Saturday, 23 May 2015

Holly Blue


 
23rd May.  I was confined to garden duty today and I must say it was a grand day to be confined to the garden.  At least here I was able to avoid the Bank Holiday weekend crowd.

  
I’d noticed that blue butterflies were back in the garden on Wednesday, but I had been occupied warding of cold calling salesmen at the time so was unable to take a close look.  I’d assumed that they were Holly Blue Butterflies.  Today one of them was back although extremely flighty over the hedges and small trees it did keep settling for short periods.  Unfortunately settling in difficult places which meant a decent macro shot was nearby impossible but at least for the first time I managed to capture an image.




Plenty of other insects in the garden too, taking my mind of the work to be done.


Friday, 22 May 2015

Tunstall Trip



21st May.  I think it must be four or five years, or perhaps even longer since I walked through the oak woodland at Tunstall Reservoir so I was looking forward to a return trip today with Graham and Sam.

As we walked across the reservoir dam we watched Dipper, Pied Wagtail, Grey Wagtail, Redshank and Common Sandpiper in what I believe are now the redundant water treatment areas.   It wasn’t long before we were watching woodland birds including Nuthatch, one of the males feeding the female at the nest and Treecreeper.  Willow Warbler song was filling the air and the occasional Blackcap and Chiffchaff were heard.  A Woodcock was watched as it moved around the woodland floor and disappeared into thick vegetation.  We were later treated to two more Woodcock lifting a few yards away from us and flying low and deeper into the woods as we chatted.  We watched as two, then at least three Song Thrushes seemed to engage in courtship.  I have not seen anything quite like this with Song Thrushes as they frantically flew around in circles in a rather confined area as they gave out calls and snatches of song.  The botanical interest of the oak woodland wasn’t ignored, although I don’t think we had timed things for the best display.

 
What we were hoping for during our visit was sightings of Redstart, Pied Flycatcher and Wood Warbler.  I’ve never been especially lucky with regard the Wood Warbler and on previous visits have only ever heard it in this area.  To be honest I’m not even certain that this species is still a frequent visitor here, but I assume it is.  If there were any Wood Warblers present they didn’t show today.  Neither did we have any luck in sighting Redstart, although we did hear one.  Any disappointment was more than made up for by our sightings of Pied Flycatchers.  More than I’ve seen here in the past, probably encouraged by the numerous nest boxes which I don’t remember in such numbers being available in the past, but maybe my memory is playing tricks.  I believe we found at least four or five pairs of Pied Flycatcher, some showing really well and close to the pathway (as we watched birds welfare was held as paramount as always).  One male fed the female at the nest on several occasions before taking part in some courtship with another female close to the nest site as the other female sat on eggs.  I expect a second clutch will be present soon, typical behaviour within this species which take part in polygynous breeding a subject that anyone who watches Spring-watch on TV will be aware.   At least two Spotted Flycatchers were also seen.  Great Spotted Woodpecker was heard and seen as we spent time watching the behaviour of the Pied Flycatchers.

 
As we eventually left the woodland at the far end of the reservoir more sightings of Dipper and Common Sandpiper were had along with a couple of Great Crested Grebes, Mute Swan, Greylag Geese with tens of goslings, Grey Heron, Mallard and Moorhens.  Calling Curlew were heard flying over as were mewing Common Buzzards.

 
If there had been nothing else during our walk I would have left satisfied with the sightings of Pied Flycatchers.  Beautiful birds indeed.  Another rewarding day to add to numerous others that have been experienced so far in 2015.  Just sorry that I haven’t a better lens to do justice to the birds.  It’s getting closer though.

 
Ficedula hypoleuca is the scientific name for the Pied Flycatcher and my interest in naming of birds had me checking this out.  The Latin word ficedula means small fig eating bird.  The term hypoleuca comes from Greek words hupo meaning below and lukos meaning white.  Not so sure if this is a name as easy to remember as Pica pica or Apus apus but I’ll keep trying!  I’m not sure as to link with figs, but I believe figs attract insects so assume that is the connection.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Sky Watching



20th May.  We ventured out on to patch this evening as the storm clouds slowly moved out eastwards across Blyth Valley and out to sea.  Out on the high open farmland we were able to watch the changing cloud formations, at times a darkened leaden blue hue above the Oil-seed Rape which was lit by sunlight from the now relatively clear western sky.  Lightening flashed at times, but thankfully we remained in sunlight and dry, apart from a short burst of rain which didn’t turn into the hail which had threatened.  Climate change has meant records of warmth and wetness are there to be broken.  Could we be going through the coldest May for sometime?


Our search for an elusive owl remains simply a search and on this occasion Sam was unable to find even a pellet, but we had a really enjoyable evening accompanied by the song of Skylarks, the calls of Meadow Pipits and the distinctive song of Yellowhammer.  Swallows flew low over the fields and the occasional Swift was flying above them.


The whole area was very different from our last visit to this corner of the patch, with crops now growing fast and trees in leaf.  The Lapwings were still showing well and in number and this time at least one chick was visible.  A Redshank was amongst them and calling.  Chiffchaff was heard and Common Whitethroats seen as were two Red-legged Partridges.  A lone Brown Hare was stationary in the field.  The Redshank was a notable find on patch.   We remained dry for the short walk home.
 
North Tyneside council have we note set aside some small areas of grass in Killingworth which are to remain un-cut until October.  Thus as the small signs state, aiding biodiversity.  Do you live in North Tyneside?  If the answer is yes, have the council set aside such areas where you live?  If the answer is no then why not ask the Council why not!  Every effort like this is to be applauded of course, but will it make up for the loss of green areas such as Killingworth Moor to the proposed building plans.  I think not!

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Harthope Valley...Birds in a Landscape



Breaths there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land.
Sir Walter Scott

16th May.  An annual pilgrimage to the Harthope Valley was missed out of the schedule last year because of other pressing engagements, not least being the trip to Hungary, so it was great to be back today in an area which has great appeal to me.  I wasn’t at all concerned about threats of occasional showers and we were soon walking in the footsteps of the likes of Sir Walter Scott and Daniel Defoe who had been past visitors to this area.


Ascent…Our first priority was to search for Ring Ouzel along by the Hawsen Burn and we had hardly left the valley floor when we found a calling Ring Ouzel perched on a post not far from the footpath.  It gave all three of us perhaps our best ever sighting of Ring Ouzel.  Yes, Sam and I were accompanied by our one and only walk participant.  Yes the leaders out numbered the other participants two to one, but its quality wot counts and to be honest it allowed Sam and I to make the most of what was to become a great days birding without having to concern ourselves about the needs and demands of others, something which was of benefit to us.  After we had braved the now almost none existent path without falling into the burn we were soon watching and listening to other male Ring Ouzels, one of which flew close by us and began to search for food as we sat in the sun and watched.  Occasional calls of Red Grouse were heard and the birds watched as some took to flight.

 
Before we had reached any real height we had also been entertained by three or four Stonechats.  The male looked stunning when lit by the sun.  I thought we were going to be less lucky with regards Whinchat, a bird I’ve never failed to see on this climb on past visits.  The nesting heather area where we usually find pairs of this species had been burnt back, so it looked as though the birds had been forced to nest elsewhere.  I did eventually get my eye on one pair of Whinchat.

We reached our target site and rested for a short time during which time we had the Ring Ouzel fly close by and land near us.  There was time to take in the views including that of Hedgehope, look for Slow Worm which we failed to find and to watch the numerous Meadow Pipits.  A Skylark sang nearby and Sam ventured onto higher ground and found a Wheatear.

Cheviot can be seen in the background
 
Descent…We reached the valley floor in good time having passed species that we had seen on the climb and gaining a better view of the scorched squares of heather.  We began to pick up calls from Cuckoos, had a distant sighting of one of them and a much better sighting of another as we finished off our lunch.  Another Whinchat was seen, as was a pair of Green Woodpeckers.  Common Buzzards were showing regularly and one of them flew close by.  Willow Warbler song filled the air at times.  We could see the rounded top of Cheviot.  The occasional shower of rain was still hitting us.  The constantly changing weather meant that we were treated to a constant change of light patterns showing the area in different moods, so all of this added positively to the day.



View from a Bridge…The plan now was to walk into the upper part of the valley passing Langleeford.  As we had spent so long on the walk beside Hawsen Burn our time was rather limited, but as it turned out the birding form the bridge at Langleeford was so good we didn’t have to go further.  We spent our time here taking in a number of good sightings of our target species and I pondered over the likelihood of Sir Walter Scott having done the same when he stayed at Langleeford.  I even got a bit carried away and imagined him watching us out of the window, quill in hand as he dashed off one of his novels.

Common Sandpiper

Spotted Flycatcher
 
The list of species in no particular order seen from the bridge is as follows, 2 pairs of Spotted Flycatcher, Dipper, Grey Wagtail, Pied Wagtail, Common Sandpiper, Swallow, Robin, Wren, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush, Blackbird, Chaffinch, Goldfinch and Nuthatch.  The stars here were definitely the Spotted Flycatchers with close up sighting of the birds on branches and on rocks in the burn giving ample chance to take in the beauty of these birds.  Our time on the bridge was a good example of picking a good point and letting the birds come to you.  Bird watching should be relaxing and this was and we could no doubt have stayed put for much longer, but instead we agreed to cancel any plan to walk further into the valley whilst accepting that could mean we missed our best chance of Tree Pipit.  We decided to return to the cars and take a look in the lower part of the valley along by Harthope and Carey Burn.

 
Valley Floor and Burn  We visited the site of the Sand Martin colony, but there were only a small number of Sand Martins in the area.  Sam picked up the call again of Ring Ouzel as he ventured a little higher above the burn.  The brightness of the yellow Gorse added vivid colour to the valley as we looked up Harthope Burn towards Cheviot and the side of the hills the left and right of us.  Common Buzzards were enjoying the thermals above the hills and Kestrels were seen hovering in the strong winds.  Black Headed, Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls were all seen and a Grey Heron was seen flying along a stretch of the burn whilst a Mallard lifted and flew in the opposite direction.

 
Red-legged Partridges, Pheasant, Oystercatchers, Lapwing, Curlew, Great Spotted Woodpecker, tits, Linnets and other finches were amongst birds seen as we explored the valley floor.  Small Skipper Butterfly and Green Veined White Butterfly had also been seen.  Wren song was heard often.  It was with reluctance we decided to leave the valley as we had a planned stop on the way south.  We agreed that more exploration of lesser known parts of the valley was required at a later date.

 
Homeward bound…More icing was added to the cake as we found a ringtail Hen Harrier on our return journey.  Details of this sensitive sighting will be reported to the RSPB Skydancer Project.

Our itinerary for the day included a stop at Branton Pond Reserve and excellent example of what can be achieved at a now disused sand and gravel extraction site.  I have been here only a couple of times before and I know it gets good reports and has good days.  I’m afraid today was not one of the good ones and it was very quiet.  There was lots of Sand Martins feeding over the water which made up for only the few we had seen at Harthope.  We found Little Grebe and heard Blackcap and Common Whitethroat singing, otherwise there was little of note today.  The wind appeared to be picking up speed.  I was surprised we didn’t hear Sedge Warblers.  It was a good way to relax at the end of what had been quite a long day and it brought us slowly down from the heights of birding in Harthope Valley.

It had been a very special day and my thanks go to Sam, Tony and Carmel.  Ring Ouzel was without doubt the bird of the day in a day list of sixty-one species, many of them very special sightings indeed.  This had been bird watching at its best with so much else to take in alongside it.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Warbler Alley



13th May.  Warbler Alley is also known as the Bumpy Road.  Yes we were at Prestwick Carr today and enjoyed a feast of warblers along the way.  We spent far longer than expected watching and listening to Garden Warbler, Blackcaps, Common Whitethroats, Sedge Warblers and Willow Warblers.  Chiffchaff was also heard, but I now can’t for the life of me think where.  A very enjoyable morning and early afternoon with the star bird being the Garden Warbler.  I was feeling rather proud of myself having immediately picked up the bird by song before having good and long sightings of it.  I have to become accustomed each year to several warbler songs and I didn’t think I’d ever crack the difference between Blackcap and Garden Warbler.  Thankfully I think I have the secret now, at least for this year!  Unusually for a Garden Warbler this one showed really well and we lost track of time watching it.  In my view the best way to learn bird song is to be able to watch the bird whilst it’s singing.  I have to admit that many moons ago I didn’t take much notice at all of bird song and I find that almost unbelievable now.  How can anyone enjoy watching birds without taking an interest in song?  I know many people who seem to do just that.  Anyway, there is to be a focus on bird song and calls on the walk Sam and I are leading on Saturday.  I’m hoping we come across Garden Warbler so we can both appear extremely smug and say ‘oh it just takes practice’.  I’ll of course omit to say how many years I’ve been practicing with this one!  I was surprised that we didn’t hear Grasshopper Warbler today.

Well camouflaged male Orange Tip Butterfly
 
Once at the end of Warbler Alley it became very quiet and the red flag was flying (sadly not in Westminster) so we weren’t able to get past the sentry who we had a pleasant chat with.  Other notable birds seen included some mewing Common Buzzards showing most of the time we were around, Kestrels, Grey Partridges, Lapwing and Reed Bunting both seen and heard.  Swifts, Swallows and House Martins were feeding on the many insects about today.  I think I caught sight of Stonechat in the distance, but can’t be certain.  We picked up the Garden Warbler again on the return walk.  Both Weasel and Roe Deer were seen, as was Orange Tip Butterfly.  I think there would have been far more of the latter had the sun shone at length and it had been a bit warmer.

Ha ya seen wor Billy?  Always guaranteed a friendly face along Warbler Alley
 
The later part of the day was spent down at the coast where it was very quiet both in terms of birds and people with not even many dog walkers about showing that every day has its blessings.  We did have a Wheatear on the headland at Seaton Sluice, two Shags flying north and plenty of Sandwich Terns.  I enjoyed watching the Sand Martins over the wetland at St Mary’s Island and listened to more Sedge Warblers, but didn’t pick up the sound of Grasshopper Warbler here either.  About time the council put some money and effort into this wetland in my opinion.

The tide was still way out as we prepared for a homeward journey whilst listening to the Skylarks.  I ended what had been a really good day unexpectedly down by the lake as day began to turn to night and Swifts lifted higher into a darkening sky.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Around the Lake with Gateshead Wildlife Group



12th May.  I enjoy sharing nature experience with others who share similar passions so I was looking forward to our walk around Killingworth Lake with members of Gateshead Wildlife Group.  Sam and I had given a presentation concerning the Great Crested Grebes to the group last year and Sam was with me and taking the lead this evening.  It was good that we had two pairs of Great Crested Grebes showing well during the walk.

As I had approached the meeting point I was pleased to see numbers of Swifts flying overhead and the lake had good numbers of Swallows, Sand Martins and House Martins low over the water.  There were certainly plenty of insects out tonight.

We discussed the positives and some negative issues about the lake during the walk and interest, if that is the correct word was shown towards the floating ‘thing’ of which we explained the history!

Unusually for the time of year we have a single male Goosander on the lake and it performed well for us.  I noticed it disturbing the water with its wings and flying a short distance low over the water.  Later having seen it with a large fish in its bill Sam and I assumed it had been disturbing the water deliberately in an attempt to catch prey.  The Goosander struggled with the fish for some time which attracted the attention of at least two Lesser Black-backed Gulls and one of the Great Crested Grebes.  I think the fish escaped, shaken but not eaten.  The Grey Heron also showed well in the sun.

Grey Heron
 
We were able to look at some of the changes around the lake and again consider the pros and cons of all of this, whilst the Coots entertained with a fight in the centre of the large lake which drew much attention from two of the many Common Terns flying over the lake.  The usual species were on the lake and we found the Canada x Barnacle Goose.

We’d walked through the woodland, but unfortunately didn’t find the Spotted Flycatcher, seen the other night, a first on patch for Sam and only my second seen on patch.  I’d trotted off down there when Sam had informed me of its presence.  The Common Sandpiper wasn’t seen this evening.  We did hear Chiffchaff, numbers of Blackcap, a Great Spotted Woodpecker and other woodland species.  Mistle Thrush was heard and then seen and after the group had left Sam and I found a Mistle Thrush with young.

It had been a very pleasant evening despite the wind and thanks go to Sam for the work put in.  It was nice to see folk from Gateshead Wildlife Group and share part of our patch with them.  Some said they would be back in the future and I know that at least one of the members had walked around the lake often in the past and I was pleased that he was able to confirm having seen Water Voles here.  Unfortunately I haven’t, but I know Sam has, although some have doubted this when told about it.  The world is full of doubters!

Grey Heron
 
After we had said goodbye to the group members Sam and I ended the evening discussing the next walk we are leading and some general chit chat as we watched over the lake.  The Swifts continued to fly overhead.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Divorced from Nature



I take pride in the fact that my observation skills are I think above the average, and when out watching wildlife I do at times observe and listen to folk who pass my way.  Whilst in no way would I seriously look down upon those with less knowledge than myself (we all have to start somewhere) I did have a bit of a laugh when I passed two thirty somethings out enjoying the Bank Holiday at the coast.  Thirty something female to male friend/partner as they passed by a Skylark as it arose from the field singing and lifted into the air, ‘oh isn’t it a Swallow or a Swift’.  Now this is going on my list of quotes that suggest that we have a long way to go in bringing an understanding of nature to the masses.  This one is joining such classics as the overheard comment about the fact that someone had sawn off the horns of the Reindeer, a comment said to a child by her mother whilst watching a Red Deer after it had recently dropped its antlers and the guy who was watching a Grey Heron and confusing it with a Kingfisher.

On the positive side at least all of the above folk were taking a passing interest, and in the latter two cases sharing it with children.  I do wonder how many of the Bank Holiday crowd busy enjoying their ice creams, chips and hot dogs down at St Marys Island even noticed the bird song or the flocks of waders flying past them.  Some faith was restored when a pleasant young couple took time to ask about the telescope and what we were watching.

I often hear it said that the younger generations are now divorced from nature, or words to that effect.  It’s not just the young of course.  From my own experience I think very often those who think earlier generations had it any better view things through rose coloured spectacles.  I rarely remember the educational system of my youth including much about natural history.  Photosynthesis and a quick word about molluscs and that was about it at my school.  I think lessons connected to natural history were for the lucky ones only.  It wasn’t through lack of opportunity, as we did have trips away to areas where these topics could have been covered, but they weren’t, unless it was I fell asleep during the five minutes that was devoted to them.  My generation did seem to have more freedom of movement as small children I’ll grant you that, but in the circles I moved natural history was not a top choice of interest to follow at that age.

I actually think the younger generations are far more knowledgeable about nature and threats to it, if only through some of the excellent programmes on TV, or through the internet.  I also think folk of all ages could be better informed if some of the specialist organisations and groups were targeted better at them rather than as often happens appearing to be closed shops for the specialist in crowd.  I realise it is difficult to get the balance correct within some organisations and after hearing the comment from the thirty something yesterday, I have to admit I better understand why some organisations aim so low!

I still believe strongly that the saviour of our biodiversity is in the hands of the masses and not specialist groups, and until something is done to involve the wider public there will be more and more of our natural heritage lost and few gains will be made.

3rd May.  Swifts arrive over the lake and it was a pleasant half hour watching them, Common Terns and other activity.

4th May.  A very pleasant walk at the coast despite the crowds who seemed to disperse quickly as evening approached and in any event not many seem to walk to far from their cars so it is easy to find peace even on a busy Bank Holiday.

There appeared to be little sea passage, but Red Throated Diver, auks, Kittiwakes, Sandwich Terns and Eider Ducks were amongst birds seen.  The walk from St Mary’s Island to Seaton Sluice also brought the likes of Blackcap, Common Whitethroat, Chiffchaff, Sedge Warbler and of course the Skylark that caused so much confusion.  Flocks of waders showed well on high tide with Sanderling, Turnstone, Dunlin and Oystercatcher being seen in some numbers.  The odd Lapwing also made an appearance as did a couple of Grey Seals.  The temperatures dropped rapidly as the evening moved on but a bag of chips helped warm me.