Friday, July 10, 2020

A seawatching twitch...

In recent years a new phenomena has occurred in line with new technology and new methods of communication. That is twitching seawatch birds.

Gone are the days of Millington's idea that seawatching was the only way to get a 'non suppressive grip-off' on your mates. By that he meant that you could justifiably get a rare species and when your mates missed it, as they invariably did, unless they were sat next to you at the time, you could gloat. No need to keep a cheeky one under that hat, no, you could get a Cory's Shearwater, run to the phone box, ring the grapevine and by the time you got back the bird was two miles further along the coast with zero chance of anyone else seeing it.

Nowadays, with the invent of What'sApp groups these birds are as twitchable as any scrub hugging warbler. All you need to do is get the news, work out some flight speeds and times of arrival, in fact there is even a bird timetable going around our group now so that you can see in an instant expected arrivals times of everything from White billed Diver to Black browed Albatross according to the headland you watch from. Then get to your spot and wait. In some places with 20 other people. Many gazing at their phones to see whether the next person along the coast has seen the bird.

It doesn't always work out well though. Seabirds can't read a WhatsApp timetable and are probably not inclined to follow its guidance if they could. On many occasions I have sat it out waiting for Little or Great Shearwaters for very little in return, but on occasion it does go well, look at last years Giant Petrel for example and before that my only Fea's Petrel was more punctual than our local Arriva buses.

Yesterday we got a message that not one but two Cory's Shearwaters had passed North Yorkshire, two hours apart and were heading our way. ETA for me was about 5.30pm as the Cory's flies on a tail wind. This instruction saw me on my local headland, Cullernose Point, at 4pm already beaten to it by one other observer , our County Recorder no less, dressed like he had just gotten off the plane from Malaga. Myself and John, carried our kit along and got comfortable. I was only wearing one light fleece under my thick coat. You can tell its summer.

As a regular seawatcher, from the off, I could see that this wasn't going to be a 'notebook' event.

For a start it was sunny with blue sky. This makes a deep blue sea where it is difficult to pick up distant birds with it as a backdrop. Plus, there were only the local Auks, Kittiwakes and Terns moving around with very few Gannets and Fulmars.

This lack of action means reduced concentration all round as we were constantly distracted by anglers drinking Monster, kids with 'beans on toast' lockdown hair cuts and day trippers wondering what we were doing. Still, we did our best. An hour in, the first of 7 Manx Shearwaters passed by, closely followed by a Whimbrel. Meanwhile the Lesser black backed Gull sat sentinel hoping one of the kids with the Harpo Marx do would slip to their demise and provide more carrion that that dished out by the anglers.

After that it turned cooler and even local birds dissipated. It was the arrival of a few new ASBO anglers carrying drink, that broke the camels back for me.

On the plus side, both Cory's didn't even make it beyond Cleveland, so we didn't dip alone. I have only seen one Cory's Shearwater in the UK, on 22nd July 1999 close in past Newbiggin.

I hope the next one is self found...

A Newbiggin Cory's, 21 years ago...

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Knocking on the door...

Juvenile Chiffchaff in the front garden buddleia

Juvenile Whitethroat on the back drive rose.
Yesterday afternoon when I took Peggy for her walk, a bird call from high in the sky made me stop.

 A sound I've not heard here for a few months, maybe since we did the Lockdown Garden Birdrace? 

It took a short while to see the dots high overhead. A family party of 5 Lapwings 'peewitting' to each other as the adults guide this years young steadily down to the shore.

To them, this means little, but to the naturalist, it speaks volumes. In the language of wild things, it tells me that the breeding season, in the hills, that began for this family in March with the male Lapwing tumbling and stooping to the ground like a paper kite, is now successfully over for another year.
As I sit and work from home I get distracted and look out onto the garden. Young warblers and tits are passing through everyday, some fattening up for a longer journey.
The door is opening on Autumn. The Lapwings have returned to the wintering grounds on the 7th of July.
This morning I got up early to have a seawatch before work. It was mild and dull with a slight easterly breeze blowing so I wandered through the village, across Tommy's field and on to the coast path before settling down for an hour.

Whilst there weren't loads of birds moving, there was enough to make the sharp start worthwhile.

Manx Shearwaters 33 N in parties of up to 7 birds.
Shearwater sp, 2 distant low fliers had a very different jizz and I couldn't see pale on them. I am almost sure they were the first Sooty Shearwaters of the year but I just couldn't nail it so they went unrecorded. there'll be more.
Bonxie 2 big brutes casually flew past.
Arctic Skua 1 dark bird was close in moving N.
The two skuas are also patch year ticks.
A scarcer species twinkled into view as 2 Little Terns moved N. Although they nest only 6 miles away, it is a surprisingly tricky bird to get on my patch.
A few wildfowl made it to the list with 2 Common Scoter N, 2 Red breasted Merganser ( 1N, 1S) and 2 Goosander S.

Mediterranean Gull 1 fs N 

The common birds, Gannets, Auks, Kittiwakes and Fulmars were in steady numbers heading off to feeding grounds for the day. So not a bad morning though the edge was scuffed off slightly when Whitburn reported 2 Pomarine Skuas N and they were tracked up as far as Boulmer. I would have had them but work called.
Around the garden, our single young Swallow seems to have fledged and is flying around with the adults, while I photographed our local male Blackbird with a 'worm'. On the computer I was surprised to see that the worm had legs. It was a Smooth Newt! 

Fledged Swallow...

Amphibian eating Blackie...

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Since the COVID lockdown has been slackened, there is a definite change in vibe across the social media platforms when it comes to birding attitudes.

The new order seems to be low carbon all the way, and God forbid you should stray across the line. 

It reminds me of the early eighties when Richard Millington's book, A Twitchers Diary' was published. At that time, twitching was frowned upon by the more 'serious' birder as being frivolous and of little scientific value. The RSPB magazine even censored pictures of the book cover by blackening out the title as if it was a photo on the cover of a seedy top shelf magazine ( ask your older mates). 

Now the twitcher bashing has started again though for a very different reason. Those who don the hair shirt of local patch birding, while off setting their carbon footprint, look down upon those mile munchers who dash off at the wink of an albatross, seeing them as planet destroyers of no less stature than Thanos himself ! Apparently these 'dinosaurs' have had their day...

We will see.

Where am I going with this? I'm rambling a bit so lets get back on track. The majority of my birding time is spent in a local context, with the odd twitch and day out thrown in to spice things up a bit. Most of my ventures are within Northumberland, but that's because it is a good county for birding. I have been thinking of my last time across the county border after a bird? White winged Scoter at Musselburgh I think? This got me thinking about Steve Gale's 'uber patch'. An area that is bigger than what is deemed managable as one patch but still an area that he spends most of his time.

For me my 'Uber Patch' would be a zone stretching 10 miles North to South and 14 miles East to West with the town of Alnwick more or less in the middle - 

This is not a deliberate area, it just happens to be where most of my time is spent. To be fair  most the area is not even given a look at but it encompasses places I visit for wildlife regularly. Although it is a big area of land, I don't think I am destroying the planets resources as much as some, especially as even in this area most of my birding is done between Boulmer (the square headland to the right of Longhoughton)and Craster .

This morning was spent 3 miles from home at Boulmer. The strong winds made us choose the coast rather than inland today. It was typically 'July quiet', but enjoyable all the same. First off we walked south from the car park along the shore to get some shelter from the westerlies, to Seaton Point. Highlight here was the Cuckoo on the beach, first seen last weekend by John but still present and flighty today. 1 Bar tailed Godwit, 4 Dunlin, 23 Golden Plovers, 32+ Curlews were the start of wader passage here. Or maybe the end?
12 Swifts flew south. 3 Grey Partridges were in the fields while a Shelduck lead a creche of over 30 ducklings on foot past a roost of Herring Gulls, on to the sea. A pair of Stonechats did their best to stay upright in the wind.

Him and her Stonechats.


Back at the car for a tea stop then we walked North to view Longhoughton Steel. Here we had 2 Red throated Divers in summer plumage, many Sandwich Terns, 1 Common Tern, 1 juv Yellow Wagtail and 1 Canada Goose South. A summer plumaged adult Mediterranean Gull flew north along the shore. On the sea loads of Gannets and Auks but nothing on the move.

Dunstanburgh Castle and on the left, the Bathing House.

The North End of Boulmer facing Low Steads.

The North End at Boulmer facing due North. 

This wind might swing into the north tomorrow, if so I'll have a seawatch. This time even closer to home...

Friday, July 03, 2020

Drab doldrums.

Looking back through my recent blog posts and they all seem a little drab? I'll try and spruce them up in coming weeks.

I have also read two of the other blogs I follow and find they are struggling to get motivated too. Its not good chaps! Come on, a few slow days and crap summer weather is what we are used to, I'm sure it will pass soon.

Locally around here over the last week or two I've managed a few noteworthy things.

Plants. I would like to do more here, but can only id the common species and even then just because I think I'm right doesn't mean I am.  I checked along the road for our sporadic Birds Nest Orchids and managed to find one.  These are drab even when fresh so forgive me here...

Bird's Nest Orchid, a stunner. 
In the same area as the orchid I found a massive mushroom that I did not recognise, but as is the way now, Facebook came to the rescue. Although it is called Lurid Bolete, it looks a tad drab to me.

Lurid Bolete. Yes really.
 We then passed some meadow in the estate gardens and found only one Common Twayblade. We had to don sunglasses for this colourful gem...

Common Twayblade
We then had a disaster with our shed Swallow nest. We found two large young dead on the floor then luckily Jane is quite thorough with these things, she found a third chick still alive on the ground. It was hastily replaced in the nest and we stood aside. The adults soon behan feeding it so hopefully all is well, but how it happened I dont know.

On 24th June I was at the moth trap at midnight when an unusual bird called overhead once then again as it moved north, a trilling, wader type call that I had not heard before. The Nocmig lads pointed me towards Water Rail so i did a trawl on Xeno-canto where sure enoughthe nocturnal flight call is my bird! Fancy that Water Rail added to the garden list in June.. amazing.

I have already mentioned the two Cuckoos, one remained the next morning but was too flighty for me to get a photo.

After an absence of a few years there are 8 Broad leaved Helleborine plants about to flower in the Village Wood, so I'll post them when they look better.

A few more Crossbills have gone south with a 3 and a single.

To bring this right up to date, a seawatch on Wednesday 1st July had 45 Manx Shearwaters N and 117 Puffins. It was generally quiet other than the local breeding seabirds in the area.

If the Bempton Albatross decides to have a jaunt northwards, I would be very grateful..

This isn't just drab, it the Uncertain.

In danger of this blog becoming gaudy, Mompha ochraceella.
Physitodes binaevella

A new hoverfly for me Cheilosia illustrata from today.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Swiftly south..

Another visit to Boulmer this morning to meet up with John in less than ideal conditions.

It was windy and raining steadily under thickly overcast skies. From the cover of our two cars we soon noticed that some Swifts were on the move along the coast, John, on route here, had noticed about 60 near Seaton Point so we started a count.

From 6.30 until a little past 7.30am groups of between 40 and 140 appeared from the north, over the village, powering south sometimes so close over head the slash of scimitar wings in the wind could be heard as they passed.

Where these birds are going I couldn't say, but it seems early for true migration though the numbers involved seemed excessive for them to be feeding parties dodging a weather system? Overall we counted over 700 though local birder, Daniel, boosted the count to over a thousand from his viewpoint in the dunes where he could scan a further west horizon than we could.

As the numbers dried up, the weather didn't, so we called it a day and went home for breakfast but not before a 1st summer Mediterranean Gull skimmed south along the beach. The third bird present here recently.

Later, at home, I was pleased to see first one, then two Cuckoos at our lane end, more early or late migrants going one way or another because they don't breed locally. To bolster the unusual theme, a pair of Siskins fed on my niger feeder in the garden all afternoon...

Common birds continue to raise questions no matter how long we have watched them... 

Monday 29/06/20 Edit -  Yesterday 28k swifts flew south past Hunmanby Gap and this morning it is reportd that 22,500 had gone past Gibraltar Point by 7.15am! Puts our meagre count into perspective...

Some of the good numbers of Swifts as they moved south in grim weather this morning.

The view north from the Boulmer car park.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Boulmer Birder

When I first started this blog back in July 2006, almost 14 years ago, it was my intention to mainly record the sightings from my then local patch, the headland of Boulmer.

At that time I lived less than 2 miles away and would pop down on a regular basis to see what was around. Boulmer has potential ( or maybe that has already been uncovered) as it is a big square faced headland into the North Sea that attracts migrant birds. The main issue with it, is the lack of public access. There are few public paths and the landowners are not a friendly bunch either.

By 2009 I had moved house to our present digs at Howick about 3 miles from Boulmer. Now Howick, whilst not a promontory is also on the coast and for residents has much better access around the farmland and estate behind the coast path. Hence I adopted this as my new patch, and why wouldnt I, I live smack centre of it!

Back in 06, I was the only birder to watch Boulmer on anything like a regular basis, but now with no little thanks to some of my first observations a small group of Boulmer Birders has developed and as a result more good birds are being found. There are now, 3 regulars who would call it their patch and me and John who might call by sometimes for old times sake. 

We made such a visit on Sunday. It was generally quiet and as unfriendly and access averse a place as you could find, but we still wandered into the corralled spots where the public are still grudgingly allowed to wander. Two nice Med Gulls were along the shore, an adult and a second summer bird, the latter showing quite well. There was a steady viz mig of Swifts overhead with 300 south, joined by a flock of 23 Siskins and a Redpoll that for all the world was very pale and Mealy like to me, but in June?

We then met Daniel, the most recent Boulmer patcher who I know will turn up good birds as time progresses. He had a female type Grey headed Wagtail briefly on the beach before it flushed North ( the same bird is at Low Newton today).

We left at lunchtime with mixed emotions. It is still a good bird spot for sure, but just heart breaking to see 20, yes 20 signs saying No Parking, No Access, No Camping etc at all points. Places we used to park now blocked by wooden bollards forcing everyone into one inadequate car park, that, to be honest they would close too if they had a chance. On top of that, this is the weedkiller sprayed capital of the North with brown verges a dominant feature, where in my head I can see some sour faced person saying 'There thats better' when they have fulfilled a scorched earth policy.

Will we be back? No doubt, but just when my soul feels strong enough to face it...

Here is the good side of Boulmer...

One of the Meds... 

And here is the insidious bad side of this lovely place... 

A fresh water drainage ditch sprayed to death with herbicide. Into a water source...

We used to be able to walk here as the Close the Gate sign suggests. Not now.

There, isn't that better.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

The Oracle.

Almost a year on from our near unbelievable sighting of a Giant Petrel sp off Cullernose Point, the report out today from the BBRC ( British Birds Rarities Committee) shows that the record has been accepted. This is much sooner than I expected, but is it time for celebrations? Not just yet.

This means that the powers that be accept that our identification of the species or in this case species pair is correct, but as this would be a first for Britain, the record must go before another august body, the BOURC ( British Ornithologists Union Records Committee) to see if it warrants a place on the British List. I fear this might take a lot longer, but once the id has been accepted, what else could possibly happen? A Giant Petrel tanking it past an east coast headland is not going to be of captive origin I'm sure, so I am keeping all of my appendages crossed and hoping for the best.

I have found some good birds in the past, but I have never been involved in anything on this scale, a potential British 'first'.. The finding credit will rightly go to mark Newsome at Whitburn, after all we were just waiting for his bird, but as for a Northumberland fist, that would go to myself and Mark Eaton. I cant believe it! So with that in mind, hang back, don't put the flags out just yet, lets see what occurs....

While I am on about listing, the BBRC also rejected last years Baikal Teal as an escape so I have already removed if from my lists. Will others I wonder...
Original Field Notes done while bird still on show. Excuse the panicked writing!

An image from the internet, this shows how we couldnt see the bill at range and the ragged tipped wings and square tail.