sixth bird was more diffuse and may well have been a juvenile bird.  At one point the six divers formed a tight line and even the passing ferry didn’t seem to disturb them.  An excellent sighting indeed.  Two Common Seals appeared to inspect us from just off shore.  It was now time to retrace our steps to the car and return south, or more precisely east, to our accommodation and prepare for another hearty meal.  Light had gone by the time of our arrival back at base.  Sam heard Tawny Owl calling tonight.  I was so cream crackered tonight I didn’t care if the rain had returned or not.  It had been another great day’s birding with sixty-nine species seen.  Still more to come.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Ten Thousand Geese...Part One.

He hears the wild geese gabble oer his head
And pleasd wi fancys in his musings bred
He marks the figurd forms in which they flye
And pausing follows wi a wandering eye
Likening their curious march in curves or rows
To every letter which his memory knows
John Clare 1793-1864

23rd Oct.  Having crossed the border and reached the Scottish Solway coast by early evening, Sam and I decided that a stop was in order to take a look for bird life.  Our focus over the next few days in Dumfries and Galloway was to be birds and other wildlife, with a little culture and history thrown in.  As we approached the shore of the Solway we found large numbers of Redwing lifting from the soaked and berry laden hedges.  The sky and waters of the Solway were still leaden grey, but the heavy rain had stopped and as the Redwings took a break from their feast, in the fields close by us, they showed every marking very clearly in what was a post storm vivid light.  We managed to catch sight of several other species either on the water or in the near vicinity of it and these included Grey Heron, Mute Swan, Greylag Geese, Goosander, Red breasted Merganser, Kestrel, Common Buzzard, Oystercatcher, Lapwing and Curlew. This was enough to whet the appetite before making off for our destination and a very good dinner at one of the local pubs.  We went to sleep to the sound of heavy rain fall.

24th Oct.  We awoke to the sound of heavy rain fall, but happily it was forecast to cease later in the morning.  The rain had eased slightly as we set off and stopped by the time we had reached Caresthorn, on the Solway estuary.  I noticed the Solway waters had  formed a very dark grey line along the horizon, although closer by lighter shades of grey reflected the fact that the cloud did give hints of breaking up, but at this point in time no blue sky was visible.  We soon brightened up with an excellent sighting of Slavonian Grebe and the calls from a number of skeins of Pink-footed Geese which flew overhead.  Great Crested Grebe was also seen.  The hedge between us and the village was attracting larger numbers of Greenfinch than I have seen for a long time.  At this point another birder approached us, he having just found a Redstart which we never did see.  This guy was significant, as he was the only birder we bumped into during our few days of birding, except for those we encountered in reserves.  As Sam said, this whole area is very under watched and reported.  Everywhere I looked across the estuary there was large numbers of Oystercatchers.

Sign at Caresthorn

By now we were confident enough to set off on a walk along the shore, which was a new area for me,  without taking waterproof trousers.  The tide being low, we were treated to some good sightings including Little Egret, Grey Heron, Mute Swan, many Shelduck, Mallard, Shoveler, Pintail, Wigeon, Teal and Red breasted Merganser.  Waders were soon heard and seen and as well as the many Oystercatchers we located Ringed Plover, Lapwing, Turnstone, Dunlin, Redshank and Curlew, the latter birds call being heard.  There was no shortage of other passerines, Linnets being one.  There had been many more Redwings.  Having taken in the sights and sounds during what had been a rewarding visit, we made off towards Southerness, just a little further along the Solway.  I especially wanted to photograph the lighthouse which stands on the shore there.

We were soon standing looking out over the Solway again and standing next to what is the second oldest lighthouse in Scotland, modernised at some point by the famous Stevenson’s.  I carefully took up positions on the slippery rocky shore too get the images I wanted.  I felt, on what was still a grey storm threatening morning, that this spot with its unusually designed lighthouse, gave off a rather sombre Dickensian atmosphere and David Copperfield would not have looked out of place.

Our next stop was to be RSPB Mersehead.  We took a single lane, rain laden potholed road to get there.  We were soon to find that skeins of Barnacle Geese were flying along the coast and over our heads.  Sam pulled in to a passing place so we could listen and watch.  Passing cars splashed mud and goodness knows what else onto his recently washed car, but that was the last thing on his mind as we watched wave after wave of yapping Barnacle Geese fly over us.  The skeins were making all kinds of shapes in the sky above.  Just as we thought we had seen them all pass, more skeins would appear with a background of hills behind them.  There were a number of Pink footed Geese amongst them, but predominately the sky was full of Barnacle Geese.  This sight and sound provided my best experience of watching geese and I include the action I had seen on Islay a few years ago.  It can be argued that there are few wild places in the UK, but wild experiences are still available, and this was just that.  In any event I think wildness can often be simply a state of mind.  Thousands of Barnacle Geese landed in the fields between us and the Solway.  Incidentally, these fields are not part of the reserve underling the fact that whilst reserves have an important place in providing refuge for our wildlife, areas off the reserves are just as important   and should be provided.  This does require ongoing discussion, work and at times compromise if wildlife is to have a secure future in our ever increasingly populated island.  We estimated that we had seen at least 5,000 geese at this point.

We did eventually reach Mersehead.  The highlight here was of course more Barnacle Geese which at time were quite active and in the air.  At times we were very close to them as we walked along the pathways and watched the individual sentinel geese watch us intently from the outside of the flocks.
By now the sun had broken through and it was quite warm.  The hills around the reserve showed their autumn colours of fading yellow, brown and umber.  Apart from the geese the reserve was very quiet, the pools especially, with one of them dried out in part.  However, we did add a pair of Whooper Swans and the odd Canada Goose to our morning list, otherwise the waterfowl were in the main Mallard, Pintail, Wigeon, Teal, Shoveler and Shelduck.  A Marsh Harrier was seen but somewhat briefly and distant and the hedges held many Redwings.  Smaller passerines were fewer in number than is often found here but included House Sparrow, Tree Sparrow, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Greenfinch and Yellowhammer, most of them at the feeding station.

 We took a walk down to the shore by which time the light was fading and there was rain in the air, so we made back towards the car and before we reached it the rain had come on quite heavily.  Common Buzzard, Sparrowhawk and Kestrel had been seen as we made off towards our accommodation.  After another good dinner we once again went to sleep to the sound of heavy rainfall as we thought of our early start and long trip tomorrow.  We believe we had seen 10,000 geese today.  More to come.