Monday, 27 April 2015

Northern Pennines and Black Grouse et al



26th April.  After weather conditions had forced two cancellations of planned trips to Kielder we decided that timing suggested a third attempt would be more appropriately focussed upon the Northern Pennines.  It proved to be a good choice, and so Sam and I were up long before the larks this morning and off at 4:00am with Martin Kitching of Northern Experience Wildlife Tours.  After last years successful trip we left in darkness, but with high expectations.  From Bass Rock to Black Grouse within seven days.  Isn’t life wonderful?

Black Grouse
 
Roe Deer, Woodcock and a low flying Sparrowhawk were seen as we approached the Black Grouse lekking site.  We were soon counting Black Grouse strutting their stuff under clear skies as the sun gradually rose from behind the fell opposite us and eventually cast sharp light on the numerous Black Grouse.  As we listened to the sounds of the surrounding area, including calling Curlew and Common Snipe we counted twenty-nine black cock plus numerous black hens as they came and went from the site. I can think of few better ways to begin a days birding than watching Black Grouse and listening to the constant bubbling calls.  One apparent young male black cock was especially noticeable as it received the attention of fellow male birds and was constantly chased off around the site.  Sparring black cock kept us entertained as the early morning moved on and of course it is fascinating to watch.  Time passed quickly and we eventually moved on with most of the birds still active at the site.  It wasn’t to be our last sighting of Black Grouse however as throughout the day we came across single and small groups of these birds as we toured the area. 

Black Grouse
 
 Red Grouse and a significant number of Grey Partridges were not to be out done by Black Grouse, and we had some excellent sightings of both species throughout the day.  The light never deteriorated at all through out  and as well as watching the typical upland species we were able to fully appreciate the sounds, the ever changing patterns of light on the hills, the often tumbling down vacated homes and farmstead and the industrial archaeological heritage of the area.  All this whilst travelling along such sparsely used roads which often held more cyclists than motor vehicles.  The mere thought of cycling up some of those hills had me worn out as I lay back into the seat!


Red Grouse
 
When I stepped out of our transport for the day as we searched for Ring Ouzel (never to be found but not for the want of trying) I realised just how bitingly cold it was, although I was rewarded with close up sightings of calling Golden Plover, also to be seen later.  Other good sightings of waders today included Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Redshank, Curlew and especially Common Snipe, as well as that Woodcock seen early on in the morning.  Once back inside the vehicle it took me sometime to shake of the chill, although as the day moved on the sun through the glass made it look and feel like mid-summer.  It was still a shock to the system getting out into the cold air even during early afternoon.

Common Snipe

Lapwing
 
At one point I become so used to seeing Curlews that I watched a bird in flight approaching us and assumed it was yet another, then Sam called out Short-eared Owl as it provided one of the sightings of the day as it dropped to the ground before taking to flight again.  We also found Common Buzzards in an area not renowned for its raptor species!  Kestrels were also seen throughout the day.  Our chat throughout the day included some discussion on the merits of gull appreciation, or lack of, and we came across a couple of rather elegant Lesser-black Backed Gulls which we agreed were a fine species even to us none gull enthusiasts.

Red Grouse

Grey Partridge

 
Birds heard but not seen today included Willow Warbler, Common Sandpiper and Grey Wagtails.  We did have a good sighting of my favourite species, Dipper.  Wheatears (another favourite species of mine) were showing well throughout the day and we had an excellent sighting of Whinchat.  Swallow, Sand Martin, Skylark, Meadow Pipit, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush and Blackbird all showed well along the way.

Wheatear

Whinchat

Meadow Pipit
 
Brown Hares were seen and Martin reminded us that the numbers of Rabbits owes much t the efficiency of the areas predator control.

The day had been so productive and exciting, and I don’t mind admitting that birding in the uplands excites me, that it was easy to forget how many hours we had been on the go as we headed for home noting the rain storms that could be seen in the north.  A light hail shower had hit us as we prepared to leave.  Sam and I recalled how we watched Redstart in the snow in May near to High Force a year or two ago, another bitterly cold day.  My eyes were certainly beginning to feel heavy and I fell asleep for an hour shortly after arriving back.  It had been a great trip in great company.  Many thanks go to Martin.  It wasn’t our first trip with Northern Experience Wildlife Tours and it won’t be our last, in fact Sam and I are looking forward to joining one of the cetacean trips in July.  Day list of bird species came to a round fifty, a very good number for a day in the uplands, but in any event it was the quality of the day and birds and not the quantity that mattered.  Without a doubt it’s going to be one of my days of 2015!  Does the |Northeast offer anything better than watching a Black Grouse lekking site?  I’m not sure that it does.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Holywell Evening



25th April.  A couple of hours spent at a quiet Holywell this evening began with a sighting of the American Wigeon.  A lifer for Sam, and only my second sighting of this species.  A kind of twitch without the twitchers I suppose, so the kind I like.  On our return from the dene we popped in for seconds and also found Common Sandpiper and a Grasshopper Warbler reeling west of the public hide.  Also around were Shelduck, Mallard, Gadwall, Wigeon Pochard and Tufted Duck.

Probably more enjoyable was some quiet time in the dene spent watching Dipper and Grey Wagtail and listening to bird song including of course Chiffchaff and Blackcap.  I’ve made a note that we must do more of this.

Two Grey Partridge were seen with two Red-legged Partridge on our short walk.  Brown Hare was also seen and Kestrel and Yellowhammer were amongst other birds seen.  It began to rain heavily as we made off for home and the Song Thrush above the public hide was still singing.  We’d not found  Common Whitethroat.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Bass Rock Satisfies Greed for Gannets



19th April.  I might not have arisen from bed quite so cheerfully of a Sunday morning had I realised what weather conditions awaited us at Aberlady.  Sam and I were joining the Natural History Society trip to Aberlady and Bass Rock.  The early morning dullness of Newcastle soon changed to worse than that as we travelled northwards towards the border.  It wasn’t long before we were being driven through heavy rain with only the odd spell of brightness to suggest better to come.  Better hadn’t come as we left the coach at Aberlady for a three mile walk around the bay.  My immediate thought as I stood blown and wet was that I wish I had brought my gloves.



We’d seen Common Buzzards and Brown Hare on the journey and we were soon watching more.  Kestrel and Sparrowhawk were also seen during the walk, which incidentally was I’m sure more than three miles.  Waders were seen in surprisingly small numbers and there was no sign of the recently reported Curlew Sandpiper.  Ruff was seen, but not by me.  I must have had my mind on my quickly soaked coat and cold hands.  Little Egret had been seen in the channels almost as soon as we had left the coach.  This type of habitat seems so often to have Little Egret present these days.  Numbers of Shelduck were showing and as we crossed the footbridge the likes of Oystercatcher, Redshank and Curlew were showing.  Our walk was accompanied by song from Skylarks and the occasional calling of Meadow Pipits and both these species were seen in a group with Linnet.  Our main target was Velvet Scoter and although quite far out on the water numbers of this species were seen along with Common Scoter.  Numbers of Velvet Scoter were seen in flight as well as on the water thus giving clear views of the differences in species.  Well, clear views if you had access to a telescope which we had.  I think a few participants were struggling to pick out the differences, but seemed to enjoy the walk anyway, despite the dampness.  Eider Duck and Red-breasted Merganser was also seen as well as passing Cormorants showing the white breeding patch.  I saw only one tern and that was a Sandwich Tern.  Roe Deer had also been seen early on the walk.

A lone Puffin
 
As I have suggested the walk appeared to be longer than three miles and it wasn’t especially easy going in dunes and along sands going at quite a pace and carrying a telescope.  I’m grateful that Sam did more of his share of the carrying.  We needed to keep to time as we had a boat to catch in North Berwick after lunch. I thought we might be in for a rather damp boat trip, but thankfully the skies cleared and the sun shone for this, the main part of the day.  I can’t recall the number of times I’ve looked at Bass Rock from the mainland, including from height at Vane Farm RSPB Reserve, and on crossing to the Isle of May, but I’ve never approached Bass Rock by boat.  Although always aware of the numbers of Gannet on the rock I have never known much about the history, so was to learn a little of it today.  Incidentally there are about 150,000 Gannets on the rock.

One of the 150,000 Gannets
 
The boat visited the smaller rock at Craigleith before taking us up close to Bass Rock.  I love open spaces and being out on the water is always an exciting experience for me.  Take away the birds and I would still enjoy it, but with the birds it is something special indeed.  The Gannets of course were the star attraction.  I’d forgotten that the scientific name for Gannet Morus bassanus refers to Bass Rock.  Great to have the spectacle of thousands of Gannets close up on Bass Rock, but equally spectacular where the birds flying overhead.  It brought back memories of previous trips to Gannet colonies at Ailsa Craig, Shetland and Bempton Cliffs, all of them with there own special attraction.

Gannets and Guillemots
 
Of course there were other seabirds to be seen including Guillemot, Razorbill, Puffin, Shag, Cormorant, Fulmar, Eider, Kittiwake, and other gull species.  This was definitely a day for Gannets however.  Grey Seal was also seen.  I would have gone on this trip today for the boat trip to Bass Rock alone.

Lighthouse designed by the cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson

Part of the fortifications

 

  Once Back at North Berwick we just had time to pick up a couple of cans of Coca Cola and note the prices of some of the good in the visitor centre, and then we were back on the coach for our return journey to Newcastle.  Despite the wet start it had been an excellent day with a very friendly group of participants. Sam has developed a pattern of been hit by bird crap and today was no exception.  As I said to him, ‘you’re bound to be a very lucky guy’.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Display of Druridge Delights



14th April.  I said recently that I would be back to Druridge Bay soon and so I was, if a little sooner than I had anticipated.  Sam and I began our walk at Druridge Country Park.  On arrival we were soon listening to numerous Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs and song from a lone Blackcap.  This more than made up for the fact that I had found neither Willow Warbler nor Blackcap on patch so far this year.  The feeding station at the hide was quiet with Goldfinch and Chaffinch amongst the visitors, but we had some nice sightings over the pool.  The best sighting of all was watching Red-breasted Mergansers displaying with much bowing, neck stretching and frantic movements on the water.  Unfortunately we were unable to hear any nuptial song coming from open bills as we were too distant from the birds, but a great sight none the less and if this kind of display doesn’t excite then I can only think that bird watching is not for you.

Other birds on the pond included Little Grebe, pairs of Great Crested Grebe, three Pintail (2 males and a female), Gadwall, Teal, Tufted Duck Goldeneye and other species.  Swallow and Sand Martin numbers seemed to be building up nicely and Skylarks and Meadow Pipits sang.  The Exmoor Ponies caught the eye and we saw several today, unknown to them is the fact that they do such a good job for conservation.  They really are beautiful beasts.  I told Sam that I would like one, but we agreed it might find my garden restrictive, although I do think it would keep the cats out!

Hey Ned, do we get owt for all of this work?  Neigh marra, has no one told you, this conservation work relies on volunteers!

 Our aim was to end the walk at Cresswell, so we set off in a southerly direction with the wind at this point not being too strong, but chilling enough to ensure we kept a few layers on.   Kestrels put in an appearance from time to time and Reed Buntings were often present.  A Common Sandpiper was found feeding around the rocky area of the island.  It wasn’t long before we were watching a pair of Marsh Harriers in what appeared to be display flights with one of the harriers being harassed by a Greylag Goose which didn’t seem to take kindly to the harrier’s presence.  I think it was around this time that Sam caught sight of Roe Deer just before they headed off into the reeds.

We took the chance of a short sea watch at the burn but didn’t find much out at sea, although we found our first Sandwich Terns of the year (eventually having one fly close to us and over to North Pool), more Red-breasted Mergansers, Eiders displaying and a Grey Seal.  More interesting was watching the waders which included Oystercatcher, Ringed Plovers, Sanderling and Dunlin.  Most interesting were the Ringed Plovers that were displaying.  Sam had told me of a small area which has been fenced off in this area by NWT presumably as an area to attract Ringed Plovers and possibly terns.  It does seem an ideal spot a very good idea and I hope it is successful.  I’m assuming if terns are attracted there may well be a permanent watch on the site similar to the site at Long Nanny?   We took a small detour along the path that follows the reed-bed and although I think any Bearded Tits would be well out of the way of the wind we did find Grey Herons flying out of the reed-bed.  None of them were purple I’m afraid!  There were quite a few eyes on the look out for the Purple Heron which had been seen to fly north over Swallow Pond.

Why's everyone avoiding me?  Is it because of the state of me hair?
 
We found once out on the open pathway again that the wind speed had risen considerably, although the sun now coming through clouds helped warm the air.  Our next stop was Druridge Pools and a late and much needed lunch.  The large pool held very little and the water as seems usual these days was high.  From the hide looking south we watched Lapwings displaying and listened to the calling birds and on one occasion watched a pair mating.  Shelduck, Mallard, Shoveller, Gadwall, Teal, Wigeon and Tufted Duck were on the pools.  Curlews could be heard and a flock flew around the area.

A pair of Stonechat was found as we headed off towards Cresswell again, but I think the wind ensured that there were few other passerines found in the area.  I hadn’t seen Twite this year despite looking for them on a couple of previous occasion.  We took a good look in the area where they are usually found feeding.  Disappointingly we picked up Meadow Pipits, Skylarks and a sizable flock of Linnets and were about to move on when Sam got his eye on a handful of Twite feeding alongside the Linnets.  We ended up having good sightings of five Twite, now added to my year list.  There may have been more Twite amongst the sand dunes but five were all that we saw.  We’d seen House Sparrows at the farm as we passed by, but little else.

Two or three time son our walk we had been told of two Little Ringed Plovers amongst a small flock of Ringed Plover and it wasn’t long before we were having reasonably good sightings of them although the wind was making things a bit difficult.  We ended up sat on the ground and this helped.

Sam had his first sighting of the year of the Avocets although there were only four present today.  In the same area we found a White Wagtail amongst the Pied Wagtails.  As we approached we had seen the distinctive white rump of Wheatear as it flew across the field but it was a while before we found any more.  Eventually Wheatears did return and we had quite a number of them showing well.  As we walked to the hide at the south end of the pond Sam found another Wheatear in field to the left and then we watched what looked like a newly arrived Wheatear resting on the stone wall near to the parking area.  It was being photographed by photographers who had perhaps arrived in the hope of Barn Owls.  We thought that there was every possibility that the Barn Owls would stay out of the windy conditions.

The walk down the path to the hide brought us the usual sightings of Tree Sparrows.  The pond itself was very quiet with most waterfowl probably been cleared by the strong wind.  The Shelduck were braving it out and we were treated to some more displaying by them.  This time it ended with what appeared to be two males in combat and entwined together for some time.  Eventually one of these birds was exiled to the centre of the lake having seemingly backed down.  It was almost time to leave now, but we watched four summer plumage Dunlin on the sand bank and occasionally in flight, Redshank, Curlew and Common Snipe.  Two Common Snipe were disturbed by gulls and they lifted from the area in front of the hide where they had been well camouflaged.  Another was watched as it headed from the sand bank into the reeds.  Lapwing and Kestrel were also in the area.

So the promised return to Druridge Bay had proven a great walk yet again, great birding and an overall great day.  Sam and I agreed that whilst some days are of course quieter than others, we are never go home disappointed after a days birding.  There is always something to see and that excites us.  As I indicated earlier, the day I leave an area like this unsatisfied, it is then I will know I need to take up stamp collecting!  I was confident I’d have a day list far in excess of the one from my last visit and that thought proved correct.  We ended with a tally of seventy-one bird species which included some great sightings.  It was a pleasure to talk to those that we passed on the walk too.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

A Triple Arrival on Patch

11th April.  A cancelled trip to the coast allowed me to take a walk out on patch.  Surely there had to be hirundines here today, and sure enough before I reached the lake I had spotted some Swallows.  Once at the lake it wasn't long before I was watching a newly arrived mixed flock of Swallows and Sand Martins.  The flock was mostly made up of Sand Martins with certainly forty plus present.  At last!  I was just beginning to think migrants were arriving late this year when I found a Common Tern feeding over the lake, and this one seems to be here early.


The Great Crested Grebes need to get cracking too or any young will be relatively late this year.

No luck yet with regard to Willow Warbler.  I searched the area where I usually find new arrivals and there was no sign of them.  Growing numbers of calling and active Chiffchaff however.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Avocets, Harriers and a Great Ball of Fire



8th April.  What a difference a day or two makes, with the sun shining over Druridge Bay and a clear view out over a calm North Sea.  Yes I had returned, this time with Lee.  We were hopeful of some sightings of hirundines, Wheatears and Sandwich Terns, but we found none.  Our failure is perhaps what made the day seem relatively quiet, a day which began with a short stop at Castle Island where the call of Chiffchaffs rang out.  Common Buzzard was seen on the journey and again in the distance at Cresswell.  The first of many Kestrels put in an appearance.

Our next stop was Cresswell where we looked over a quiet sea and I picked up a lone Guillemot.  There were very few waders about apart from Oystercatcher, Redshank and Curlew.  We left quite quickly to visit the north end of Cresswell Pond in search of Wheatear and we weren’t alone in our search.  Several times we heard ‘have you seen Wheatear?  There had been reports of Wheatear in this area the day before.  So no Wheatear was seen, but there was an increase in the number of Avocets which showed really well, both on the ground and in flight.  I counted fourteen birds and was told that someone else had counted sixteen birds earlier in the day.  I was content with fourteen and watched them for sometime before backtracking to the hide where we watched the likes of Lapwing, Curlew, Redshank,  Shelduck, Mallard, Gadwall, Wigeon, Tufted Duck and Goldeneye.


Avocet
 
Skylark song was in the air at our next stops at Druridge Pools, where we saw very little, and East Chevington which was fairly quiet too.  North Pool held a pair of Great Crested Grebe, Red-breasted Merganser and Goldeneye et al.  The sighting that took most of our time here was the pair of Marsh Harriers that we quickly picked up, the dark female showing really well at length and the male bird putting in a very short appearance.  We took a walk south along by the reed-beds and spent a pleasant time just stood waiting and watching during which we heard Little Grebes  and Common Snipe calling, the latter birds taking to flight eventually.  Reed Buntings made several appearances and had done so throughout the day. 

Reed Bunting
  
It had been my first sightings of the Marsh Harriers this year. Harriers are my favourite family of birds.  They were certainly attracting the attention of a good number of visitors, several of them photographers.  As I said, a relatively quiet day, but with two special sightings in the Avocets and the Marsh Harriers and of course the pleasure of being in such a wonderful area in such fine weather.  The day list came to fifty-seven, but I aim to get back to the area soon for a walk probably between East Chevington and Cresswell, so I’m looking forward to far exceeding that list next time.


 
9th April.  Two visits to the lake today and still no sign of Sand Martins!  This evening allowed me to watch the Great Crested Grebes and circular feeding Shovellers as the sun went down.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Butterflies in the Sun to Avocets in the Mist



5th April.  At last I saw my first butterfly of the year, as a Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly flew over the garden as I left the house.  Good at last to have some real sun and warmth.  I made for my favourite butterfly area on patch and was soon watching numbers of Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock Butterflies, all quite flighty so I didn’t have time to get macro images.  I then walked across to the lake and found that five Great Crested Grebes remain and I got speaking to a guy who was visiting the lake from south of the River Tyne.  The patch has now got its share of Chiffchaffs, but I found no Sand Martins which are later than last year.

Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly on Daffodil
 
6th April.  Marie and I set off in the sun and headed for Cresswell.  After hearing so much about the high water levels here I didn’t expect to see much.  I didn’t see much as it happens, but it had little to do with high water levels (the levels weren’t that high, with the sand bank to the right of the hide showing well), but everything to do with the thick mist we had found ourselves in.  The pond was barely visible.  I noted that eleven Avocets had been seen earlier in the morning and understand that the mist had descended after a clear start to the day.  After watching Reed Buntings, Shelduck, Mallard, Curlew, Redshank and a Little Egret which was deep into the mist we decided to try the north end of the pond.  Numbers of Tree Sparrows were visiting the feeders and also on the roof of the buildings.  This was where we managed to have very good sightings of eight Avocets.  After spending some time watching these birds we decided that as there was little sign of the mist burning off it would be best to head back south and visit Holywell thus taking in two of my favourite areas.  So our plan to travel further north was abandoned.

Tree Sparrow looking out at mist

 On the way to the members hide we found numbers of Greylag Geese in the west field.  The pond itself was very quiet.  Birds seen included Little Grebe which seemed to be displaying, Mute Swan, Grey Heron, Tufted Duck, Lesser Black-backed Gulls and more Reed Buntings.  Skylarks sang as we walked down towards the dene having chatted to CS.  Good to see him on patch.  At least the sun was shining on us again and a few Small Tortoiseshell Butterflies were seen.  I’d almost forgotten it was Easter Monday, but I got a sharp reminder when I found The Avenue and dene full of folk, almost as many dogs and cycles.  Perhaps not surprisingly there were few birds about, although I heard Nuthatch.

On arrival back home it was like a summer’s day.  Despite mist at the first stop and folk enjoying their holiday break, I’d enjoyed the day.  I have to admit I prefer attempting to watch birds in the mist and listening to the calls in an atmospheric area, far more than attempting to watch birds surrounded by people and their pets.