Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Fulmars, Butterflies and Warblers

21st April.  Sam and I took the chance to look at the Fulmars at close range again during another Holywell to St Mary’s Island walk.  The tubenoses weren’t quite as cooperative as they had been last week when I visited alone.  I picked up a couple of Fulmar feathers.

The coast was fairly quiet if you discount the human invasion and man’s best friend, his/her dogs.  We did see my first of the year terns in the form of four Sandwich Terns feeding as they flew north past Seaton Sluice.  There was also a lone Red Throated Diver on the sea.  With an accompaniment of Skylarks, Meadow Pipits and a male Reed Bunting perched on the fence we did hear and see both Common Whitethroat and Grasshopper Warbler near the shooting mounds.  Another Grasshopper Warbler was heard as we passed by the wetland.  I noted few hirundines today, although we did see a few Swallows and Sand Martins.  The tide was well out and waders too were seen in only small numbers.

When we had started out there was a nice atmosphere at Holywell Pond, but no new species of note.  We searched the area for Common Whitethroat, but found none.  Again Linnets, Goldfinch and Reed Buntings were about the area.  Both Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler had been heard, and continued to be heard as we walked through the dene.

Holywell Dene


Busy Bee 

White Deadnettle

Wood Anemone

There was no show from the Dippers, but we did see Grey Wagtail and numerous Blackcaps, the latter species seeming to have paired up now and so being less frantic and therefore not showing so often.  Both Nuthatch and Treecreeper showed well.  A pair of Mallard were on the burn, Great Spotted Woodpecker was heard and tit species seen were Great, Coal, Blue and Long-tailed Tit.  There was much song and activity from Wrens.  Plants and insects were also grabbing the attention and both Sam and I saw our first Speckled Wood Butterfly of the season, along with Small White, Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock Butterflies.  The sun made for high temperatures in the dene, but there was a noticeable drop in temperature nearer the sea.

Small Tortoiseshell courtship

Ladybird (six spot)
Rare to have four good weather days over an Easter Holiday, so I’m pleased I was out to enjoy a couple of them.  The rain has held off until today and is pouring down as I type which ought to guarantee that Mr and Ms UK put their clothes back on, and in many cases that can only be a good thing. 

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Prestwick to Patch and Urban Grebes

19th April.  Despite the brightness the air was chilled as I set off for Prestwick Carr this morning although it didn’t take long for the sun to offer some warmth.  I didn’t fancy facing the crowds at the coast today, so thought the Carr offered a far better option.  The song of Willow Warblers greeted me as I approached the bumpy road and all along that road and up past the sentry box Willow Warblers were around in large numbers.

One of many Willow Warblers
Common Buzzards also entertained form the outset of the walk and mewing could be heard at times.  The only other species of note on the outward walk along the bumpy road were Reed Bunting, Skylark and Meadow Pipit.  I did find my first Peacock Butterfly of the day and once the sun had warmed the air more Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and Small White Butterflies were found

Prestwick Peacock

 I bumped into PF as I headed towards the sentry box.  He told me that he hadn’t heard the Redstart today which was a disappointment as I’d hoped to find it, but he had heard two reeling Grasshopper Warblers.  Two Grey Partridges had preceded PF down the path and they turned into the fields before reaching me.  A few Curlews were about and at some point I heard Redshank calling.  I kept my ears alert for the sound of reeling, but never did hear any from this path.  By now the Common Buzzards were showing well.

I spent quite some time in the area that holds the Redstart, but neither saw nor heard any.  It did give me time to take in other species which were about which included Canada Geese, Mallard, Moorhen, Swallow,  Kestrel, Wren, Robin, Blackbird, Meadow Pipit, Pied Wagtail, Dunnock, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Chaffinch and Goldfinch, and of course gulls, pigeons and corvids.  I found a Brown Hare and hoped that it was going to continue to run towards me giving a good opportunity for an image, but no such luck as it turned off the pathway.

On my return sat on the viewing platform to enjoy my lunch and wondered if anyone ever uses it.  I had only the overhead Common Buzzards for company.  As I continued my return walk I took a leaf out of Sam’s book and lay on the ground to photograph Red Deadnettle.  As I got up I was approached by a couple on bicycles that had I think speeded up their peddling in order to quickly reach me so as to give first aid.  I assured them I wasn’t quite in need of that!  I think they may have been a bit disappointed.

Red Dead-nettle.  If I hadn't stood up I think I may have received the kiss of life!
I stopped further along the road and as I looked north and watched a Grey Heron fly towards me reeling came from the sedges near to where I was standing.  I briefly caught sight of my first of the year Grasshopper Warbler.  I spotted a shape in the distance and when I put my bins to it I saw it was a Roe Deer, most of its body hidden.

After a good few hours on the Carr I returned to patch and took a walk around the lake.  Bit too much of a holiday atmosphere for my liking and the model boats were out in force.  I did find that the long staying Scaup was still about before getting my eye on the two Great Crested Grebes swimming together.  I was surprised to see both together as I thought by now they would have nested.  By the time I was down to the floating ‘thing’ I found the grebes at a nesting platform.  KH was there sat in his chair with an 800mm lens.  I think he’d been there most of the day and must have thought I was very lucky indeed to have arrived seconds before the birds mated on the nesting platform.  K informed me that another pair of Great Crested Grebes was on the smaller lake.  When I took a look over there I times it perfectly to find them displaying in the centre of the lake.  This ended my jaunt in the sun on a high.

The original pair of Great Crested Grebes

The floating thing remains closed to nesting birds.  I know a number of folk share my opinion of the Council’s action on this matter and hope they all share their views with the said Council otherwise our views will simply be ignored.  

The second pair of Great Crested Grebes end their display.


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!