Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Peacocks, Popeye and Characters

15th April.  I began my walk from Brier Dene today, thinking that my bag seemed ever so light and that this reflected my growing fitness following long walks.  I strode out feeling pleased with myself.  Sadly I was to be disappointed later, but more of that anon. Little more than Linnets and Greenfinches as I joined the coastline, although as I approached St Mary’s Island a single Pied (White) Wagtail was near the foot of the cliff along with a Rock Pipit as a small group of film makers seemed busy in the area.  The sunlight was almost blinding at times and the skies without cloud, although the air was still chilled.  Oystercatchers, Sanderling, Turnstones, Dunlin and Curlew fed as the tide receded.  I once again caught sight of a face I knew looking at me, but I couldn’t place it.  It wasn’t until sometime later I remembered who it was!

I found little around the area of the island although did sight two Gannets.  The wetland was also quiet the best sightings being Reed Buntings.  Canada Geese flew past as I began the walk towards Seaton Sluice.  I soon began to catch sight of flighty Peacock Butterflies and by the time I had completed my walk I had seen well over twenty of them (I stopped counting at twenty),  numerous Small Tortoiseshell Butterflies and a few white species which I’m sure at least one was a Green Veined White.  All were very flighty and difficult to photograph.  It wasn’t yet lunch time but I felt peckish so sat down on one of the seats to demolish my packet of crisps.  I was joined by a dog which seemed determined to join me on the seat.  Along came the owner who informed me that, ‘I won’t allow the dogs to sit on this seat,’ and ‘have you seen the state of it, it’s filthy’?  Apparently the bloke’s dogs are used to the better seats near the shooting mound.  I carried on eating my crisps and made do with the filthy seat which was good enough for me, if not the dogs!  I noted the increasing numbers of Swallows and Sand Martins, but saw no House Martins.

Peacocks were proving difficult!
I spent some time close by the Fulmar nesting sight and managed to capture a few images of these extraordinary seabirds.  Skylarks and Meadow Pipits sang and displayed, but there wasn’t much else to hold the attention apart from the area itself which looked grand in the clear sunlight.  I usually walk towards Seaton Sluice watching dark cloud approach from the north so today was a nice exception and the coolness made for perfect temperatures to walk in.


There wasn’t too much around the area of Seaton Sluice, but I did find a Purple Sandpiper in the harbour, and I came across another character I knew.  This time it was Popeye who seemed to be enjoying his spinach.  These models are popping up all over Seaton Sluice and include a model Puffin, Shell Girl on swing, a Bat and a cane Deer etc etc etc as well as the collection outside of the pub.  I think a local guy on the island makes them (but don’t quote me on that).

Popeye eats his spinach

I made off towards the dene and was soon listening to now growing numbers of Chiffchaff.  At some point I found a plant in flower that looked as if it was Spring Squill.  I reached into my bag to grab the macro lens.  It wasn’t there.  I’d left it at home!  That explains why my bag felt light then.  Disappointingly I have to accept that the light bag had nothing to do with my exercise and growing fitness.  Today’s sunshine had made a great difference to the flowers of plants photographed a couple of days earlier but sadly without my macro I’m unable to show you.

One taken earlier...a Stitchwort 

By now Peacock Butterflies were lifting up everywhere and there was growing numbers of Tortoiseshell Butterflies.  I eventually managed to capture half decent images of both.  The level of birdsong in the dene was higher than ever today and the Blackcaps were also showing well again.  On this occasion I watched a male Blackcap collecting nesting material.

Peacock Butterfly cooperating

As I finally sat down to eat my sandwich I watched a young lad with his father/elder walk over the fallen trees to the other side of the burn.  They have better balance than I have is all I can say.  Perhaps not as much sense as me though, as the youngster almost fell from a height into the burn when a branch snapped and dropped him onto the bank of the burn.  A potentially nasty accident was avoided by sheer good luck.  The elder bloke marked the occasion with a photograph before walking off.  It was at this point the Dipper flew down the burn and shortly afterwards back up again.  Great, Coal, Blue and Long Tailed Tits were all seen along with other woodland birds and a Stock Dove showed near what I think is a nest site.

A walk up the Avenue brought little, although I did watch a Common Buzzard fly in the area of the obelisk.  Linnets and Goldfinch were again in the area of the gorse.  Gadwall flew overhead and seemed to join the Greylag and Canada Geese in the fields east of Holywell Pond.

I must have walked up this avenue a few times now!
The pond was generally quite again but perhaps if the rain keeps off some waders may be attracted to the muddy area in front of the public hide.  Today there was just one Lapwing there.  The pond held the same species as on my previous visit although on this occasion I sighted a Grey Heron almost hidden in the reeds at the north east end of the pond.  I eventually heard Chiffchaff in North Wood, but no Willow Warbler on this occasion.

Walking towards the members hide I bumped into friends who were involved in a butterfly survey.  They told me ‘we can’t really identify the butterflies’.  I thought to myself that their results may be a little dodgy.:-)  I bumped into SP in the hide.  There wasn’t anything new to be noted from here although Reed Buntings fed outside of the hide.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Holywell to Seaton Sluice

12th April.  I think the highlight of my walk today was watching for thirty minutes the antics of three Blackcaps, of which two were male and the other a sought after female.  They were in a small area of Holywell Dene which I know is a regular nesting area for Blackcap.  The birds seemed in a frenzy of activity, the males disputing territorial rights and the female joining in their to and fro flights around the small area.  It could have been a scene from the Big Market on a Saturday night had it not been that these songsters knew how to sing.   The males were singing loudly and almost continuously each time they perched in the bushes, each male seeming to try to out sing the other bird.  During my watch I couldn’t quite make my mind up if it was the male or female of this species that looks most attractive.  I found three more pairs of Blackcap in the dene today with song coming from all of the males.  Their behaviour reflected growing action from birds in general in the dene.  On entering the dene I had found a Dipper almost right away and watched it as a Song Thrush belted out its song above my head with backing vocals from numbers of Blackbirds and Chiffchaffs.  I feel it a shame that part of the dene’s undergrowth has been wrecked over time by it being used as a cycle track.  A great Spotted Woodpecker was heard drumming and a Grey Wagtail showing really well on the burn.  The only visitors to the almost empty feeding stations were tits which included several Coal Tits.

My walk had begun in Holywell Village where I had looked for Swallows.  It wasn’t until I had almost left the village that I found a lone Swallow (my first of the year) settled on an overhead cable.  Another lone Swallow was seen later near to the pond.  The pond itself held several calling Little Grebes, with four of them right outside of the members hide when I arrived.  I soon picked up the calls of Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler in North Wood and spotted a Willow Warbler at the east of the pond when I later walked that way.  This was another first for the year.  Other species on the pond included Greylag Geese, Canada Geese, Shelduck (two flying over the pond), Mallard, Gadwall, at least five Shoveller, Teal, Tufted Duck, and Moorhen.   A Great Spotted Woodpecker was seen flying into North Wood and watched briefly as it made its way up a tree.  I chatted with Northumbrian Birder before making off towards the avenue.  Two Lapwings flew overhead and Skylarks sang.  I walked little northwards before turning and heading for the dene.  Numbers of Linnet were around the gorse area with small numbers of Meadow Pipit and Goldfinch.

An uncoiled fern looking rather animal like when seen close up

Bluebell just beginning to open

The delicate Wood Sorrel one of my favourite plants

My progress through the dene was slow because as well as making long stops to watch the Dipper and Blackcaps  I took special note of the botanical interest in the area today.  The grey morning didn’t make for seeing the plants in good light.

Red Campion

Lesser Celandine seen at its most attractive

 By the time I was insight of Seaton Sluice the rain was falling and the mist was thickening over the sea.  I had hope for possibly Wheatear and Sandwich Tern at Seaton Sluice but found neither, although I didn’t hang around too long.  Teal were seen flying over the sea and Eider Ducks were on the water as usual.  Oystercatcher, Turnstone, Redshank and five Purple Sandpipers were on the rocks below.  I left damp, but had enjoyed a good and interesting walk.

Wood Anemone slowly opening

Common Scurrvy Grass.  There's an abundance of this plant as you pass the burn nearing Seaton Sluice.  The rather succulent leaves contain vitamin C and were once used by seamen to ward off the scurrvy.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Back to Patch

After an exciting trip to the North Pennines last weekend it was back to earth and patch on Wednesday.  The wind made for a rough lake and relatively quiet lake but the long staying Scaup was showing well.  Unfortunately the light was none too good.

Scaup (in poor light)

 Only one of the Great Crested Grebes was showing in the centre of the lake with no sign of its mate.  One of the now regular Shovellers was also in the centre of the lake.  A handful of Sand Martins fed over the water.

One of the now regular Shovellers on a rough lake.
Seventy to eighty Mute Swans were on the larger lake and the flock was being fed by youngsters.  Good to see the kids enjoying themselves.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

North Pennines, Black Grouse and Stunning Habitat

5th April.  Today was the day that Sam took up his bespoke photography tour with Northern Experience Wildlife Tours.  This was the prize from his success in the NWT/NHSN Wildlife Photography Competition in 2013.  The prize offered two places and Sam kindly invited me along again.  So we were up before the larks at 4:00am and picked up by Martin Kitching of NEWT and soon on our way towards the North Pennines.  As we left the birds were singing and thankfully the mist of the previous days had disappeared.

We had some decent sightings on the journey including Tawny Owl perched at the side of the road, Woodcock over the trees, Roe Deer, Grey Partridges and Red Legged Partridges.


The highlight of the day, and I have to say one of my top birding experiences was to be at our first stop at Langdon Beck.  The dawn atmosphere was all set to provide a wonderful experience as we watched thirty plus Black Grouse at the lekking ground.  It wasn’t simply the sight of these magnificent birds, but also the sounds.  The calls of the Black Grouse intermingled with the calls of the likes of Curlew, Lapwing, Common Snipe, Meadow Pipit and Skylark.  Bird calls were to be a major part of the enjoyment of the day, as was the general atmosphere and habitat, whether the sun was shining or the rain falling and mist dropping on the higher ground.  This was an experience not to be missed and one certainly worth getting out of bed early for.  Time seemed to pass very quickly as we watched the antics of the Blackcock, and the few Greyhens that were on the periphery and occasionally at the centre of the lek.  At one point the birds seemed to be disturbed, possibly by an innocent dog walker, and flew off the lekking site to adjoining ground, but they were soon back.  We watched until only two of the Blackcock continued to spar and birds began to disperse to feeding areas. You can count on this experience being recounted in my annual summary at the end of 2014!  It was a little later that I slowly realised that I’d seen a familiar face pass by.  Not a bird this time, but a blogger.  I reckon that we had a couple of fellow local bloggers beside us today! :-)

Common Snipe. (I prefer drystone walls to barb wire fences and thankfully there are many drystone walls in the area).

 It wasn’t long after watching the lek that we were photographing Lapwings and Common Snipe, of which the latter I can’t remember having seen so many before.  We heard the plaintive calls of Golden Plover and eventually caught numbers in flight, but we never did get close enough for photographs of this species.  We did have a splendid sighting of a Golden Plover through the binoculars and it had to be one of the most attractive species seen in a while.  Other waders seen included Oystercatcher, Redshank and Curlew, with another possible fleeting sighting of Woodcock.

A good part of the day was spent watching more Black Grouse at a number of sites well known to Martin and photographing Red Grouse.  Some of the areas we passed through are extensively managed for Red Grouse as reflected in the patchwork quilt effect of burnt heather.  The area itself is magnificent habitat although needless to say there aren’t many raptors about!  At times the sun was out, at other times the fells and crags were dark and brooding, whilst for a short spell it was simply misty and wet on higher ground.  If it hadn’t been for the wildlife I would have been content to have spent the time on landscape photography.  The changing light conditions was giving ample opportunity for this as we looked at distant fells covered in mist or overhung by thunderous dark cloud, then passed by at the foot of rather threatening crags above us.  Then the sun would break through again giving a completely different feel to the remote and wild areas.   We timed our lunch break well during the wet period.  Lunch provided by Martin was much enjoyed.

Red Grouse in their habitat
Skylarks and Meadow Pipits were with us throughout the tour and thrushes well represented with sightings of Song Thrush, Redwing, Mistle Thrush, Fieldfare and Blackbird.  No Ring Ouzels were found.  Our mammal list for the day was Rabbit, Brown Hare, Roe Deer and either a Stoat or Weasel briefly seen by Sam.  Smaller passerines were seen only in limited numbers, but did include the likes of Chaffinch and Greenfinch.

Early on in the morning we searched for Golden Plover around the area of Cow Green Reservoir.  As I’ve mentioned we found none close enough to photograph, but we saw them in numbers and enjoyed their plaintive calling.  An unexpected find was twenty-two Whooper Swans seen at distance and through thin mist on the reservoir.

Kestrels were seen briefly and we did have one Raven fly overhead during the day.  Stock Doves were seen in some number.  A couple of Red-legged Partridges gave us a far better sighting than an earlier one, but scuttled away before we could take a photograph.

So all in all it was a great day with great company and great wildlife in great habitat, and after  an early rise and ten hours concentrating in the field I was pretty tired on the journey home.  That Black Grouse lek will certainly take some beating as a spectacle this year.  I’d like to offer my thanks to Martin Kitching of Northern Experience Wildlife Tours for providing such a wonderful opportunity.  In my opinion NEWTs should be the first thought on anyone’s mind if they feel they want guidance and a wildlife tour in our area.  I know from having also participated in three NEWT pelagics, that they too are excellent.  Even more of my thanks go to Sam for inviting me to join him and share this opportunity.  I’m pleased to say that as we came to an end of the tour Sam was rewarded with what I think will be a lifer for him.  We found two what we initially thought were Common Buzzards one of which turned out to be a Rough Legged Buzzard!

As I say, a great day in the uplands and five new year ticks for me too!

Thursday, 3 April 2014


3rd April.  I’ve done little bird watching these past few days but have just had sighting of my first Sand Martins of the year on patch over Killingworth Lake.  In fact they are my first Sand Martins of the year.  They were flying over a small flotilla of eight Goldeneye.  I was down there just before 7:00pm and it was cold and misty once again.

On Monday I called at the Rising Sun, but this was a prearranged meeting for coffee rather than birding, although a walk past Swallow Pond did bring the likes of eight Shoveller, numerous Little Grebes and a handful of Lesser Black backed Gulls.  The weather was as per today, chilly and misty which actually lent quite an atmosphere to the area, but I do think someone should try and clean up the area around the edge of the pond near the hide where many seem to drop their litter.

As well as having coffee on my mind on Monday I also had books on my mind as I had been offered a copy of Keartons’ Nature Pictures published in 1910, the authors being Richard and Cherry Kearton.  I’m a go between as far as the book is concerned as it will eventually find its way to a friend.:-)  Thanks go to another friend Hilary, who passed the book to us.

Now I’ve long thought that in many ways that today’s photographers have it somewhat easy in having use of all of the modern digital equipment.  I held off getting involved in photography again for reasons which included that I thought it was not the skilled pastime that it once was and that everyone seemed to be ‘into it’ now.  I have to admit I was wrong on this count and having tried my hand at nature photography I realise that digital or not it ain’t easy to capture good images.  I cringe a bit when I look at some of the images produced early on in my blog by my pocket Canon IXUS.  Having moved on a little I find I really do enjoy using an SLR again and I’m about ready to invest in some new equipment again.  It definitely adds to nature watching rather than detracting from it.

I still do think that the ‘old’ photographers had special skills and ways.  I’m not sure many of today’s photographers would take with them a stuffed OX skin as the Keartons’ did to use as a natural looking hide.  Although mind you some of the larger telephoto lenses I see out and about might weigh nearly as much.

The Kearton brothers were from Swaledale.  Richard published his first book, Birds Nests, Eggs and Egg Collecting, in 1890.  I believe his brother Cherry took the first ever photograph of a bird’s nest with eggs.  The brothers worked together on a book entitled British Birds Nests in 1895 and this was fully illustrated with photographs. 
Keartons’ Nature Pictures is a good addition to an already good collection.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Misty Patch

30th March.  I nipped down to the lake today.  It was late afternoon and the mist still hung around.  I spoke to one of the regulars who has a real interest in the wildlife on and around the lake and it was interesting to note that she shares my negative views as to how the Local Authority are dealing with the floating reed-bed which is no longer of any use as a nesting site! A coots nest was waterlogged along side the wired off floating structure.  I think the term floating structure best describes it.

I’d been alerted by Sam that the Scaup still remains and surely enough it showed really well until deciding to have a nap on the lake and the head disappeared.  There was no sign of the Mandarin Duck reported last week.  Goosander and Goldeneye are still represented.  A pair of Lesser-black Backed Gulls stood out from the crowd as did the Shovellers.  Best of all the Great Crested Grebes rested clearly as a pair now.  Chiffchaffs called in the background and Mistle Thrushes flew in the church grounds as I wandered home.  I was out for less than forty-five minutes.   

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Hulne Park, Alnwick...A Very Pheasant Day

29th March.  Marie, Sam and I carried out a reccy of the planned RSPB walk at Hulne Park pencilled in for 26th April when bird activity will I think have reached a peak.  We followed the red route today so the reccy was pretty easy in terms of direction.  Hopefully members will be attracted by the 4.7 mile walk through mixed habitat, including a very nice stretch along the bank of the River Aln.

Park Entrance
It’s a few years since my first and only previous visit to Hulne Park.  At that time I was able to list Hawfinch on the day list.  Nothing like that today I’m afraid but still a very enjoyable walk in misty conditions.  The cry of ‘and there’s a ‘Pheasant’ was heard on many occasions!

I remember on my previous visit that there were numerous species near the entrance at the lodge, amongst them the Hawfinch.  This area was rather quiet in comparison today.  It wasn’t long before we were listening to Chiffchaffs and eventually managing to catch sight of one high in the trees.  The likes of Nuthatch, Treecreeper and Goldcrest gave good sightings too.

Along by the river we found both Dipper and a pair of Grey Wagtail and having heard Great Spotted Woodpecker early on in the walk we finally sighted one.  Sam spotted a distant Common Buzzard in the trees and it was later seen in closer flight.

It brought joy to my eyes when I had noted that no vehicles, dogs or cyclists are allowed in the park and in fact we were the first of a very few walkers in there today.  At the start of our walk we had only the calls of a Cockerel and Pheasants along with the accompaniment of numerous woodland birds singing to keep us company.  We did find one dog which I assumed was owned by one of the tenants.  The dog was in the process of chewing at a dead rabbit carcass and didn’t have much time to notice us.  We did find a few Rabbits alive and also Roe Deer and a Hare.

In the open Parkland numerous Mistle Thrushes were seen along with Redwing and Fieldfare.  Song Thrushes were heard during the walk and numerous Blackbirds seen.  Jays were heard and a brief, but good sighting of one of them was made.

I began, not for the first time, thinking that I must learn more about tree species and we ended the walk stating ‘and there’s another Pheasant!  I reckon I’ll dream of Pheasants tonight.  I didn’t feel as though I’d walked 4.7 miles but must have.  We’d passed the old Priory and had taken lunch sitting beside the well.  Mute Swans were on the River Aln and distant Greylag Geese could be seen faintly through the mist as they called.

We’d arrived in Alnwick to early to enter the park when it opens at 11.00am, so we called in at Barter Books for cups of coffee and tea.  Why not begin the day in true RSPB fashion we thought, although not having long finished breakfast we couldn’t be tempted by the cakes on offer.  It’s along time since I had visited Barter Books and I was very impressed with this business in part of the old railway station.  We sat by the open coal fires as we enjoyed our drinks.  This is a building and a business that Northumbrians ought to be proud of and if you haven’t visited then I think you ought to.

Sam and I decided that we must visit Hulne Park again soon and complete a different walk and also re-visit Barter Books perhaps with a van to carry our purchases back to Killingworth and full wallets to pay for them!  I understand Sam’s mum and dad are really pleased that Sam has such a good collection of books and are only too pleased to think that many more will be entering their home soon!  Today’s list was thirty-five bird species and a single book.  Both totals will I’m sure be exceeded on our next visit. 

Lack of photos explained today by weather conditions.