Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Simonside Hills

‘In a document dated to 1279 Simonside was called Simundessete. By 1580 the name had become Simontside. The name may be a corruption of Sigemund's seat or Sigemund's settlement. Sigemund or Sigmund is the name of an old Germanic hero from the Volsunga Saga and the Nibelungenlied who is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon poem Bewoulf. WW Tomlinson, in his Comprehensive Guide to Northumberland (1916), stated that "Simon of mythology was, it seems, a domestic brewer to King Arthur, identical with the German Sigmund, and very fond of killing dragons".  This points to the possibility that the Simon of Simonside Hill is the Sigemund mentioned in Beowulf and subsequently Norse and Teutonic myths.’

Above taken from a piece on Wikipedia

View from the Simonside ridge.

25th Mar.  Despite the slight diversion Carmel, Sam and I had a great walk in the Simonside Hills today during which we took in the Simonside ridge walk.  I was puffing a little as soon as we left the Forestry Commision car-park and joined a slow ascent and the puffing increased dramatically as I scrambled, for want of a better word, up the climb onto the ridge.  As Sam politely reminded me ‘You're getting older you know’.  I’ve been a little poorly this week so that is my excuse and I reckon with a bit more excercise I’d be able to cope with this walk rather better.  I did have a heavy bag on my back too, but enough of the excuses!

Red Grouse where it looks best.

As we approached the area we found the likes of Common Buzzards and Stock Doves, and a Roe Deer scampering along the road seemingly unable to get over the fences back to safety.  Once parked up we watched a lone female Crossbill feeding high up in the trees, otherwise it was Great, Coal, Blue Tits and Chaffinches.

On the ridge
On the way down
The walk was a recce for an RSPB walk in May.  In light of the difficulties we are reconsidering the route we take.  We don’t wish to be loosing anyone.  Birdlife was limited, but the walk offers so much in atmosphere and views across Northumberland including the Cheviots and coastline, the limited ornithological interest didn’t concern us and in any event by the time of the official walk we think there will be more about.  We did have Red Grouse for company on almost the entire walk, Kestrel, more Common Buzzards, two (possibly three) pair of Stonechat and Meadow Pipits.  I believe Sam heard Raven.  The calling of those Red Grouse was coming from all directions and we had some very good sightings of these birds in the rugged conditions.  When occasionally the Red Grouse calls stopped the silence up there in a windless atmosphere was something to behold.

Red Grouse on alert
Red Grouse heads off.

A walk that is well worth the effort and those views are stunning.  I’m feeling great…….up to now!

Monday, 16 March 2015

Fulmarus glacialis

15th Mar.  Our walk from St Mary’s Island to Holywell today was interrupted as Sam and I spent time watching and photographing the Fulmars.  How long we spent here I do not know, as time seemed to become suspended as we entered the world of these wonderful seabirds which seemed to take as much interest in our presence as we did theirs.  The fact that the coastal path was well trodden by folk yesterday was forgotten as we were cut off from humankind and their dogs and focussed entirely on the Fulmars and their environment.  We agreed later, as barely a word passed between us at the time that this is what bird watching is all about.  We watched intently as perhaps a half a dozen birds periodically flew away from the cliff side before returning and flying at speed along the cliff side.  A single bird landed and was then joined by another and we watched as they communicated and edged along the piece of cliff which jutted out towards the sea and the drop to the rocks below.  Any problems were totally forgotten as my mind focussed on the subject in hand.  The camera didn’t focus quite so quickly on too many occasions and the only frustrations I felt during this period were with regard the equipment I use.  I must get this sorted out and spend some money, even if it does bring on a temperature!

I surprised Sam with my knowledge of the scientific name for Northern Fulmar, or at least a version of what sounded similar anyway.  As per Wickipedia…..’Fulmarus glacialis can be broken down to the Old Norse word full meaning "foul" and mar meaning "gull". "Foul-gull" is in reference to its stomach oil and also its superficial similarity to seagulls. Finally, glacialis is Latin for "glacial" because of its extreme northern range. Thankfully we had no problems from stomach oil today as we posed no threat to the birds!

Too soon we were back into the human and canine world.

We’d begun our walk at St Mary’s Island and on approach had watched a Kestrel in flight west of the wetland.  I asked myself ‘Do the Council actually have the money to carry out the grand ideas they propose for a visitor centre (or is it a café?) at the car park?’  Perhaps if they do they will consider the wildlife when carrying this out.  I’ve watched all sorts of goings on down there over the years including boy racers with too much money and too little sense, dog walkers who think it a good idea to watch their pets run through the flocks of waders in winter and a particular lady who thought it a good idea to throw stones at the waders as we tried to photograph them.  I guess we ought to be grateful she didn’t throw them at us!  Maybe a visitor centre/café won’t be any worse.

The fields held Skylark and Meadow Pipit and North Bay held numerous Pied Wagtails and Rock Pipits.  Waders seen were Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Sanderling, Purple Sandpiper, Turnstone, Dunlin, Redshank, Curlew and eventually small flocks of Golden Plover.  Short sea watches brought little, but we did eventually find Fulmars of course, Red-throated Diver (my first of the year), Gannet, Cormorant, gulls including Kittiwake, Guillemot, a pair of Mallard, a Pair of Common Scoter and Eider Ducks. 

I’d eaten and had Sunday dinner to look forward to, so I tried to blank out the smell of chips as we passed through Seaton Sluice.  Not very successfully I fear as by the end of the walk I really did fancy a plate of fish and chips.

Once into the dene we stood and took in the action and sounds at the first rookery we came too before moving on and finding a pair of Bullfinches, Wren and Long-tailed Tits at the dipping pond.  The male Bullfinch was looking resplendent and its redness brought to mind the colour of Carmine Bee-eaters.  Further into the dene we watched woodland birds including Nuthatch.  I was feeling the heat by now.  It became really very warm in the dene although once out onto the open fields the cool breeze soon had me fastening up the coat again.  The area was very quiet.

The pond too was quiet, but did provide the sound of Little Grebe and Grey Heron, Mute Swan, Greylag Geese, Canada Geese, Mallard, Wigeon, Pochard, Tufted Duck, Moorhen and Coot.  There was some interesting behaviour from the Mute Swans.  What we think were last years young were flying in the area and each time they appeared to come into land on the pond they were chased off by the adult cob seemingly wanting them out of the adult pairs territory.  A Great Spotted Woodpecker was seen in flight.  On the edge of the pond a single feeding Curlew saw off a small flock of four of five Curlews which flew in as we watched.  The flock left and the lone bird then continued to feed.  The haunting call of Curlew could be heard as we prepared to leave.  Temperatures were dropping.  It had been a day for Fulmarus glacialis.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015


‘We cut over the fields………straight as the crow flies’
Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist,1838.

One of my first meaningful memories of birds from childhood is that of the rookery at the end of my aunt and uncle’s garden in Cumbria.  It is the sound of the birds calling rather more then the sight of them that stays in my mind.  I was still a schoolboy as the trees were taken down so that a large barn could be erected, which brought about the demise of the rookery.  Now the barn and the farm that it was part off have gone and housing is to be/being built.  It’s perhaps interesting that whilst only a two mile walk across fields to the cliff tops overlooking the Solway would bring me to St Bee’s Head and colonies of seabirds, it is the sounds of the Rooks at the bottom of the garden I remember best of all.  The village has altered greatly since my childhood and where once platforms used to support milk churns early in the morning, and where I used to sit occasionally later in the day, this area became driveways for rather expensively built housing some years ago.  Birdlife has probably changed greatly over the years in a village that once housed five farmsteads and now has none.  Farming then was of course far less intensive than it is now.  Certainly on more recent visits I have noted that it is the Collared Dove that seems to dominate the scene, a bird that would not have been present at all on my very first visits to the area.  Whilst the Collared Dove has made natural headway, most losses including the rookery, were induced by human interference and loss of good habitat.  Although the rookery did not survive it did give me a taste of birdlife and possibly influences my liking of crows and many crow species have adapted well to life amongst us humans. 

Many years later when my cousin moved into her own home on the cliff edge I discovered new birds around her garden including nesting Little Owls in the red sandstone quarry within feet of the fence.  I learnt then that Little Owls were often faithful to a nesting site as they were there for years, and maybe a later generation still are.  They were never unduly concerned about the large wagons that would churn up the narrow road whilst occasionally arriving to collect sandstone slabs, later exported around the world including the United States of America, nor were the birds alarmed unduly by the odd explosion in the quarry.  I also discovered Ravens flew along the cliff edge and passed my cousin’s home, and to this day they probably gave me my closest ever encounters with Ravens.  I’ve had some very good sighting from this area and have watched Kestrels directly below me hovering above sea, Barn Owls at cliff nesting sites and Peregrine Falcons carrying prey back to their nest site, and of course many seabirds, some of which nest at St Bee’s Head RSPB Reserve.  There’s a wonderful small pebble beach here with a sandstone cave, from which you can look up to the bird colonies.  It used to attract the locals during the summer when I was a child and I still have photos of gatherings there.  It isn’t an easy climb down there through a gut in the cliff, so if you visit these days, what ever the time of year, you’re more than likely to be on your own.  How times change. 

So yes, I like corvids and don’t feel that they are a bird to be taken for granted and simply passed by.  I’m not however naïve, so I do understand how troublesome they can be to those who work the land or have livestock.  Having a brother who was a shepherd helps me take a balanced outlook on wildlife and its affects.  It was with great pleasure I received a print in recent days sent to me by friends Hilary and Kelsey.  Kelsey I know is quite an artist and he had painted this Raven at the Great North Museum; Hancock, (still the Hancock Museum too many of us) from a specimen held at the museum.  The print is and was I think meant to be a reminder of the Raven Sam and I found at Prestwick Carr earlier this year.  The Raven which I believe Hilary also saw briefly. It was also perhaps a marker of one or two difficult recent events of a personal nature.

Copies of photos of the bay near St Bee's Head, taken in the 1950s I believe.  Now in my possession, they were taken by a relative (a keen photographer) of my uncle and on the wall of his mother's home during my childhood and until shortly before she died.  The top photo shows that the bay was then frequented by the locals and the boy in the front right of the image is now likely approaching his seventy-fifth plus year if still alive.

When I moved to my present home in the 1970s there was a flourishing rookery within five minutes walk of my house.  I was beginning to take a keener interest then in birds and nature in general and it could be said that the rookery was my first introduction to patch birding, something not taken up seriously until some time later.  Sadly this lateness has meant that I missed some species that once were present in the area including Corn Buntings which Sam reminded me had bred on Killingworth Moor in the 1980s.  Never the less I took interest in the rookery, usually at the beginning of the year when it was at its most active, and I’m again sad to say that now it is now no more than a scattering of  nests and nothing like it once was.  Rooks are still commonly seen on the grass verges near and in my estate, as their bills search for prey, and the sound of their companion Jackdaws is often heard.  I think Jackdaws are very attractive birds and I’ve found the occasional Nordic Jackdaw in the area.  I’m aware of the reluctance by some authorities to accept Nordic Jackdaws and of the reasons for this, but I’m happy I’ve seen them and that is what matters.  I did watch a partially leucistic Rook in this area in more recent years and it became quite clear that it was not accepted by its peers and remained by itself until one day it had simply disappeared.  I learned many years ago that leucism in the primaries and secondaries of these and presumably other birds can be caused by inadequate nutrition when young and that if the bird then goes on to gain an appropriate diet the leucistic plumage will be replaced by normally coloured feathers. 

The patch is still blessed with a fly over of mixed flocks of crows just before dusk, especially noticeable in winter as they fly towards their roost site.  The sky often blackens with them as they fly directly over my home.  I’m always reminded of Mark Cocker’s Crow Country tales of the flocks in East Anglia which no doubt put on a significantly better show than our local crows, although the locals behave in a similar manner as to Mark Cockers description, with the birds often collecting at a pre-roost site between West Moor and the old Findus site.  When I was involved with arrangements for the RSPB Local Group I had wanted to organise a stay in Norfolk so we could visit Buckenham Marshes and watch the crow roost, as well as take in everything else the area offers.  I went as far making arrangements with local birders in the area, so as not to cause disturbance and I was very grateful for their advice and help.  I was taken aback when there was little interest for such a stay and winter birding in Norfolk!  On reflection, it was at that point my interest in such groups began to quickly wane.  I take comfort that Mark Cocker, I and most keen birders would be excited by the idea.  Crow Country is well worth a read if there is anyone out there who hasn’t done so already.

To return to the Raven, my first real understanding of just how important crows and Ravens in particular are in culture and mythology was awakened when I visited British Columbia.  This period marked my first trip outside of Europe and also marked the beginning of a new instability around the world as the Twin Towers came down whilst I was watching Orcas, Grizzly Bears and Black Bears from a boat in the waters of the Coastal Mountains.  A stay in British Columbia gave me plenty of opportunity to pick up information as to the importance of Ravens in the culture of the people of the First Nations in North America.  How the Raven was seen as wise, and at times both a trickster and deceitful was talked about often.  I stayed on in Vancouver for a couple of days and visited the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia which contains much First Nation artwork in which the Raven plays a prominent part, not least in totems of which there are many on display.  The museum also contains a giant sculpture by a man of the name of Bill Reid made from a large block yellow cedar wood.  It depicts how the Raven coaxed the first men from a giant clam shell (I need to read up as to how the first women appeared).  It’s a great piece of work and amusing too, with I seem to remember at least one bare backside sticking out of the clam.

Depicting the Raven as wise is indeed no coincidence as corvids in general are in relative terms intelligent birds with a large brain.  Practical experiments have shown this to be the case and at least one species, the New Caledonian Crow, has been seen to use and adapt tools (adapted from vegetation) to catch insects.  This tool making has been seen to be replicated by the birds with wire and hooks in a laboratory setting.  It is rather reminiscent to the manner in which primates have been seen to use tools.

Ravens and crows take quite a role in many cultures around the world, including our own.  The ancient Greeks associated crows with the God Apollo, whose unfaithful mistress, Coronis, is the source of the word corone, Greek for crow and the modern scientific name for the Carrion Crow Corvus corone.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Waters Geese to Carr Owls

8th Mar.  Hoping that the Greenland White-fronted Geese would still be present at Big Waters we made towards that area today and weren’t to be disappointed with the birds showing distantly, but well.  Wandering around the area I found myself exploring parts of Big Waters and the surrounding area that were new to me.  The distinctive calling of Pink-footed Geese were heard as Sam and I walked through the farmland area and we watched as the skein flew towards us and overhead before landing it seemed on the pond.  We’d seen a skein of Greylag Geese as we had journeyed to Big Waters and later found a small number on the pond, where Canada Geese were also present.

Greenland White-fronted Geese.  Given the distance I didn't bother to get the camera out, but Sam did and managed a good record image.
Having noted that warmer temperatures had been forecast for the weekend I was pleased that I had ignored this and wrapped up well as the wind ensured that the air was cold.  The hedges didn’t provide much in the way of birds, but we did find the like of Goldcrest and Redwing.  The feeding station at the hide had good numbers of Tree Sparrow visiting as usual and the Great Spotted Woodpecker was seen as we approached, and later on the feeders.  Other visitors here included Reed Bunting and Yellowhammer.  Water Rail was heard.

Reed Bunting
The whistling of Wigeon was constant and numbers of Teal swam close by the hide.  Gadwall were well represented and the odd Goldeneye seen.  I watched two Mute Swans seemingly engaged in fighting at the far end of the pond.  Necks and wings seemed to be entangled and neither bird seemed willing or able to disengage. This battle went on at length until it seemed that injury to one or both of these birds would be inevitable.  Another two Mute Swans close by were agitated by this and would every few minutes almost take to the air before returning to the side of the fighting pair.  My mind was eventually taken by other events and I never did see the birds disengage, but presumably they had, as peace seemed to be restored when we prepared to leave the hide.  Spring is perhaps affecting the hormones!

We had decided to end our day at Prestwick Carr, hoping for sightings of the Short-eared Owls, so that was our next stop.  We were soon watching a pair of Kestrels hunting north of the bumpy road.  It is my imagination or is this road getting bumpier?  We walked the length of the road taking sometime to watch the changing moods in what was now much better light than earlier in the day.  The landscape to the north of the road in particular.  We also spent sometime with the Exmoor Ponies.  Beautiful beasts.  My mind began to wander to the story of Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms, those mild mannered equine creatures who lived alongside the Yahoos, the rather uncouth human type folk.  I’d rather be with the Houyhnhnms and wildlife than our rather too many Yahoo types of today!  On our way back we watched the rather curious goats.  Curlews and Golden Plover called in the background and a single Lapwing flew overhead.

Exmoor Pony

View northwards in changing light

Stopping to watch the birds visiting the feeders at the viewing platform I managed to get some none too good images of Willow Tit and Reed Bunting.  Sam got his eye on a distant hunting Short-eared Owl and we decided to get back along the road while the light was still reasonably good.  We came into contact with several familiar faces as well as the Short-eared Owls which ended our day on a high.  I believe that there are at least five owls present.  We concentrated on watching two hunting north of the road.  The thermometer was saying seven degrees, but my body was saying it couldn’t possibly be that warm!  We had a good day with almost sixty species and a good walk out. 

Willow Tit

Short-eared Owl

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Changing Patch

2nd Mar.  It’s that time of year when there are signs that the patch is about to go through change.  The meteorologists inform me that it is spring!  Well, standing in the bitterly cold wind beside the lake today suggested that winter is still with us.  The birdlife doesn’t seem to be too fooled by the temperatures and there were definite signs of some species gathering prior to movement.  Numbers of Goosander and Goldeneye remain on the lake and I was quite surprised to see so many Pochard today.  On the small lake we have one rather edgy female Wigeon which is a rarity on the lake these days.  Recent incoming birds included a pair of Oystercatchers and two pairs of Great Crested Grebes.  One pair of grebes was well advanced with nest building but seem to have been hampered by the strong winds and the rough water.  In the background Great Spotted Woodpecker could be heard drumming.  Numbers of Mute Swan remain high as does the number of Canada Geese.  Hopefully the breeding pair of swans will be successful again this year.  Oh well, the next two or three weeks will no doubt see the return of the Chiffchaff which begins the build up of warblers and then we really can believe spring has arrived.  It was noticeable today that the Shovellers weren’t present.

Wigeon Anas penelope

I was interested to hear from Sam the other day that the scientific species name for Shoveller clypeata means shield or shield carrier, referring of course to the shape of the bill.  It had me checking one or two other scientific names of our waterfowl.  In the case of  Wigeon Anas penelope  it is believed that penelope refers to the wife of Ulysses, and famous for her embroidery, so in the case of the name for the duck it may well refer to the beauty of the drake.  In the case of Goldeneye Bucephala clangula, bucephala means having a head like an ox (or buffalo) and clangula stems from the Latin term clangere meaning to resound, in reference to whistling wings.  Apparently it was John Ray who in 1678 first used the name Goldeneye.  Now in the case of Goosander (Common Merganser in North America) Mergus merganser, mergus is Latin for waterbird and anser of course for goose. 

Friday, 27 February 2015

Urban to Wild, Little (Egret) to Short (Eared Owl)

26th Feb.  Sam, Lee and I met up this morning and we left Killingworth, which was in a dull and damp mood, with a definite plan of action to explore South East Northumberland beginning with Cramlington.  We found the two Little Egrets on Hartford Burn within seconds of our first stop (almost as quickly as we had found a Redwing fly into the hedge), but weren’t so lucky in attempt to find the Great Grey Shrike at West Hartford.  This area was pretty dead this morning although the calls of Oystercatchers greeted us, as did sightings of Mallard, Teal, a pair of Kestrel and an overhead Meadow Pipit.  By evening time I’d lost count of the number of Kestrels we saw today.  More than twelve I believe.  A few years ago that would not have been unusual, but then we wouldn’t have been watching Little Egrets in urban Cramlington.

Little Egret

 Our next stop was for a little more urban birding, this time on an industrial estate in Morpeth, where we found the two Waxwings fairly quickly.  Having hung around for a while we had good close up sightings as the birds constantly returned to the berries.  The light remained poor throughout so good images weren’t possible, but I’m happy to have seen this species which has been scarce this winter.  I later wondered what percentage of the workers on the trading estate get along with their work without giving these birds a second look.  A high percentage I guess.  An exotic bird which I remember desiring to see after looking through Readers Digest Book of British Birds many moons ago.  It’s interesting to look at this book now and see the many changes in numbers, distribution etc of species.    There was a lot to fit in today so we headed off to the rather wilder area of Cresswell.  Incidentally, another interesting read by JC at NEBirder (can't seem to link) concerning the proposed opencast.

We did take a bit of a detour in search of Ross’s Goose near Stobswood but to be honest we didn’t know where to look so had no success in terms of geese, but we did find two Red-legged Partridge at Maiden Hall Lake.


There were plenty of Tree Sparrows at the feeders as we approached the pond, but generally the area initially looked quiet although we were soon been entertained by the large flock of Pink-footed Geese which initially made itself heard, then flew on several occasions directly over the pond and hide.  The geese were especially restless today with maybe thoughts of more northerly latitudes.  Spectacular moments once again with the geese.  A bitter breeze was entering the hide and it seemed to have cleared most birds from the water, neither were there any waders on the sand bank.  Hundreds of Wigeon edged the pond and maybe around a hundred took to the water and showed well in the sunlight.  Curlews flew past the hide and landed as a group on the west side of the pond whilst on the water we eventually found the likes of Shelduck, Teal, Gadwall, Goldeneye and Little Grebe alongside the whistling Wigeon.  A Kestrel hovered.

Pink-footed Geese from the hide

Next was a quick stop at Druridge Pools where we didn’t spend much time, but added Shoveller to our list and on moving off towards East Chevington we watched as a Kestrel flew across the road in front of us with its prey, a frog.  The Kestrel landed and was joined by its mate before both flew in the direction of the trees with Frog's elasticated legs swinging in the air.  I’d earlier picked up the call of Goldcrest from the viewing platform before we all had a good sighting of it.  Lots of Goldfinches were visiting the recently topped up feeders.  We talked to the chap who tops up the feeders or I ought to say he talked to us!  Friendly bloke, who we bumped into again in the country park.

We stopped at North Pool East Chevington and spent a short time looking for Marsh Harrier which we had seen in the area at an earlier date than this last year.  Nothing was found but Lee was pleased with the Black-necked Grebe which is still around.  Goldeneye seemed to be one of the most numerous birds in the area.  We welcomed the use of the ‘metal box’ hide as it protected us from the heaviest winter squall of the day.  I’m glad I wasn’t outside walking in that!  We viewed North Pool from both north and south as our next stop was Druridge Country Park.  The feeding station was very much quieter than on a previous visit this month by Sam and me.  Today I saw only Robin, Dunnock, Great, Coal and Blue Tit and Reed Bunting.  We thought we have an even better view of the Black-necked Grebe from here but in fact with the sun in our eyes we didn’t see it as well as we had from the south of the pool, and the fact that it was constantly diving didn’t help.  A pair of Red-breasted Mergansers was picked up along with the likes of Gadwall, Wigeon and Teal.  A couple of Canada Geese were on one of the islands and it was I think around this time that we saw a large skein of Greylag Geese.  There were of course more Kestrels.

Our next and final stop was to be at Warkworth gut.  Sam had noted the evening before those Short-eared owls had been seen in the dunes here, so we thought we would try for them.  I’ve only been to this area three times previously and I don’t think Sam and Lee had been before.  It’s a nice spot made even better by this evening’s sunshine.  Eider Duck and Grey Heron were seen as we drove along past the river towards Warkworth.  I remember thinking that it is now many years ago when I was in the castle.

Short-eared Owl
On arrival we found a few blokes with binoculars so I guessed that they were here for the same reason we were.  I guessed correctly.  Short-eared Owls had been showing.  A local told us that a Kingfisher had been seen that morning too.  We initially found the likes of Redshank and more Wigeon, but it wasn’t long before we were watching our first Short-eared Owl of the winter.  We eventually followed the path into the dunes and climbed higher for a better sighting into the dune area.  Two Grey Partridges were flushed.  We bumped into nature-northest who had counted three Short-eared Owls.  It wasn’t long before we were watching a Short-eared Owl, then two were up together with another some distance to the north of us.  What a way to end our days birding.  In the dunes with the sunlight at its best and three Short-eared Owls around us.  As Sam said, top moments of February!   As we were stood there a Brown Hare ran through the dunes only a few feet away from us.

Well all good things come to an end and we did need to get back home so we reluctantly began to make our way back to the car-park.  We of course were all able to watch Kestrel again and this time found two Stonechats.  I was just thinking what a great way to end the day when Sam called ‘Kingfisher’ as it flew from the small pool near the golf course and flew across in front of us, disappearing as quickly as it had appeared.  The atmosphere was forever changing as Sam picked up the call of the Short-eared Owl and we watched Mistle Thrushes on the golf course.

We’d began the day in dull light and dampness in an urban environment (and urban birding can be as good as any, even in poor light), but with some excellent sightings and we’d ended the day by the sea in sunlit dunes with more excellent species.  A day that will go down amongst the best of 2015 I reckon.  I have to say that there is something very special about watching owls in their natural surroundings.  We ended once again with sixty bird species and we hadn’t even attempted to look at the sea or for waders.  The geese were spectacular, the Waxwings were very nice to watch, but I think I have to agree with Sam that the Short-eared Owls can’t be beaten!  Oh, and I forgot to mention the flocks of Whooper Swan and Greylag Geese on the way home.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Low to High

21st Feb.  Very high tides today, although Sam and I arrived at St Mary’s Island when the tide was at it’s lowest point, exposing land that I can’t remember seeing for a long time.  Skylarks were singing as we approached the area and although wader watching was more difficult that usual as the birds were feeding so far out, we still managed to have decent sightings of the following between St Mary’s Island and Seaton Sluice, Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Golden Plover, Lapwing, Knot, Sanderling, Purple Sandpiper, Turnstone, Dunlin, Redshank and Curlew.

There was little sea passage to be picked  up. but I did manage my first sighting this year of Gannets.  Also seen were Teal, Goldeneye, Eider,Guillemot and Fulmar and Sam managed to pick up distant Red Throated Diver and a Kittiwake.

The skies had been cloudless throughout the day until we entered the dene and there seemed to be a threat of snow or rain as grey cloud began to build up from the west.  In fact we were hit by a shower of hail lasting only a few minutes before the sun was back out.  This area was very quiet except at the feeders which attracted Great Spotted Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Dunnock, Robin, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Blue Tit a sizable flock of Long-tailed Tits and Chaffinch.  The open farm land was also very quiet.

Holywell Pond was, yes you’ve guessed, pretty quiet too, but did have Canada Geese, one Shelduck, Mallards, Gadwall, Teal, Wigeon, Pochard, Tufted Duck and Goldeneye and we also heard sharming (word of the week) from the Water Rail.

I’d commented to Sam on a number of occasions on the lack of birds and as I did so again I got my eye on a Common Buzzard flying over the trees at the back of the pond.  It showed really well in the sunlight.  Sam got his eye on another raptor.  The Common Buzzard now perched in the trees and this other raptor was attempting to fly in and mob it.  We suddenly realised it was a Peregrine Falcon, the first I’ve seen in the Holywell area for a while.  The peregrine eventually flew off at some speed towards the coast.

So beginning with a low (tide) we’d ended our day on somewhat of a high with the Peregrine Falcon sighting.  Wonderful that these birds are once again seen so often but not so wonderful is the fact that they are still persecuted.  Once home and sorting out my day list of species I realised that such a quiet day had still managed to provide sixty-two species of bird. So maybe not so quiet after all.  It was bitterly cold by the time we arrived back home.

20th Feb.  I’d had much business to attend to on Friday so decided to take a short stroll down to the lake to get me into the right frame of mind for the day.  I’d heard that a Great Crested Grebe had returned.  In fact we’d had one on the lake very early in February (noted by Sam) but it had disappeared again.  I caught up with the species today.  It’s almost into summer plumage. 

It’s good to see Mute Swan numbers have increased again.  Someone was at the lake feeding from bags.  This won’t go down well at all!  However it did appear that the gulls took all the food and not the swans.  It’s disturbing to hear that there is some thought that the Mute Swans (twenty plus found dead) on the river at Chester-le-Street may have been deliberately poisoned with a lead based substance.  It didn’t sound to me as though there is any definite evidence of this and we may find that it is simply lead substances that have found their way into the river.

After a quick look over the lake I walked to the church grounds and it was spring like here with song from Song Thrush, Blackbird, Wrens, Chaffinches and tits, the corvids very active overhead, a Magpie carrying nest material and a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming.  Parts of the lawns were a carpet of Snowdrops along with a few Crocus.

The cold air, getting colder by the minute tonight, informed me that spring has not quite arrived as I headed back home to get on with the work.