Wednesday, July 29, 2020

A Lifer on the Doorstep.

Imagine this monster on a seawatch.

Sooty Tern from Howick salters gate layby.

Not literally, though not a 'kick of the arse away' as my dad would say.

When I read Richard Millington's 'Twitcher's Diary' I was intrigued by his sighting of a Sooty Tern at Higham Ferrers Gravel Pits in Northamptonshire on 30th May 1980. The bird was moribund, flapping around on the muddy shoreline and needed to be rescued. It later died in captivity, probably due to exhaustion as it had come a very long way.

Sooty Tern is a very rare vagrant to the UK from its equatorial oceanic colonies. It is a largish tern, a powerful flyer and is generally very pelagic, staying out to sea for long spells. So, when one arrives in the UK pulses race.

In July 2005 I went with Alan Gilbertson, Andy Cowell, Eddie Slack and Ken Dawson to Cemlyn Lagoon, Anglesey, North Wales, and back, in a day to not see a Sooty Tern. The bird had already flown by the time we drove the 300 miles or so.

There have been several in Northumberland but all have been very fleeting and I missed last years fly past due to work commitments. When I heard of a sighting at Sizewell in Suffolk some weeks ago I thought, hoped, we might just get another bite of the cherry.

Then the current tale starts in earnest. A birder visiting Embleton Bay near Dunstanburgh Castle reported a Bridled Tern but it had flown out to sea. Alarm bells were ringing and the questions were asked. Where? Which way? and, could it be the Sooty Tern? The observer agreed that it was a Sooty Tern and was unaware that one has been back in the North Sea for its 3rd consecutive summer. Teams were mobilised into action but only Gary Woodburn struck gold before it did another vanishing act.

Then later on, a photograph was sent to Tim Dean, County Recorder, of a Sooty Tern at 3pm, before the Embleton sighting, sitting in the kittiwake colony on the cliffs at the end of my village!

Disbelievingly, the albatross fiasco still scarring, I dashed along to have a look as did several other like minded souls. No joy. The trail was cold.

This morning those intrepid enough or not at work were back on site early doors. There was no sign of the Tern but a Red Kite came in-off flew over my house without me knowing and neatly side stepped my patch list, again. Two new patch birds dipped in less than 24 hours. Great.  I also checked the spot on the morning dog walk without expectation, after all, this Sooty Tern had been seen in Ayreshire on the west coast of Scotland only 4 days ago, so it could be anywhere by now.

As I am still working from home, I was quick to the phone when it rang at 3.15pm today. Gary Woodburn was on the line, saying 'Have you seen the message?' No, my phone was just on charge in another room. 'The Tern is back on Howick cliffs'. Stunned, everything kind of goes into slow motion as panic sets in. I downed the phone grabbed my gear and jumped into the car to drive 400 yards. I could have walked it but every second counts.

After some initial runaround, I cant describe the relief and elation when as I pushed through a blackthorn thicket to peer over at the kittiwake colony, and there it was, the large sooty black and white Tern was sat right on the top ledge just in front of me. What a bird. I rattled off some shots just as a returning Kittiwake didnt like the look of it and gave it a good thrashing, forcing it off the ledge and away around the corner. Luckily it came back to a brackish pool on the rocks to preen and bathe with the kitties.

Soon afterwards many more county birders began to arrive and all managed to connect. The Sooty Tern had finally given itself up to a very grateful and appreciative Northumberland crowd.

This might well be the bird of 2020 for me and what a star to get on my local patch, that long drive to Anglesey finally put to bed after 15 years.

#350 for Northumberland, #419 ish for the UK.

Top, my first view of the Sooty tern on Howick kittiwake cliff, then as it gets a beating from the locals.

Monday, July 27, 2020

A winter visitor in summer...

After spending the last couple of Sundays on our inland patch we felt it was time to stay coastal this week. To be honest, this is a quiet spell until August kicks in so we hadn't really been missing much. Late summer holiday time can be a pain on the coast with lots of visitors around but an early start means you can make the best of it and leave as things get busier.

Today we met at Boulmer at 6.15am and with a 5 mtrs high tide at 7.30, we decided to start at the North End to see if any waders had been pushed in closer.

Although still early in the 'autumn' bird numbers were picking up with 250+ Dunlin, 6+ Turnstone, 8+ Bar tailed Godwits, 4+ Whimbrel, 1 Sanderling, 2 Ringed Plover, 1 Common Sandpiper, 30+ Curlew, 20+ Oystercatcher, 25+ Golden Plover and 30+ Redshank.

15 moulting Goosanders were in the haven and a juv Wheatear was on the beach..

On an area of barley field flattened by tractors putting in new drainage pipes ( god forbid an area around here has so much as a puddle left) a few passerines were attracted. 10+ Yellow Wagtails, 6+ Skylarks and Tree Sparrows, 1 juv Whinchat and many Meadow Pipits. A large, difficult to view, gull roost in a cow field had 1 ad Mediterranean Gull.

More unusually, a Hooded Crow was sitting along the wall. At this time of year we always get reports of Hoodies that are actually dull, dusty greyish juvenile Carrion Crows, but this was the real deal. Can't recall ever seeing one here in summer?

Common Sandpiper

Hooded Crow.

Returning waders....
After a couple of hours we headed back for tea, pasties and cake, you have to look after yourself in this game, to stop concentration levels dropping you understand. From here, the car park was full by now so we moved base to the South End at Seaton Point. We checked the point and along the road to the golf course layby.

A few more waders were on the shore. The tide had dropped considerably by now so most birds were distant but closer on show were 1 Bar tailed Godwit, 3 Ringed Plover, 6 Dunlin and 2 Sanderling in summer plumage. Off shore a few Sandwich, Common and Arctic Terns milled around but there were no Roseates unusually.

Along in the scrub at the edge of the golf course were 1 Sedge Warbler, 3+ Willow Warblers, 3+ Lesser Whitethroats, a family party likely, and 1 Common Whitethroat. 12 Crossbills flew S overhead.

The morning was almost over, so it was time for home to get the moth trap done. Its best to count the moths early on, but on Sunday they always get counted at the worst possible time when the slightest movement sends them flying away...

Boulmer Village viewed from the North, Longhoughton Steel.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Late summer.

Don't fear birders, all will be resumed as August kicks in but while we are in the July doldrums it is insects and other life forms that take the stage.

Yesterday we went back up into the conifer plantations west of Alnwick to see what we could find. It was quieter than last week because it was cooler with a NW breeze and some cloud patches. Still there were things to be found in south facing sun traps.

First of all, we no sooner got into the sunny spot than a scan with the bins on a bank of Climbing Corydalis for hoverflies revealed this stunner -

Golden-ringed Dragonfly
 The Golden-ringed Dragonfly isnt just gorgeous in its Formula 1 livery, it actually behaves like it too. It patrols the ride at knee height at a steady pace then just hits warp drive vertically for some unsuspecting insect. Maybe my favourite odonata, its a while since I've seen one, so it was good to get this local sighting.

We then just wandered along a 300 mtrs stretch of forest road watching the side ditch flowers for other insects. Several hoverflies were noted, Sericomyia silentis 10+, Chrysotoxum arcuatum 3+ and Xylota segins 2+ A glimpse of what I think was Chrysotoxum bicinctum was frustrating as I couldn't find it again. Something to target next time.

Chrysotoxum arcuatum 
A few butterflies were around, plenty of Small Skippers, Meadow Browns and Ringlets and a decent emergence of Small Tortoiseshells with one patch of thistles  having 9 individuals in a small area. 2 Small Heaths and an odd Red Admiral also noted. At this stage in the morning I messed up my camera settings to all butterfly shots were deleted.

It was quiet for birds. A family party of Buzzards, a few Crossbills, lots of Redpolls, odd phylloscs and pipits and little else.

When we arrived back at the car, a welcome was awaiting...

Notch-horned Cleg Haematopota pluvialis

I remember many years ago reading the Chinery Insect Guide and these paragraphs caught my attention...

Remember when in the upland woods, she is out there with silent flight and blade like mouthparts...

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Stats...out for the count.

Pan species listing. I like the idea, but its something I've resigned myself as never being able to getting to grips with. There are a few reasons. For a start, I can't remember what I've had and even if I record it somewhere, I cant find where. There are so many taxa that I'm not sure in what order things go, so that makes keeping track difficult too. Then there are the identifications. I'm not a microscope man so that will eliminate most small stuff.

Because of my own ineptitude, I wonder if I could do a restricted site list, say, my village or even the garden? Even at that small level its a struggle. Look at moths for instance. They should be a doddle as everything since I started is on Mapmate and easily searchable, but when I checked today I see errors. Some species that were once thought to be identifiable in the field are now 'agged' as a matter of course such as Agonopterix heracliana / ciliella. 2 species but I have 3 of them on my list! One each plus the aggregate. If that is the case for a group that I record diligently what about other insect orders that I am not sure about?

During a quick round up, for my garden area I am on around 900+ species. In the winter I might get around to tidying the list up... So far here are a couple of new additions this week...

Pedicia rivosa a large nicely marked Crane Fly.

Nephrotoma flavipalpis I think. These are tricky but I followed the Crane fly Recording page crib sheet to sort it. 
Nephrotoma quadrifaria, again I think.

House Mouse.
 Making its debut on this 14 yr old blog is Mus musculus, the House Mouse. Yesterday a small grey rodent visited our bird feeders and it looked odd. Bank Voles and Wood Mice are regulars but even at range with the naked eye this one looked different. For a start it was all one colour. Like Simon Mayo. His hair is the same colour as his skin. A stake out and a few photos later and the id is confirmed. Where on earth has he come from? It is my 19 th mammal species in or from the garden.

I think...

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Sour Grapes? A bitter pill.

Early morning on patch. How lucky to have this a short stroll from home.

Birdwatching can be a strange thing. No matter how long you have done it things always surprise you. Before I go on, its this blog's 14th Birthday today! Seems longer....

What I am writing here is based only on my own personal theories that have been built over years of knocking around with birders.

Monday night, at 22.48, a message was put out by a well known bird information service saying something along the lines of -

MEGA. N'berland BLACK-BROWED ALBATROSS reported 1/2ml SE of Howick viewed from coast path east of Seahouses Farm 7.30pm - 8.30pm. 

Now after the events of a couple of weeks ago at Bempton Cliffs, just about every birder in easy reach of the East coast had the daydream that this much sought after tubenose would hove into view during their next seawatch. I could just about see it, so when this message appears more than two hours after the sighting and just as it is getting dark, a sense of frustration and even anger was apparent in the ensuing gossip on the What'sApp.

What to do? In the aftermath, the mind forensically goes over the scenarios of the report. Who was the observer? Why the delay in reporting? If you can identify an albatross to species and know how to contact bird info services, you would know the enormity of it all and surely not wait two hours to put it out.

I do have an interest here as the location given is exactly 744.16 mtrs on foot from my door. 599 mtrs as the crow flies. That would have taken me, 10 mins max to get there, so if it had been reported, say, 20 mins after first being seen, so the obs could compose themselves, myself and everyone within another 30 minutes would have been able to join in.

By using this logic what can be deduced Sherlock? 

The obs may not have been a birder hence the delay. But who else could name an albatross specifically? It might be a holiday birder with no phone signal. If it was me on holiday, it wouldn't have taken two hours later to find a signal to report it after I'd watched it for a full hour, that's for sure. 

Then look at the report. Later gossip said the chap who had it, saw it sitting on the cliff and it was still there when HE left. For a start the cliffs here aren't like Bempton. They are low and don't have ledges wide enough for anything bigger than a kittiwake. So that seems to be an error.

Then another snippet on Twitter says the observer was female? Who is this mystery person? Certainly not local as residents around here would have contacted me directly before any bird service. Not even a county birder because they are all on Social Media or Whats App too.

That leaves one conclusion, Watson.

This was a deliberate hoax perpetrated by a birder who would know that details such as this would get the birding community fired up. All they have to do is give a false name or get someone to ring it in for them. After all, there have been similar hoaxes in the North east this year already. If I am wrong and it is genuine, I'll look forward to the County Records Committee receiving the description.

From me personally, I was frustrated when the message was received but I was out on the site by 04.20 in the morning and gave it a couple of hours. It was exciting and knackering in equal measure. A few local patch sightings went into the notebook - 1 Common Sandpiper, 2 Whimbrel, 1 Yellow Wagail, 1+ Redpoll, 4 Arctic Terns and it was a lovely morning to be out. So no, I'm not too bothered...

One day we might still get that Albatross you know...  
This is the location given. The Bathing House, a holiday cottage.

Four intrepid victims of the hoax who travelled further than me.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Hoverflies and humpty back shaggers...

Despite the impression of the title, I am not talking about some of our more rural hill going Northumberland locals. All will be revealed later...

July in upland Northumberland isn't a great place for a birder. Its usually very quiet indeed, but if you have an open mind to other forms of wildlife, you can always find something of interest.

Yesterday morning was such a walk for John  and myself as we dropped inland, only 10 miles or so from my house. Our venue was the moor and forests west of Alnwick. I wont give a grid ref  as there are many similar areas in the county where exploration could give similar rewards.

One reason I have often avoided our midsummer moorland is often due to the large numbers of biting insects that just love me. Clegs, Mozzies and Midgies all home in, but they weren't too bad on Sunday due to the breeze. Here are some photos from the morning...

First thing we found very soon after leaving the car was this large female Adder basking on the track side. She was obviously well warmed because  as I tried to close in for a photo she was gone into cover in a flash, before I was anywhere near.

The tracksides were great for inverts. This one was south facing and sheltered from the wind so Hoverflies and Butterflies were in good numbers... I only took my macro lens on the DSLR and my point and shoot for habitat shots so didn't get any of the birds we encountered, so I'll get them out of the way.

We had 2 Raven, sev Buzzard inc young calling, several Crossbills and Redpolls over, 9 Tree Pipits based on two family parties, 3 Stonechats, a family group of 3 Redstarts, 1 Spotted Flycatcher, plus Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff and Whitethroats. This was much more than expected up here at this time of year. I might have had a few shots if I had the right gear? So back to the job in hand...

Butterflies were dotted around with many Ringlets and Meadow Browns, 8+ Small Skipper, 7+ Red Admiral, 3 Small Tortoiseshell, 1 Small Heath and 4 Common Blues. Moths made an appearance too with red necked Footman and Latticed Heath.

Trackside flora.

Red necked Footman

Small Heath

Small Skipper
The only Odonata representative was the spectacular Gold-ringed Dragonfly with a single that did its best to keep hidden. I couldn't get near it so only have this record shot. Soon, Black Darters will be on the wing here.

Gold-ringed Dragonfly
The real stars of the show were the hoverflies but I'll start the pics with a lifer Bumblebee, Bombus jonellus. Tricky things, bees...

Bombus jonellus
Chrysotoxum arcuatum 

The nationally scarce Megasyrphus erraticus

Sericomyia silentis

Sericomyia lappona

Volucella bombylans
Referring back to the title, these Conopid Flies, Sicus ferrigineus were all over the damp areas. Ugly, hump backed bow legged critters as soon as another one landed nearby it was pounced upon! Whilst they would win no prizes in the beauty stakes, they pretty much kept to themselves.

Sicus ferrigineus or Humpty backed Shaggers to us.

 The walk back, down hill gave some great views over our countryside. All in all it was a good morning out.

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 than 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...