Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Am I the Noel Edmonds of Birding?

No funnily enough I didn't mean a bearded twat in a tank top which was probably your first thought right? I was referring to his much publicised belief in cosmic ordering. By the way if you choose to browse the links don't bother trying to place wishes for anything good this Spring especially not a singing male Subalpine Warbler as I have got there first and the cosmos works on a first come first served basis, form an orderly queue.

How else can you explain my amazing powers of calling in the birds I need for my list. Yesterday I wrote a short piece on Northern Wheatears, this morning due to the magnificence of Advanced Cosmic Ordering not one but two Northern Wheatears were sent to be watched, noted and listed. Both males the first a classic 'on the stone wall' at Cresswell Pond, the second associating with Buntings (Yellowhammer & Reed) in stubble at Bilton Dunes.

Don't let the fact it's warm and sunny and the end of March and therefore the traditional time for Wheatears fool you into thinking they arrived under their own steam whilst migrating north, oh no, these Wheatears were here because I called the Universe Order Hotline and I can speak it's language.
48 Golden Plover in fields just west of Pegswood last night were a surprise and not part of my cosmic order, no doubt they were en route.

I'm not quite sure how the latest addition to my Homo Sapiens List fits into the cosmic scheme but a surprisingly well dressed Trevor Blake NTBC's field trip organiser extraordinaire parked at the entrance to Druridge about seven thirty was a welcome Spring tick.

Monday, 30 March 2009


I think I must have upset the entire population of Northern Wheatear they seem intent on avoiding me at the moment. I know they are about, to the south, the north and even on my home patch at Pegswood Moor. Can I find one? The moment I appear they seem to vanish and it's not paranoia I swear I saw a little white arse disappearing down a rabbit hole at East Chevington this morning, what else could it be? I had to make do with adding a couple of thousand of these to my year list.

Image courtesy & copyright Omar Runolfsson
Except mine looked more like this.
Image courtesy & copyright Steve Fernie
Vast rafts are visible to the North & South of Coquet Island at this time of year as Atlantic Puffins return to breed. It's the Puffin equivalent of speed dating with birds moving to & fro from the island to the sea nearby and back.
Several Common Shelduck and a Canada Goose were clearly visible on the island this morning as well.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

The Lost Hour Blogfest Competition

I must have too much time on my hands. I spend much of my downtime at work trawling around the net reading bird blogs and checking out other sites. I cast my eyes enviously at some of the events that take place over in the US where the number of birders and bird bloggers is proportionately higher than this side of the pond. How many of you have seen this I and the Bird series they have running that started on the excellent 10000 birds site and is still a great advert for bird bloggers across the world?

Thinking about some of the excellent material I read from some of our very own homegrown bloggers on all things natural I thought I would venture into the world of community creation via a little competition, so I have created (fanfare) The Lost Hour Blogfest Competition.

Let me explain, all you have to do is go and lose an hour on April 11th or 12th, birding or mothing or checking out new equipment or whatever else turns you on in the way of nature. Get home and blog about it on your own blog. Send me a link to the post at birdneast@btinternet.com .

I will list all the links on a post as soon after the weekend as I can. Then you can check out everyone else's lost hours and send another email voting for your top three 'Lost Hour Posts'

I'll tot up the votes and announce the top three who will all win bird related prizes. Don't get too excited it might be a doodle signed by the world's worst bird artist (me) or a Creme Egg or some other distant obscure item linked to nature. Hopefully more important it will get you some extra exposure and create a little old fashioned camaraderie amongst us. If it works then I'll do it again or even let the winner host the next one.

The Lost Hour

As a child I used to be puzzled on this day each year. I found losing an hour a difficult concept to come to terms with. Where had it gone? Why had it gone? The fact that it was done in the depths of night whilst I slept only served to deepen the mystery. Why couldn't it go when I could watch it get lost? How could it have gone, I mean how can you lose time?

Now many years later I find myself wanting to lose not just one but many hours. I can conceive of hundreds of ways of losing hours and all of them bring immense pleasure. I find that for example an hour can disappear in mere moments when seawatching but at least here you can measure it in Northern Gannets and Kittiwakes, Manx Shearwaters and Sooty Shearwaters, the quarters punctuated by the sharp appearance of a Skua. Many an idle hour can go just trying to remember the sequence of coloured flags at Newbiggin so better to catch the Cory's when it tries to slip past unnoticed in it's plain faced way.

I can easily lose an hour with a flock of large gulls, revelling in every individual showing that almost human characteristic of looking different, poring over the sloping curve of a head every bit as longingly as I would the fleeting glimpse of the curve of a breast as a teenage boy.

Summer and longer days increases the opportunities to lose time, whether it be sat in the garden mesmerized by the repeated cadences of a Willow Warbler (how many times does a Willow Warbler sing in a single hour) or on a grassy coastal headland watching 'blue' butterflies with their intricately patterned underwing drift under the cruising Fulmars.

As the years begin to gallop past the number of ways to lose an hour far outnumbers the actual number of hours I have to lose. I find that as my knowledge has increased so has the realisation that I know so little and have so little time to find it out.

I've lost a couple of hours yesterday and today. Yesterday an hour blew away in the North West wind. I was reminded that searching for passerines in a North west gale is fruitless, It was the sight of a male Stonechat perched six inches from the ground rather than on it's normal lofty fencepost or Hawthorn that drove it home, I guess that insects really don't fly too high in conditions like that. Today my lost hour was at Druridge where I played hide and seek with Common Snipe (ten), they can be very good at hiding but last night's sub zero tipped things in my favour a little today.

The childish part of me still wants that change in the hour to be moved. Lets have it during the day rather than the middle of the night. Let me go out and chase after Wheatears or scope for Sandwich Terns whilst it's been lost rather than sleeping through it. I want to have something to show for my lost hour every year, my time is too precious to lose sleeping.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Swan Slim Goose.

News from Nigel that a Barnacle Goose was with the Bothal Canada flock prompted me to plan a small detour (2m) on the way home to tick it. South of Amble and still with good light I spied a big flock of swans in fields to the East of the A1068 near High Hauxley that hadn't been there on this morning's northward journey. I pulled in and counted 119 Whooper Swan, probably the biggest count I have had this century I reckon.
When I first started birding properly around 1988 I used to go to Big Waters NWT. I remember being so keen that I used to stay, along with Graeme Bowman, until almost total darkness waiting to see if geese or ducks would fly in to roost. Often identification would be nigh on impossible, I remember one particular night when a female sawbill came in and could we hell sort out whether it was Goosander or Merganser in the fading light.
I recount this because after my impromptu stop the light was piss poor by the time I got to Bothal. The Canada flock was in the field about 400m away. Just enough light to scope through them and pick out the smaller grey and white body head dipped behind one of it's larger cousins. Nigel's quite right about forgetting the size differential although it makes the Canadas look large and muscular when compared to the slimmer frame of the BG.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Birds from a Non Birding Day

If I told you that this morning was taken up with Black Grouse, Red Kite and Golden Plover and this afternoon I sampled the delights of Water Pipit, littoralis Rock Pipit, Pied and White Wagtail as well as soemmerringii Jackdaw and finished the day with a singing male Black faced Bunting, you would perhaps think I was beginning to get a little fictional.
Well all of the above have formed part of my 'working' day today, the first three as part of a new range of local beers I ordered this morning which will be delivered tomorrow.
This afternoon's list was where I chose to dip into BWPi after a marathon two and a half hour installation session on my external hard drive. I plan to review this product on the Bird North East blog in the coming days.
So no birding for me today...

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Back to the Future?

There seems to be lots of soul-searching going on amongst my forty something peers. Several of them are ruminating and contemplating the future and beginning to yearn for an idyllic past or at least a simplification of all that has become our hobby over the last twenty years.
Stewart is the latest and cites others such as Gavin Haig & Steve Gale, I'll include myself in the list for this post and even Thing has passed on the Coots for one day in favour of a little nostalgia.
All this reminded me of a few passages from Ian Wallace's book 'Birdwatching in the Seventies where he looked ahead rather than back at what might happen to 'birdwatching in the eighties'.
He was right about some things and he was wrong about others, I've no intention of producing a whole critical analysis of his piece here go and get a copy and read it, it's worth it simply for his illustrations which are still inspirational.
One question though he did ask was 'Will the perception of the inspired individual observer (so characteristic of our ornithological ancestors) survive?
I think what we are seeing at the moment, using the technology of the 21st century is that, despite many of us veering off at times in search of the rare or the bigger list, Ian's 'inspired individual observer' has found a new place and new voice in the world via the medium of blogging. It may be that this phenomenon that we are now firmly a part of will be the means by which younger birders can access the knowledge and experience and measured ways of older birders.
So whilst I hope all those listed above (and more) find the pureness of experience and simplicity of a basic approach they search for I sincerely hope that they keep sharing that with a wider audience who would be the poorer if it wasn't available.
In that spirit I walked in Scotch Gill woods again this morning to partake of the Chiffchaff. My search for Green Woodpecker and Kingfisher goes on but a drumming Great Spotted Woodpecker and a Nuthatch that obviously thought I was planning on photography as it posed stock still for thirty seconds with that bill in the air saying cheese kind of way. Long-tailed Tits in woodland rather than a garden don't provide a headline although the riddle of the disappearance of the Morpeth Goosander pair was solved as the male and female 'angel wing' bird motored past.
Finally a few words from IW "The crucial catalyst to better balanced behaviour of all future birdwatchers is the continuous interpretation of the marvellous grace to be found in regular contact with another class of being...this must tempt the intellect and spur the foot to wider interests than a long life list...and must not involve dictation and bureaucracy, for such threaten the freedom of action and spirit so beloved of all birdwatchers"

Monday, 23 March 2009

Show Us Yer Passport

I took the kids to see some Spring Lambs this morning, gambling about in the fields in a strong Northerly wind all spindly-legged and jumping enthusiastically just pleased to be alive. It's important that you know that this was why I was parked looking at fields at the North west corner of Ashington, to watch Lambs with my kids.

I get bored with farm animals quite quickly, I accept this. My only diversion was Jackdaws, so I did what you all would have done in my circumstances, I started checking the Jackdaws for individuals showing the characteristics of monedula, that's the nominate form from Scandinavia in English (ours are spermologus), within a few minutes I've picked out an individual that has a strong contrast between the pale silvery grey cheeks and neck and the rest of the underparts and it's got a very noticeable white half collar line.
Once again as often happens it dawns on me that I haven't got a clue what I'm looking for, I have this vague notion that the white collar line indicates monedula but are there are other features I should be looking for? I spent a few minutes comparing this individual with some of the others present and the only other notable features appeared to be slightly lighter grey underparts contrasting with darker wings and some 'scalloping' on the underparts or pale fringes.
So now I have a dilemma, do I get home and sort out the jobs my wife left for me or do I spend the rest of the day researching the racial differences in Eurasian Jackdaw?
Of course I did the right thing as I'm sure most of you would although I may fail to convince Ash when she gets home that understanding the finer points of Jackdaw identification is as important as having something to wear tomorrow that isn't creased.
I started with Collins and quickly put it down as it wasn't much help. I moved on to BWP which was slightly more helpful stating that spermologus has 'sometimes a trace of paler grey or silvery collar' but then gave me ' from late Spring feather fringes become sufficiently paler to create faintly scalloped pattern on back & body and by early Summer grey area of head becomes more silvery' and then 'but formation of pale, partial collar still rare.'
What about the underparts well it talks about 'plumbeous grey' now how many of you have even the faintest clue what 'plumbeous' means? I certainly didn't so more digging. Thankfully another birder obviously didn't fancy the housework either and provided the definitive answer.
So I moved on to BBi to see if it could offer any additional material, we have to go back to 1947 BB40:5, 143-144 (Wagstaff & Williamson) who when comparing specimens from Britain and Scandinavia noted 'that the collar character is not to be relied upon in separating the two races'. Reading further however it becomes apparent that the this reference is made because at least some Scandinavian individuals in their small sample did not show an obvious collar rather than some spermologus showing a collar. They draw the conclusion that 'only Scandinavian birds of the more extreme type (with reference to collars) may be recognizable in the field'
Where to go from here, well let's go Dutch. An article from Dutch Birding on the identification of Eastern Subspecies of Jackdaw that can be found here offered perhaps the best hope of sorting this one out. But no it gets even more complicated, now we have images of dark, uniformly coloured probable monedulas from an 'integration zone' that are being referred to as 'turrium'
Not complicated enough try this ' As a result of wear, spermologus may show a narrow pale line in the lower neck and some pale fringes to the mantle and underparts in early spring, both recalling monedula.' or this 'Some spermologus may show paler earcoverts and nape but never a paler collar as in monedula.' and finally ' Compared with adult spermologus, monedula has a paler nape and ear-coverts, which at most can be slightly brighter than a spermologus in breeding plumage. On most adult monedula, the underparts are slightly darker than the nape and ear-coverts but this can also be shown (albeit in darker tones) by some spermologus. The main difference with spermologus is that the underparts are plumbeous-grey and paler than in spermologus, of which the underparts are more grey-black. The dark throat of monedula contrasts much more with the underparts than in spermologus. Note, however, that some monedula only show a dark chin and a paler grey throat, sometimes of the same tinge as the underparts. In direct comparison with spermologus, the paler underparts of monedula are a very useful field mark.
Are you still with me? Subsequently I've wandered around the web and there are several reports some with pictures of monedula from the UK. Most reports seemed to be based on the pale whitish collar mark and no other field characters. After reading all this material I'm not convinced that this single field mark can be relied upon to call a monedula in the field. So was my bird monedula? Answer possibly as there were at least two separate ID features, a prominent collar line and paler grey underparts but this is probably the worst time of year due to wear to try and separate the two subspecies. Also guess what take a quick trawl around and look at when most Nordic Jackdaws are being reported, majority of UK records appear to me to be Feb-April. With less from Oct-Jan when you would perhaps expect them as a result of migration from their range. There are some pucker records with good photos showing multiple field characters and many of these come from that Oct-Jan period so maybe we just need to be a little careful about reporting Vikings.

Cramp, S & Perrins, C M 1994. The birds of the Western Palearctic 8. Oxford.
Wagstaffe & Williamson British Birds 40:5, 143-144
Offereins R 2003. Identification of eastern subspecies of Western Jackdaw and occurrence in the Netherlands

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Ive Got a Stone to Pick With You.

I see that Newton Stringer is up to his Stringy misidentifying tricks again, just plod over to that excuse for a blog and check out the picture in this post.
I could excuse him if he was a dude or a casual but he just has no excuses working for a leading Ornithological organisation.
I've added the picture taken today at Howick Haven just for him. You see my picture is of ROCKS not stones or boulders. Come on Stringer we're not going to accept you passing off a few stones and some boulders as proper Rocks are we?
Now he is probably going to try and deflect the criticism by changing the subject and suggesting that I had very little bird wise this morning and I'm simply having a pop at his blatant attempt to con us to take attention away from the lack of any substantial heavyweight migrant action on my blog.
Nothing could be further from the truth, rather than run around trying to chase rarities we were concentrating on enjoying the right migrant at it's chosen moment. It's the Chiffchaff's time right now and we wanted to make the most of the singing migrant in the woods at Silver Sands. We weren't desperately searching every available inch of turf for Wheatear's, no sir, they can wait for their own special time. Not for a minute did Black Redstart even enter my head as we clambered around the rocks near the Bathing House, we were just happy taking scenic ROCK shots.
We made the most of the common birds on offer such as Red Breasted Merganser & Common Goldeneye. We enjoyed the duelling Common Redshank and Oystercatcher. Counting the twenty one Carrion Crows gathered around the ROCKS was excellent practice for when we finally see a coastal Raven.
We even had a year tick in the shape of a few distant but real Northern Gannets passing back & forth offshore.
So just own up Stringer, admit it either you were STONE-d when you wrote the post or you got it wrong, what's it gonna be?

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Short-Eared Owl Migration

Interesting to note the record of a Short-eared Owl flying west at the Farnes today surely the wrong way? Perhaps the slight headwind put it off?
The sudden increase in sightings of pairs of SEO in Northumberland over the past week has had me thinking they were probably birds returning North, passing through the county on the way back to Scotland or Scandinavia. If so then the message is fill your boots as they may not hang around too long.

A White Flap.

Now that we know the season has changed the sense of anticipation every time you're birding lifts a notch or two. It's so easy in the urgency to make the most of every available minute and bird to have a few 'moments'.
Take lunchtime, working all day, watching out the window as the world goes by enjoying the sunshine I finally found a few minutes spare around 1.30pm when traditionally everything goes quiet.
I haven't really got any 'habitat' at work other than a few ancient rooftops and some sky but I thought if the Urban Birder can try and viz mig from a balcony in central London then I can have a go here.
Not expecting to see anything I wandered out the door with a cup of tea, just happy to feel some daylight. A few stationary Jackdaws and a Great Black Backed Gull riding an updraft were about as good as it got. Till I heard the wagtail, now I've a track record with wagtails in Alnmouth after finding a juvenile Citrine Wagtail in 2005 whilst skiving listening to the football in the car.
Calling again I knew it was Pied, but then I caught sight of it on a TV aerial across the road and it's got a grey back with a clearly delineated hood but the angle is shocking. Can I see whether the black from the nape and the bib meet, can I hell. The car is right outside, the keys are inside and now there's a couple heading straight for the shop door. I dash inside and pocket the keys, wait impatiently as they choose their chocolate, I could have told them they were going for Wispas had they asked, and took their money.
Back outside and yank the bins which with strap hooked around booster seat means I get a booster seat jerked across the driver's side into my knuckles as I struggle to unhook them one handed trying to check if Willy is still wagging on the aerial.
Recovering my composure I fix on the Pied Wagtail rather than the hoped for White Wagtail and another seasonal moment has passed.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Barefoot Birdguides and Beers

Every company however small has it's rituals. Last night I was an inducted into perhaps one of the strangest by the Birdguides team. Stashed away on Holy Island in Max Whitby's private palatial residence, on land once trod barefoot by Cuddy's followers I was privileged to be invited into the inner sanctum.
As nervous as a Catholic meeting the Pope I sped across the empty causeway with the tide chasing at my heels knowing there was no return for three hours. Early I stopped and watched the sun dip below the Cheviots as the darkened silhouettes of Curlews crouched in the encroaching shallows. The grasses of the Lindisfarne dunes shone eerily in the half light of dusk and the way markers sentinel like evenly spaced across the mud were from a different time.
At our chosen meeting place the Lindisfarne Hotel I asked for directions to the bar, "We don't have a bar sir" came the unexpected response, "It was taken out some years back"
Was it a setup? I wondered, glancing around nervously for hidden cameras. Perhaps I was the first in a new Birdguides series of 'Meet the Birder', the hotel was eerily quiet. The owner offered to ring Mr Whitby and determine his location, never once taking his eye from mine.
"Just head back down the lane to the 30mph sign and it's the house on the left"
I walked back out into the darkness and peered back down the road to the causeway, unlit there seemed little life in any of the houses.
I stumbled to the door of a nearby house and rang the bell, as the door opened light filled the night sky. Behind the light I could make out a figure dressed in black, hushed voices came from within.
My eyes adjusted to the light and I realised it was none other than Fiona Barclay, surprisingly tall when not hunched over a camera. Ushered through I was introduced to a room full of characters from a screen come to life. Dave Dunford, darker and more satanic in real life. Andy Hirst a huge man a modern day Little John patrolling SK58 as his namesake did Sherwood.
The thin bearded figure of John Cromie a wily leprechaun smiling mischievously from the sidelines and Max Whitby, almost born for the part of Charlie in Charlie's Angels or Professor X from the X-Men.
With a fire raging in the hearth I settled back into a comfy chair and there was some small talk and began to feel sleepy in the warmth. Then invited through into the conservatory for food they sprang the 'trap' on me. I was an innocent bystander as they described the triumphs of the previous night's victims, words spun around."Pale....brindled.....beauty...........Hebrew..........characters" what was this strange almost chanted language I was struggling to decipher. Then in front of me a small sealed pot, was this the main course? I looked inside with trepidation at the contents, a Moth. Did they expect me to eat it?
John Cromie then stood I noticed he was barefoot, was it my eyes or were his feet hairy and hobbit-like? Then the strange device they called the 'Moth Trap' was manhandled into the garden and switched on the UV light shining beacon bright. Outside they insisted on photographs handling the cameras clumsily in I'm sure mock parody of themselves expert as they are. I half expected some one to ask me to take off my shoes and roll up a trouser leg or for a Cyberman to begin to appear spinning in the glow in front of us. The glow from the light left us all looking strange, otherworldly on this night the eve of St Cuthbert's Day. I swear in the background of the picture there was a face, perhaps old Cuddy himself smiling at us.
Wine flowed and stories were told and the walls of the old castle once again echoed with the laughter of souls who care for the birds. Almost too quickly it was over and I was out in the darkness, back to the modern world across a causeway in time. A dead Barn Owl aside the A1 reminding me that outside the warmth of friends life can be harsh.

with thanks to Birdguides for good food and good company and hopefully excusing the poetic licence.

The bearded face in the background may look like John Cromie but is in fact the barefooted ghost of St Cuthbert.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Dancing in the Dark

Maybe it was yesterday's warm seasonal sunshine or perhaps it was the news that many of the movers and shakers of the birding media were surrounding me to the North and South. Whatever it was I got to about eight thirty last night and got itchy feet. There was only one thing for it, go and find a Tawny Owl, after all it was a calm night, little breeze and Tawny was conspicuous by it's absence from my county year list.
So I dug out my trusty Tawny Owl woodflute impersonator, jumped in the car and drove the mile and half to Bothal. I tried a few blows but all I got was silence so after twenty minutes or so I moved on.
At Longhirst Flash various Coot & Moorhen called and I did get a male Tawny after five minutes calling back to me from the wood. Some of you may know I have tinnitus, it's a hereditary condition that causes a constant ringing in my right ear and as a result a degenerative hearing loss. Now this means that trying to locate which wood the sound is coming from with one ear can be a little tricky. They say first impressions count, so god only knows what the people who drove down that country lane last night thought when they came across me in their headlights in the middle of the road, one hand cupped to ear as I turned circles on the spot wearing a pair of binoculars in the dark.
This morning I headed out about six fifteen and caught the sunrise. A quick hour along the coast at Druridge to scout for migrants. At Cresswell Pond NWT 45 Whooper Swan in a tight knit group head popped across a calm still pond with a hint of mist for atmospherics.
Further on at Druridge across from the Budge Screen the south pools look extremely good, whatever grazing regime that has been used this year has done the business. I haven't been here for a while (years) but it looks as good as it did in days of yore when Pacific Golden Plover and it's primary projection was the hot topic of hide conversation in the early Nineties. I found three Common Snipe this morning and suddenly realised they were my first of the year
On the way home I stopped at the River Lyne and had a quick trek over the dunes at the old gypsy camp looking for Wheatear. I disturbed a pair of Gadwall consorting with a pair of Shelduck just yards from the beach, a strange location for Gadwall I feel.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009


Let me say it loud and clear, I know it's being said by others and who would have thought we'd all be fed up hearing about Spring by the 18th March but for me my personal small titchy bit of Spring started today about 11.30.
Out for an hour with twins in tow doing their very best to scare, chase and scream at anything that moves in Scotch Gill Woods west of Morpeth. I'd had a pair of Treecreeper and a pair of Nuthatch and an overhead Sparrowhawk that was getting seven bells knocked out of it by a couple of Crows.
I was originally heading further up to Garden House to look for Kingfisher but I saw the newish footpath and turned back thinking this might be easier for Hansel & Gretel (oh there are times I could quite happily hand them over to a local witch).
Anyway my point being it was a little quiet, I even started taking pictures of plants and the odd butterfly that was happily feeding on Lesser Celandine. A male Comma my third species this year, if this goes on I'm going to end up with a Butterfly list aren't I? I think the flower is Wood Anemone.

Heading back we had a Grey Wagtail doing what it says on the tin along the riverbank. Then at first just a snatch, a little scratchy as if it were clearing a dry throat a ChiffChaff that was soon belting out it's repetitive welcome to the season, that's Spring in case you missed it in the title, I promise I won't say it again.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Kiddy Twitch!

It probably happens to every generation, you reach a point where you look around the bird club gathering or the line up of ugly mugs at the latest scarcity to be attracting attention and wonder where the next generation of birders is coming from.
To be honest up here in Northumberland at the moment there seems to be several young birders coming through and not only birding but really integrating the technology as well, photography, blogging etc. Check out any of these three as prime examples, here, here and here.

You can never have enough though that's why I was over the moon when a discussion I had been having with a top education professional resulted in this post over at his blog. It's nice to see that my sometimes quirky views might have some sound science behind them for once.

Even better is that my six year old's school in Morpeth are running a once a week After School Ornithologist Award for six weeks. He already has his own bins and can recognise a few common birds so we have him signed up and he's raring to go. I intend to gift them twenty or thirty old copies of Bird Watching that have been boxed and garaged for half a life (I'm a hoarder).

Back to the garden..... (singing Skylark and the occasional Siskin is all I'm managing today)

Monday, 16 March 2009

Homo Sapiens

The ultra observant will note a new list in the side bar my Homo Sapiens 2009 List, if I see you in the field whilst birding your on the list. If you want to be added on the list and we haven't met then your going to have to ID yourself as you all look alike to me.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Year Tick Martin.

The gentle red glow of dawn against the azure blue sky persuaded me it must be Spring today. I was conned. Taking advantage of the early light I kitted up at six and headed to Newbiggin intent on my first full tour since I did the same thing at roughly the same time last year.

Sometimes I think I enjoy the anticipation of Newbiggin more than actually been there, especially on days like today when all the best birds seem to be in my head rather than on the ground.

By the time I'd arrived my imaginary list was busting at the seams with Black Redstart, Northern Wheatear, and Sand Martins amidst clouds of Mipits overhead as I watched the Hoopoe come in off.

The reality in a strong cool West breeze was a smattering of Mipit and the odd frisky Skylark.

I reached Beacon Point about the same time as the golf course Greenkeepers with their annoyingly loud grass cutter. Offshore 18 Common Scoter plunged and strained North in a close knit raft.

Down the side of the Ash Lagoons Dunnocks flicked wings at each other and a few Linnets tinkled overhead. A Pair of Common Stonechat fed fly catching from the wire fence, the male seeming to guard the female closely.

If I was going to do semi-urban, fly tipped birding then next on my list was Cambois, or the land to the North of the former Blyth Power Station site. Scrubbed over old railway track and bramble filled allotments can hold all sorts of interesting challenges for the migrant hunter at the right time of year. Often there can be Butterflies at this site too. Today birds were conspicuous by their absence and I had time to check out the graffiti art under the old rail bridge.

I thought I'd spend the last hour looking at gulls so I nipped back up to Linton Roundabout, sure enough a small roost around the flash pool perhaps between 2-300 gulls. They spook easy so I took my time getting out the car slowly, making sure of no loud noises, no silhouette. Tripod all set up scope mounted I started scanning as they all lifted in perfect noisy timing. "It couldn't have been me" I thought I'm rusty but... at that point I caught sight of the spook a female or immature Peregrine half a stoop toward the gulls but the element of surprise lost it tore off south west toward the tip.
As did most of the gulls, so I wandered over there for a short while too. The powers that be have fenced off the railway line so I had to walk through the field and up onto the line further down. The tip is almost closed, not accepting waste they are gradually covering and landscaping, what are we all going to do for gulls when this goes?
I spent a jolly half hour with a couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls and a partial albino or leucistic argenteus Herring Gull the best I could muster.
One last stop before home Bothal Pond, perhaps a Sand Martin? And yes I ended the day with a year tick a Martin and an uncommon one at that, so my Homo sapiens 2009 list now includes Martin Anderson, whose Eighties Yellow browed Warbler at Newbiggin Golf Course provide me with all the evidence I needed that Newbiggin could be a top place for birds twenty one years back and despite what I said earlier why it has special resonance for me that I can find birds even amidst the worst that we can do to the land.

Friday, 13 March 2009


With time to spare today I headed beyond Craster into the Stringer's lair. I thought I might pick up the Ring Ouzel and then have a leisurely look on the sea. As I arrived having not visited Newton since about 2002 I suddenly realised that I should have paid more attention to the Stringer's blog. I knew the Ouzel was around a dung heap but could I hell as like remember whether the dung heap was in High or Low Newton.
Nothing else for it but get my skates on and do both then. I parked in North Northumberland's most expensive car park and hotfooted it down hill thinking perhaps the dung heap was in the field approaching Newton Pool as that area used to get lots of passerines or at least there was always a Pied Wag there whenever we went.
Dungless the field was, so back up the hill I shot with a just a passing glance at the flycatching male Stonechat on the fence north of the beach.
Perhaps it was by the barns at the low end of High Newton I thought, car window down and my over sized nose out of the window searching for the aroma but once again nothing.
Then I remembered there used to be a bit of a dung heap up by the Long Nanny car park so ignoring the prime habitat (wet field) and new wetland (more wet fields) that I'm sure weren't there in my youth I shot through. It had a familiar look, would i recognise the fence posts from Stringer's pictures, was that the piece of discarded farm equipment that I think the bird was pictured under. Maybe it had moved into the adjacent farm garden, it would be feeding with the Blackbirds but no not a hint of a white crescent in sight.
To cut a long story short I ran out of time, kippers were collected and a Common Buzzard hovering over Cullernose Point provided a smidgen of consolation as I made the journey back to Alnmouth.

Edit, Forgot second butterfly species of the year in a south facing Alnmouth garden, one Small Tortoiseshell.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

On the Beach in the Middle of the Med(s)

Last two days have been almost bird free. Prior to our little trip today best bird was a toss up between the celebrity Goosander on the Wansbeck which we glanced at as we crossed the bridge on the home leg of school run yesterday or the Jay that flew ahead of us a little at Whorral Bank this morning on today's outward school run.

I say celebrity because the threesome are getting more viewing's than a Paris Hilton home movie these days turning up on blogs and forum posts all over. I find it a little strange that everyone is getting excited over the close views, they or others like them have been loafing around the Wansbeck early spring for a few years if memory serves.

No doubt they will have their own mini series on Birdforum TV or a special souvenir DVD at Birdguides soon.

With bright sunshine confusing me a little today as the icon on my BBC homepage has been predicting heavy rain on Tuesday for what seems an eternity I thought we'd best make the most of it and have an n hour on the beach.

I took the video camera so that my working wife could see what the little treasures have been up to but I've just reviewed the footage on getting home and bizarrely every time I tried to video them there's a pair of adult Med Gull kept getting in on the footage. With at least four this morning, you couldn't miss out. There were probably more as there have been up to ten as local readers will know but to be honest I only had bins and if I took my eyes off the kids for more than ten seconds they were nose rubbing a Husky or heading to Holland on foot.

Anyway here's a videograb of two adults that began to display till the kids chased them.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Request - Tags & Searching

Can you tell I'm not birding today, housebound with kids asleep, multi tasking between lunch and blogging.
Related to the birdmap post a few minutes ago, one of the things Google's blogger isn't good at is searching profiles, e.g you can't search across multiple settings such as UK and Birding. I often try and search for new bird bloggers by clicking on the 'Birding' tag in the Interests section of my profile. It amazes me though how many bird bloggers have not listed even the basic 'Birding' in the Interests section.
In order to improve the 'searchability' can I suggest that we create some basic terms to add and circulate them I've suggested a few below, this would help bird bloggers to find other bird bloggers with similar interests here in the UK.
So if we all include the tag 'Birding UK' in our interests we will all be able to find each other by clicking on that tag in our own profile, others might be :

Birding Worldwide
Local Patch Birding UK
Self Found Birding UK
Sea Watching UK
Twitching - UK
Raptors UK

etc etc

So first item on UK Bird Bloggers Conference - Tagging & Searching Standardisation of Interest Terms.

Birdblogs Map

Great idea by Jim & James (no quips they could be related to Jesse) to create a map of all the UK bird blogs so if your visiting an area you can dip in and check what might be happening locally. Link below.


I've added most/all local North East bloggers (the address for donations is below) if I've missed anyone it wasn't deliberate just click the map on Edit and add yourself.
Now all we need now is Birdguides to sponsor the first UK Bird Blogger Conference ( I know a good pub) and we're off.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Woodland Weekend

The three hours birding time I had this weekend I've spent trying to catch up some of the resident species I'm missing from my county year list with mixed results. Yesterday morning due to delays in getting out I abandoned my plan of going to Linton for Pintail and possibly jamming a Glaucous in favour of stopping off at a nearby woodland site for Willow Tit and possibly Jay.
A walk through the road that runs through this particular stretch of woodland was very unproductive until I reached the far end when I pushed first one then another Common Buzzard into the air, the second mewing loudly suggesting that I had disturbed it from a nest. Sure enough a quick search revealed a large nest a few yards in. A Treecreeper did it's stuff nearby and I quickly retreated back the way I'd come.
I just had time to drop into Amble and check the little harbour, both regular Med Gulls about with one showing almost full summer plumage now.
Today with two hours available I was really wanting to go to Newbiggin but a strong West wind probably means diddly squat on the sea so I thought I would head up to the woods around Mitford & Newton instead. Plenty here to keep me occupied with Marsh Tit, Jay, Kingfisher, Green Woodpecker all absent so far this year.
I parked at Highford Bridge and walked to Mitford and then on to Newton and back. The woods were still very quiet, a single Marsh Tit, singing toward Newton lifted the gloom. A single Great Spotted Woodpecker was the only other bird of note here.
With a half hour left I parked again near Mitford Castle and did a quick loop around the ruins.
A pair of Jay screeched their displeasure at me from within the ruins as they flipped over the other side. A Common Buzzard lifted from the back of the wood as I completed my circuit.
With the rivers quite full and fast flowing I had pretty much abandoned any ideas of Kingfisher but I looked upstream from the bridge here and a couple of Dipper about 30m apart looked fairly inactive to be honest.
I'm at work now composing this but when I arrived today there were people with bins and scopes wandering around Alnmouth, several older couples, although they were window shopping so I don't think it can be anything out of the ordinary (famous last words). A little disconcerting though.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Stock & Stockier.

One hour four minutes that was my birding time today. The kipper collection from Craster allowed me to spend some time in a couple of locations on the way. I checked out Cullernose Point for large black corvids of which there were none, a few Fulmar pairs were sat on the ledges. I did however manage a first for the year in the shape of a Peacock butterfly on the grassy slope adjacent to the footpath.Three Common Buzzard noted between Howick and Craster.
I parked up near Dunstan Steads at a point that overlooks Dunstanburgh to the North and Craster to the South. A pleasant enough day but little birdwise, a Common Shelduck moved North offshore and two Mistle Thrush patrolled a nearby field.

On the return journey I picked up a long overdue year tick when two Stock Dove landed in a field North of Longhoughton.

Tonight there was just enough light to squeeze in a visit to a regular Little Owl site on my route home. I like Little Owls they have the stature of Nobby Stiles and look at you like the late Nora Batty, fierce. This was my third visit to this site this year the first two drawing a blank but tonight in fading light I was in the right place at the right time. Two, I assume a Nobby & Nora, one perched atop a telegraph pole the other a few feet away on the peak of a nearby barn. They didn't stay long, both moved off into nearby fields a few seconds after I arrived.
another borrowed image this time from here
As the light improves I'll go back and hopefully get some pictures now I know their still around.

RSPB - Need To Be Smarter

The RSPB do huge amounts of good work and their media communication is normally of an extremely high standard but just occasionally they need to be a little smarter. Today's press release is one example of that, releasing news about the various 'nestcams' they will be operating during the coming breeding season. Catchy title (007 technology gives a view to a thrill) but then they give their critics huge ammunition by focusing completely on raptors, "Nest-cams’ are being trained on goshawk, hen harrier, peregrine falcon and osprey nests to name just a few, so that millions of people can watch them when the breeding season gets underway in a few weeks time."
This despite the fact they also have webcams on Black Grouse, Chough, Grey Heron and Kittiwake. Why give people the excuse to suggest that they are focusing too heavily on raptors when they could have provided a press release that was at least balanced or weighted toward the non raptors to negate the likely anti raptor, anti-RSPB comments by the 'anti raptor lobby'. Don't provide ammunition to your detractors let them do their own legwork.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Itch Amazing

Following on from last night's post it seems that Mr Mullarney just isn't going to fade away. On a slightly more serious note some emails have been flying hither and thither and it has now been suggested that 'the small black dots that had developed so rapidly above and behind the eye were actually feather-lice'.
KM went on to say 'I am reminded of having very recently seen some photos of a different Ivory Gull, an adult-type, but it too (if I remember correctly) had a few tiny, neat black dots around the eye and the suggestion was that these indicated it must be a second-winter, with retained traces of immaturity. I don't remember exactly where I came across these photos but perhaps, now that we are aware of them, we will notice them more often?'.

This certainly takes ID to new and unexpected levels, perhaps a challenge for the 'macro' photographers to help us understand.

Just Me & The Bird

I decided late last night to scrape myself from bed a little earlier and head up to Black Lough before work to see if the Great Grey Shrike was still around. Last night was very cold and there was a hard frost so it took a few minutes at just after six to get the windscreen with a big enough gap to see.

Black Lough is probably only eight miles from Alnmouth as the crow flies so I knew I had about an hour and a half and I estimated thirty minutes up, thirty five searching and twenty five down.

The slope to the south lay in shadow and the car temperature readout said -4c as I set out. I pushed up the hillside track quickly wanting to gain as much searching time as possible. The cold and my lack of recent activity burned my lungs to that point where you get the taste similar to blood in the mouth.

I stopped and turned for a moment and immediately got lifted by the early morning view to Cheviot, being back out in the hills felt good, when I was younger it was places like this at which I felt most at home. My summers spent exploring evocatively named valleys around Ingram, Langleeford and Alwinton.

Reaching the end of the track and a gate I stopped to scan with bins and almost instantly picked up the shrike as it flew from it's perch on some nearby tall vegetation over the dip toward Black Lough. I set up scope and refound it sat atop a small tree with the dark still waters of the lough behind it and in the bright morning sunlight it was a stunning sight. I watched for a few minutes as it preened, occasionally scolded by a Reed Bunting and then something overtook me. I stepped back, apart from my breathing everything was silent.

There today I recaptured something that I had lost, just me and the shrike in a landscape so beautiful it hurts to look at it too much. It's that beauty and that sense of being part of a much bigger natural state that 'just is' that underpins my love of birding, it's why I started and why I keep coming back to it. It was almost a religous experience today, an epiphany.

Standing still, the silence only broken by the occasional burst of Skylark song and the gentle bubbling of the birth of a nearby stream, surrounded by a blue sky and this huge landscape that no picture can recreate I was, well I was just me again today for the first time in a long while.
Even my absentmindedness forgetting the camera/scope attachment was turned into something positive as I wandered back down the hill grinning inanelyto myself. So I'm pleased to announce the launch of Dodgyscopingtm Release 2. for the world's viewing pleasure incorporating the distance feature that allows you to almost view the bird as I saw it with the naked eye.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Big Fish, Little Pond.

I dislike clever shits. You know the ones that are all 'I told you so' when something happens that they have had the luck to suggest in advance, usually something a blind man on a galloping horse could predict. So I wasn't going to draw attention to my suggestion on Bird North East last week that various white winged gulls could be heading our way and that particular prediction materialising in County Cork a few days later (Ivory Gull if you got your head in the sand).
I mean OK it's about 750 miles further west than I suggested but relatively speaking County Cork's not that far from Newbiggin. This distance is as a result of the weather systems weakening so it's the weather forecasters that were wrong not me (cough).I was just going to let all the observant readers out there, both of them, note that 'yeah that Dusty Bins he knows what he's talking bout'.
Then some local over there who's obviously had one too many Guinness starts querying it and claiming it's a totally different bird to the French one. Fairly obvious that he's just trying to get some extra brownies by finding a 'different' Ivory Gull.
Two hours later when he'd sobered up he has had to apologise to the French for being a little over zealous as it now appears it was the French bird after all and those rumours about it's disappearance being linked with a french casserole were all unfounded.
That'll teach him to keep schtum in future. You know sometimes when your a big fish in a little pond and you try jumping into a big pond it just doesn't work, you end up out of your depth. This will be his claim to fame now when he disappears back into obscurity, mark my words you'll never hear of Killian Mullarney again, not that you had anyway had you?

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Today's Peregrination

With the shopping done yesterday and rain forecast for later today I thought I would take the kids out somewhere nice. I had been telling them about a post I read on Birdforum about Hawfinch feeding on the 'flowers' of Yew trees at this time of year. Imagine my surprise when the observant little people reminded me that there were lots of Yew Trees at Wallington Hall and there used to be Hawfinch records from there in the last century (how old does that make you feel being able to use that phrase?)

Actually they said 'Ba' but I interpreted that as a request to go to Wallington and look for Hawfinch.

We wandered around Wallington Gardens run by the National Trust, finding the occasional Nuthatch and Treecreeper and lots of empty Yew Trees. It's quiet at this time of year but obviously gets busier in season and visitors must feed the woodland birds I suspect. I say this as half way around we were ambushed by two of the tamest Robins I have seen for a while, one of which hopped out of sight below my crouched knee at one point.

Knowing the kids would drop off for a short nap after we left I thought I'd drive the extra ten minutes and go to Winter's Gibbet to have a quick look for raptors and grouse. Two Common Buzzard drifted over a patch of clear fell just before the Gibbet. There were two birders with cars at the Gibbet so I carried on to the small car park about 1m west and began to scope around the moorland. After three minutes I noticed a movement on a wall about 500m away to the South West, locked on and species one hundred for the year list. You want the ton up to be a couple of things, 1) self found and 2) a decent bird so the male Peregrine I had locked onto satisfied both and stayed put for at least ten minutes preening and watching, cracking bird.

I drove back to the Gibbet and pulled in to find the two birders were Andy Mclevy and Alan Gilbertson who had been watching two Northern Goshawk about 1km north a few minutes earlier.

We had a brief chat, mostly about Beacon Hill, Andy commenting that because of altitude he thinks Beacon Hill is 'two weeks behind everywhere else' and AG noting concern about the Red Squirrel population there.

I picked up one then another raptor to the north with bins, we dashed for scopes and sure enough after ADMc picked up another we had three Northern Goshawk soaring although I only ever had views of two in the same scope field at the same time, a male and female with the size difference obvious even at this distance.

The lack of motion and engine noise woke the kids after a while so I had to depart, the homeward journey was surprisingly quiet, I think the kids were stunned into silence when ADMc stuck his head in the car to say Hallo...

One Bird With About Twenty Four Stones

Post school dry weather meant walking practice for the little ones. Down at High Stanners the open grass lets them run about relatively dog shit free. The three regular Goosander idly loafed nearby as we investigated twigs and stepped on stones made for stepping.
Eventually after what seemed an age a Grey Wagtail flew it's huge roller coaster upriver and Daddy went home with one more on his ticky list.

Sunday, 1 March 2009


That's what my birding this morning got me thinking about, Sp. There wasn't much else happening at any of my chosen destinations today. Two adult Lesser Black-Backed Gull one at Castle Island and it or another at Linton Roundabout an hour later provided the only addition to the county year list. I had tried some more dodgyscopingtm but the light was poor so I managed one decent shot of a GBB gull and another of two upturned umbrellas tangled in an old tree part submerged in the Wansbeck basking in the glow of the dawn. Two Goldeneye copulating provided some heat on an otherwise chilly morning.

Umbrellas at Dawn.
Any way back to Sp. I'd drifted over to Newbiggin just to have a few minutes gaze out to sea and check the seawatching 'hide'was still standing. Anyone who has been to Church Point will be pissing themselves at this point at my description of the low brick door-less cupboard that used to hold the water stopcock for the local caravan site as a hide.

So, gazing at the grey bird less sea I suddenly see movement out in the murk probably one and a half miles out. There's a huge flock of big birds coming north. Refocusing, I'm up to 60x, they ain't Gannets which is what I expected but Geese or to be accurate Geese (Sp.) That's it you see, the Geese Sp. never came any closer, the light got no better and the dark shapes of the two hundred or so offered no further clue as to their true identity, other than they weren't Snow Geese.

At this point your screaming PINKFEET at the screen aren't you. Yes I know that they were probably Pinkfeet but I could discern absolutely nothing at all other than two hundred dark miniature goose silhouettes on the grey, did I mention it was grey, horizon.

Now this happens fairly regularly when seawatching, enough to get a Sp. but not enough to be certain. When I was a regular seawatcher it would probably happen at least every visit with geese or terns particularly but you don't see countless hundreds of Sp. records in the county reports at least not the ones I read. Oh there's a few, on average about one per observer per year. So why aren't there more records submitted of Sp?

I would venture two, perhaps obvious propositions, the first is that some believe that records of Sp. have little value. The second is that it is human not to want to leave something unidentified or unknown, we have a need to put a name to things. Perhaps birders struggle even more with this tendency than the rest of the human race? Most people seeing a big distant skein of geese would think 'flock of birds', not us we have to screw up the zoom strain the eye, watch for any hint of a feature that would allow us to give a name to our skein until they disappear off the radar.

Those that fail to submit Sp. because of the first reason may be right but then again they may not be. Those Sp. could be part of an unrecorded regular movement of an irregular species, without the Sp. records it may continue to be unrecorded and not attract any investigation. It may have less value than a full ID but then again if it causes people to look closer at something it may eventually lead to something with greater value. Just because we haven't put a name to something doesn't mean we've failed, let's have more honesty and more Sp.

For those that never have a Sp. that can separate Common from Arctic at 2 miles in a heat haze, well the rest of us mortals are just in awe.