Sunday, 27 February 2011

Butcher & Yaffle

I rarely twitch, even inside Northumberland I may only go for 'other people's birds' a few times a year. Don't get me wrong, I'm not passing this information on in a bid to gain any kind of moral superiority, I just get more of a kick from the chase, the hunt, than turning up to something I absolutely know is going to be there.
There are no hard and fast rules that I play by on this, If I feel like going to see something, I'll do it and If I don't I won't, it isn't complicated.

My uncomplicated, easy going approach has a flaw, if I decide to see a bird found by eyes other than my own and fail, it niggles. Should the recipient of my attentions subsequently reveal itself again, I take it badly. It gets personal. The chase is back on.

Andy Mclevy raised his bins to a distant tree topped bird he expected to be a Great Spotted Woodpecker and found a Great Grey Shrike in Harwood on 21st January, in roughly the same area as last year's bird. I didn't need it but I like shrikes so I trundled up the following day and hiked the mile to where it had been seen and the next mile to where it or another had hung out last year, then hiked the mile and a half back, shrike-less.

Not a problem, till the report of it's continued presence came the following day, so a few days later back I went, several hours of muddy trudging and hunting later I returned with damp toes and once again shrike-less. 'What grudge could this particular shrike have?'I wondered and 'How shite do you have to be not to be able to find it?' in my darker moods.

So it was then that when I reached the road exiting the estate this morning I could go left to the coast, a bright morning, light breeze perhaps some movement on the sea....or... I could go right on yet another shrike search, reinforcing my inadequacy and ending my weekend making the best of four Crossbills and a f.f..f..flyover Siskin in a blog post that deliberately and shamelessly glosses over the fact that I went looking for someone else's shrike, again.

Or not

Oh and the expected f..ff..flyover was a Green Woodpecker today rather than Siskin.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

The Week That Was

Three days work, the kids on holiday and another day spent scouting the footpaths this time between Newton and Seahouses have been the key features of an extended blocking pattern hanging over my blogging this week. That hasn't of course prevented me from taking whatever opportunities that have arisen to indulge.

The pond is full of frogs but I did frog pics last year so have a moth instead; second moth of the year and second new species for the garden this year puts me on a hat trick. March Moth recorded only 25 times previously up to 2010 in Northumberland in February according to the boys here. Do you like the slate by the way? A small hand size piece recovered from under Dunstanburgh Castle last week for the purposes of moff display, rather fetching and local, though by declaring this I may have the boys at the AONB wanting a word about coastal erosion.

We spent another day lingering around the Fish Quay and feeding expensive chips to greedy gulls without seeing anything notable. A couple of hours on Thursday afternoon produced a bathing Peregrine though too distant for images and some more interesting Jackdaws at Lynemouth. I suspect that with the increase in daylight and temperatures there has been some passage of nominate monedula that have been wintering in Britain moving back east and over into the continent. Assuming they are all different individuals these are the 4th and 5th in the last two weeks showing some characteristics of that race.

Yesterday I walked from Newton to Seahouses and back, something in the order of 12km, then a full shift at work finishing at 11:00pm. Again nothing hugely exciting on offer, some decent counts of waders with a couple of flocks of 100+ Curlew and a good few Bar-tailed Godwits. A big gull roost, predominantly Common Gull with 7-800 birds involved at the Long Nanny at low tide was impressive.

About half the roost, guess who needs a wide angle lens.

Thirty-odd Pale-bellied Brent Geese around Annstead Point and the rocks to the south allowed me to get close enough for a few pictures, I noticed later they were being booted from one end of the beach to the other by the combined efforts of kids, dogs and somebody either picking periwinkles or hunting for fishing bait.
Other notes in my little moleskin include the first singing Skylarks at the Long Nanny on Friday; a couple of big moth caterpillars on the coast path that may have appeared in the balmy temperatures on Thursday only to pay the price overnight. A small flock of 10+ Pied Wagtail in fields south of Lynemouth may also have been on passage on Thursday. And I enjoyed the views on Friday.
Work again today and the need to re-stock the larder left little time for any birding, I did manage to squeeze in an hour between the two for the conveniently handy pair of Smew on QE2 Country Park lake late afternoon. A lifer for my eight year old and a year tick for me, bolstering the spirit before braving the hordes at Asda.


I was pleased to receive a PDF copy of a magazine article from Dutch magazine SNP that features a couple of my images ( Serin and Great Bustard) from the DEC 2009 trip to Seville (as well as a rather dodgy photo of me). Locals up here will also recognise the full frame of NTBC Field Trips Organiser Trevor Blake, watching Griffon Vultures at the time if memory serves.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

If You're Going to Chipping Norton...

If you're going to Chipping Norton
Be sure to have a fiver in your hand
If you're going to Chipping Norton
You're sure to meet some dodgy birders there

All those who come to Chipping Norton
Sometimes will find a doves been there
In the streets of Chipping Norton
Dodgy birders with optics pointed there

With apologies to Scott Mckenzie, but after all the bother on Saturday and the 'should they, shouldn't they' for Sunday by the time I'd finished work my head was ringing with it. I took myself off far from the mad crowd and went and had a look at the sea. Breezy southeasterlies and some great big troughs in a significant swell. Whilst general numbers were low I'd hoped for maybe a Blue Fulmar but ended up with two Little Gulls and adult and 1st-winter in amongst a few Black-headed Gulls not far offshore. Part of a small movement over the day with some individuals turning up inland in Oxfordshire for example.
This morning Steve Holliday managed a Great Skua off Church Point mid-morning, his first February record and again an indication that there are one or two birds out there if you put a shift in. Best I could do today was 13 Fulmars and a Razorbill, hey ho. Still one 'Nordic' or Eastern if you prefer, Jackdaw west of Bothal Pond but only about 100 Jackdaws today.


I scraped a couple of hours in the field Friday between shopping (ugh) and work. It was grey, it was cold and frankly not a huge amount happening. Having said that it was a damn sight better than being stuck indoors. First stop was a quick look at the 'hospital pool' at Ashington for the four adult Greenland White-fronted Geese that have been around since mid-Jan. Still there, or at least their heads were, I presume still attached rather than on sticks but due to the lie of the land who knows.

As I headed up the coast I was hardly filled with optimism. A sudden gush of corvids and pigeons as I came past the Ash Lagoons prompted me to pull in, just in time for a Peregrine to sail through and over into the north end of the lagoons.
Druridge Bay Country Park, my next stop was very quiet, the only vaguely interesting bird (at least to me) I could drag out of the hangers on waiting for bread was an argentatus Herring Gull.

 After noting that a large proportion of the Bewick's Swans had departed Slimbridge during the week I decided that I'd head home via the back roads on the off-chance that a group may have dropped in for a rest somewhere. Bewick's are RARE in Northumberland these days. Not 500m along the road and a group of swans appeared as if by magic in a roadside field, 10 in all, the only problem being they weren't Bewick's but Whooper Swans.

I headed slowly back home without seeing almost any birds at all, even corvids were notable by their absence from the usual haunts. A big flock of Lapwing (317) the only entry in the notebook from the new lakes created during opencast restoration at Middle Stobswood.

A last stop at Bothal Pond revealed where all the corvids were, the west field was full with c.400 Jackdaws, 100 Rooks and a few Crows. A little time working through the Jackdaws, sadly at distance revealed three individuals showing characteristics of nominate race monedula (see images below).

Interesting that whilst two showed clear differences between black wing panel and greyer upperparts and/or underparts one stood out as still having black underparts despite a fairly good white collar.Martin Garner has been blogging about Jackdaws again, co-incidentally just this morning and I was interested to note that Dan Brown suggested the possibility of 'intergrade'. There is an overlap zone between spermologus and monedula races in Europe and they have been proven to interbreed occasionally, perhaps these individuals are more likely to be these intergrades or turrium as they were formerly known?

Friday, 18 February 2011

Yellow Brain Fungus

Not sure if it's transmittable to humans but I could certainly suggest some individuals for early testing. Found this whilst out yesterday on dead gorse at Dunstanburgh Heughs. A 'wet weather' fungus it's bonny as one or two of the locals might say. Tremella mesenterica for those of you that prefer Latin.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Just Rolling With The Rocks

I used a free day today to do a little recce for the Water, Wildlife & Walking Tour that I'm launching in partnership with Serenity Farne Island Boat Tours. I've posted a summary of the day on the Bird North East site so I won't repeat everything here. Not a huge amount on offer in Feb but the rocks north and south of Dunstanburgh were a bit of a Rock Pipit hot spot with at least six birds present. Loads of interaction at high tide, one or two typically dark petrosus and a couple that if they had a ring on might just be seen again across the other side of the North Sea in 6-8 weeks time. Whilst the light was a bit shit the high tide held them in a neat little section of beach with some typically feisty jousting and interaction, I just love this species, full of character.

Garden Mega!

Alright, don't get too excited, maybe 'mega' is a bit of an overused word these days, maybe it won't figure highly on your much sought after list but my first ever garden Nuthatch was a bit exciting. On the phone to county recorder Tim Dean talking about 'the gull' and casually gazing at the grazing Woodpigeon on the lawn I glanced sideways as something landed on one of the trees, something blue, something NUTHATCHY... I blurted on the phone made excuses grabbed the camera by which time it had flipped into the willow above the pond and managed three frames through the kitchen window before it was gone. To avoid lots of emails asking to see said mega I've added a picture below. If it turns up again, I'll be opening the door, charging £5 (all to charity of course after costs) and telling the neighbours to take a holiday. No press please.

First for Garden - Nuthatch

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Not Every Matchstick is a Swan Vesta

Needing somewhere to take the kids yesterday I opted for a rare twitch. They had particularly enjoyed the visit we made to North Shields Fish Quay a few weeks back, probably as kids do because they get to eat chips in the car and throw leftovers out of the window at the gulls.

A 2nd-winter Glaucous Gull had been reported on Monday and then again yesterday morning as still present. So at least there was something worth looking at I thought and it wasn't raining, so off we go. We did a quick scan of the main shed roof on arrival but it was pretty empty with only half a dozen large gulls loafing around. More were wheeling about over the car park further east and I spoke to another birder who had been around for an hour without joy. We headed for the chip shop and drove back around to where we could view the shed roof.

With the kids taking their time, I wound down the window and stepped outside and started to scan the gulls in the air, again with little joy. At this point the other birder who had setup scope 100m further west walked along and pointed out a white-winged gull across the other side of the river some 250-300m away. Back on, face on, but never in profile over the next ten minutes it looked very pale, similar in size to nearby Herring Gull but slightly round-headed and not particularly large billed.

Eventually it took off and came over the river, spending the next twenty minutes doing a 150m circuit around the fish quay and overhead. It alighted once whilst I was there on the peak of the nearby shed roof and was almost immediately pushed off by a Great Black-backed Gull.

Now at this point I could give you all sorts of excuses for why I left thinking I'd seen a Glaucous Gull, albeit a small female; kids needing the toilet ten minutes apart; another observer definite and vocal about it being a Glauc; focussing on photographs rather than looking at the bird blah, blah,blah.
Reality is I went expecting to see a Glaucous Gull, saw a white-winged large gull with pinkish bill and 'dipped in ink black' bill and left without really critically examining the bird in the field.

So I spent last night processing the images and kept stumbling over things that were inconsistent with the label that I had given the bird, the iris was dark, mid-brown, not pale, rare in 2nd-winter birds (of either species), the eye looked large; the legs looked thin,; the bill was short; the expression not as fierce as I thought.
This morning in the Inbox an image on the ground taken by John Clark after I had left yesterday and a note from Eddie Crabtree saying that they had had excellent views on the ground after I left and considered the bird to be an Iceland Gull.

I spent much of this morning comparing images of small female Glaucous and juvenile and 2nd-winter Iceland and talking to several other people about the bird and the images on the phone and via email. In the meantime young Jack Bucknall had uploaded the images to birdguides and someone else had thought they were Glaucous as opposed to the Iceland they were uploaded as. Confusion reigns. I've now come down off the fence I was perched on all morning and put both feet in the Iceland camp and based on the overall impression of the bird and as Dan Turner highlighted the hint of a pale tip to the bill, I'll stick my neck out and disagree with some of those that I've corresponded with today and say it's 2nd-winter despite the dark eye (though feel free to tell me why it isn't and if anyone wants to offer a two-bird theory that would add some further controversy). I'll leave you with the images and get back to doing penance...

Thou shalt not assume
Thou shalt always look critically
Thou shalt not assume...

Monday, 14 February 2011

More on Forests

Last Wednesday I blogged about the vote on the government plans to sell off Forests and how predictably MP's had pretty much voted along party lines despite the growing negative feeling the plans from the public. I received a comment from one of my Facebook friends, querying the title of that post and highlighting that for all I knew those, predominantly Tory MP's may have had a huge amount of support for the proposals from their constituents. He was right, of course I couldn't possibly know the contents of every MP's mailbag and I was simply gauging what I thought the current zeitgeist was.
So it was with interest that I read this today. 52% of their own members believe the privatisation plans should be stopped, wake up boys and girls in Whitehall, time to think again!

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Who Should Pay the Piper?

Interesting report in The Telegraph today about the proposed partial funding of the National Wildlife Crime Unit by birder and author Mark Constantine. The name will be familiar to birders everywhere as Mark is one of the authors of the seminal birding guide The Sound Approach.

Whilst on face value it is an incredible philanthropic gesture from MC to offer to pick up the shortfall for the NWCU budget, one that may cost him £50k per annum it opens up (or it should) a huge debate about whether rich individuals should be able to, or need to, fund police activities in the UK.

Whilst birders, including myself, across Britain would no doubt place the funding of the NWCU as a high priority given the continued persecution of many iconic raptor species and the continued threat of the theft to order of falcon eggs and young is it right that that funding should come from one individual? Would we be so happy if we knew that individuals who take a different view on birds of prey for example were providing funding to the wildlife crime unit or would we howl in protest and hint at influence and corruption?

What the Telegraph article and the negative comments from the Police Federation fail to declare though is that this wouldn't be the first time they had been funded by external individuals. You need go no further than the NWCU 2009 report to find references to 'partnership funding' more specifically  funding provided by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) to fund a poaching project officer for England & Wales. Whilst again there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing we should all be more concerned about rich individuals having too cosy a relationship with senior police officers.

If this is part of the so-called  'Big Society' then those involved, at least at the Police end need to ensure that there are processes in place to protect us and the NWCU from undue influence being exerted. In this instance negotiations in my view should be undertaken by a police representative who has no influence on the NWCU and all donations of this nature should be publicly declared and not made for a specific purpose or project within the unit. Individual donors whether rich philanthropists, or interest groups should not be in a position to directly dictate policy and priorities.

Whatever your views, Constantine is obviously an individual who is prepared to back up his beliefs with hard cash and his heart seems to be in the right place, if only more rich Brits were like-minded we may have a whole lot less wildlife crime to have to investigate in the first place.

Colour-ringed Argentatus

Some of the ringing schemes and the instant nature of how quickly you can access the data have come on leaps and bounds in the last few years.
After a short cold sea-watch this morning I nipped up to Druridge Bay CP to see if the reported Black-throated Diver from yesterday afternoon had lingered. It appears that it hasn't.
I did manage to find a colour-ringed argentatus though, J2690, the individual in the image taken when it was ringed at the nest on 18/05/10.

It is a male now in it's 5th calendar year and bred last year on the island of HORNØYA, Vardø, Finnmark, Norway in the Barents Sea; a movement of 2309km to get here.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Rollercoaster Raptors

The familiar voice of Melvyn Bragg dissecting the history of the discovery of the nervous system chuntered on the radio as I drove; fluid chambers and wince-inducing live brain examinations, albeit on criminals, so socially acceptable of course; sensations moving through the fluid in the nerves(or so they thought) back and forth from the brain. The discussion, focussed on the history and mechanics, shed little light on why the bright blue sky and sunshine combined with the Robin song that seemed to come from all points as I stepped from the car had the immediate uplifting impact on my own, thankfully intact, central nervous system.
The same song every 40 or 50m interspersed with the urgent 'quick quick' calls of the Chaffinch and the keen to get involved Coal Tits clamouring 'me too, me too' was a constant aural companion as I walked.

Though I walked for 4-5 miles today little else was seen, a few Crossbills and a distant Great Spotted Woodpecker.
 Common Crossbill (2nd-calendar year male?)

I moved to higher ground and a good vantage late morning in time for the big show, as the sun warmed the air raptors began to rise. First a Buzzard way west of my vantage, then a Sparrowhawk turning slowly and drifting east out of sight; the next slow scan across the vista produced a female Goshawk slowly flapping and gaining a little height before dropping into trees below, quickly followed by a male smashing into the top of a nearby tree. Like an eager over-excited teenager the male flapped butterfly-like trying to attract attention, before dashing back and forth on short impatient flights.
A few minutes later further east another female up high, slowly circling with the familiar slow wingbeats looking almost owl or harrier like with the exaggerated deep beats; then higher and higher, clouds passing behind as it ascended the crest of the coming rollercoaster before plunging slowly and rising triumphant wings held tight to body defying gravity in gut wrenching upward reverse stoops, six perhaps seven times repeated.

Later in the day in the afternoon sun, I had to drop the fair lady at Alnmouth rail station, I nipped down to Birling Carrs on the way back; a fairly calm sea held three Great Crested Grebes and a Slavonian Grebe. Further south still 2 Barn Owls hunting the eastern edge of the north pool were the highlight of a late afternoon splodge in the mud around East Chevington, though 36 Goldeneyes many of which were in vigorous display pushed them close.

I left with a posse of Whoopers overhead heading south presumably to the Cresswell roost.

Whooper Posse

First Moth

Who needs a trap? I opened the front door on Tuesday and in flew our first moth of the year and a garden tick too! Thanks to the extremely impressive new Northumberland Moths website, which I have to say is probably one of, if not the, best county moth website going, it was quickly identified on Wednesday as a Chestnut. The second commonest moth in flight in Northumberland in February.

I wouldn't have known that if not for the aforementioned site and even if you only have the vaguest of interests in things moth I'd go and have a root around and bookmark it.

Charlie on Extremadura

Grey drizzle greets me as I open the door for the school run, I'd rather be with Charlie!

Wednesday, 9 February 2011


The vote following the opposition day debate on government plans to sell off forests was rather predictable; as far as the results go they seem to show that only three 'government' MP's voted against the government despite the fairly obvious lack of public support for the idea of a sell off. Every other MP pretty much voted along party lines which on an issue like this is criminal. The three I can find who voted with their consciences were:

Mike Hancock Lib Dem Portsmouth South
Tim Farron Lib Dem Westmoreland & Lonsdale
Zac Goldsmith Conservative Richmond Park

So if you contacted your Conservative/Lib Dem MP to register your concerns you might want to touch base with them again and check why they ignored them.

Monday, 7 February 2011

What Goes Around Comes Around

I think there were many birders across the pond who at the least had a wry smile as many UK birders wrestled with their conscience last year over the House Finch. Seems like they have their own little finch dilemma now.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Wet Right Knee

Steady rain resulted in a need for shelter this morning so I kicked off with an hour seawatching at Newbiggin. The shelter here as locals will know is rudimentary and whilst it may keep off the worst of the weather any reasonable amount of wet stuff results in a 'run back' along the underside of the concrete roof ensuring that at least one leg gets a good soaking. I subsequently spent the rest of the morning with a wet right knee.The sea was predictably quiet, 2 Red-throated Divers north, another on the sea, 2 Shags whilst a patch year tick resulted in only a half hearted attempt to lift my bins as they passed the point in tandem. A well spread pod of 6-8 Harbour Porpoise livened up proceedings marginally before I left for better cover.
Cresswell Pond hide was predictably quiet too, not a good morning for photography so a lens free zone for once. I caught up with the wintering Ruff this morning that conveniently dropped onto the sandbar just beyond the cut reeds and showed well for a short while before commuting back to the field west of the hide. Eight Red-breasted Mergansers were the only other attraction on a quiet morning.
I risked the swampy entrance to the Budge hide at Druridge Pools but was pleasantly surprised that it seems to have been fixed and was almost desert-like and firm underfoot in the wet conditions. There are now three Pintail on the field, a male and two females, still good numbers of wildfowl and a dozen Common Snipe.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Iceland Re-found

The only notable event of a couple of hours around Newbiggin this morning was the reappearance (originally found by Jimmy Steele) after 19 days of the adult Iceland Gull at the Spital Burn outfall about 1km south of Church Point. With a calm-ish sea this morning and a lull in the gusty southwesterly it was pretty easy to pick out amongst the Herring Gulls and Fulmars.
An adult Mediterranean Gull in the north bay was the only other remotely scarce-ish bird, though Blackbird, Chaffinch and Dunnock were stunning patch year ticks considering the ongoing passerine drought.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

This One's for Gary

I've long wondered why no one had launched a virtual birding game on any of the major games consoles or even on-line. With the upsurge in interest and the number of birders eager to learn more as well as the massive growth in home technology it would seem a logical step to appeal to those for whom the outdoors is just a step too far. Birding without ever leaving the house, well now it's here...almost. Swarovski have launched a 'Birding Game' that allows you to visit three different locations and identify the birds there by clicking on silhouettes to reveal images. There's even the opportunity to compete by registering your high score and possibly winning a pair of the new EL50's. Obviously someone at Swaro marketing is switched on and has recognised the appeal of virtual birding (simmer Gaz!) it may be little more than a data collection exercise but as data collection goes it's one of the more fun ones I've dealt with in a long while. So if you're looking for an excuse to avoid work you could easily waste a few hours on this.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Life & Death on a Tuesday Morning

A greedy grave
That still for carrion carcases doth crave
On top whereof ay dwelt the ghostly owle
We shield young eyes from that which it leaves behind, avert their gaze and whisper the name in their presence. A mystery, a knowledge not necessary, lest a stake get driven through innocence. Many hide it from themselves, pretend it doesn't exist, wrap up in the hubris of now and the immortal cloak of the hereafter. Nevertheless round a corner, behind a door or in the midst of the morning sunshine death waits to embrace us with it's soft lingering kiss.

We would have missed the silent steady flight of the Barn Owl that crossed over the path back from the hide at Cresswell had we not stopped to look at the dead sheep this morning. So many questions from eager urchin explorers not wishing to miss the opportunity of this unexpected phenomenon that had conveniently expired a few metres off the path. With little else out of the ordinary on Cresswell Pond it was a toss up between the sheep and the owl for the highlight of the morning, I think the sheep may have won in my kid's eyes. Triumph in death.

Further up the road, 2 Pintail remained at Druridge Pool and had been joined by a couple of Shoveler; 3 Common Snipe were noted for the first time this year. A single Brambling arrived with Chaffinches as we departed the entrance gate. A female Stonechat was the 'bird on the wire' as we crossed to the dunes to scan a calm sea on which sailed a seemingly endless number of Red-throated Divers, each one haughty and aloof with head raised skyward.

As we reached the car, homeward bound, our eyes were drawn to the heavens as 500 noisy, life-filled Pink-footed Geese brought a respectful, slightly hung-jaw silence from those that had earlier confronted death in all it's magnitude.