Sunday, 20 August 2017

Postcard from Sweden. Part One...Not Just Owls.

Having been to Finland and Norway in 2016, Sweden was soon to appear on the growing list of places to visit. What follows is the first instalment of highlights of the trip which took place at the end of May 2017.

Our journey began with a car journey to Edinburgh, a flight to Stanstead, an excellent dinner followed by a warm summer evening birding in Essex (I can recommend the woods near the Stanstead hotels if you’re willing to initially tackle the unpaved roads to get there), followed by an overnight stopover and then our flight to Vasteras, Sweden where the birding began in earnest.  We were led by Tom Mabbet and Swede, Daniel Green.  We were soon into the Svartadalen/Black River Valley area north of Vasteras and Stockholm.  White Wagtail was my first sighting of the trip and as we drove away from the airport we were soon counting Nordic Jackdaws, Fieldfare and Redwing on the grass verges.  The wide open fields were a very different habitat than our UK enclosed and over populated system.  We made a stop for a cup of tea and watched a feeding station.  Woodland/garden birds seen included Great Spotted Woodpecker and Tree Sparrow but our attention was taken mainly with three Hawfinches which at times showed well together.   It wasn’t long before the call of Wryneck was heard and we eventually had a good sighting of it.  I was already beginning to think that this was to be a good trip.

After settling in and having dinner we were soon off to the forest on the lookout for Great Grey Owl which we saw quite quickly, but only briefly and at distance as it flew over the forest glade. We had a walk in this area hoping for a closer sighting but it never came although we did have three Woodcock and a Green Sandpiper fly over, and a singing Garden Warbler, Cuckoo calling, Pied Flycatchers and Tree Pipits.  A family of Wild Boar were seen in the distance and the adults were certainly the largest Wild Boar that I have ever seen, not that I have seen that many.  We moved on to a lesser known site for Great Grey Owl and immediately on arrival we spotted one hunting over the glade only a few metres from us.  The next forty-five minutes were taken up watching and photographing this bird.   It’s surprising how this species tolerates humans so easily.  After last year’s sighting of a Great Grey Owl on the nest, it was my hope we would find at least one of this species in flight but I hadn’t expected one on our first evening.  I do have to say though, whilst an excellent sighting it didn’t quite match the magic of the bird on the nest in the Finnish Forest which had involved a rather difficult but atmospheric walk last year.   As the light began to fade we left for our hotel and a sound sleep ready for an early start the following morning.

Great Grey Owl

Great Grey Owl

Our second day in Sweden and again in the area of the Black River Valley was to again focus on owls, but not just owls.  I believe the intention today was to initially look for Pygmy Owl but we were rather diverted when Daniel saw movement in a dead tree.  It turned out that it held three young Ural Owls.  On occasions all three could be seen from various parts of the dead tree stump.  If there was a fourth bird we didn’t see it.  The adult bird watched us from a more distant tree.  Ural Owls are of course notorious for being protective of their young and we didn’t get to close to this nesting site and later today we will see why that was a wise decision!  A Red Backed Shrike was also seen in the area.

Ural Owl

Ural Owl Chicks.  Two can be seen here, the second only just.

We eventually did get around to finding our Pygmy Owl and what a sighting that was.  We had a sighting of this bird in flight, calling and perched.  Its small size was best noted whilst in flight.  It was mobbed by fourteen species of woodland bird including, tits, warblers, Spotted Flycatcer and Pied Flycatcher and it was today that we also saw Crested Tit.  We weren’t so lucky when some local birders/ringers took us to the Tengmalm’s Owl nest site.  The birds had nested in a box and when examined the ringers found only two dead chicks.  It wasn’t impossible that another chick had survived, but it seemed unlikely.  We had better luck in another area of forest where we found Three Toed Woodpecker and also had a sighting of Black Woodpecker which seemed to do a fly past to check us out.  Great Spotted and Green Woodpecker were also seen today.

Ural Owl

Ural Owl Chick

Later in the day we were met by another two ringers who escorted us to a Ural Owl’s nest where they intended to ring the chicks.  We met the two guys with their ladders, metal helmet with visor and what one of them described as ‘hi tec’ equipment.  This equipment was a long pole with a large cushion on the end which was to be used to protect the ringer from possible Ural Owl attack whilst he climbed the ladder, removed the chicks and ringed them.  Once we had walked a little way into the forest we were at the nest site and we had good views of an adult Ural Owl.  The ringer climbed the ladder and removed the chicks for ringing and whilst the adult bird called in a rather agitated manner and kept a close eye on him all seemed to be going well.  I seemed to remember that I ought to keep my eye on the adult bird and should it swoop I was to turn my back and stoop down towards the ground.  Well, when it did swoop I did as I had been told (although we were a safe distance away from the action) and heard scuffling and the rattle of the metal helmet.  When I did turn around again I saw that the ringer had had his helmet knocked off by the Ural Owl, had been slightly hurt and was clearly shaken.  As we all know ‘hi tec’ equipment often doesn’t work!  However, all’s well that ends well and having ringed the chicks, allowed time for photographs and placed the chicks back into the box all was calm again.  It had all been quite an experience.  Daniel informed us that several ringers had been seriously injured by Ural Owls in the past and now will no longer get involved in ringing them.  I understand why.  Anyone who underestimates the danger from these owls ought to have been present that day.  In total we had seen eight Ural Owls today and it’s a species now challenging Great Grey Owl as my favourite bird.

Wood White Butterflies mating

During the day we had sightings of increasing numbers of Whooper Swan and Common Crane and a very good sighting of Osprey.  Other significant birds seen included Marsh Harrier, Common Buzzard, Honey Buzzard, Kestrel, Hobby, Crossbill, Lesser Whitethroat and numerous other species.  Our mammal list was growing too and the following had now been seen Red Deer, Roe Deer, Red Fox. Brown Hare and Red Squirrel along with the Wild Boar.  Butterflies were commonly seen and included Orange Tip, Brimstone, Holly Blue, Dingy Skipper (seen by Sam), and numerous Wood White and Green Hairstreak.

A Room with a View

We began our drive further North later in the day and arrived at Tallberg in the evening.  Once we were in our rooms and I took in the vista from the veranda I was a little disappointed that we were staying here only one night before moving further north.  The view was magnificent and it was hard to believe we had left the main road behind and now seemed to be in a wilderness area so quickly.  We were able to look across Lake Siljan, the sixth largest lake in Sweden, and onwards to the mountains.  I learned later that the lake occupies part of the Siljan Ring, the largest meteorite impact crater in Europe, created 377 million years ago.

Parts two and three to come

Thursday, 17 August 2017

A Coastal Trip

16th Aug.  Sam and I headed north today and our first stop wasn’t for birds, but for books.  We called into Barter Books at Alnwick, not only a bookshop but a bit of history.  Northumberland is blessed to have a bookshop such as this.  The only other one I know that comes close is Michael Moon’s Antiquarian Bookshop in Cumbria.  Anyway, Barter Books was heaving with folk today and it was difficult to move without bumping into someone.  We headed initially for the Natural History section, or I should say sections.  There were numbers of New Naturalist and Poyser additions we were keen on but just like our local football club we shopped in the bargain basement today and I purchased a nice copy of Derek Ratcliffe’s Bird Life of Mountain and Upland before we moved onto Budle Bay.
One I took earlier as they would say on Blue Peter.

The tide was high and just on the turn when we arrived at the bay and all I could pick out that were in anyway close to us were flocks of Redshank of which there were many.  It was a bright sunny morning, bit of a rarity in its self this summer, although there was still that hint of a cold wind.   We stuck around for over an hour and watched the tide quickly ebb.  It wasn’t long before we were able to count at least six Little Egrets feeding and found a couple of Knot and Curlews.  Eider and Shelduck began to appear and we got talking to a guy visiting the area from Somerset and the conversation of course turned to birds and good birding sites in our respective home areas.  As we were talking a flock of birds feeding at the waterline was disturbed and we quickly saw why, as a Peregrine Falcon was flying over a remaining Redshank.  The Peregrine made several dives at the Redshank in an attempt to make it lift, but to no avail.  I had no sooner said, ‘the Redshank should be fine if it stays put in the water’ when the Peregrine swooped down again and lifted the Redshank and flew off with it alive and possibly kicking.  The Peregrine seemed to be heading inland but then turned, perhaps put off by us watchers, and flew out into the bay.  Several birds nearby had just kept on feeding throughout.  White species of Butterfly were numerous and we picked up Wall Brown Butterflies too.

We eventually made off south along the coast and stopped at Monk’s House Pool.  There were good numbers of Lapwing here but little else although we saw four waders lift which were probably Dunlin.  I did recently get hold of a signed copy of The House on the Shore by Eric Ennion, again purchased from Barter Books.  It appears to have been signed at Monk’s House in 1960 and owned by a gentleman who lived in Seahouses.  I found it very much a book of its time, the 1950s, and I enjoyed reading about Monk’s House Observatory, although I must say whilst I recognise the high quality of E Es artwork I didn’t rate the written text too highly, but that is just my opinion.

Seahouses was heaving with tourists as were the fish and chip cafes so we had our lunch at a pub in Newton.  It advertises itself as a ‘Gastro’ pub and so we had Gastro Burgers before visiting Warkworth Castle.  I’ve not been to the castle for many a year.  It was a bit difficult to imagine Robert The Bruce involved in his siege of the castle or Edward 1 paying an overnight visit, as today the castle grounds were more like a theme park or adventure playground.  We decided to visit again when things are quieter.  As Sam said on occasions throughout the day, ‘who is it that says Northumberland is quiet?’  Never mind it’ll soon be winter.

Later, we paid our first visit to the NWT Hauxley Wildlife Discovery Centre.  The car-park here was almost full and the centre quite busy.  I’m not a great fan of Hauxley reserve but if the centre can be put to good use as an educational establishment then that is all to the good.  The building itself seems quite pleasant.  We didn’t go out on the reserve as it looked very quiet as far as birds were concerned, although we saw a flock of Black Tailed Godwit and Dunlin.  I knew about the new pathways, but I can’t say I noticed any real habitat changes.

Next stop was Druridge Pools where Sam picked up a lifer in White Rumped Sandpiper.  There were more Black Tailed Godwits and Common Snipe.  We had a further sighting of Little Owl.  We later stopped at Cresswell Pond which was very quiet but we enjoyed a chat to a long-standing friend.  The Spoonbill on the west shore was dozing and there was no way we were going to see that bill!  We also found a lone Avocet.  By now we had also seen Red Admiral and Peacock Butterflies.

Today wasn’t a matter of getting away from the maddening crowd but simply joining them, it is August after all and we did have some pleasant chat with a few individuals.  Birding was quiet but as you can see from my report it wasn’t all about birding and so we had a very good day and the Peregrine Falcon sighting was special.


I’m eventually getting around to writing up our Swedish adventures so more of that anon.  

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Dumfries and Galloway Adventures. Part Two

I’m presently reading Galloway and the Borders by Derek Ratcliffe, and number 101 of Collin’s New Naturalist Series.  It’s relevant to this trip of course and it ought to be remembered that without the likes of DR we may not have been in a position to watch Peregrine Falcons at Threave, or anywhere else in the UK for that matter.  It was DRs work in the 1960s that led to the findings of the link between pesticides and eggshell thinning in raptors.  This problem had led to a rapid decline in many raptor species.  DR was brought up in Carlisle and as a young man ventured over the border into Dumfriesshire and Galloway where he took a keen interest especially in the Peregrine Falcons and Ravens of the uplands.  Years later monographs for Poyser followed, concerning the Peregrine Falcon and Raven.  DR lived to see many changes in the area, not all for the better, afforestation being one concern.  The present plans by the Forestry Commission to extend the planting of none native trees in the area by a substantial amount would not have gone down well with DR.  Derek died in Newcastle upon Tyne in 2005 just after completing his book Galloway and the Borders.  I believe at the time he had been on his way to Lapland, an area he loved, and I would recommend his book Lapland (Poyser) to anyone interested in that area.  Thanks Derek Ratcliffe.


18th July.  We set off this morning for Castramon Woods, one of the largest semi natural broad leaved woodlands in the area.  The oak trees were once used for charcoal and bobbins.  As my journey had been delayed by several weeks we were aware that our target species would not be easily found and so it proved.  Sam did catch sight very briefly of a Wood Warbler, but we were unable to find Pied Flycatcher, Redstart or Tree Pipit.  Some Woodland species were seen and included Nuthatch, Treecreeper, Goldcrest and Great Spotted Woodpecker.  In any event the walk through the woods was a delight with the sunlight giving backlighting to the leaves and having a stunning effect in places.  It was midmorning and already very hot.  It would be difficult to be greatly disappointed in such wonderful surrounds, but what little disappointment we did feel was very quickly dissipated at our next stop.

We stopped at a Bridge over the River Fleet in expectation that we might find Dipper.  We never did find that species, but we did find Golden Ringed Dragonflies, long on my wish for list of species to see.  Once picked out from the bridge we managed to find a path down to the river bank and we settled here to watch.  It wasn’t easy to judge how many Golden Ringed Dragonflies there were but we reckoned at least three or four, which included both male and female.  This was to be nature watching at its best as we watched males patrolling, perching, courtship, male and female in tandem and flying high and possibly into the trees to continue mating and females ovipositing.  Whilst not the largest Dragonfly species in the UK, it is the longest and perhaps the most beautiful.  Unfortunately perching always took place on the other side of the


river so photographs weren’t possible, but this was all about watching anyway and there was also a pair of Grey Wagtails to keep an eye on.  All the time the sun blazed down and we were fortunate to have tree cover and shade to drop into.  The river reflected a multitude of green, umber and red hues and as we watched a Kingfisher flew along the river below and only a few feet away from us, lit perfectly by the sun and showing the blueness of plumage at its best.   I’m not sure if it was heat, hunger or thirst that finally dragged us away, but we did eventually move on.  We’d had all this to ourselves and it is this aspect of nature watching I love.  This was special.

We did stop off for a bite to eat and then moved on to Cardoness Castle.  This is a 15th century tower house with slots for dropping burning tar on unwelcome guests and a prison for those who got in!  It also offers an excellent view of Fleet Bay and we had good sightings of Siskin and Bullfinch here.  Next stop was a walk at Carrick which seemed to have excellent habitat for warblers.  Sam had been told that it was unclear if Lesser Whitethroats still nested here.  We can confirm that they do having found four of them along with Common Whitethroat, Blackcap, Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff.  After the walk it was time for a break before dinner.  The heat was exhausting and approaching 30 degrees and I can’t remember where we had seen the Red Kites, but perhaps it doesn’t matter as they are all over the place up here.

Refreshed after dinner we were off to Rockcliffe for a walk to Castlehill Point where there was once a Roman Fort.  A beautiful area with great coastal views and a wonderful estuary.  The wind from the sea was picking up a little and this seemed to be a ‘wind of change’.  We found the Common Scoters again along with the likes of Oystercatcher, Curlew, gulls including Kittiwake, Guillemot, Rock Pipit, Dunnock, Wren, Robin, Song Thrush, warblers, tits, Linnet, Goldfinch, Greenfinch and House Sparrow.  When we got back to the village we climbed to the Mote of Mark.  The site was occupied in the 5th and 6th centuries and it is thought may have been destroyed by the Northumbrians.  Don’t we get everywhere?  With a beautiful view over the Urr Estuary it was a wonderful way to end another great day.

View from Mote of Mark

19th July.  Having gone to bed last night listening to heavy rain it was a pleasant surprise to wake to a bright dry day, in fact the forecast thunderstorms never did materialise today.  We set off for the Loch Ken area.  There were of course a few Red Kites as well as Common Buzzards.  Bird wise it was a quiet time of year, but we enjoyed the walk to the hide and whilst we sat there the number of bird species seen did add up and included our first Willow Tit of the trip along with the likes of Great Tit, Coal Tit, Blue Tit, Long tailed Tit, Jay, Nuthatch and a family of Great Spotted Woodpeckers with the male, female and two juveniles all present at the same time.  We agreed to move on and as I stood up I caught sight of a bird flying in and suggested to Sam that he might want to sit down again as it was unmistakably the shape of an Osprey I had seen.  We were aware that an Osprey had fed here the day before and we believed the likelihood was that this was the same bird returning.  Sam eventually read the ring number and it was the male adult bird from Threave.  Black 80 was first seen at Threave in 2008 following the construction of a nesting platform in 2007.  The bird was identified back then and traced back to RSPB Glaslyn, at the time the only successful Osprey breeding site in Wales.  Black 80 has been breeding at Threave since 2009.  Anyway, we weren’t going to rush away now and we soon watched this Osprey dive, take a fish and then fly off.  Another star sighting of the trip and especially rewarding for Sam as he has so much connection to the Threave Ospreys.   Once again we had the whole area almost to ourselves.


All Osprey images of Black 80 and heavily cropped.

The latter part of the day was spent exploring the Galloway Forest area and hills.  Ravens were seen and we took time to watch the Red Deer.  The Feral Goats weren’t found.  We rounded the day off with another hearty meal and a relaxing evening, my last of the trip.

Red Deer

20th It was time for my return home today but not before a morning tour beginning with a short visit to RSPB Mersehead a favourite reserve of mine.  We knew there wouldn’t be much birdlife so we only visited the centre.  Yellowhammers were among birds visiting the feeding station and we learned about the successful breeding of the Barn Owls.  Next stop was Southerness and I must learn more about that very old Lighthouse.  We drove around to Paul Jones cottage but didn’t go in.  I’ve known of Paul Jones for many years as I was always made aware of his attack on Whitehaven harbour during the American War of Independence.  It’s an interesting story as is the story of Sweetheart Abbey and New Mill.  We visited the Abbey and the old mill workings before moving on to Drumcoltran Tower, a 16th Century tower which is in the grounds of a working farm.  Some of the final wildlife I saw in the area was dead.  We found two dead bats in the tower, species yet to be determined…I think Sam is working on that, and a dead Goldfinch which appears to found it harder to get out of the tower than get in.  Some time was then spent in Dumfries town prior to my bus ride to Carlisle.

Sweetheart Abbey

My thanks go to Sam who had done lots of ground work prior to my visit and without whom the visit would not have been possible.  I can recommend him as a tour guide.

Since childhood I have visited the Cumbrian side of the Solway, but I am far less au fait with the Dumfries and Galloway side, so made some new discoveries during what was a great trip.  I’ve set myself the task of learning much more about the area and its history, hence my present reading of the book by Derek Ratcliffe.  I also have a book first published in 1955 The Solway Firth by Brian Blake.  Throughout my life I had cursory glances at this book which was always on the bookshelves of my aunt and uncle in Whitehaven.  I never read it fully.  Some years ago just prior to her death, my aunt gave me the book.  I intend to read it now.  Interestingly it was written during the years when Derek Ratcliffe made his early visits so I will find the Solway area as he did at that time, if only on the written page and in photographs.