Thursday, 11 February 2016

Walking Eastwards

10th Feb.  Having almost frozen by the lake yesterday evening, as the light faded and no Smew appeared on the small lake, although a Smew on the larger lake came within a few feet, enticed along with the Mute Swans and Goldeneye as the lady fed seed, I decided that I ought to venture out to the east of the patch today.  The sunshine and light were such that it would have been wrong to stay indoors.  It was a winter’s day to enjoy.

This walk, I admit somewhat neglected by me recently, has in recent years provided some very good sightings including pairs of Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon, Common Buzzards, Red Kite, fly over Marsh Harrier, Merlin, nesting Sparrowhawk, fly past Pink-footed Geese, Tundra Bean Geese, Grey Partridge, flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plover, Tree Sparrows, a few species of migrant bird and of course several Short-eared Owls.  A slight diversion from this circular walk of I guess about three miles, provided a sighting of Firecrest a few years ago.  Larger mammals have included Roe Deer, Fox and Brown Hare.  On some occasions sightings can be sparse, and yes, today was such a day, although even with so few sightings (I don’t think I have spent a quieter day in the area in that sense), the walk in the open farmland is always a rewarding one.

I was just pondering over how little bird life was about today and the fact that this area will eventually disappear under brick, concrete and tarmac if council plans go ahead, and also checking out the now apparently drained flash which once held the likes of waterfowl, Grey Heron and the occasional Common Snipe, when I looked towards the small area still holding water, maybe eighty to a hundred metres away.  A bird rose from the ground near the shallow water and immediately its flight was unmistakable.  It was a Short-eared Owl and I had chosen my direction of walk well. 

Short-eared Owl.  Distant and heavily cropped.
As I continued my walk the owl flew off to hunt in the opposite direction, the direction from which I had approached, I continued to watch the owl as it occasionally dropped to the ground for short periods.  With no Short-eared Owls having been seen by me on patch last winter, I had thought we were to be unlucky again this winter, but happily I have been proved wrong.  I eventually lost sight of the owl, but as I began on the return walk I kept watch.  I was just beginning to think I was to have no more sightings today when the owl flew over the hedge and across my path, just a few yards in front of me.  It was flying with the bright sun behind it, so was pretty soon seen in silhouette only.  It did cross back into the fields to the right of me and I again watch it at length.  The only photo opportunities were distant ones once I gotten into a decent position in the hedge, but the pleasure of watching the bird was no less for that.

As far as I’m concerned the unexpected sightings are generally the best ones and this was definitely the case today.  It is such findings that make the efforts of patch birding so worthwhile.   I guess some of the local dog walkers may have been enjoying sightings of this bird for sometime.

As mentioned, there was little else of note apart from a Grey Heron at one of the temporary fleshes that remain, and a gathering of gulls where the fields remain flooded.  I checked them out and found only Black-headed, Herring and Common Gulls.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Facing the Wind

7th Feb.  The first part of the day was spent on a walk from North Shields ferry landing along to Tynemouth.  The wind gradual picked up speed as the day progressed and out in the open felt bitter.  The sun was out however, so the chilled air didn’t stop the constant traffic heading to the coast.  I always enjoy this walk through an area so rich in history and offering such magnificent views of the River Tyne.  What it didn’t offer today was much in the way of gull life.  I don’t remember ever having seen so few gulls in the area.  Maybe the winds and state of the tides had played a part in that.  It was easy to pick out the odd Kittiwake from the small flock flying near to the Fish Quay, but there was nothing more ‘exotic’ although a few Turnstones were around the quay.  The only other birds on the river, noted before we began to pick up the waders as we approached Tynemouth were Cormorants and Eiders.  House Sparrows called.  A flock of Long-tailed Tits fed in the trees under Knott’s Flats.

I think I saw one Purple Sandpiper in the distance but otherwise the waders seen were Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Turnstone, Dunlin and Redshank, the latter species in large numbers.  Rock Pipits were seen but once beneath the priory we had no luck in finding the Black Redstart.  We did have our first Fulmars of the year and at least two pairs appear to be resting at their nesting sites.

We noted the Sand Dune Project in Priors Haven.  Wish I’d walked across and read the information, as I can’t find any on the internet, although I assume it is an extension of the work done on the dunes of Long Sands which appear to date back to at least 2008.  There are three small areas fenced off in the Haven, but I couldn’t really picture dunes here, so it will be interesting to see how this progresses.

Great Spotted Woodpecker
Our next stop was at Gosforth Park Nature Reserve which was also quiet, but I welcomed some time in the hides out of the cold wind.  The feeding station was quite busy with bird life until the Sparrowhawk made a flyby and we assumed remained in the area, as all of the birds disappeared for a while.  Woodland birds seen here included Great Spotted Woodpecker, Nuthatch and Treecreeper.

Blue Tit
As we looked over the pond we kept the windows shut in order to keep the wind out.  Most bird life was keeping low out of the wind.  We did briefly watch six or seven Common Snipe fly over the reed-bed and the only small passerine I remember seeing was Reed Bunting.  The pond held Mute Swan, Mallard, Gadwall, Wigeon, Teal, Goldeneye, Moorhen and Coot and Grey Herons were nearby.  We were unable to walk the circular route as the pathway is still closed in part, but due to open soon I think.

We walked back to patch via West Moor which isn’t too far.  We’d been chatting about the area of Killingworth the evening before and it’s good to remember its history.  I learned that a small tree and hedge lined track that still exists in Killingworth had once led all the way to Gosforth Park and it is easy to imagine this countryside lane.  I’d also been looking again at the photographs on the walls of Morrison’s Store which shows Killingworth, I guess in the 1960’s before the New Town was built.  Sometime ago I checked out this patch challenge thing and I believe a good deal of my present patch could be joined up to Gosforth Park NR to form a patch.  After years of watching Killy, I prefer to keep my patch as it is.

There was no escape from the wind on patch either, although I don’t think it had the bite of the windy coastline that we had met with earlier.  We bumped into HD who had just seen a Scaup and had a good chat whilst Goldeneye flew down the lake.  We ended the day watching three Pochard, Goosander, a male Gadwall and of course the Smew which is still on the lake.  By now the light was going and it was getting colder, so we ended what had been an enjoyable day in some very variable habitat. 

Friday, 5 February 2016

Anser and Branta...What's in a Name?

Among some of the birding highlights of recent weeks have been the geese, which are always one of the real joys of winter bird-watching. I’m not often put off getting out during poor weather, but these almost apocalyptic winds of late suggested to me that time might better be spent in the warmth and with a good book in my hand so…….. Whilst not reading Jonathan Dimbleby’s Battle of the Atlantic, I listened to the gales outside and felt pleased that I wasn’t in a convoy riding the Atlantic waves, and then I pulled Wildfowl of the British Isles and N W Europe/Brian Martin off the shelves and dusted it down.  Now almost twenty-five years old some of the data mentioned is very much out of date, but there is still some good reading to be had, especially amongst Martin’s information on the naming of the wildfowl.  Incidentally I also have Brian Martin’s Birds of Prey of the British Isles, published in 1992, one year before the wildfowl book, and in this case signed by the one and only Bill Oddie who I met  years ago at a bird fair up at Druridge.  I wonder if any of you were there on that day?  I don’t remember anything like that taking place for many a year in this area.   I felt a bit awkward asking Bill to sign a copy of a book that he wasn’t the author of, but he didn’t seem to mind.  I bumped into him later in the dunes, but I gained the impression he didn’t want to be disturbed whilst birding (I fully appreciate why, as I’m inclined to be the same) so only a nod was exchanged.  I know Bill rates Northumberland highly and I’m sure I have it correct that he used to be involved at the observatory at Monk’s House.  Anyway I’d been thinking about the Bean Goose and White-fronted Geese I’d seen this month, hence the book coming off the shelf.

Canada Geese, Patch.
The first thing I was reminded of whilst flicking through the pages was that Bean and Pink-footed Geese were separated as species only in 1833, although I understand there is some dispute as to maybe it being a year or two before this.  The name Bean Goose is apparently originally a Lincolnshire term and was introduced by Pennant in 1768.  The scientific name of Anser fabalis was also given in the eighteenth century.  When Pennant first introduced the name Bean Goose there was some thought that it derived from the fact that the nail of the bill has some similarity to a horsebean, but this seems unlikely according to Martin.  Fabalis derives from the Latin faba, which means bean.  In the eighteenth century, field beans were grown more extensively than now and Bean Geese are thought to be the first geese to exploit agricultural crops in a large way.  The Bean Goose I had watched at Holywell was a Tundra Bean Goose, Anser fabalis rossicus, rossicus being a Latinised version of ‘Russia’.

The scientific specific name for Pink-Footed Goose brachyrhynchus derives from Greek.  Brackhus meaning short and rhunkhos meaning beak.  This makes the point that it is shorter billed than the Bean Goose for which it had been confused until 1833, although Temminck argued that it had been recognised as a separate species in Holland in 1829/30.

Pink-footed Geese.  Druridge.
I’ve had many decent sightings of White-fronted Geese Anser albifrons over the years, but non better than the flocks of Greenland White-fronted Geese seen on Islay a few years ago.  It was Sir Peter Scott who said that Islay was the ‘best place in Europe to watch geese’ and it was he (along with Christopher Dalgety of whom I am able to find only the briefest information.  He was a friend of Peter Scott, a wildfowler and wrote a book on wildfowling) who recognised and first described and named the sub species Greenland White-fronted Geese Anser albifrons flavirostris in 1948.  Albifrons derives from the Latin albus for white and frons for forehead and flaviostris is Latin for yellow-beaked.  In the case of the rarer Lesser White-fronted Goose Anser erythropus of which I believe I’ve only seen one truly wild bird, and that was on a freezing cold day in Norfolk when the bird kept insisting on disappearing behind a ditch some distance away, the common name simply reflects that this bird recognised since 1758, is smaller than the White-fronted Goose.  Erythropus derives from the Greek eruthros for red and refers to the bright pink bill.

In the case of Greylag Geese Anser anser, the Latin Anser simply meaning goose, and this bird has the same specific name because it was thought to be the original wild goose.  There is a good explanation given by Martin as to the use of the common name Greylag and the quote is below.

‘’There are many explanations for the origin of the current name, but simple ‘gray lag’ is first noticed in the work of Ray in 1713, and ‘grey lag goose’ was introduced by Pennant in 1768.  Lag is a name of great antiquity and said to have derived from the call, lag-lag-lag, widely used in driving domesticated geese.  Another explanation is that this was the goose that lagged behind when all other geese went north.  But equally plausible is the suggestion that this was the bird which commonly grazed the leys (sometimes leas)--- ley goose’’

Barnacle Geese.  Caerlaverock
Now onto the branta/black geese.  The generic term Branta stems from the Old Norse Brandgas which means burnt goose and is associated with the dark colour of the geese.  In the case of the Canada Goose Branta Canadensis, the common and specific name needs little in the way of explanation and simply describes the bird’s origin. Probably less well known is an old name for Canada Goose was Cravat Goose, and this derives from the birds white chin strap.  Plenty to look into as to sub species of this bird and the Cackling Goose Branta hutchinsii, but I think I’ll leave that until the gale force winds return and/or I’m extremely bored!

The Barnacle Goose Branta leucopsis was once known as the Bernicle Goose.  The common name Barnacle derives from the twelfth century legend if Geraldus and the myth that this goose emerged from shellfish known as goose barnacles.  This myth was of course believed for hundreds of years and eye witness accounts of this happening are on record, an instance of folk seeing what they want to see, and I suggest that this still occurs!  The specific name of leucopsis derives from the Greek leukos for white and opsis for aspect or appearance, referring to the bird’s white forehead and face.

Barnacle Geese.  Caerlaverock

If I had to choose a favourite goose it would more than likely be the Brent Goose Branta bernicla, that is until I actually see a genuine wild Red Breasted Goose Branta ruficollis, rufus meaning red and collis meaning necked.  I find that once the meaning is known the remembering of the scientific name becomes a great deal easier, especially when the terms are used in other naming e.g. Tachybaptus ruficollis for Little Grebe.  The Latin specific name bernicla stems from the French term bernicle (or ought that to be the other way around?), and of course also refers to the Barnacle Goose.  Now if all this Latin, Greek and French isn’t confusing enough, in the case of the (Pale Bellied) Brent Goose Branta bernicla hrota that we see so many of on Lindisfarne, we have here a little Icelandic thrown in too.  I confess the term hrota had me puzzled until I found on the internet that it is Icelandic for snoring.  I assumed that it referred to the birds call and Janet Kear’s volume Ducks Geese and Swans confirmed this.  It refers to the birds rolling call, which Kear refers to as hard raunk, raunk and softer ronk.  In the case of the sub species (Black Brant) Branta bernicla nigricans, nigricans clearly refers to the dark colouring of the bird.

I'd like to say that this is a Red-breasted Goose among a flock of Barnacle Geese, taken after skillful use of fieldcraft.  In truth it was a posing Red Breasted Goose at Martin Mere WWT. 
Feel free to test me on the above if you bump into me whilst birding, but I may be pre-occupied!  I hope to get out this weekend, although I see the damn winds are back.  If it gets too bad I may yet get onto Canada Geese sub species, but I doubt it.

You’ll be pleased to know I have finished Jonathan Dimbleby’s Battle of the Atlantic and an excellent read it was too.  It even had a kind of birding link, as it spoke of Joe Baker Cresswell, commander of the HMS Bulldog, and the taking of the first enigma machine form a U Boat, U-110.  Sam and I stayed with Joe Baker Cresswell’s son for bed and breakfast during our stay at Bamburgh a couple of years ago.  It’s a small world, although it wasn’t a small book or a small battle!  

Sunday, 31 January 2016

January Begins and Ends With Smew

31st.  As I waved goodbye to 2015 little did I imagine that within hours I’d be sharing my time with a redhead Smew (patch tick) on New Years Day.  Even less did I imagine that I would be watching it still on patch on the last day of January?  Having deserted us for a few days it returned and clearly knows where it is well off as far as feeding goes and it’s certainly been an attraction for the bird watching fraternity and photographers.  There must be lots of images out there now, but I make no apology for adding a few more.  The Smew has been my top bird for the month, and it has been an excellent month with some great local birding.


 The light was fading as Sam and I checked the lake out today.  The Smew showed extremely well although the light at times was not all that it could have been, and at times swam with fellow saw-bills, the Goosanders.  It was also good to see the return of a male Gadwall (you may remember a patch tick for me in December), and we are hoping that this species will now be a regular at the lake.  Also present were Scaup (I’ll not entertain any suggestion that the bird we were watching isn’t a Scaup), Goldeneye in number and Pochard, the subtle markings of the female Pochard being much underestimated in terms of beauty in my opinion, along with Tufted Duck et al.  Great Spotted Woodpecker was heard in the woodland as we walked towards the flock of Canada Geese settled around the pathway.  The return walk following the pathway through the woodland showed just how much damage the recent winds had caused.  I’m not sure if the wind is to be blamed for the state of the floating reed-bed, which if it moves any further may end up on the roadway!  I don’t think anyone can blame the Mute Swans or other birds for the state of this floating eyesore on this occasion but that doesn’t rule out some trying to!  We ended our day with the Smew.


 Our day had begun with a visit to the Rising Sun Country Park, which I understand is to be featured on Countryfile on Sunday 7th February.  (I’ll look forward to seeing some familiar faces).  Our visit began with us picking up the call of Water Rail.  The Red Deer stag appeared content in the field when we passed by on arrival.

We were unable to locate any Pintail on a still flooded Swallow Pond.  There were numbers of Mallard, Gadwall, Wigeon, Teal, Tufted Duck and the odd Shoveler present.  Please note that I have now bowed to authority and have begun to spell Shoveler with one L only, although I confess that I still believe it ought to have two!  A look (a very quick look) through the gulls brought nothing unusual to our attention.

Goosander with Smew
Of the thrushes, Redwing were the most abundant with maybe sixty plus in one field and more seen as we walked around the park.  Blackbird numbers were high today and Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush and Fieldfare were all seen in smaller numbers.  Bullfinches were showing very well during our walk and other bird seen included Grey Heron, Greylag Goose, Canada Geese, Pheasant, Lapwing, Stock Dove, Goldcrest, tits and finches.  A healthy looking Fox showed briefly.

I’d enjoyed the walk in the fresh cold air and warmed up quickly with a bowl of soup in the restraunt before we left for our own patch.

Goosander with Smew
Hopefully the rest of the year will continue to provide as much interest as January has, with Druridge Bay on the agenda for February.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Temperature Rising

Well, my temperature is rising, got my feet on the floor
Crazy people rocking 'cause they want to some more
Let me in baby, I don't know what you got
But you better take it easy 'cause this place is hot
Spencer Davis Group

24th Jan.  This month is flying by!  It wasn’t so much the excitement of birds sightings that brought on the perspiration today, no it was the rising temperatures, although I have to say that out on the open fields at Holywell, that cooling breeze still had me reaching for the hat, so thoughts of the Mediterranean soon vanished.  Thoughts weren’t the only thing to have vanished today, as a thorough search suggested that the geese had ‘Bean and gone,’ the Bean Goose probably to Big Waters I heard, and White-fronted Geese to where ever.  We did have a skein of silent Pink-footed Geese overhead and flocks of calling Greylag.  Canada Geese were seen at the pond.  We initially thought that the Mandarin Drake had left the pond too, but our third visit to public hide in the afternoon gave us a good sighting of it as it preened itself on the water.

Some thought was given to the hybrid duck on the water which we finally agreed was more than likely a Pochard/Tufted Duck cross.  We initially had quite a lot of time to consider this one as there wasn’t very much else about.

My soaring (by my standards) 2016 list still does not include Yellowhammer.  Many of the hedges across the open fields at Holywell have recently been cut (or better to say chopped) and this has left them very open, so this very likely accounts for few birds to be found there.  Last year I didn’t hear or see Song Thrush until 1st February and it appears that Yellowhammer is this year’s bogey.  Incidentally a Song Thrush has been feeding in and singing close by my garden almost each day this month.  We did come across the small flock of Skylarks again today.

On our return to the pond we had lunch prior to our planned walk to Backworth.  The walk never occurred as we received a text from CS who we had spoken to earlier, informing us of the whereabouts of a Brambling.  We decided to head for the dene area in the hope of finding it.  We got muddy boots again, but no Brambling, although our change of plan did bring us some nice sightings of woodland birds including Nuthatches, Treecreepers and parties of tit including Long-tailed Tits in some number.  Two Stock Doves fed in the field to the north.  On leaving the dene the light through the Beech trees was wonderful, and the light remained good as we paid our final visit to the pond.  It was now that we found that the Mandarin Drake was showing well and that a Shoveler had now joined the Mallards, Gadwall, Wigeon and Goldeneye (a pair mating).  Common Snipe was seen in the distance on East Pool.  A Kestrel, probably the same one that had been seen perched on the fence earlier in the day, was flying over the hedge line.  We were also able to add Lesser Black-backed Gull to the year list.

So, a much milder day, although fairly quiet as bird sightings go, although still bring us almost fifty bird sightings during our visit.  Large flocks of Lapwing and Wood Pigeon flew overhead as we prepared to leave for home.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Bean a Grey Day

21st Jan.  The walk from Holywell village towards the pond, as we spotted a single Curlew by a frozen pool, more than hinted that today was going to be bitterly cold, and so it proved.  Our primary target was Bean Goose, and as soon as I saw the flock of geese in West Field my confidence grew that we were going to find it.  It took, but a few seconds to have the Bean Goose (rossicus) in the scope, its bill pattern showing well along with white base.  Two European White-fronted Geese (possibly we had seen these same two at Backworth earlier in the month) also stood out from the small mixed flock which also included Greylag and Canada Geese.  We took time to enjoy a good sighting, probably the best sighting I’ve had of a Bean Goose apart from the two I had found on patch in recent years.  A good way to start the day’s walk.  Tree Sparrows were feeding nearby at the feeding station and more were found outside of the hide.  The Lapwing flock was large and restless.

Bean Goose if you look closely!
The pond was frozen solid.  It wasn’t long before I pulled up my collar hoping to keep some of the cold air out, although not with much success.  It wasn’t really a day for sitting around in hides.  Sadly we had just missed the Otter out on the ice.  Great Spotted Woodpecker had been seen before we entered the hide.

Most life was down by the public hide including the posing and flashy Mandarin Drake, seen in much better light today that last week when our attention had been taken by the Slavonian Grebe  which was no longer present. The accompanying party included Mallard, Gadwall, Wigeon, Tufted Duck, Goldeneye (which climbed onto the ice) and Grey Herons.

Mandarin Drake (what else)
As we headed across open fields towards the dene and coast both Kestrel and Sparrowhawk were seen well, a small number of Skylarks lifted and flew off.  A few Pink-footed Geese (just into double figures), well spotted by Sam initially, added to our list of grey geese seen today and to add a further touch of grey to the day we found a small covey of Grey Partridges.  At some point we recorded Fieldfares.

Instead of descending into the dene we walked along the pathway between dene and farmland until we passed the farm buildings and reached the burn.  Heading down towards Seaton Sluice we added Grey Wagtail too our list before sighting a Little Egret flying up the burn from the coast and landing at a distance from us, but a distance that still allowed a good sighting.  This bird seemed to be gradually making its way up the burn as it chased from its path a Carrion Crow.  Although this is the first Little Egret we have seen in this particular area, it seems to me to be an ideal area for this species and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of these birds in the area in future.

Little Egret

 Such was the cold as we arrived at Seaton Sluice, there was only one place to be, and it wasn’t the cliff edge, and so we adjourned to the fish and chip restraunt to warm up and have lunch.  We aren’t turning soft though and we were soon out there overlooking the sea.  There wasn’t a great deal to see in truth, but at least I have finally added Red-throated Diver to my year list and there was a large passage of Guillemots and a few Razorbills.

The air chilled us even more and we decided that as we’d had some good sightings that we’d now call it a day, but as the tide was now ebbing we checked out the going numbers of waders on the rocks below.  We found numbers of Oystercatcher, Redshank, Turnstone, Purple Sandpiper and Knot.  It proved to be a nice ending to our walk which had brought us yet another very good and rewarding day in the first month of the year, and there’s plenty of time left in January.  We have been no further than Seaton Sluice, Holywell, the Carr and Gosforth park outside of North Tyneside and the lists are coming along famously.  A hot shower was on my mind as we journeyed home as the light seemed to foretell a descent into even poorer weather.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Walking Northwards

18th Jan.  I decided to brave the cold again and take a walk northwards, thus covering an area that is perhaps the least visited part of the patch by me.

Initially walking through the estates I found large numbers of finches, tits and House Sparrows.  I don’t recall seeing so many Chaffinches in the area before, and Greenfinch was represented too.  Greenfinches continue to visit my garden in good numbers.  Probably garden feeding was attracting the birds and once I was out onto the open farmland there was quite a difference.  The hedgerows were virtually silent and the open fields too were free of much life.

I was initially accompanied only by corvids, gulls and pigeons.  Eventually I found at least three Wrens, a lone Dunnock, and six Pheasants.  Two Brown Hares were seen, keeping their distance from the pathways.  As I passed by the site of tall trees I found in them a flock of twenty plus Fieldfare which took off and called as I walked underneath them.

Any blue sky was now being quickly covered by grey cloud approaching from north, east and west and by the time I’d reached the frozen flashes and the area that I had hoped to see Yellowhammers (but didn’t) I could feel the odd spot of rain on my hands and face.  I didn’t feel like being caught out here in heavy rainfall, so I began to head back.  A handful of Golden Plover flew overhead. 

The return walk brought me a single Reed Bunting which flew off the open field into the hedge that lined the pathway, and an excellent sighting of the Fieldfares now on the ground.  These really are wonderfully marked thrushes.

By now most of the frozen pathways are clearing, but the frozen flashes are testimony to the still low temperatures, so my over heating can only be accounted for by the power walking, the layers of clothing and perhaps the heat emanating from the sweet smelling silage that I passed along the way.  I’d enjoyed the walk, the open spaces, the changing sky and the solitude.  The only words spoken in two hours were ‘you alright’ and ‘hi’ to the infrequent passers by.  Thirty to forty Starlings greeted me with their calling as I approached home and I was under lighter skies again.