Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Anyone Seen My Mojo?

I seem to have misplaced my blogging mojo at the moment, 10 days without a post. The same can't be said about my birding as I've been putting in plenty of hours as things start to liven up. Some of the highlights from my notebook (that sounds vaguely familiar) as follows:

24 August
A walk along the Ash Lagoon Banks to search for the Greenish Warbler found by Tim Cleeves the previous evening. The bird was still present early morning and had even sang briefly. At least two other birders that I spoke to as I walked up flagged up that someone had been playing a tape. There was no sign of the bird when I arrived 20 minutes later, coincidence?
 A Redstart and a Garden Warbler in the central scrub patch were patch year ticks.

25 August
The Garden Warbler still on the Ash Lagoon Bank as well as two Song Thrush that may well have been fresh arrivals. Waders in the high tide roost at Beacon Point were numerous, 305 Golden Plovers, exactly 100 Knot and 139 Oystercatchers.

26 August
Back at Beacon Point this time a juvenile Black Tern lingering offshore was the highlight of the day; two Ruff sheltered with the Golden Plovers in the wader roost.Four Wheatears on the beach were my first of the autumn as were two Rock Pipits.

27 August
An early morning seawatch from Church Point produced another (or more likely the same) juvenile Black Tern this time feeding a few hundred metres southeast with a couple of Arctic Terns. Birds moving through included 10 Manx Shearwaters, 3 Arctic Skuas and 2 Great Skuas.

Then a couple of days work break, the main talking point being a Yelkouan Shearwater past Cley that may well turn out to be the first accepted North Sea record judging by the calibre of the observers. Up here the return of the drake Black Scoter off Bamburgh was notable coming from an equally impeccable source.

29 August
A three hour post work seawatch proved to be the highlight of the year's seawatching so far. Decent numbers of Manx Shearwaters and a smattering of Sooty Shearwater meant there was always some movement. The gold star though went to three adult Long-tailed Skuas picked up by Tim Cleeves coming in toward the point before turning north and passing a mere 150m off providing an opportunity to use various superlatives and expletives intermingled amongst the silence of admiration. A Storm Petrel that I picked up briefly and Tim and I saw once more each as it moved north in a heavy swell was tame by comparison given that we were spoilt just a few weeks ago with this species. 7 Arctic Skuas, 5 Great Skuas and 7 Med Gulls were just bit part players.

30 August
A trip to the Metrocentre that I couldn't escape from prompted something different, I figured I was halfway to the south end of the county so we did the extra miles and ended up at Derwent Reservoir. A juvenile Little Ringed Plover, a single Pink-footed Goose, one Goosander and four-five Common Buzzards  were all we could muster before heading home.

See you in September

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Chasing the American

Sometimes you go looking for one thing and find another; it's a cliché but it's also true. Yesterday was a classic example. Four hours into work and news came in from Ross Ahmed that he had an American or Pacific Golden Plover on Black Law, a small island in the channel between Ross Back Sands and Holy Island. The distance between Guile Point from where he was viewing and the island causing some difficulty in clinching the ID. I phoned Ross back after a couple of hours by which time he was happy he had sorted it as an American Golden Plover a probable 1st-summer.

With a couple of hours spare post-shift I decided to have a crack at it. A long shot as a further three hours had passed, the tide had changed and it was a 40 minute drive followed by an hour's yomp north to Guile Point. "I need the exercise" I thought. An hour and one Wheatear later I arrived at Guile Point, as I expected there wasn't anyone within two miles of where I was on a perfect sunny afternoon.

I spent two hours searching Black Law by scope cutting a Robinson Crusoe-like figure sat on the sand a couple of metres from the lapping tide. The small pebbled island topped with a single sand dune with some sparse Marram Grass vegetation and the occasional piece of driftwood was alive with waders. Oystercatchers and Bar-tailed Godwits made up the bulk, the godwits ranged from some adults still in summer plumage to grey juveniles. Closer to the water orange-breasted Knot filled the gaps between pebbles with the occasional Redshank standing taller. Higher up the island a couple of dozen Ringed Plovers crouched between the higher pebbles and a single juvenile Grey Plover did a grand job of confusing me for a good while by roosting face on, head tucked in; being the only large 'plover' on the island and roosting well away from the crowds. As the tide rose a small number of Golden Plover added to the mix.

A few metres away a small roost of Knot gathered a few metres away on my side of the channel, the tide gradually pushing them closer. I lost myself over two hours, the only sound the breeze across the water and the occasional wader calling. As the tide rose dark eclipse Common Eiders began to slip through the narrow channel in front of me into the food rich Lindisfarne NNR. and groups of terns broke the silence heading the same way. The nearby Knot became restless and moved off.

I gradually became aware that whilst I may be watching I was also being watched as the Grey Seals also moving through the channel got curious about me and kept popping up just out in the channel opposite me.

Reluctantly I started the walk back, offshore 800 Common Eider had a few Common Scoter amongst them and a couple of Sanderlings  were mixed in with Ringed Plovers along the 2 mile stretch of unmarked sand back south. As I wearily trudged back into the hamlet of Ross in a light shower a flock of c.100 Goldfinch followed by 30+ Pied Wagtails and 5 Yellow Wagtails offered the chance to rest before the drive home.

The American may have let me down but I had a dream afternoon in a special place, a rare treat even without the rare.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Fair Days

They tried to make me go to birdfair, I said no,no,no
Yes I know the crack, autumn's almost back you know, know,know
I ain't got the time with autumn scarce to find
they tried to make me go to birdfair I said no,no,no

A few hours out yesterday and today with the distinct hint of autumn in the air. Yesterday's visit to Newbiggin produced little of note, ADMc had a couple of flyover Yellow Wagtails and we passed the time watching Whitethroats in the Ash Lagoon scrub. Later I called into Castle Island, the Kingfisher from earlier in the month is still around as it flew inland just below my vantage; two Ruff the only other birds of note.
After leaving ADMc and before Castle Island I spent a little time in Newbiggin's south bay with an impressive number of Kittiwakes (over 500) and Mediterranean Gulls (23) in nice light.

This morning a quick glance at the birdguides news app showed a Barred Warbler on the Isle of May. Enthused by this I headed back to Newbiggin; I'd just picked up a Wheatear on the golf course edge when a text came through from Paul Massey - Barred Warbler in the scrub on the Ash Lagoons. I headed up there, though I needn't have hurried as it was to be an hour and half before the juvenile Barred re-appeared and finally gave itself up to decent views gorging on Blackberries. You just know there's a record shot coming so squeamish photographers who prefer perfection look away now.

A last stop at Bothal Pond on the way home produced the now familiar Little Egret, another Green Sandpiper and a Peregrine that rubbed almost every bird on the pond up the wrong way.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Skuas - Good Quality Images Wanted

Esteemed author and birder Klaus Malling Olsen is urgently seeking good quality images of any skua species for an identification article to be published in a Danish magazine. Please submit any images direct to Klaus at klausmalling@gmail.com

Images are required prior to September 1st.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Adventure in the Lost Land of Greatham Creek

Far to the south beyond the land of Mack-em lies a mythical creek. Shrouded in choking mists, the air filled with fire and steam the Greatham Creek runs in the midst of a vast marsh. Many have perished searching for the creek, those few hardy souls that have survived return with tales of strange calls from mermaids living in the creek that appear when the tide rises to capture the souls of men and take them far away beyond the seal sands, lost forever over the horizon to the east.
The prophecy written by the bird guides, those that know all and see all, tells that beyond the creek lies the home of salt and that shall come an eclipse and in the eclipse shall come a dragon or drake with blue wings and men from the north and west shall search for the dragon to gaze upon its beauty. Many shall come and many shall fail for the challenge is great, the distance measured in days journey and the false paths legion. My sons and daughter shall we search for the dragon, are we brave of heart and stout of foot?

Look, what was the alternative? Listen kids we're going to have a hundred mile round trip to visit a huge industrial wasteland, walk twice as far as you want to and see a duck that you think looks like every other small brown duck for 40 seconds. After that we'll park by a busy road downwind of the landfill to search for a wader that hasn't been seen all day before nipping up the road to the coast to jostle with teenagers on bikes who think they're part of some nationwide underground movement because they messed up the magazines and stole a mars bar at the local Co-op?

It wasn't going to work was it, so I bent the truth created an adventure turned the fire from Petroplus or whatever into a dragon perched on a steel tower. That and the promise of some RSPB furry birds that you can stick your finger up did the trick, bought me enough time and effort to walk from the Saltholme car park west to Bishop Auckland; OK maybe not quite that far, but about as far as you can go at Saltholme to be underwhelmed by an eclipse drake Blue-winged Teal. I should have known, stuck by the theory if it doesn't come from above the Arctic Circle it's probably not worth it. I was probably more pleased to see Toby Collett than the duck after he appeared behind me as quietly and instantly as Mr Benn. A Wood Sandpiper found on Pat's Pool was far sexier than the BWT.

We did spend a few minutes hanging around Greatham Creek but it's hardly the place to let your kids loose by the side of the road so we passed on any opportunity to re-find Wilson and headed north to Seaburn to have a little wander about the promenade at Parson's Rocks and look for the adult Bonaparte's Gull. A scan from the cliff top produced nothing but Black-headed so we dropped onto the prom, the north bay seemed to be mainly Herring Gulls with the odd GBB so we headed back to the south side but lower down. The kids were having fun finding ladybirds and two birders looking intently at the shore and the small flock of gulls feeding on the lapping waves looked familiar and had I discovered just picked up the Bonaparte's. A pleasant ten minutes with good views before we braved the tunnel back north.

Kids highlight of the day, the tame Fox in Saltholme car park that strolled past them 5m away as cool as cucumber, the incredulous look on their faces was a picture. Another summer holiday success!

Saturday, 13 August 2011

National Seabird Centre

I read with interest this news story from the BBC regarding the RSPB's plans to build a National Seabird Centre at their East Yorkshire reserve at Bempton. Great news they have received a grant of £30k from the Heritage Lottery Fund to plan the facility and happy to see that they plan to carry out further research on seabird feeding areas.
I'm puzzled though that they have chosen Bempton over a new site here in Northumberland. When it comes to seabirds we certainly have the edge in terms of species, whilst we have no Gannets we can add five species of tern into the mix at three sites within a 25 mile stretch of coast.
Establishing a facility of this nature in say Amble or even Seahouses could have provided a much needed boost for the local economy and given the RSPB a much needed bigger presence in a county that they continue to be seriously under represented in.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Shanks For The Memories

I spent yesterday guiding in the rain and despite growing webs between my toes managed a decent haul of birds. Pick of the bunch were a couple of juvenile Spotted Redshanks at Druridge Pools. After another couple of hours seawatching this morning I headed back up with the camera to see if they were still about as the sea had been quiet. (40+ Common Scoter, 2 Bonxies and 3 Arctic Skuas, 2 White-beaked Dolphins south and an unidentified cetacean/dolphin breaching).

The Druridge main pool hide is tricky at the moment with quite a few strands of tall grass preventing a clear view as with this Common Sandpiper below.

After initially feeding along the south western edge, the two spotshanks flew in front of the hide and did their stuff for a short while before nipping to the north side. A juvenile Ruff was also in front of the hide briefly.

Little Egrets at Longhirst Flash (1) and Bothal Pond (2) completed a drier morning than yesterday.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Review - Deep Country - Neil Ansell

Much of the time I spend outdoors I am alone, though all too often never far from other people. There are times depending on the chosen destination that I can go many hours without seeing or speaking to anyone. I like this solitude, time not to have to think of anything in particular and often find myself lost in where I am, not aware of thinking about me or family or anything except what's all around me. I find time spent like this cathartic, settling, calming of the mind.

Neil Ansell spent five years, mostly alone, in a run-down cottage in the Welsh Hills, living day by day, no electric, gas or running water. Deep Country is his story or rather the story of the land and the wildlife that he became part of during his chosen retreat from modern life. In fact Deep Country tells you little about Ansell himself, other than an obvious passion for and understanding of nature, instead focussing on the rich array of observed birds and wildlife over the changing seasons.

Ansell has a birder's eye and his naked eye observations and descriptions of both the birds he sees and their behaviour betray a good appreciation of birds. Written a hundred years ago his account would be as cherished as someone like Chapman and no doubt be re-published as the account of an accomplished Victorian naturalist. Ansell plays out some very insightful little cameos without resorting to complicated or pompous language. Anyone who has spent some time really watching the birds around them will find much to appreciate here; from team fishing Goosanders to the Buzzard chasing the Kingfisher via his description of Ravens 'rejoicing in the freedom of the skies' you get a real sense of the time spent in quiet observation and contemplation.

You won't discover much that is new in Deep Country but you will look in a new way at the birds and wildlife that is all around you and often taken for granted. In his epilogue Ansell says he went to the hills to find himself and ended up losing himself instead and that that was 'immeasurably better'; Deep Country may have been better with some sketches, not everyone is an artist (me included) but I think one or two pen and ink thumbnails here and there would have added to the imagery of the prose. However that shouldn't detract from this vibrant and interesting account. Worth a read.

Deep Country is published by Hamish Hamilton
ISBN 978-0-241-14500-5
Price £16.99

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Taking the Mich

The car (predictably) failed the MOT so went back today to have the minor but expensive repairs to enable it to be called roadworthy. Despite the forecast of rain I decided to head back along the Wansbeck and continue till I got fed up.

The adult Spoonbill looking a little spiky in the rain was still loitering around the island, a single Ruff the only new wader. A Kingfisher flying downstream was a bit of a novelty here, despite the presence of breeding pairs further up the Wansbeck and its tributaries I've never done well with it this far down river with only a handful of previous sightings. More predictable was a Grey Wagtail with this species often appearing from August.

The mouth of the Wansbeck proved productive with a  tidy little tern roost at low tide including seven adult Roseate Terns and a little further along the beach a dark Arctic Skua harassing terns before landing.

I walked on north to Newbiggin, the very low tide had created some shallow lagoons at the south end of the beach that had trapped sand eels and there was a gull and tern feeding fest ongoing. I started by counting Newbiggin's famous Mediterranean Gulls arriving at 25 today including five juveniles. The gulls were being flushed by various people, dogs, kids etc but most were coming back to land and feed when the disturbances moved on. I started looking through the 2-300 large gulls that were present for michahellis or cachinnans both rare in Northumberland (last michahellis I think 2006). A Yellow-legged Gull had been reported by persons unknown yesterday as part of a seawatch, though I had no idea what age. After a few minutes bingo a smart looking juvenile michahellis Yellow-legged Gull feeding, preening and flying around.YLG is a much needed county and patch tick for me, so I allowed myself a celebratory jig on the beach.
Two Arctic Skuas barely got a cursory glance as did at least 3-4 Roseate Terns; I had left my camera at home to travel light and also avoid the rain so I was forced to resort to Iphone scoping the mich to try and get some record shots for submission. Whilst they are just record shots and don't fully do it justice I think they're enough to see it onto my county list.

Monday, 1 August 2011


A garage conveniently located close to the patch so a muggy morning stroll along the Wansbeck taking in Castle Island and the estuary produced a single Jay near Stakeford Bridge and presumably the individual that provided the patch tick a couple of weeks back.
With the weekend mud recovered again the only passage waders were two Common Sandpipers, an adult Spoonbill was a surprise after an absence of 28 days, still present and feeding late morning as I retraced my steps. The first juvenile Herring Gulls of the year put in an appearance along with 48 Cormorants at least seven of which were sinensis race and one colour-ringed. I don't have the final details but it looks very much like it was ringed at Rutland, Leicestershire earlier this year, I'll update when I get confirmation.

Iphone-scoped crap record shot of Spoonbill Gymnastics