Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Migrating Spuggies.

Today I took my birding gear to work with the intention of bunking off at 12 to drive the 50 miles to the nether extremes of our county for the long staying Bee-eater at Haltwhistle. I could have gone on Sunday but couldnt be bothered with the drive, so today was the day. Fired on by Mike Carr's superb photos, I WhatsApped John to tell him of my plan and jokingly commented that it would probably do a vanishing act before I got there, as the weather today was mild, calmish and clear, a lovely day.

Well, my prophecy couldnt have been more accurate. The feathered rainbow was still around at 9am, but at 10 it flew up higher and by 11 it had gone. Not to be seen again other than a fleeting report at 4.20. Time will tell if it returns.

The disappearance of the B.Eater at least saved me a half day holiday and some deisel, giving me time to consider my own sighting of the day.

Its no rare vagrant but Tree Sparrows were on the move this morning with two flocks of 9 and 19 at dawn flying S at a height along the coast path. The hard thing with these is to determine were these migrating or just leaving a roost locally as we still have lots of Tree Spugs here. Some discussion on our local bird group pointed me to think they were indeed on the move as large numbers had been through Spurn recently and a few at other headlands in the NE.

So whilst not a pulse racing  rare, its these migrations that are the food of the patch watcher so I am quite happy with that.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

A Patchy post...

Its been a while since I did a full on local patch type post so Saturday and today were spent doing just that, with maybe a step just a fraction outside the 'official' boundary, which I am quite happy to do. Its no good being precious about these things. Either way all sites visited today can be walked from home and are mostly within the map in the side bar.

On Saturday morning a walk around the coast path and Rumbling Kern with Peggy had - 4 adult winter Mediterranean Gulls, together, in the cow field just north of Seahouses Farm. Two weeks ago there were two adults here, the first time I have had a multiple occurrence on the patch, so to see four in one binocular field of view was excellent. A pair of Stonechats were in scrub by the Rumbling Kern. A five minute seawatch here with bins only had 1 dark Arctic Skua S very close in, 1 ad Common Tern  and 2 juv Arctic Terns N along the rock edges. Further off were 5 Red throated Divers on the sea and another two going S.

A bit of viz migging had 11 Siskins S, 7 Coal Tits coasting S and 9 Skylarks S.

A few butterflies were in the garden- 1 Small White, 8+ Red Admirals, 4 Speckled Wood.

As the wind swung north for the first time in millenia, later in the after noon I did an hour long seawatch from Cullernose Point. It was dire, but I sat it out catching the last sun and fresh air for 4 Red throated Diver, 1 Shelduck, 1 Manx Shearwater, 2 juv Arctic Terns ( probably those seen earlier), 3 Teal and 67 Common Scoter all N. A Small Copper was a late sighting on the coast path and another male Stonechat sat up giving nice close views.

Today I didnt have much hope of seeing much. Last night was clear and cold with a white frost on the car by 11pm. Still we thought we would give Craster ( north end of patch) a try today in case a Yellow browed Warbler had finally made it here.

As John arrived at 7am I put my gear in his car and a flock of 30+ Redwings flew out of the small copse next to our garden. The first of the autumn and a surprise giving the weather.

We arrived at the Craster public car park at about 7.20am and spent the next hour just standing around listening and watching birds viz-migging. Some were coasting S others dropping in from high east having just crossed the North Sea overnight. We totalled a decent list in the next hour -

Brambling 9 in off
Redpoll 60 S
Siskin 58 S
Redwing 38 in off
Fieldfare 3 IO
Song Thrush 3 IO
Goldfinch 12 S
Mistle Thrush 1 S
Golden Plover 13 S 38 N
Dunnock 2 IO arrived high from the east like pipits.
Linnet 13 S
Pied Wagtail 3 S
Crossbill 5 IO
Pink footed Geese 442 S

A Great Northern Diver flew N over head and a Barn Owl flushed from some Ivy on the old quarry wall.

In the bushes around were 2 Goldcrests and 2 Bullfinch.

Not a bad hour standing in  a car park!

We then checked the rest of the village area - 3 Willow Tit, 2 Chiffchaff, 2 Grey Partridge, 1 Great spotted Woodpecker and 1 Treecreeper. The sea was all but dead, 1 Wigeon and 6 Common Scoter N.

This afternoon I walked Peggy down through the village wood to the Pond field and back.
28 Long tailed Tits were very active flying around the village as if not sure where to go next, 1 Chiffchaff, 9 Redwing, 1 Collared Dove, a scarce bird here with maybe two or three records a year, 1 Jay, 1 Brambling S, 1 Wigeon and 10 Mallard on the pond with 2 Mute Swans and 3 Moorhen.

And thats about it for the weekend. No rarities and not even a YBW, but some nice birds to see on the doorstep and to witness migration is always good too... now where are those easterlies?

Seawatch from Cullernose.

The view north from Cullernose

Howick Bay

The coast path facing south

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Scotering along the wall...

Autumn 2018 is looking like becoming a classic for all the wrong reasons. You would have to look back 13 years since we had a September in Northumberland without a Yellow browed Warbler, but here we are into October with the clock still ticking or should that be, the west wind still blowing.

That would have been tolerable had there been an early autumn fall or two with Redstarts, Pied Flycatchers and Garden Warblers mixed with an odd Wryneck, Barred Warbler and Red backed Shrike, but even these have been relegated to rarity status this year. On my patch I've not had a single one. The best I could manage when it comes to drift migrants is a lone Whinchat in early August.

With all of this creating an atmosphere of futility, it was time to totally rethink our birding. Even the mothing is dying down for the season so no succour to be found here, so there was only on thing to do - go twitching. Hopefully that will give us the fix we are looking for.

On Sunday, with a mega seaduck and a couple of scarce southern padders an hour or two to the north, I met JWR at Homebase for a pre-dawn drive up the A1. Starting off at Barns Ness where both Woodchat Shrike and Rose coloured Starling had been present and showing well for a week or more and even up until 3pm on Saturday our hopes were high for a good day.

Soon, the best laid plans and all that began to shine through. The long stayers had only done an overnight bunk. The only thing of note seen in a couple of hours searching was a Merlin dashing over the headland.

The wind was increasing, so after breakfast at the car, we headed off on the 30 miles to Musselburgh sea wall for our headline act.

Success here was much more straight forward thanks to a huddle of twitchers a few hundred yards away hunched up over scopes all pointing in the same direction. This site is easy going, a long wide flat track behind a sea wall facing north onto good numbers of northern sea fowl. Today we had 70+ Velvet Scoter, 6+ Slavonian and 1 Great crested Grebe and a few Eiders, over flown by a Bonxie and 4 Sandwich Terns.

Our cryptic target lurking amongst the basically similar Velvets was an American White-winged Scoter. Fortunately it was one of the closest birds to the wall where all of the seperating features could be seen. This is maybe only the 4th UK record of the bird, recently given specific status rather than being a race of Velvet Scoter and very nice it was too with its lolly pink bill tip and white war paint eye makeup.

We were so pleased with the line up here, our previous dipping stop was all but forgotten. As for this Autumn? Well....

Thursday, September 27, 2018


September and October are the peak months for bird migration in the UK.

Here in Northumberland, August through to November is THE best time of year for birding. We are ideally positioned to recieve migrating birds from the North and East along our hundred miles of quite underwatched coastline. This is all well and good until you consider the one factor that acts as referee, judge and executioner in deciding whether the autumn has been a classic or a damp squib. The Weather.

Most years fall somewhere between these extremes with years like 2016 being top of the shop and, er, so far, 2018 being bottom!

So far this autumn, from, say, 10th August my local birding highlights have been -

Long tailed Skua 1ad tracked N along the coast, actually seen passing my patch.
Sooty Shearwater 1.
Spotted Flycatcher 2 ( yes, really, it is that bad)
Whinchat 2
Merlin 1
Med Gulls 2 ad winter together, my first multiple occurrence on patch. 

What a fine array, thanks to the relentless series of Westerly or Southerly winds. If I had driven to some of the hotspots, there has been Barred,Greenish and Arctic Warblers during a narrow window of easterly weather, but as a rule this year needs to come up with a radical move in the jetstream to stop 2018 becoming the antithesis of 2016!

As for falls of common migrants or good seawatches, these have been non existent. I remember when every autumn would see me taking holidays from work to fit in with seawatching or fall conditions. The way things are going, I'll still have leave to use up through to spring...

This weekend, calls for a change. I think we might head north in search of shrike, starling and seaduck...if they haven't done a bunk by then.

No birds, but a Blusher from Suffolk.

Monday, September 17, 2018


Just back from a nice week in Westleton, Suffolk. We have stayed in the village, about 2 miles from Minsmere, about 8 times now over the years in 5 different houses. Its a nice spot, equidistant between Soutwold and Aldeburgh, nice seaside towns. The area has good heathland, woods coast and reedbeds so there is always something for the naturalist away.

This time, in line with most of 2018, little deliberate birding was done, but I still managed 2 Stone Curlew near Minsmere, 2 Hobby together at Thorpeness, several Green Woodpecker ( scarce birds at home), a dozen Little Gulls at Sizewell, 8 Whinchats at Aldeburgh, but generally I was unsettled at the general lack of small birdlife around the countryside. Place were quite literally silent. No woodpigeons, crows, robins or dunnocks. Not a sound. I did see the odd passing tit flock but that was about it really.

Other forms of wildlife added interest for this Northerner -

Munjac in several areas, Grey Squirrels ( not annual at home), Adder, Migrant Hawkers, Ruddy and Common Darters and of course, the moths. Bringing the trap down here is always gauranteed to get new species for me and this week was very good indeed, with a couple of very localised species that would never have been on my radar.

 Hopefully we will be brave enough to face that bloody horrendous A1 for a return visit next year, but in the mean time here are a few pics...


Moth Trap fired up.

About 200 yds away from the digs lies the heath.
Dusky Thorn

Oak Hook-tip

Least Carpet

Archers Dart

Gold Triangle

Cypress Pug

Tawny Wave

Heath Rustic

Lunar Yellow Underwing

Mullein Wave

Meal Moth

Wax Moth

White Point

Beaded Chestnut

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Another butterfly lifer...

...this time on the doorstep!

Lets go back to the 28th July and it was 28 degrees with full sun. ( Rain all day today).

When we were down in Fermyn Woods I was hoping to catch up with White Letter Hairstreak, a very elusive butterfly in Northumberland. Our luck was out and it remained as hidden as ever.

On our return, inspired by Iain Cowe's findings in the scottish borders only 30 miles to the North where he had located several spots for WLH up the Tweed catchment area, we decided to check elm trees locally.

Unsure how to go about this, I met John in Alnwick and we had an idea to cruise around and stop when we saw some elms, preferably ones along the River Aln as there river valleys seem to be good spots for the butterfly.

First stop was Canongate where some sucker elms were hanging over a tall stone wall. We stopped for tea and breakfast and scanned around. Across the road next to us was a mid sized bushy elm tree on a field edge. We were laughing about the hopelessness of it all when I noticed a movement through the outer branches. Tea forgotten, we scanned hard and there - a White letter Hairstreak! The first adult for VC68  after Iain had located eggs in February up on the borders.

We hopped into the field and sat down. In a few minutes, one WLH perched out on the lowest branches and gave great views. We finally saw two more here making three in total. A great result, in our home town too.

Surely this was a fluke? We drove across to the opposite end of town where the Aln runs east. Sure enough, a riverbank elm looked good so we gave it half an hour. Our luck was in, another 2 WLHs were flitting through the branches and landing briefly where good binocular views were had.

Two sites in an area previously unknown for this insect cant be bad...I wonder how many there are out there?

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Looking for an Old Lady and the art of Sugaring.

I have been moth trapping in our garden on a regular basis since 2009. Over the years a respectable number of species have turned up including some firsts for the VC68 list and even Northumberland. Still though, a couple of nationally common enough species have eluded capture so it was time to try another approach.

Before the creation of the widley used electric light traps that bring us big catches at present, other methods had to be deployed by our lepidopterist forefathers in order to catch a few moths to pin in mahongany cabinets. One in particular drew my attention. Sugaring.

Sugaring is based on the fact that moths will feed on the weeping sap from wounded trees or from the honeydew secreted by aphids. Moths and butterflies are well known to feed on rotting fruit in orchards or from brambles over ripe but still on the bush.

Some species are more attracted to this than other, and when those species are not so strongly pulled to a light source, even better. Up here in Northumberland, my two scarce targets were Old Lady Mormo maura  and the Red Underwing Catocala nupta. These are very large and drammatic species and well worth a little time spent in the planning for their capture.

What is 'Sugar'?

It is a simple concoction made up as follows - 

A bottle of brown ale.
A bag of dark brown sugar.
A tin of treacle or syrup.

Pour the beer into  a large pan and bring to the boil. Do this gently to stop it frothing over. Simmer, allowing the alcohol and fizz to boil away. Then pour in the sugar and treacle. Gently simmer for a further 15 mins or so stirring regularly until all mixed. I like to stir in a couple of over ripe pears and a blackened banana, mashed, while simmering. Mash in the pan so it looks like the liquid below.

Allow to cool, and decant into the treacle tin or large jars. The mix will keep a couple of years, but watch for fermentation in case it blows the top off or breaks the jar. I keep mine in the shed.
Some sources advocate mixing some amyl nitrate, pear drops, or rum into it later but this can be harmful to the moths, getting them drunk, lethargic and liable to predation from mice, toads etc when they fall to the ground.

You can add out of date jam, or more mashed pears later if you wish.

I use it in two ways. 

1. Take a large plate or saucer, mine is a terracotta plant pot base dish. Keep some old fruit to be well over ripe such as pears, plums, peaches, blackberries and banana. Juicy fruits seem to be best but banana over done, certainly is an attractant. Its not an exact science so experiment.

I then drizzle some sugar mix over the fruit platter like gravy to finish. Place the dish in a sheltered wind free spot but not in an obscured area, moths like a clear flight line. Top the sauce up nightly and replace fruit as required.
Fruit mash dish - Old Lady dwarfing Large Yellow Underwing, Common Rustic agg, Shuttle shaped Dart, Lesser broad bordered Yellow Underwing.

2. Take a 1 or 2 inch decorating paint brush and simply paint a strip on a vertical surface such as a tree trunk, fence posts or what ever, but make sure its not where someone will lean on it or sit on it the next day.Top up your spots regularly and it will be permanently attractive.

Sugar painted on a fence rail. This one has bramble jelly mixed in. Its going down well with this Old Lady and LYUs.

And thats about it really.

It is most attractive from early dusk to midnight when things seem to go quiet. I check mine every half an hour or so. During the day, the plate is attractive to Red Admirals, Speckled Woods, probably Comma though I'm still waiting for that one, and of course wasps, so make sure it is in a quiet part of your garden. It does the job of keeping the wasps busy, so they dont come after you when you are having a drink outside!
Sugaring is a difficult thing to predict the results. Warm humid nights with a light breeze to waft the scent seems best. From July through to late October is the main season.

Even though my sugar spots are only feet from the 125w mv Robinson trap, I have still not caught an Old Lady at light but have had up to three together on my sugar when until now there had only been 4 records in the vice county in total...

My main target, Old Lady with LYU and Common Rustic agg. Note the Water Melon. They liked that too. Banana skins if you dont want to wast the whole banana.
Target No 2, Red Underwing, only my second one since one at light in 2009. This was the 5th VC68 record.  
Sugaring attracts a good range of species, but its not a trap so dont expect miracles. Perservere though and you may be surprised at the results this odd method produces.

The Gothic

Angle Shades and mates.
I wish I had potted this one up for closer inspection as it looks like a Copper Underwing rather than the commoner Svensson's Copper Underwing. Next time...
Its not all noctuids either, here a Fan-foot tries the wares.
Purple Clay

A trio of Red Admirals during the day.