Saturday, January 31, 2015

Month end Patchwork Challenge.

Not a bad month especially as I have been quite casual about it. Yesterday a very brief dog walk added two waterfowl species, Tufted Duck and Little Grebe and a similar wind blasted sortie today added Gannet. Total - 82 species for 88 points.

The percentage thing is a bit more skewed - my PWC baseline is 134 species from last years score. This gives me 61.19%. But, for my friendly challenge with Steve Gale in Surrey I have given a bigger start to allow for his total landlocked, no nature reserve status with 140 species base line. For this one I am on 58.57%.

Months highlights are - Raven, Kingfisher, Grey Plover, Stonechat and Brambling. Nothing earth shattering there, but a good start all the same.

80. Tufted Duck
81. Little Grebe
82. Gannet

Friday, January 30, 2015


First winter male Brambling.

The ground was covered with an inch or so of snow when we got up and everything was frozen. However, by lunchtime the sun was glorious and it had mostly melted leaving only the shadows white.

A wander around the village turned up a nice surprise when I heard a call overhead 'pruk pruk' and looked to find a Raven in full display tumbling mode, wings closed and upside down. It came low over the field scattering a large flock of Woodpigeons as it went.

Later as I left to go to Alnwick, the Brambling from the other day had returned to the feeders, favouring the niger. As the light was so nice it would be rude not to try a photo, so I popped back inside to get the camera and rattled a few off. The orange looks lovely and warm in the sunshine, dont you think?

Also around about, a pair of Stonechats looked great too on the coast path, 7 Redwings were in the Rectory paddock and 3 Kestrels were together in the village wood.

79. Raven

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Mighty Quin...

Yesterday morning found me boarding the starship Tilmouth in Homebase carpark  at 5am for a 220 mile raid over the border into Scotland.

Our target, a first winter drake Harlequin Duck, has frequented the River Don on the north side of Aberdeen since the turn of the year.

We made good time, as usual on the relatively traffic free Scottish roads arriving at Seaton Park in Aberdeen shortly after 9am. The immediate news wasn't good. The duck had been present first thing, but had flown off up river. Recent intel suggested that is favoured a set of rapids about half a mile up the river so off we set. The walk was pleasant enough, made more so by a chorus of Dippers in full song, and we eventually made our way through a building development to view the only section of river not cordoned off by tall metal meshed fence panels.

Relief, as we got on the the Harlequin feeding on a smooth stretch stretch of water with some 8 Goldeneye and a Goosander. On seeing us, he made his way over to the far bank for a preening session. Once spruced up after 10 minutes or so we were a bit disappointed when he just up and off, flying strongly out of sight around the next bend. Now this is where those bloody fence panels proved awkward, because, try as we might, there was no real way to access the area the bird had gone into. We wandered well upstream to a footbridge, seeing more Dippers, Goldeneye and Goosanders but no histrionicus.

After an hour or so, Alan suggested we try Meikle Loch about 12 miles to the north, for an American Wigeon present on the 25th. This was doomed to failure as every duck on the loch was about a mile away, backs towards us, facing into a now blustery, icy wind off the Cairngorms.

I suggested our time would be better spent waiting for the Harlequin to drift back into viewing position so off we went back to Seaton Park. Again we walked along about a mile of river without joy. By now it was 1.45pm and we had kind of given up, thanking our lucky stars for the short audience we had earlier. Then I noticed a lovely drake Goosander hauled out onto a distant rock over the stream. In the glowing afternoon sunshine, he looked magnificent and I commented this to Alan who scrutinised it with his bins. He then turned to me and said 'The Harly is on the same rock!'

Sure enough, there he was, sat out, catching some rays before the cold evening set in. We moved along the bank as far as possible where we enjoyed nice views, but could never have hoped for what happened next.

I said to Alan that it would be great if it swam a bit closer for some photos. The words hardly left my mouth when another Goosander seemed to irritate young Harly and he jumped into the fast flowing stream.This directed him into the current heading straight for me. Sitting down, back into the bushes for cover, I waited, disbelievingly as the bird ended up not 20 feet from my toe end! I looked back at Alan a few yards further along to see him mouthing something like 'clucking bell', I couldn't make it out over the river noise.

Here we just filled out boots with the star of the show feeding, and sitting out right beside us for over half an hour. Best of all there was only us two there, a great experience.

Harlequin Duck Histrionicus histrionicus, is species 405 on my British list. Although I have seen good numbers in Iceland, this was a great one to pull back after missing the two birds in Ayrshire many years ago. So, all in all, a fantastic trip with good weather, good company and a great bird. Cheers to Alan Tilmouth and to Aberdeen!


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Great Grey Shrike.

Today's lunchtime drive out was to visit the long staying Great Grey Shrike at West Hartford, Cramlington. Although I have been here a couple of times, its not somewhere I know well, so had to get on site directions from Joe Dobinson, who was right on the money. Cheers Joe.

Bearing in mind we are 'shiny shoe' office workers, the boggy terrain underfoot was a bit of a hindrance, but not impassable. After a false start or two a kind chap waved 'Its over there' to us and we headed to a better vantage point. Despite scanning a distant hedgerow in less than good light, there was no sign. Persistence paid off however, when, a few scans later, a white blob appeared in the scrub about half a mile away.

The shrike looked much better in the scope, as it gazed down at the ground and preened its breast, no doubt removing the remains of some hapless vole from its pristine feathers.

After about 10 minutes, it vanished as easily as it appeared, and we headed off back to work.

Oh, this morning, a nice male Brambling was at our bird table at first light, my first this year...

78. Brambling

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Coquet Estuary....

Amble Harbour

Eider displaying.
The day dawned calmish and quite bright but soon became dull, making these photos very grainy and drab. We covered the Coquet estuary from Amble Harbour up to Birling Carrs, adding a couple of new species to JWR's patch list.

On arrival a huge number of Rooks and Jackdaws were leaving their roost, numbering several thousand birds. The sky was full of them, the air ringing with their calls.

The estuary was full of birds with up to 700 Golden Plover, 300 Lapwing, Dunlins and Redshank. A lone Grey Plover and a few Knot added interest. Up at the harbour, an adult Mediterranean Gull loafed, but it wasn't the usual bird carrying a red darvic. This one only had a metal ring on one leg.

8+ Red breasted Merganser were spread right up the river, one or two pairs were in full display mode and a female Goosander was up near the road bridge.

2 Purple Sandpipers were on the pier, 2 Grey Partridges were along the braid with another 5 at Birling. 5 Roe Deer showed well near the river.

Small stuff around the Braid car park included a female Bullfinch, several Long tailed Tits and a host of Goldfinches.

Mediterranean Gull at the Little Shore.  

Starling singing from lobster pots.

Female Bullfinch.
Long tailed Tit

Back home, a short look along the shore added othing to the Howick list, but 5 Grey Plovers were extra noteworthy, not being annual here, 2 Harbour Porpoises off shore near 2 Red throated Divers.

A cold spell forecast for mid week might shuffle the pack a bit...

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Bright as a Bully.

A longish walk around the wooded areas of Howick this morning was very pleasant. It was bright with  light westerly breeze. Around the arboretum, lots of small birds were active, the most obvious being several groups of Bullfinches. One party in particular, contained 7 birds, a couple of which allowed quite a close approach for the photos above. An interesting bit of plumage seen in the images is the white margins to the primary feathers, a feature often mooted as being indicative of Northern birds. In  this case, these were bog standard British type Bullies in every other respect, including the call.

Only one year tick, revealed itself by calling sharply from the back of the pond -  a Kingfisher. It sat for a while, quite distantly, perched in the sunshine.

Further around, a Red Squirrel was too quick for photos as it dashed across the path, 2 Roe Deer and 2 Brown Hares flushed from the wood.

A bit more distant than the Bullfinches...
   77. Kingfisher

Monday, January 19, 2015

Black necked Grebes.

Over recent weeks two Black-necked Grebes have been living in Seahouses harbour, so today I thought I would meet up with Gary for a chat and maybe get a chance of a photo or two of them. One of the birds legged it out of the harbour pretty much as soon as I arrived, but the other continued to feed between the walls and boats. It led us a merry dance though, often over on the opposite side to where we were, but after some 'Benny Hill' style chasing around between lobster pots and rope piles, we managed some pleasing pics.

What a great little bird, it was even heard calling to its buddy who was making itself scarce on the open sea.It was scared when a large bull Grey Seal popped its head up next to it right inside the inner harbour.

Black-necked Grebes used to be a good breeding bird in Northumberland, with one inland water holding up to 16 pairs plus non breeders. The sight of 40 Black-necked Grebes in breeding plumage swimming between the flowers of amphibious bistort and water lillies was a annual spring highlight up here. One year when I went, there was a summer plumaged Slavonian Grebe in with the Black-neckeds! What a picture that would have made...    


Back at home, a flock of 200 Pink footed Geese and 30+ Greylags flew south, while the birds feeding in the coast path pasture continues to increase - 100+ Redwings, 3 Fieldfares, 12+ Mistle Thrushes, 50+ Golden Plovers and 40+ Lapwings.

76. Greylag Goose.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

White winged Gulls and Grebes...

Despite efforts, we didn't see any of those. I suppose this post could have been called Pallas's Sandgrouse  for that matter, but hang on.

The morning was spent hunting around Amble Harbour and the Coquet Estuary in mixed weather conditions looking for those said title species. As the wind has swung to the north for a bit, maybe there will be a northern gull next week? We'll see. Actually we did see some grebes, several Little and one Great crested, but thats not what I meant here at this time of year.

John added six common species to his patch list and for me the highlights were a fleeting view of a Kingfisher dashing across the harbour and out of sight, and a Little Egret flying from Warkworth Gut up towards Alnmouth.

After lunch, the wind increased to a blustery NW, so I popped along to Craster for a half hour seawatch to see if I could add to my patch tally. The seawatching was dire ( as usual at this time of year, but you never know) but some salvation was had by a Woodcock flying out of the scrub at the Arnold Reserve, over the road in front of my car, and off up the heughs. A nice unexpected addition.

With a flexi day off tomorrow and the weather improving, I might get out again to see if the squalls have stirred anything up.

75. Woodcock

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Nice light on a Dunnock.
A couple of walks around the patch today. First of all we walked north towards Craster. This was very quiet, with only a handful of Feral Pigeons being added to the list at Cullernose Point. 85 Pink footed Geese flew south in two skeins. Back towards the village there seemed to be some bird activity in a sheep pasture that had been dug up by a multitude of moles ( that should be their collective noun in the late winter). 30+ Lapwings, 30+ Redwings, 20+ Mistle Thrushes, 2 Song Thrushes and a Fieldfare had been joined by 60+ Golden Plover.

At lunchtime a stroll down to the pond added Mallard to the PWC2015 list, while a few Siskins were singing in the trees nearby.

At dusk this afternoon another walk around the coast path was, again very slow. A female Stonechat was perhaps noteworthy, but the sea was flat and devoid of anything moving.

In the garden, the usual crowd were at the feeders...

Tree Sparrows, a dull shot taken through the kitchen window.
72. Feral Pigeon
73. Golden Plover
74. Mallard

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Night night Atropos...

The sad news today is that Atropos, our resident Death's Head Hawk-Moth has passed away to the great beehives in the sky.

Tomorrow would have been his 13th week as an adult, a very good innings I think, and he may be the oldest known to science ( unless you know different?).

It has been a great pleasure to watch him over the last months, feeding and flying around, and it may be something that I never see again. Atropos, in case you have been held hostage or on the moon since autumn, was reared from a wild caterpillar found creeping along a track in Northants back in September.

If you would like to see him again, just search the labels on the right or scroll through the posts since 17th Sept last year.

As Atropos has starred on small screen, I think some acknowledgements are appropriate.We would like to thank Victoria for finding him in the first place and to his fan club from all over the UK for following his progress, without whom none of this would have been possible. (sniff).

Thank you and goodnight. (sob)


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

First snows of winter...

Sick of sitting in the office this week, at lunchtime, I decided to pop down to Cambois to visit the wintering Snow Buntings. A flock of 12 were quite flighty in the stiff breeze, so I just sat in the car near where some kind person has placed seed out for them, and waited. After about 10 minutes they came twinkling back in, their calls like wind chimes in the breeze. Today must have seemed positively summery to these most northerly breeding passerines.

While waiting, 40 Pink feet flew north over the sea, and on the return to work a Stoat in half ermine ran over the track near the bus stop.

That was quite a productive lunchtime I think....  

Sunday, January 11, 2015

On the rocks...

A dull breezy day today so I only spent a couple of hours out. Firstly a short seawatch from Craster, the northernmost end of the patch was uneventful, but I stuck with it for an hour and added one species to the list when 3 Common Scoter flew N. Other than that, only 3 Red throated Divers were noteworthy.

Down at the harbour and rock edges, there were no white winged gulls, but 2 Purple Sandpipers with Turnstones sheltered near the boat launch and 3 Rock Pipits were nearby.

Back home for some breakfast, then a short wander west, up the back hedge towards an emergent part of the Whin Sill known as Hips Heugh. 8 Snipe flushed from a marshy corner and 40 Pink footed Geese flew south. Yesterday's thrushes were nowhere to be seen, but well over a hundred Linnets, maybe 2 or 300 were in the field.

I also scouted out a spot for Grasshopper and Sedge Warbler in the spring. Both being quite scarce on site, though they are recorded most years.

Purple Sandpiper, Craster Harbour.
68. Common Scoter
69. Purple Sandpiper
70. Snipe
71. Pink footed Goose

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Its wild out.....

Its a bit breezy out there. Today is the first time I've seen the patch in daylight since Tuesday, and remember, my house is in it. This makes the birding quite tricky, but never fear, slowly but surely the days will lengthen and before too long there may even be some birds to see after work.

The other night I was out filling some logs for the fire ( what a rural idyll eh!) when an angry hissing sound over head signalled the presence of a Barn Owl flying across the garden towards its hunting grounds. There are several pairs in this area so its not something to get too excited over, but always nice to see, its added to the year list. The following morning I had better views of a different bird, this time on Mr Cadwallenders patch at Hipsburn as it hunted the verges in the car headlights.

So, today has turned out bright and sunny but still blowing a cold gale interspersed with the odd awful, horizontal, rain squalls. A walk out with the dog still produced a couple of new additions though. In the back field, a nice flock of feeding birds consisted of 30+ Redwings, 10+ Mistle Thrush, 1 Fieldfare, 1 Song Thrush and a couple of Blackbirds, plus 100+ Linnets and a lone Skylark.

Down the lane, a cock Greenfinch flushed from below a bramble bush where it was feeding on the withered seeded fruits.

Tomorrow, weather permitting, I'll try and put a couple of hours in first thing...

64. Barn Owl 
65. Fieldfare
66. Skylark
67. Greenfinch.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Request for a plug....

I received this nice email from Steve this morning, and thought I should oblige....maybe you should check out his links too, I will tomorrow evening, not had much time tonight. Cheers Steve...

Hello Stuart,

I'm an expat Tyneside birder, living in Hertfordshire, and I've followed your blog on and off since Boulmer Birder days.

I always intended to make my way back to the north-east, but now I'm settled with a southern wife and southern kids.  I can't complain - I get regular Hobbies and Little Egrets over the house, and have had a few Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers in or around the garden down the years.  Stocker's Lake is a more than useful local patch half a mile away, but I have to admit, I do pine for the migrants, and I read with some envy when you stumble across Barred and Greenish Warblers around your place.

I get back up a couple of times a year, and managed to catch up with the Stilt Sandpiper at Druridge last year.  I also had my first Northumbrian record accepted for 20-odd years with a Crane from the train at Warenford in May when I was travelling up to Edinburgh.

My old man is still an active birder up there, despite having turned 80 a couple of years ago.  You might have seen him in a hide at Cresswell or at Chevington, and for a while he had a rather distinctive Redshank's wing tucked into his hat.

The reason I'm writing now is that I have just published a book, called 'Trawling for Eagles' (  It's about my first two years in employment as a ship's ornithologist / naturalist on a converted trawler, running wildlife holidays in SW Scotland in the late 80s.

It's doing OK so far, and has gone down well with friends.  Now I'm trying to work out what to do with it next, but I thought that perhaps it might appeal to followers of your blog, what with its combination of north-eastern and birding themes.  

I really should sort my social media skills out and perhaps start a blog of my own, but for now I'm thinking of sending it to magazines and newspapers for reviews.  I'm planning to turn it in to a 'proper' book this year, probably in the summer.

Anyway, feel free to make what you will of this note.  The first few chapters are available to read free on Amazon and should give you a flavour of what it's about.  

Cheers for now,

Steve Younger.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Local Patches or just self flagellation?

The last two days have flown by and its work tomorrow. Since Sunday I have had a few short dog walks around the village, down to the pond, but there have been no further list additions. I suppose that's January for you.

This got me thinking about patch watching, and in particular 'local' patch watching. I think few birders actually watch a patch local to where they live. From monitoring the Patchwork Challenge it seems that the majority of people select a patch, not for its links locally, but for its bird list. Loads of patches are Nature Reserves, headlands and known migration watch points. You cant blame observers for doing this either, it is a hobby after all and we all like a good day out, but maybe it makes a change to think differently to the masses?

My own patch, Howick to Craster ( see map at the top of the sidebar to the right) is just a random bit of countryside around where I live. It is very scenic and attracts a good number of outdoor tourists who enjoy walking the coast path, but as for being a birding location, its not a destination that Northumberland birders choose to visit. The problem here is that there is no focal point. No large ponds, scrapes, estuaries, roosts or harbours. No places that attract and hold large quantities of birds.

But here lies the discussion. If we all just claimed the hotspot areas as our patch, places in between would never be looked at. When looking for a new place to go birding how do people select? Today, I suspect that is based almost solely on what has been on the pager over the previous 12 months. I have been amazed by the areas that have been selected in the patch challenge. Some are starfish ( or even sea urchin!) shaped or strips zigzagging around reserves, ponds, etc in an attempt stretch the size to gather as many species as possible. When picking a site it shouldn't be the intention of racking up most of the British list over the coming year? What is wrong with just selecting a place with easy access, that is manageable, with some birds and monitoring whatever turns up? You don't need to stretch another half mile because there is chance of a Tawny Owl and Nuthatch there.

To keep in the spirit of local bird study take a map, look for somewhere that has three or four habitat types within a clearly defined boundary not far from home, hopefully it will be very under watched, and there you have it.

Wait a minute....that could be here!  Or here ,  here and a good few other patches too, and it is to these watchers I wish a gob smacking rarity to turn up to get twitchers asking 'Who found this? What were they doing here?!' Good luck for 2015...

Common Rosefinch, Great White Egret and Barred Warbler all from nowhere.

Monday, January 05, 2015

The Rhinns of Galloway

Sounds like a nasty ailment I know, but this is the furthest southwest corner of Scotland where we stayed over the New Year week. The weather was mixed, but all in all we had a nice relaxing time, just walking when the sun shone, and watching DVDs when it didnt.

This is more of a photo post really. Of course there was an odd spell of birding...

The little one on the right is Seascape cottage where we stayed. A new place, very comfortable and as you can see, away from everything.

Loch Ryan at Wig Bay.
The Wig Bay was the best bit of birding during the week. The waters, when calm were full of wintering birds including - 6+ Slavonian Grebes, 3+ Great Crested Grebes, 2 Scaup, 30+ Red breasted Mergansers, 1 Tystie, 5+ Long tailed Duck, 3 Red throated Divers, 20+ Goldeneye, Eiders, Wigeon.  

Stranraer Harbour.

You dont expect to see this on 29th December! My latest ever Peacock butterfly.

A large Starling roost of several thousand birds all crashed into two barns nearby. The noise from inside sounded like an aviary!
Portpatrick Harbour

Smugglers Cove, a troll shop in Portpatrick.

A Hoodie at Wig Bay. It was with a hybrid Carrion x Hoodie nearby.

This Black headed Gull came to chips at Stranraer Harbour. I must send off the ring details, but is says Volgel something Arnhem on the metal ring so it must be dutch...[Update - Ringed as a pulli ( nestling) in Holland on 4th June 2011. It has been wintering at Stranraer every since and summering in its natal colony.]
The view from the cottage door, facing directly over towards Belfast, Northern Ireland on the horizon.