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Yellow brows, red wings and white grouse…

15 Oct

The promise of fine weather and a child-free day lured me up to Lindisfarne this morning for a proper walk, and the weather didn’t disappoint. Clear blue skies on arrival and a surprising warmth for an October day boded well. I’ve really struggled for opportunities since mid summer and today was an opportunity to just get out there and get into the groove.

The Castle from the Village

I wasn’t looking for anything in particular other than a chance to stretch my legs and see what the change of season would bring. I also wanted to check out my new HTC phone and souped up battery to see if it could withstand four or five hours of using GPS, taking photos and uploading photos (all but one of the photos on this post are using the camera on my phone rather than my SLR)

A herd of swans just off the causeway needed checking to see if they were whoopers (I havent seen any yet this year) but they turned out to be mutes, and only a handful of bar-tailed godwits and gulls were close by the road.

Parking up at on the sands just before the village I started out down St Cuthberts Way along the beach, spooking a few curlews and rock pipits as I headed towards a viewpoint to see a large flock of waders on a mud bank.

Plovers and seals

Several times the flock lifted and wheeled around glinting in the sunlight – golden plovers in a flock of around 200. I never did see what spooked them – maybe it was just for the exercise. On the other side of the channel 30 or so grey seals loafed on the sands oblivious to the activity.

Following the coast round until I picked up the path to the town past the school attracting stares from the curious sheep – there didn’t seem to be any else on the island out of bed so they were probably surprised to see me!

Who are ewe?

From the village I headed up the Straight Lonnen where the bushes were teeming with birds harvesting the berries, and the air was teeming with midges trying to harvest my blood. Blackbirds were dominant it wasn’t long before but I saw my first redwings of the year joining the feast.

Redwing

The real gem though was a yellow browed warbler that was keeping one bush distance from me for a while but I eventually managed to get a good view of the little blighter. As I got my camera into position for a clear shot though… another visitor keen to see it joined us – in the form of a sparrowhawk fancying a light bite. It suddenly appeared in the willow tree housing the warbler but it spotted me as well as its snack and thought better of it, meanwhile the YBW made off in the opposite direction after the commotion!

Not much else to report from Straight Lonnen other than a few woodpigeons and a single female reed bunting.

From the top end I headed north into the dunes hoping for a short eared owl after drawing a blank all year (no change today) and followed the path east to Emmanuel Head across the beach which was pleasingly free of signs of human activity – the only footprints were from feathered visitors.

Across to Emmanuel Head

Trekking across the beach toward the pyramid there was a grey heron, a variety of gulls and a pair of eider flying past, and then up to the pyramid.

Pyramid landmark

Heading back down the East side of the island I finally saw another person – it couldn’t last I suppose.

A single gannet, several meadow pipits, rock pipits and a pied wagtail and a couple of seals were on view but the tide was so far out I couldn’t see too much out to sea.

Back along to the castle and the human population taking advantage of the weather were becoming more evident and the birds less so, but it was still an idyllic day.

The Castle (again!)

Just a quick stop off a the Lindisfarne Winery for a bottle of mead for the missus, a bottle of whisky for me, and some fudge for the little ‘un.

I did notice on the wires on the way back up to the car park one or two house martins still hanging around – all are long gone from home for me.

Back on the mainland, buzzards were in abundance making use of the unexpected thermals… all the way from Holy Island down to Morpeth there were regular sights, including a spectacular mid-air grapple between a buzzard and a corvid near Haggerston Castle.

Oh yes… and white grouse? Just a few miles from home an all-white red grouse flew across the A1 just north of Morpeth. I’ve seen plenty of red grouse in my time and I’m fairly sure thats what it was but I’ve never seen an albino before.

It may not have been a truly spectacular day in terms of rarities, but for me in terms of getting back connected with nature it was unsurpassed… beautifully crisp.. splendidy isolated and so far from the distractions of the daily rat-race. To just sit in the dunes and listen to the sound of the waves and the wind fizzing the dried grasses and a faint echo of the seals moaning carried on the breeze was something I’ve needed to do for a long long time. I only had a long lens with me for my main camera and the new phone did a better than expected job, but I don’t think I could have captured the essence of today with the most expensive camera and an array of lenses.

Connection was what today was all about and sometimes its just not possible to capture that.

Onwards and upwards.

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Lunchtime sortie

8 Jul

Took advantage of the intermittent sunshine to take a lunchtime whizz around two local sites – Weetslade Country Park and Killingworth Lake today for the first time in a while.

First up was Weetslade – a reclaimed pit heap on the edge of Killingworth which offers stunning 360 degree views of the region, and has lots of open wildflower meadow, scrubby heath and some ponds and reedbeds.

Given the abundance of wild flowers I was surprised at how little there was in the way of butterfly activity. Plenty of meadow browns and ringlets, the odd large white, common blue and a single small heath was all we could come up with. Cinnabar moth and burnet were fairly abundant though.

Burnet

Birdlife was represented by an abundance of corvids, swifts, swallows, house martins, meadow pipits, linnet, whitethroat, kestrel and a couple of stonking yellowhammers.

In the shade of some hawthorn bushes along the footpath were a number of orchids. I can’t quite work out whether they are all common spotted orchids or not, a couple looked quite different but I suspect they were just common spotted :

Exhibit A

Exhibit B

Next on to Killingworth Lake – in winter this can be an interesting little oasis in the middle of suburbia with the odd surprising visitor, including whooper swan, goldeneye and assorted gulls, but this was my first visit since the winter snows departed.

As usual a large group of mute swans (maybe 50-75) were resting around the car park and in their midst a white barnyard goose, almost as big as the swans!

A handful of common terns were fishing at the opposite end of the lake, and they were incredibly unconcerned by human presence. One individual perched on a fishing platform to eat its catch allowed us to get to within about 6 feet before heading off to try for more fish.

Common Tern

Also at the reedier end of the lake families of coot, moorhen and great-crested grebe were going about their business.

I’ve never really looked at really small coot chicks before, but one adult had a group of three chicks with simply the maddest orange hair. Very comical.

Coot Chick

All in all not bad for an hour’s wandering.

Birds Seen : Swift, Swallow, House Martin, Linnet, Yellowhammer, Rook, Carrion Crow, Jackdaw, Wood Pigeon, Kestrel, Whitethroat, Black Headed Gull, Herring Gull, Mute Swan, Starling, Common Tern, Coot, Moorhen, Great-crested Grebe, Canada Goose

Butterflies Seen : Common Blue, Meadow Brown, Large White, Small Heath, Ringlet

Baking at Bakethin

3 Jul

On the agenda for a while has been a walk around Bakethin Reservoir – the northern spur of Kielder reservoir, and home to the breeding osprey pair.

A day of wall-to-wall sunshine was promised by the met-office (and duly delivered for once) so we headed off for a circular walk to take in some of the woodland and forestry trails before heading back along the lake shore (route is here)

In the baking sunshine grasshoppers were stridulating away like crazy and ringlets danced along the roadside verges amongst the thistles and orchids. Within a few minutes of setting off we’d come across spotted heath orchids in varying shades.

Heath spotted orchid

While we were checking out the orchids something caught my eye scampering across the road and I spotted a large common lizard sprint across and into the undergrowth a few feet away. I was hoping that we’d see a few more lizards and possibly snakes basking in the sunshine but it wasn’t to be.

Cutting away from the road and uphill through woods we had a spotted flycatcher helpfully reducing the fly population although I think he could have done with some assistance as we were being eaten alive!

In one sunny patch in the woods we came a across a toadstool that looked like it had been sprayed with gold paint like a Christmas decoration – so vivid and shiny it stood out from the grass :

Golden toadstool - a Tawny Grisette?

Emerging from the woods onto a forestry track along a clearing we had dozens more ringlets but a complete absence of other butterflies until we eventually found a small heath to keep them company. One unmissable sight was a very large dragonfly that buzzed us as we first took to the track and which I relocated perched on the bracken half a mile further on. He was happy to sit and bask in the sun to allow some photos – a handsome male golden-ringed dragonfly.

Golden-ringed Dragonfly

Further along the track and past a 4,000 year old burial cairn on the hillside we descended down to a tarmac road from a disused quarry, and here we had common spotted orchids by the roadside.

Common spotted orchid

At this point we also had a few common blues to add some variety to the butterflies and the herb eyebright nestled in the long grasses – traditionally a herb used to create treatnents for all manner of eye problems like conjuctivitis.

Eyebright

 

Reaching the end of the track we then doubled back along a track by the lakeside (ignoring the disused railway track which was doubling as a speedway track for cyclists). This track afforded us some welcome dappled shade as it passed through birch and willow woods and had some very impressive drifts of melancholy thistles – not normally the most picturesque plants but looking very smart at the moment.

Melancholy Thistle

Back at the car park and time for refreshments – we’d not managed to see red squirrel, crossbills or osprey (all of which were distinct possibles if not probables!) but the orchids, lizard, dragonflies and the views were worth it. Oddly enough for such a baking hot day on a weekend at the start of July, we managed to do two thirds of the walk before we saw another person at all – very tranquil!

Thyme for Fritillaries

2 Jul

Once upon a time myself and the missus used to be “quite into” butterflies, and indeed my first venture into running a website was a site on “Butterflies of Scotland” which was moderately popular, however they’ve taken a bit of a back seat in terms of my interest for the last few years (I think largely because 10 years ago before digital cameras were affordable and sophisticated I got sick of having a reel of 24 photos processed to find one decent shot and 23 destined for the bin).

Today as a family we wanted a short walk along the coastal strip that promised sunshine and so we headed for Warkworth dunes for a stroll along to the northern pier at Amble harbour, with my mind half on getting good views of the terns and other birds that occupy the scrubby dunes.

Sandwich tern

This started off nicely with a common whitethroat perched obligingly on the top of a bush at the car park singing his socks off, but once we’d dropped down on to the path through the dunes it became clear that butterflies would steal the attention today.

I’ll admit that my ID skills need a good refresh but I knew that the smart dark brown butterfly dancing along the side of the path wasn’t a meadow brown and I was sure it wasn’t a female blue but I couldn’t remember – was it an argus or a ringlet? Eventually it perched nicely and showed the plain upperside with a couple of obvious eyes on the hindwing and fainter eyes on the forewing. Ringlet.

Ringlet

While we were comparing that with a meadow brown that crossed our path, Hannah decided that it was time to let youth lead the expedition and she headed off on a scramble up the nearest dune, disturbing a few small skipper from their perches as she went. As I followed her up the slope a large robust orange and black butterfly powered past me in a purposeful manner. “Fritillary” I shouted to Alison who was back down the path but she was too intent on confirming that she was looking at a meadow brown to look up. I really like fritillaries but have only seen them rarely so its always great to see one even if only a fleeting glimpse. Alison wasn’t so sure I hadn’t just mistaken it for a wall brown or something else but I was pretty sure.

Small Skipper

A few moments later we descended into a valley between dunes with an immaculate purple carpet of thyme and there ahead were two fritillaries on the deck drinking nectar from the mat of purple flowers. This time I had my camera ready and managed to get a distant shot fired off in case Hannah decided to charge ahead and disturb them. Luckily she was restrained enough to let me go first and get much closer for better views. A quick inspection and a mental check ruled out pearl border or its smaller cousin, and other smaller species or more southerly residents like silver-washed. My suspicions were either dark green or high brown fritillary but not really knowing the distributions in these parts I decided to settle on taking some record shots and checking them out when I got home when I was able to confirm them as dark green fritillary

Dark green fritillary

Common blues and small heaths were abundant around the long grass as well as lots of day flying moths that unfortunately I didn’t get a shot of.

Common blue

I’m really not up to speed with flora but there was an abundance of variety throughout the dunes showing just how important a habitat they provide. Amongst all the species I couldn’t identify were clusters of common spotted orchids.

Common spotted orchid

Sadly being colour blind I sometimes wander past things without seeing them while they scream “look at me” to people with a better count of rods and cones in their armoury, and this certainly applies in the case of a cluster of what I’m told are scarlet wax cap mushrooms:

Scarlet Wax Cap?

Thats not to say we didn’t have a good variety of birds as well including common and lesser whitethroat (the latter heard but not seen), bullfinch, linnet, stock dove, rock pipit, common tern, arctic tern and sandwich tern and possibly roseate tern but not with a good enough view to be sure.

Butterflies seen : common blue, small skipper, small heath, ringlet, dark green fritillary

Birds seen : bullfinch, common whitethroat, herring gull, black-headed gull, grey heron, mute swan, common tern, arctic tern, sandwich tern, jackdaw, crow, magpie, oystercatcher, eider, rock pipit, meadow pipit, goldfinch, cormorant, kestrel, stock dove

Ring necked parakeets and jays aplenty

26 Jun

This weekend we had a very hectic trip to Surrey for a friends 40th birthday, and it gave us a chance for a whistlestop tour of a few of our old haunts from when we lived there from 1995-2002.

Enjoyed a baking few hours in Beddington Park (not Bedlington Park!) just outside of Sutton and just a mile or so from our old flat in Hackbridge. This park is not somewhere we explored greatly when we lived there except to see the albino squirrels that seemed to be almost common there for a while. With Hannah in tow this time though we had a good wander aroundand enjoyed watching magpies and crows bounding around the open grass, and around a dozen jays flitting from tree to tree.

Dragonflies, Damselflies and butterflies (including my first holly blue of the year) were also enjoying the heatwave and the criss-crossing streams lined with reeds – sadly I didn’t have my “proper” camera with me.

Up to the ponds to see what there was in the way of ducks and geese and saw a profusion of young moorhen and coot as well as plenty of mallards, tufted ducks, canada geese and a solitary little grebe.

While Hannah attempted to lure the ducks to a healthy handful of grain I was confused by an unusual screeching sound coming from the trees above me. Standing looking up and scratching my head I then saw a flash of green fly into the tree next to me – a vivid green bird with a long streaming tail and a big rounded head.

I’d seen ring necked parakeets in Surrey before – a flock at Hampton Wick and fleetingly one individual in a garden in Epsom – and I knew they were spreading but I had no idea they were doing quite so well.

I don’t know how much truth there is in the story that these birds originated from a group of birds who escaped from Shepperton Studios during the filming of “The African Queen” in the 1950s, but roosts of up to 3,000 birds at Esher rugby club were reported nearly a decade ago which is testament to how well they’ve adapted, perhaps atthe expense of other hole-nesting native birds.

I tracked the one in flight into the top of a tree and gradually tuned in to around 6 or 7 birds. They sat quite happily in the tree tops foraging and screeching and perched quite openly allowing us to get quite close. Sadly I only had a point and shoot camera with me but still managed a couple of record shots.

Ring necked parakeet (female)

I know they are a bit of an invasive pest but stood in the park in 30 degree heat watching these vivid and vivacious little birds, you couldn’t help feel transported to somewhere slightly more exotic than the outskirts of Croydon!

High Rise Chicks

12 Jun

What a difference a week makes – same part of the Northumberland Coast as the same time last week and instead of leaden skies and steady drizzle, this morning afforded the blue skies and sunshine¬† I was hoping for in order to make a quick trip up to Dunstanburgh castle for a “photoshoot”. Nice to see the cliffs teeming with small fluffy newcomers since my last visit.

Lilburn Tower and Embleton Links

Some months previously I’d suggested to BBC Countryfile magazine via their twitter feed that Craster to Dunstanburgh would be a great walk to feature in their 50 rural getaway walks for their 50th anniversary. The idea struck a chord with them and they asked me to write a short piece on the walk. Short being little more than a tweet as it turned out – 150 words for the walk and another 50 words for somewhere to eat, somewhere to stay etc. Luckily as walks go the trip from Craster to Dunstanburgh and back needs precious little direction : “From the harbour, look left – there’s the castle in the distance, walk to it. When you get there walk back.” That at least offered me the chance to say a little bit about the wildlife you could see on the walk – from the seals and porpoises off the rocks to the wheatears and shelduck in the meadows and ponds.

I submitted the text a few weeks ago and they liked it.. enough to confirm it would appear in the magazine, and indeed they liked the photos of the walk that I’d sent them as well. Only problem – “We need a photo of you”. Hmm – I generally stand resolutely behind the camera not in front. Luckily I found a picture of myself with Hannah on my shoulders, that I would be grudgingly accepting of publication in a national magazine, and submitted that.

So far so good, until an e-mail 2 weeks ago… “we’d really like some photos of you in the setting of the walk, maybe with the castle in the background?”. Blast. None of them to hand. Work commitments meant an early evening trip was the only option, and of course two weeks of highly indifferent weather ensued.

Anyway… on to today, and taking advantage of an optimistic window of a few hours sunshine, myself and the family set off for Embleton with a view to taking an abbreviated walk around the castle via the shorter approach from the North, and thankfully the weather duly obliged.

Parked up by the golf course and headed down the track and swallows and house martins were much in evidence. A common whitethroat was fleetingly on view before hopping into the depths of a hawthorn bush where a few weeks ago an immaculate yellowhammer had posed obligingly for my camera. Meadow pipits, skylark and pied wagtails also much in evidence along the fairways.

Dunstanburgh and the Lilburn Tower

From Greymare rocks in front of the castle plenty of kittiwakes and razorbills were on the water with a handful of shag and hordes of gannet passing south. I was pleased to see good numbers of kittiwakes as on my last visit there seemed to be realtively few.

Heading up around the shoulder of the mound that the castle sits atop we could see plenty of black headed gulls bathing on the shallow floods below, and the pair of shelduck who have been there all spring were still in residence but no sign of chicks.

From the castle itself looking out to sea the constant stream of gannets was impressive, and terns were regularly heading past – both common and little passed by while I watched. Wall brown and small tortoiseshell butterflies enjoyed the sunny shelter of the castle walls and a drinker moth caterpillar nearly got squashed under Hannah’s feet as she balanced along a low piece of wall. Fulmars and kittiwakes drifted across the cliff tops and looking down the high rise apartments on the north side of the castle we had great views of kittiwake chicks on the nest and one nest with three shag chicks sat hungrily demanding food from harassed parents (not to mention being harassed by my own juvenile, although in this case asking for a stick of rock rather than sand eels or fish).

Heading back down from the castle a couple of small family groups of eider and chicks were paddling around the shallows of the bay, and looping round through the crags and ponds beneath the mound we had mute swan and canada geese in the rapidly diminishing pools.

The only other wildlife of note was the number of buzzards – driving back 25 miles down the A1 I had a total of 6 including one hovering 20 feet above a hedge like a massively over-sized kestrel, closely followed a hundred yards later by one being mobbed by crows flying low over the road.

Osprey, Chicks and the Blues

30 May

Had a brief visit to Teesside and North Yorkshire this weekend to catch up with family and pay a few flying visits to a few sites I don’t get to often.

First was a 15 minute stop off at RSPB Saltholme to try and see yellow wagtails and lo and behold 10 minutes yeilded four individuals, albeit three of them flying at 100mph in the vicious wind!

Next was a 90 min whizz around Coatham Marsh – my first visit for ore more.¬† That yielded my first blue butterfly of the year – a very bright common blue. Again the wind didn’t help in trying to get a photo on the grasses that were constantly buffeted around. A little further round the marsh a second blue was no less elusive.

Common Blue

Another first for me this year were small heaths flitting around the pathways.

Lots of birds with chicks – Canada and Greylag Geese, Mute Swans, Coot, Moorhen, Little Grebe and Reed Bunting all with young families in tow, the dabchicks particularly high in the cute factor but sadly far to wary to allow any kind of approach.

Mute Swans

I was half hoping that some of the ruddy duck that used to breed here may have escaped the cull, but sadly no sign of them – I fear I wont see them around again for a while.

An evening trip to Lockwood Beck for crossbills and osprey drew a blank on the former but did get a brief glimpse of an osprey while engrossed in trying to watch a pair of willow warblers that were dancing around us in the trees only a few feet away. Only a poor quality record shot to show for it :

Osprey

Osprey

This morning I had an early morning trek up to Danby Beacon and despite the drizzle managed to see a pair of golden plover with two enchanting chicks – looking like golden cotton-wool balls on stilts! There was also an abundance of Jackdaws – more than I’ve ever seen there before – perhaps they were all just gathered together in the rain.

Oh and I should also mention the rogue pea-hen that seems to have taken up residence in my parents’ garden and is now bullying poor Tiggsy the cat !

Pea-hen : an unusual garden visitor

Birds seen : Mallard, Shoveller, Coot, Moorhen, Little grebe, Mute Swan, Greylag Goose, Canada Goose, Reed Bunting, Swift, Swallow, House Martin, Sand Martin, Black Headed Gull, Grey Heron, Collared Dove, Osprey, Willow Warbler, Cormorant, Yellow Wagtail, Common Tern, Wheatear, Golden Plover, Curlew, Jackdaw, Rook, House Sparrow, Greenfinch, Goldfinch

Butterflies seen : Common blue, small heath, large white, small tortoisheshell