Thursday, 29 March 2012

Snip Pets

Those of you enthusiastic about your Ornithosia may well lament the lack of moth bloggage emanating from me and whilst I'm not trapping this year, fear not, I am simply biding time till the twins are in the grasp of the education system and I have a little more time to catch moths do the housework. I will however drop in the occasional morsel such as the Early Thorn that flipped through the open window as I worked last night and over-nighted in the fridge. (The image is from last year).

This morning viz mig from the desk has produced 4 Common Buzzards (the two local breeding pairs) at least two Sparrowhawks  and three Skylarks over southwest. My 'garden' Chiffchaff has, after 3-4 days of odd singing ' cheep chiffy chiffy chiffy chiffy, cheep cheep chiffy chiffy chiffy' reverted (or found?) its true identity and is today singing Chiff and Chaff in the proper order, or has it been usurped?

The Crane to Work

An early evening report of an early afternoon Crane west of Cresswell Pond provided an excuse for an early morning wake-up call ahead of work. The year-list remains Crane-less (no surprise really) but a nice fresh pre-dawn start to the day.
Druridge Pools still holds a drake Pintail though other wildfowl numbers have dwindled. Four Lesser Redpolls buzzed around the willows behind the Budge Screen and a pair of Stonechat sat together in the dunes. A Common Buzzard attempting to slip through low raised nine Grey Herons from the back plantation and a single Red-legged Partridge flushed from in front of the hide in response to the squeak of my tripod leg as it staggered open.

Yesterday I headed inland to Fontburn to look for raptor movements on a warm afternoon. Up to eight Common Buzzards soared in scope view as well as a brief Goshawk. A Raven flew through after taking issue with a nearby Buzzard and 6 Oystercatchers fed in nearby fields. Two Fieldfares were still present.

I stopped to the east of Coldlaw Wood to look out over the Beacon Hill/Stanton area and had a further six Common Buzzards here. A male Crossbill sang from a larch behind me in Spring Wood.

Despite checking several sites both breeding colonies and feeding areas still no Sand Martins yet, they seem to be late generally this year with poor numbers everywhere, a late departure suggested, any thoughts?

Friday, 23 March 2012

Birding Balance

Today I had an appointment with my ENT Consultant at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle late morning so birding time was split into two short sessions either side of that necessity. I headed out to a site where I have seen Willow Tit with a vague plan of trying to photograph that species but also with one eye on nearby treetops for Green Woodpecker. Hearing a calling GW yesterday reminded me that it is a species that has eluded me so far this year.
A few minutes into the woodland and I heard that familiar three note call nearby that alerted me to a Willow Tit, I was pleased after a little stalking to discover a pair frequenting a hole in a newly excavated birch stump maybe 10m in from the woodland edge. I parked my back against a nearby tree and watched for a good 20 minutes as they came and went. The images below were the best I could do hand-held and without a hide, not wishing to cause any unnecessary disturbance.

The hospital appointment was a good news/bad news scenario. Confirmation that I have 30% reduced hearing on my right side and the damage is permanent and irreversible. On the glass half full side the right side is still in working order and apparently all my birding is helping me retrain my brain to cope with the lack of balance data coming from the left side. Yet another reason to get out more! All to do with watching moving objects and a higher level of limb activity, oh and not looking at my feet. A series of daily exercises to supplement this was also provided.
Quick to put this new found excuse extremely important contribution to my well-being into practice I popped home for the scope and nipped out again this afternoon. The best I could manage was a self-stumbled year-tick Green Sandpiper, on a local backwater, presumably an individual that has wintered in the UK as it seems early for this species to be on the move up here in Northumberland, mid-April being a more typical expected date.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Sea Action

First port of call today was Druridge Pools, a pair of Pintail the frugal reward. Offshore on a relatively calm sea my first Puffin of the year bobbed around c.500m offshore. Up to seven Red-throated Divers included a smart summer-plumaged individual. I tracked south to Snab Point where a Sandwich Tern moved north mid-afternoon and 6 Purple Sandpipers paddled with Redshanks and Turnstones in a small high tide roost at the south end of Broad Sands.
At Lynemouth Flash a calling Green Woodpecker from the east end of Chugden Wood seemed bizarrely out of place that close to the sea, despite spending some time watching from a couple of vantage points I didn't clap eyes on it. Bothal Pond was unchanged but for a Great crested Grebe. The horse fields to the south had a tidy little passerine flock though, 30 Meadow Pipits, 10 Pied Wagtails and smaller numbers of Reed Bunting and Skylark fed on the close cropped sward.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012


My weekly 'patch' constitutional added a few new names into the notebook this afternoon. As I headed down the footpath towards the church pool at Woodhorn a Chiffchaff spluttered into song, then stopped, had another go and stopped and eventually managed a few bars before stopping again.
On the flashes five Little Grebe; a pair of Shelduck were new in on the south pool and a 1st-summer Med Gull was also hanging about. Overhead some local racing pigeons alerted me to a high Sparrowhawk by attempting and failing to get above it.

Down on the golf course 2 Short-eared Owls were still around the Ash Lagoons and a male Wheatear was catching flies at the rocks at Beacon Point with another Med Gull, this time a smart adult in full summer best, just a few yards offshore. I left the camera at home so made do with a typically poor Iphonescoped shot of the Wheatear just to brighten the post a smidgen.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Calm Before the Spring?

 A few hours in the field with the kids over the last two days have added a couple of county year ticks in a generally quiet spell with this high pressure perhaps acting to block the majority of migrants rather than accelerate their progress.
Yesterday whilst the kids collected pine cones from the nearby forest floor a male Goshawk slid past languidly a few hundred metres away in the late morning sunshine. Up to four Buzzards thermalled over an hour long watch and just before leaving we heard 'Kronk' nearby and a single Raven flew south just 30m from our vantage.
This morning a short walk to Cresswell Pond produced a single Short-eared Owl hunting the dunes, five Common Snipe behind the hide and a singing male Stonechat from nearby wires though the kids were much more impressed by the pissing capabilities of some of the local cows.

Saturday, 10 March 2012


Still westerly and a little stronger than I'd hoped this morning but it all helps to blow away the cobwebs.  Migration is on the tip of everyone's tongue and whilst the first so called 'proper' migrants are what most seem to be eagerly awaiting, there are plenty of migrants out and about.
A walk along the favourite beach this morning produced two littoralis Rock Pipits both in a typically tatty state of moulting into summer plumage. Little else of note, the dregs of winter's waders, a few Sanderlings, Bar-tailed Godwits and a single Grey Plover.

Further up the coast two candidate nominate monedula Jackdaws at Lynemouth and Druridge Bay. Druridge Pools held four Pintail amongst a declining number of commoner wildfowl. Back at Woodhorn the drake Scaup was still hanging around the church pool this morning though most of Thursday's Pied Wagtails seemed to have cleared through with only c.10 left.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Down to Earth

Post-work light nights combined with eager grandparents equals birding. A brief visit to Woodhorn for a change of scenery found the hallowed turf ripped asunder as the two fields either side of the railway line have been purchased by a local who is bringing them back into active agriculture.
You won't find me complaining if he carries on in the vein he has started, a huge clean-up exercise costing a five figure sum has removed a dozen years plus of waste from the surrounding hedgerows, new fencing is providing a few hundred additional posts for that special Wheatear to pop up on and a proper footbridge is a welcome addition to the north of the church pool.
With the plough still active yesterday, several hundred Black-headed Gulls were following and with a shout of 'Bony' earlier in the week the only decent thing to do was get amongst them. Whilst earth-encrusted bills produced the occasional raised eyebrow, I had to content myself with four of Newbiggin's most famous, with 1st-winter, 2nd-winter and two adult Mediterranean Gulls spread amongst the throng. Almost as good was a good-sized alba wagtail flock, 47 in all, all Pied, I could say I was disappointed but the males particularly were a joy to behold resplendent in their spring best and it would do them a huge disservice just because there wasn't a foreigner amongst them.
 Med Gull & Friends

Out on the church pool a Grey Wagtail mooched around the rocks holding up the railway line, eight White-fronted Geese and two Barnacle Geese on the muddy (yes mud!) edges along with a small selection of local wildfowl including a couple of Shoveler.
Heading back to the car two Mistle Thrushes were a 'patch year tick'

Monday, 5 March 2012

Review: Petrels, Albatrosses, Storm Petrels of North America

I've spent the odd hour sea-watching. I've sea-watched with some very experienced birders whose ability to identify species almost at the edge of visibility has left me questioning my optics, my eyesight, my ability and quite often my sanity. I've tried to listen and learn and gone back to listen and learn some more. I've made mistakes (still making them!) and resolved to work harder, to read more, to look better to see and watch when sea-watching. I've learned to tune out the banter and fed on the occasional called out field mark or insightful comment on subtle jizz from those that are infinitely more time-served than me.  From this niche of my birding I have taken great enjoyment and whilst I can't claim to be 'addicted' I look forward to hours spent straining at the horizon.

Photographic guides are opinion splitters, some birders love images others are completely turned off by them, yearning for the art and craft of the traditional field guide. There are good photographic guides and a great many bad ones. Being entirely honest ahead of receiving a copy of Petrels, Albatrosses and Storm Petrels of North America: A Photographic Guide I was highly sceptical that a 'photographic guide' could do justice to the 'tubenoses' and I questioned whether as a European birder I would find much value in the guide and was I as a result going to have to find a carefully worded way of retaining my integrity and honesty and advising 84% ( by geographic origin; courtesy of Google Analytics if you must ask) of my readership to continue allowing the Brown House Moths to occupy the Marks & Spencer wallet bought Christmas 1987 by Mum (we've all got one). Thankfully it became apparent very quickly that on the contrary this guide just oozes 'value' if you're interested in seabird identification.

The first 50 pages of this near 500-page volume should be made compulsory reading for anyone planning to go sea-watching, long before they ever raise a pair of bins at a distant passing shearwater. Crammed with detail, from it's introductory 'What are Tubenoses?' section through chapters on Ocean Habitats and Tubenose taxonomy Howell guides us to his superb section on Field Identification of Tubenoses ahead of the main species accounts. This section offers some superb insights on flight manner and how environmental factors can impact on both the bird and the observer's perception of it. The diagrammatic representations of flight manner are simple and prove the maxim that a picture, or in this instance a simple diagram, is worth a thousands words. Their simplicity belies their usefulness as an aid to describing flight style in the field.

The quality of images used in the species accounts is generally very good. The sheer volume of images presented highlighting different plumage characteristics, environmental conditions, moults and populations is incredible. Anyone that has a single mental image of Northern Fulmar should go no further than the 27 images for that species alone.

One of the toughest challenges in the field with many groups of species is being able to confidently tell apart similar species. Howell obviously recognises this is no different (and in some cases extremely difficult) in tubenoses, so dedicated sections in every species account discussing similar species and some of the key identification features and the pitfalls go a long way to adding to the usefulness of this guide.
After making his case for the importance of understanding factors such as habitat and flight style it's no surprise than that each species account also has a specific section covering those topics that builds on the earlier introduction offering insight into individual flight styles in different wind conditions.

This is a great work and obviously a labour of love from an author who clearly understands and cares about his subject and knows just how difficult the identification of these species can be but also acknowledges the limitations of current knowledge when he writes ' 'there are many more waves to crest'. Criticism of such a work might seem churlish but to my mind there are two areas that could be improved. First, whilst I appreciate this is a 'photographic guide' the inclusion of a limited range of field sketches from Ian Lewington simply whet my appetite for more and a bigger range of these to supplement the images would have widened the appeal and made for a more 'commercial' offer in my view. Secondly, I was surprised that the opportunity to annotate some of the specific species images wasn't taken in similar vein to the intro section. This may have been deliberate but for those unfamiliar with tubenose topography it might just result in a little back and forth page flicking.

In summary, an outstanding piece of work, worthy of a place on any sea-watcher's bookshelf and offering exceptional value for money in these austere times at a cover price of just £30.95 when compared to say The Puffin monograph recently released and selling for nearly £20 more.

Thanks to Princeton University Press for providing a review copy.

Friday, 2 March 2012


I spent much of today with wet feet. It may not have rained too much lately but out on the mosses and moors there is still plenty of water underfoot in certain areas. I seemed to do a lot of trudging around for not a great deal of reward this morning, a Stonechat here, year tick Red Grouse there, a whole bunch of singing Skylarks seemingly everywhere.
My first stop had produced little more than a few Crossbills and whilst it's always good to be out, the wetness seeping through my boots by mid-morning was mildly irritating. That feeling dissipated the instant I looked west beyond the crest of the hill over which the footpath I was on snaked away across the moors. The white blob atop one of the scattered pines escaping from the tightly packed plantation spread out in front of me 250m-300m away was instantly recognisable as a Great Grey Shrike.

 I fixed the scope and wedged myself between two large rocks and spent the next thirty minutes watching as it gradually worked its way northwest. Unfortunately the bird was in an area that I can't make public but I gather the Prestwick Carr individual has returned for anyone that hasn't managed to catch up with a GGS yet this year.
Throughout the morning the dull metallic noise of the nearby exercises meant I never felt far from Mordor and the occasional pass by low-flying jets ensured my bowels were never full.

This afternoon I passed by Caistron on the Tosson road and counted 104 Oystercatchers, 8 Shelduck and 6 Gadwall. The River Coquet produced three Dippers, two just below Hepple and another just opposite the Healey turn south of Rothbury as I devoured a pasty from Rothbury Butchers.