Thursday, October 31, 2019

All at sea...

Seawatching, Cullernose Point, Northumberland
On Tuesday we were lucky enough to have another glitch in the weather making the charts look particularly conducive to some patch seawatching again. This month has produced some decent spells of weather for being perched on a cliff top looking east.

The morning was cool with a moderate NE to E 4. There were some cloudy spells and a few light showers just enough to irritate.

I was on my directors chair at Cullernose for 0815 and set up, in position by five minutes later. The sea looked good with decent visibility and no glare on the water that can be a pain for any east coast, first light, seawatching aficionado.

Birds were constantly on show as they dashed past in a northerly direction. The movement was mainly wildfowl but there were plenty of Gannets, Kittiwakes in tight bands and larger Auks. The notebook page soon began to fill up.

It was at about 0845 that I had a real premonition. I was comfortable in my seat. The rain had passed, the sky was grey as was the water but it had begun to brighten up. I began a pan with the scope. Seawatching for those who don't know consists of a pattern of scans with the telescope or bins sometimes when the glass is pointed around the North East line then is slowly moved south into the on coming birds until you get as far south as possible. This is then repeated for the duration.

Don't get seawatching confused with looking at the sea. Its not that. You can stand on a sand dune or pier with scope at full height just looking around the waves for birds on the water. Things such as seaduck, divers and grebes are located like this all year round.

No, seawatching is the long game. You are waiting for birds to come to you that were not there when you arrived. They were miles away, in flight. To do this you must be sat down in relative comfort for at least an hour, often much longer. I can remember being sat at Newbiggin, in August, back in the day with more clothes on than I could carry. Sitting still for hours in a northerly, even in summer, is a chilling affair. Three hours had flown past and some birders would arrive. They would be wearing trainers, shorts and a T shirt. Scopes at full height. In our books would be 100 Sooty Shearwaters, a few Poms or a Long tailed Skua maybe. glancing at the new company we just knew they would be there no more than 20 minutes and away because it was getting chilly. No birds seen.

Anyway, I digress, at 0845, during a slow pan south, the waves looked a lovely smooth grey colour and I thought, if I keep my observations to a reasonable range, this looks ideal to pick out a petrel passing. Petrels are rare birds here and it is a red letter day if you strike lucky. Leach's Petrel in particular is always my elusive goal. I'd only seen two in the last 30 years, and only one in Northumberland despite countless hours looking.

My scope was coming around to a SE direction when it appeared. A tiny flicker of black above the wave then nothing. Had I really seen something? Or was it an eye floater? Oh no, I paused and out it came, a delightfullly graceful LEACH'S PETREL!

It hung, momentarily, on horizontal wings, did a few flickering wing beats like a little tern, flipped sideways, sheared around flapped again, dancing over the waves. Occasionally I could glimpse a white rump, not as extensive as British Storm Petrel and overall the bird appeared sooty black. As the hazy sun popped out the upperwing seemed more grey with dark primaries, then in dull light it looked all black again. As it came to its closest, it was powered past by a Guillemot, and a few Gannets. It couldnt care less, and continued on its path north, watched all the way until at the last minute it dipped into a wave trough and I couldnt see it again.

Well, what a great little bird.  A real ocean wanderer and a first for me on the patch. It is the second record here after Ben Steele had one last autumn.

After this excitement I relaxed into more standard fare, the full list below...

All birds moving North.

Brent Geese, some pale, some dark. 66
Shelduck 3
Wigeon 319
Teal 18
Pintail 2 New for the year.
Mallard 1
Goldeneye 21
Scaup 3
Common Scoter 292
Velvet Scoter 6
Eider 8
Long tailed Duck 8
Red breasted Merganser 3
Red throated Diver 20
Red necked Grebe 2
Leach's Petrel 1
Pomarine Skua 1juv
Little Auk 44
Puffin 3

Common Scoter with a drake Scaup.
At 11.20, 3 hrs after starting, passage rapidly died off with only an odd auk passing.

This has me on 159 species or 78.71% of the full total.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Seawatching. In context.

As I indicated in my previous post I was keen to get out on Sunday morning as the weather looked good for some sea passage. Through the night the wind rattled the windows and the rain hammered down.

I met John just along the road at Cullernose but the storm was too great for watching this spot. At Cullernose you sit on an exposed cliff top with no shelter at all. In this north westerly gale and driving rain it would be impossible, so it was a move along the coast, all of 1 mile, to Craster village where there is some shelter behind a stone wall over hanging with garden shrubs. Even better, John had brought his large Fishing brolly purchased just for this type of occasion. What a life saver it was too, we were both tucked out of the rain, on deckchairs with a good view of the sea.

There were not as many birds as I would have expected in these conditions. Still, we watched from 07.45 until 12.00. In this filth what else could we have done?

So, what did we see?

Auks. Lots of auks. We have been Seawatching in Northumberland for the last 30 years so we dont record every bird passing. It would be just too much. Auks, Gannets, Kittiwakes, Fulmars and Shags are routinely ignored as we look for more tasty targets. Maybe thats harsh, not ignored but not counted.

There were thousands of auks heading north with fewer, but still a good number, of Gannets moving with them, the sea a constantly changing vista of bird movement. In with them were...

Whooper Swan 41 S
Wigeon 34 N there hasn't been a good movement of ducks yet this autumn.
Teal 17 N
Mallard 4 N
Goldeneye 17 N
Long tailed Duck 6 N inc some nice drakes very close in.
Common Scoter 7 N
Velvet Scoter 4 N
Red breasted Merganser 3 N
Red throated Diver 12 N plus a few on the sea, but too rough to get a count.
Ringed Plover  2 N
Sanderling 1 N checked for Grey Phalarope, but this is still a scarce bird on my patch with its all rocky shores. Not seen since 2015 [156]
Purple Sandpiper 4 N
Bonxie 1 S very close in milling around.

A second watch for a short time in the afternoon only had 3 Red breasted Merganser and 1 Bar tailed Godwit N

Only Sanderling was a new addition to the year list.

Today was better. The wind had gone right off leaving a pleasant morning with grey overcast skies giving good light for the morning watch.

Today I watched from Cullernose Point 0820 - 1120.

It was clear that more birds were reorientating North especially wildfowl.

Dark bellied Brent Geese 2 N
Shelduck 6 N
Wigeon 258 N
Teal 37 N
Mallard 16 N
Scaup 1 fem N with Common Scoter. [157]
Goldeneye 5 N
Long tailed Duck 4 N
Common Scoter 142 N
Velvet Scoter 3 N
Eider 5 N passage birds, not our harbour locals, they dont get counted loafing off the rocks.
Red breasted Merganser 6 N
Red throated Diver 9 N 1 S
Black throated Diver 2 N with a single Red throat very close in, for comparison.
Great Northern Diver 2 N
Fulmar 1 N at this quietest time for them.
Manx Shearwater 2 N
Sanderling 1 N with 4 Dunlin, two in 2 days is good.
Purple Sandpiper 2 N 1 on the rocks with 2 Golden Plover.
Dunlin 19 N an excellent count here, best for a long time.
Bar tailed Godwit 2 N
Bonxie 2 N
Kittiwake, good numbers, much more than yesterday.
Little Gull 17 N with adults and first winters seen.
Herring Gull ssp from mid morning many, almost all first winters moved N, not counted.
Auks sp less than yesterday but still a lot N.
Little Auk 8 N max 3 at one time.
Puffin 10 N of the auks identified.

Its in a Local Patch context some of these birds come into their own. For example, Ringed Plover, Sanderling, Dunlin and Bar tailed Godwit are all more tricky to see here than Velvet Scoter, Little Auk and Purple Sandpiper even though they are very common over most of the Northumberland coast north and south of me.

What was missing? Pintail are often in Wigeon flocks but not today. Grebes, all being very scarce here except Little. Pomarine Skuas. In these conditions I would expect a few at this time of year.

All of these give something to watch out for during the next northerly spell we have. Hopefully before mid November...

Patch list stands at a very respectable for here 157 species...77.72% of my all time total.

Sunday sewatching from under Johns umbrella, Craster.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

A long weekend using up some annual leave. Last night we went to the cinema to see The Joker, a bit of a trek for us with the Odeon being an 80 miles round trip, but it was agreat film and well worth it.. Before I left home though a nice dog walk to the coast path gave some great views of another Yellow browed Warbler flitting around a less foliaged sycamore on the cliff top. My 5th patch YBW this year, and probably my best year for this species locally.

Today has been a bit grim weather wise with rain most of the day and nothing of note seen, however the weather forecast looks promising. Tomorrow the wind is a good blowy 20mph NW erly swinging N and the same on Monday with less strength and no rain.

Should be some sea movement hopefully, watch this space...

NE England, that pink occluded front and isobars show wind from the North Atlantic and arctic circle.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Blog rattling...

Occasionally it takes someone to speak out in order to get the wheels of reaction in motion.

Steve Gale at North Downs & Beyond posted the other day about the slow but steady decline in blogging output. This has prompted several long term writers out there to comment with their own take on things, so I might as well get it out there too.

Some of the bloggers I follow are good writers, being able to post regularly in an interesting, original, way on all matters linked to Natural History. I'm not so good at this, even this post is riding on the shoulders of giants, though I would like to be.

My blog has stood the test of time not because of my gripping content setting the world alight, no, it simply a diary type of thing, showing the stuff outside that I interact with. I can post some photos that I like, or ones that illustrate my sightings and I can show some originality with my notebooks and sketches.

I used to look forward to any comments from people and even an email or two from those interested enough to ask a question but now that mostly comes from other social media platforms.

This is where Blogger differs though. It is a much slower animal than say Facebook or Twitter ( I dont know how Instagram works). It allows reflection and roles out an actual timeline that the others don't. For me it is a source of genuine interest like a magazine or newsletter might be. Its free and you get a new one through your inbox every day to read...

I would never post something as long as this on Facebook. No one would ever read it. There might be no readers on here either but you never know, at least it remains out there, lying on the coffee table so to speak.

From my own selfish point of view, I hope the bloggers I like dont pack it in. If a regular poster misses a fortnight I am worrying about their health! 

So to all bloggers out there, never feel pressured into posting. Just relax and do what you fancy. You do have a fan out here...

[ Note -  maybe try a few lines at least monthly just to let us know you are still alive...]

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Dangers of Seawatching II

Despite the confidence knocking Gull-billed Tern, seawatching continued apace this week.

On Monday 1 hr 15 mins over high tide had a lot less than conditions indicated.

Barnacle Geese 189N and 24 S
Common Scoter 13 N
Red throated Diver 4 N and 2 on the sea
Manx Shearwater 9 N
Arctic Skua 3 N
Mediterranean Gull 1 2w
Purple Sandpiper 2
Teal 15 N
Red breasted Merganser 2 fem N
Pinkfeet 2 in off
Kingfisher 1 fw male showed very well on the point and kept me company for the whole seawatch.
Rock Pipit 5
Wheatear 1 female

I hoped things would improve as the wind from the N increased.

Tuesday 1st October. Another day annual leave found me perched on the rocky outcrop again. Mostly I am alone here which can make spotting birds quite tricky. More  sets of eyes at places like Newbiggin assist observers, but I do like to make this spot my own.

Two seawatches today - 0900 - 10.30 and 15.30 - 17.00 3 hrs  in total. I must get more dedication...

Birds have picked up though still no classic there were birds in show constantly to keep the interest going.

Barnacle Geese 65 N
Bonxie 11 N
Arctic Skua 13 N
Manx Shearwater 13 N
Red throated Diver 17 S inc party of 12 close in, 8 N and 5 on the sea.
Teal 6 N
Common Scoter 26 N
Auks ( 1 minute count samples ) 6000 per hour N 90% Gullemots, the rest Razorbills and Puffins in that order.
Little Auk 1 N I hate early Little Auks! When they are claimed they are almost always puffins, but this one was typically very close in doing its side by side rolling flight along the breakers. Puffin seen nearby for comparison. 153
Long tailed Duck 1 fem N 154
Arctic Tern 4 N
Wigeon 5 N, where are all the wildfowl? In these conditions we should be getting hundreds of Wigeon.
Peregrine 1 imm glided alon the rock edges panicking everything.
Dunlin 1N my first patch sight record for the year.
The list above is in the order birds were added into the notebook.
Then, at 16.39 I was panning S and looked at two Kittiwakes going N. A few hundred metres behind was another bird low to the water. My thought process went like this...

'Whats that?' 'er' 'a Redshank? (I'd just been watching the Dunlin) No, another wader, Grey Plover? No.....errrr.....IT'S A SABINE'S! 155

A juvenile Sabine's Gull slowly patrolled N at about 1/3rd distance out. Instantly much smaller than Kittiwake, like a Black Tern or Little Gull. Mainly Brown with white secondary triangle in the wing and black primaries. Behind it the clouds were steel grey rain clouds so the bird was nicely lit in the sun over my shoulder. It was slow and graceful up and down as it headed N. I finally lost view at 16.44. What fantastic birds these are, they are nothing like a Kittiwake really, the jizz is totally different and much more tern like.   

As the Sabine's was lost to view, it was time to head home for tea. Not a bad day really...

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

The danger of seawatching...

Since the weekend in Northumberland we have been lucky enough to get a short spell of East and North Easterly winds. In the early hours of Sunday morning the wind here swung from solid west, to North. This came off a low moving straight across the middle of the UK, thus, the wind soon turned to the East on Monday then back North East today, increasing in the afternoon.

Despite the overnight rain, passerine migrants were in short supply probably due to the blocking low over Scandinavia, but at this time of year anything can happen.

On Sunday John and myself began by seawatching off my local headland, Cullernose Point ( see map in right hand side bar). This small whin sill headland is only 1km from my house, so its a good loocal patch place to add to my list.

From the start it was clear that we were not witnessing much pelagic passage. There were no Gannets for a start, well a few but I see more here on a sunny June day. A few Red throated Divers were moving plus single Bonxie and Manxie, 2 Arctic Skuas, a Puffin and a few other miscellaneous. Boredom set in.

It was now that we got our eye on a tern in the Howick Bay immediately to the south of us. It was quite close, certainly good views in the scope as it flew and hung in the wind above the rock edges and newly exposed kelp beds at low tide.

Before I go on, I must add that in Northumberland we see terns every day at the coast from May til October. They are bread and butter stuff and is something we scarcely give a second glance to after we have added one for the year. This lone tern immediately looked odd to both of us. I said it looked like a Gull-billed. Surely not, it will be a Sandwich after all you dont get Gull-billeds at sea? We stared hard. And stared again. In good scope views, this bird looked like an adult but it had a short stocky all black bill. Definitely no yellow tip. Only a very young Sandwich would show this, and there fore it would be reasonable to say it would have scalloping on the mantle and wing coverts. You follow?

This bird was plain grey. All over it had a very pale greyish pallor not like the white of a Sandwich Tern. We discussed various features as we watched it circle the bay with Black headed Gulls. There were both Arctic and Sandwich Terns offshore and a lone Common had gone north. This bird was not in their camp at all.

Some hastily scribbled notes were taken on site without access to references. By now I was convinced this bird was indeed a Gull-billed Tern.

As it drifted off south towards Boulmer, I decided to put the word out just in case someone else might pick it up.

Now here lies the danger. I am a cynic. If I had seen a message on WhatsApp saying Gull-billed Tern at sea in September, I would instantly have said 'Sandwich'. In fact I did this with my own sighting! I dont believe it myself. It cant possibly be a GBT, but it certainly looked the part....

Back home, I did some research.

Compared to our bird, I found the following -

Rump / Tail - Vinicombe states that this is the most crucial feature to seperate GBT from ST ( I'm sick of typing it). It should be grey and concolourous with the whole upper parts. This bird had an off white pale grey all over look to it, but the tail was certainly paler than the mantle. I percieved a greyish centre with white outer tail. John felt it was all whitish.

Primary pattern - Bird had greyish wedges up prmaries on upper and undersides. Apparently OK for September but should still be pale, which it was. There was a darker trailing edge line, quite defined.

Cap - By late Sept, ST shows a large white forehead up ro central crown almost. GBT has uniform white speckling all over the cap. This bird has a very restricted white forehead upper bill. No Crest could be seen at all. The rest of cap appeared all black.

Bill- Short, black and stocky / thick set. see above.

Behaviour - Our bird dropped to the surface of the sea and caught a tiny fish. It didnt dive, more belly flopped. I did not know if GBT did this at all. BWP Text states 'very occasionally'. I wondered if a migrant out of habitat would do this for food more freely?

So this seems to be a bird that creates more questions than answers. I will write up the sighting...