Thursday, 3 June 2021

Two Shrikes, lots of hills and a fire - and also I come to a realisation about focussing on the birds

This week I've been on holiday from work so I've been trying to get out as much as I can to try and find as many birds as I can and, hopefully, give a bit of a boost to my NMT list.

Saturday started off badly when I called in at Middle Marsh, the nature reserve in my local area which I helped set up, and found that about half of the reedbed area had been burned to the ground by vandals. This has been a very bad year so far for deliberate fires on greenspace and nature reserves in Middlesbrough and the wider area. Earlier in the year several patches of the grassland at Middle Marsh were burned, and similar fires have been happening in long grass and scrub areas all over Teesside since late winter. Luckily for Middle Marsh half the reed area and the scrub and woodland behind it is still intact - presumably too wet and/or green to burn. It should all grow back although I don't know what effect a fire at this time of year will have - the young green shoots of this years growth of reed has been burned, along with the dead stems of the last several years, so it may take a while before that part looks like a reedbed again - watch this space.

From there I headed out to Saltholme and Seal Sands. There were lots of birds, including recently hatched young of many species - from the familiar Mute Swan, Mallard and Canada Goose to the less commonly seen Lapwing and Avocet. The Black-headed Gulls, which breed in colonies in several places, have many well grown chicks, but the Common Terns that often nest in among them are still quite a way behind them and have no chicks yet. This is because the 'Black-heads' being resident in the UK year-round are able to start breeding sooner than the terns which are migrants that spend the winter in Africa and have only been here for a few weeks.

I didn't add anything to my NMT list on Saturday, however, or on Sunday when I had to drop Sue off at the bus station in Leeds and took the opportunity to meet up with some friends there. We went to the lovely RSPB reserve at Fairburn Ings - a large part of which is on a former coal mine but now holds many different wetland habitats and the wide range of species associated with them. We saw Buzzards, terns and grebes and heard lots of warblers and one cuckoo. The sight of a small mammal - probably a Bank Vole - halfway up a tree in broad daylight was something none of us (all naturalists) had seen before.

On Monday I went to South Gare - which I think I neglect a bit in favour of Saltholme - and was rewarded by two new NMT birds - a Red Kite that flew in off the sea from the north (goodness knows where it was coming from), and then a Spotted Flycatcher, which Nick, one of the regular South Gare birders, had just found in some bushes. I watched it flycatching for a few minutes and was able to get one very poor picture (below). Unlike its dapper black and white relative, the Pied Flycatcher, Spotted is a streaky brown and grey bird. 

From the gare I decided to go along the coast to Saltburn, in the hope of seeing some seabirds that are less commonly seen at South Gare. Saltburn was crowded with tourists (not surprising on a very hot and sunny Bank Holiday Monday) including right at the end of the pier where I set up my scope. There were many Kittiwakes on the sea but it was a while before I was able to get a good enough view of a Fulmar (NMT #147). I had been hoping for a Razorbill (a smaller relative of the extinct Great Auk) but although I saw a couple of birds that might have been this species, my views weren't good enough to rule out the similar Guillemot.

Late that evening when I was getting ready to go to bed I decided to check the local 'bird Twitter' to see if anything interesting had been seen that day - and immediately knew that the next day I was going to be doing my biggest NMT ride yet - to Whitby, 30 miles away across the moors. The reason for this sudden crazy plan was that a Lesser Grey Shrike and 11 European Bee-eaters had been seen in farmland just out side the town. I've seen both of these birds many times before, in other countries, and I've even seen Bee-eaters in the UK once (a group of 6 in Dorset in 1997), but the Shrike would be a 'British tick' and both species would be fantastic birds for my year-list. 

I got up at 4am on Wednesday morning and was out of the house by ten to 5 (a record time for me - I rarely make it up and out in less than an hour). The first challenge was the steep Ormesby Bank, which I nearly made it to the top of before getting off to push, followed a few miles later by the even steeper Birk Brow, which I didn't even attempt - instead I pushed the bike the whole way up it. After that the hills were gentler and the flat stretches longer. I stopped for a rest at Scaling Dam - a great birding site which I've talked about before in this blog (see  Franklin's Gull at Scaling Dam ) but unfortunately the hide was locked so I couldn't get a good view of the birdiest part of the lake. The journey from Scaling down to the coast was beautiful - Skylarks singing everywhere, Curlews and Lapwings displaying at me as I cycled past their breeding territories, and a Barn Owl flying along in front of me (I think this is already my best year ever for Barn Owl sightings). In Whitby I realised that actually there hadn't really been any tourists worth talking about in Saltburn the day before - at least not compared to the crowds that had come to see the site of St Hilda's monastery, the place where Captain Cook learned to sail and (last but not least) the fish and chip capital of England (at least according to some people). Just south of the ruins of Whitby Abbey there are arable fields interspersed with caravan sites and it was on the edge of one of these, in the middle of a field, that a group of birders with telescopes and cameras were standing around looking as if they had just been watching something but weren't anymore - Uh oh! Thankfully what they had been watching had only flown into the next field and was quickly relocated sitting at the top of the hedge. 

It was the Lesser Grey Shrike - a bird which doesn't normally come any closer to Britain than southern France and Eastern Europe but which had somehow managed to overshoot by several hundred miles. Shrikes are passerines, aka 'songbirds' (and they do sing), but the old name for them - the Butcher-birds - gives you some hint about their nature. They were called Butcher-birds because they are little hook-billed predators that sometimes impale the corpses of their prey on thorns or barbed wire for retrieval later. In the case of  the Lesser Grey the prey is mostly beetles, grasshoppers and other insects but the larger members of the Shrike family will eat small birds, reptiles and rodents.

Despite the blurriness of these two photos (there was quite a heat haze
even at 9am) you can see all the key features which tell us that this is a
Lesser Grey Shrike -  grey back, black 'pirate-mask' going up onto the
forehead, black wings with a large white patch, and pinkish underparts
(although you might need the eye of imagination to see this last feature -
I definitely saw it when I looked through another birder's really good scope) 

The Bee-eaters, unfortunately had flown off about four hours before I got there and didn't return until late that evening. They are still there now apparently but the journey to Whitby and back was really tough and it'll be a while before I'm ready to do it again, so I'll just have to hope that they move up the coast a bit.

Today I decided to take things a bit easier, so I stayed in bed late, got up at a leisurely pace and then cycled over to Saltholme for the second time in a week - after the torturous rides of the last few weeks Saltholme seems really easy now and I can get there in 45 minutes from my house (it took me 4 and half hours to get to Whitby and nearly six hours to get back). I mooched around Saltholme and its environs for a couple of hours, looking for anything different but with no joy so I headed home. Thankfully I decided to break the journey at 'Go Outdoors' in Portrack (I needed a new waterproof jacket and they have a sale on) and then checked the local bird-club's Twitter feed before setting off again - to learn that a Woodchat Shrike was at Saltholme RSPB reserve - in a spot I had been in earlier in the day (a lesson, perhaps, to check every bush carefully, or maybe it had arrived after I'd been there). 

So it was back on the bike and back the way I had come for my second shrike species in 2 days and my 149th bird on my NMT list. The bird was right next to a cycle track, with  quite a crowd of people watching it so I got onto it straight away, and was able to snap some reasonable pictures. I knew a few people there, including some of the wardens from the reserve and some of the birders I met in Whitby yesterday so there was a bit of a party atmosphere.

It wasn't until I was on the way home that I realised that I had fallen into the trap of focussing on chatting  to other birders, getting pictures, sending messages to friends to tell them what I had seen and what my NMT list was on now (149), worrying about the journey home and what I was going to cook for dinner - anything in fact except the bird itself. 

I have birded with some really outstanding birders over the years and one thing that they have in common is that when they are watching a bird they are giving it their full attention and really studying it - even if it is something they have seen hundreds of times. They are looking at every detail of the bird, thinking about where it has come from, what subspecies or population it might be from, what sex and age it is, what it is feeding on, etc. etc.  but I had done none of that.

Woodchat Shrike is a bird that I know pretty well from other countries I have lived in or visited, and I think this made me a bit blasé about this one. I have now studied the photos that I, and others took of today's bird and I am pretty sure that it is an adult female of the nominate subspecies (Lanius senator senator) - judging by the shape and shade of the red patch on the head, and the amount of white above the bill (see the 2 pictures below, which also show the little hooked bill) - but I didn't even think about any of that until I had left the bird behind and was well on my way down the track. I think I did something similar with the Lesser Grey yesterday, although perhaps I had more excuse then with the thought of the gargantuan journey home to distract me.

I sometimes get annoyed with birders who look down on those of us who keep lists of the birds we've seen, and who say that listers love their lists more than their birds. I have always argued that it's possible to love keeping lists and still really love and value birds - now I'm starting to worry that I have been putting my list, (and my determination to see as many species as I can in a year without using motorised transport to do so) ahead of the enjoyment and appreciation of the birds themselves. I'm still going to carry on with the NMT list but I am now determined to really give my attention to the birds and not just the list and the journey.

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Three gruelling rides for 7 birds (plus 1 more while I was writing this)

Now that we're getting into the middle of the year, and I've seen most of the common (and several uncommon) birds that can be found in and around Teesside it is getting harder and harder to find new species for my Non-Motorised Transport (NMT) year list. Over the last three weekends I've done three fairly long and gruelling (for me) trips totalling about 140 miles and added 7 new species to my list.

The first two - Corn Bunting and Yellow Wagtail - were probably the two birds I've worked hardest for so far this year (although it is a close run thing with the last two). This involved a very early rise and a long ride up into the wilds of County Durham (actually not all that wild - quite pleasant-looking countryside really). I lost my way several times on the way there and had to push the bike for a long stretch because of signs saying 'no cycling' on a private road which was a public footpath but not a bridleway (the signs were very clear and very unfriendly so I didn't rule out the possibility of there being hidden cameras and an angry land-owner with dogs). It was even worse on the way back as I went down a track marked as a 'public byway with access for all vehicles' - in order to avoid the unfriendly footpath of the outward journey and also minimise the amount of busy A-road I went on. Unfortunately this byway turned out to be a 2 kilometre long mud-bath, as a result of which I had to take the bike wheels off twice to clean them enough to keep them turning and eventually carried the bike (and my panniers) for about 700m.

Despite all this, I think it was worth it. Corn Bunting is now a very scarce bird in the UK. It used to be a common farmland bird over much of lowland Britain but between 1970 and 2003 numbers are thought to have fallen by 89%, due, probably, to changes in farming practices and also possibly because of lower numbers of the insects with which they feed their young. The species is still just about hanging on in parts of County Durham and North Yorkshire and it was one of these remaining pockets, that was my destination on this trip. If you google Corn Bunting you will find pictures of a not-very-exciting-looking plump brown bird (its plumpness giving rise to its old country name 'Fat bird of the barley'). However, it has a very distinctive song which sounds like a bunch of keys being jangled. I had been told three different possible places that I might hear them and it was in the last of these that I struck gold and heard the jingle. It sounded quite close but it took me a few minutes to find the bird - sitting on an overhead wire right next to (and in the shadow of) the pole. I heard another one singing in a different place a bit later although I didn't get to see it.

This was the best picture of the Corn Bunting that I was able to get - 
very blurry but it does show the relatively long tail that is characteristic
of members of the Bunting Family

Although I only had two Corn Buntings and one Yellow Wagtail (another declining bird in the British countryside) I did see and hear more Yellowhammers in one day than I have done for a very long time. I started hearing them singing their 'little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeeeeese' song from almost every hedge (it seemed) from almost as soon as I left the urban fringe of Stockton-on-Tees.

The second weekend I stayed more local but for the first time I went to both South Gare (on the south side of the Tees) and the marshes around Saltholme (north of the Tees) on the same day. At South Gare the only new bird I added to the list was Little Tern. This small seabird nests on sandy and shingly coasts, where it is very vulnerable to disturbance from dog walkers and other beachgoers and, like so many of our birds, is in trouble with populations going steadily down.

The yellow bill with a black tip, as well as the small size, distinguishes
Little Tern from its larger cousins - Sandwich Tern's bill is the other way round
(black with a yellow tip) while Common and Arctic have red bills

After South Gare, and a quick cup of tea at home, I headed out again to try and see a Wood Sandpiper which had been hanging around for a few days at Cowpen Marsh (in exactly the same spot as the Little Gull two weeks before). On the way past Saltholme I had three Swifts screaming overhead - NMT #140. Arriving at the layby opposite the southern end of Cowpen Marsh I searched in vain for a small brown wader until a carful of birders turned up with sharper eyes (and a better scope) than me and I got reasonable (but too distant for a photo) views of my first Wood Sandpiper in several years.  

Although I didn't manage to get a pic of the Wood Sandpiper, I had better
luck with this Barn Owl - 1 of 2 that I saw flying around in broad daylight
(probably they are feeding hungry young and so more easy to see than
they usually are in the daytime)

This male Garganey was surprisingly bold (usually they are very shy), but
he was feeding so actively that I couldn't get a picture of him with his head
out of the water. He is about the size of a Teal but with a longer bill, and
a white stripe on each side of his lovely dark brown head.
(the other bird is the rear end of a male Mallard).

The third gruelling trek was this Saturday just gone and it was my longest cycle ride yet this year (about 50 miles in total). Although it didn't involve carrying my bike through any mud, I did have to push it up several steep hills, as I went up into the North York Moors National Park in the hope of seeing a couple of birds which breed up there and not anywhere else around here - Redstart and Pied Flycatcher. I was unlucky with Redstart, even though I went to an area where several had been singing a couple of weeks before. In one beautiful spot in a small river valley I met a few other birders who were also looking for the same two species. They told me where they had seen a male Pied Flycatcher so I locked up my bike and went for a walk, very quickly seeing the same bird they had seen. After going back to my bike I saw another one- doing its characteristic  behaviour, flying out from a branch to catch flies. Unfortunately the only picture I managed to get was this very blurry one which shows only the top half of the bird - it's still enough to tell you that it's a Pied Flycatcher though so I've put it in anyway. 

I almost forgot to mention the other new bird for the NMT list that I heard while I was cycling over the moors to Snilesworth (where I saw the Pied Flycatchers) - a Cuckoo, singing its name - 'cuck-ooo, cuck-ooo, cuck-ooo'.

And Finally...

After I'd started to write this post this morning I had to go out to work - leading a group on a nature walk along the River Tees (it's a tough job but someone's got to do it 😀) - and one of the many beautiful sights we saw was a small group of Common Terns patrolling up and down the river, occasionally diving in to catch a fish. These were the first ones I had seen this year and bring my NMT year-list up to 144.

Sunday, 2 May 2021

Eleven new NMT ticks and a new Favourite Bird

Since I last wrote I've 'ticked' 11 new birds for the NMT year list including several of the expected spring migrants that I have been looking out for since about mid-April. 

Last Sunday I had a lovely day birding at Coatham Marsh, Redcar Seafront and South Gare and added Reed Warbler, Sedge Warbler and Common Whitethroat (which is also a warbler, although you wouldn't know it from the name) to the list along with my first Swallow of the year (a lovely male with really long tail streamers). While doing a short sea-watch from the end of the gare I had a few Sandwich Terns and a Kittiwake flying past. Sandwich Terns, like many of our summer visitors, spend the winter further south (around the coasts of Africa) but the Kittiwake, despite being a smallish, delicate-looking gull is actually a really tough cookie and spends the winter out in the wilds of the Atlantic Ocean before returning to nest on cliffs (and sometimes buildings) around the coasts of Britain and Ireland. These six new birds took my list to 131 for the year.

A male Common Whitethroat - photo by Richard Prior

A Sedge Warbler - photo by Richard Prior

Yesterday I cycled 34 miles, with the first stop being a site next to the Tees a few miles south of Stockton where I survey a 1x1km square for the British Trust for Ornithology as part of their Breeding Bird Survey. While walking to the start-point for the survey I heard my first Lesser Whitethroat (another warbler) of the year (NMT # 132). During the survey I mostly had common breeding species but a Grasshopper Warbler and my second Green Woodpecker of the year were pretty interesting. Another unusual bird was a single Barnacle Goose - this species used to be only a winter visitor to a few areas in the north and west of Britain but now there are many flocks of feral birds scattered about the country which are here all year. This could have been one of those but the fact that it was on its own in a pond on a farm was enough to make me suspicious that it might not actually be a wild bird and so I haven't counted it on the NMT list.

Having finished the survey I went to Bowesfield Marsh where I heard my first Cetti's Warbler of the year (NMT #133 and the first I have heard since I moved up to the north of England) . This nondescript brown warbler is much more frequently heard than seen - it skulks in reed-beds, shouting its loud song, which to me sounds like it is saying its own name several times at high volume - "CHETTI-CHETTI-CHETTI-CHEH". The bird, which is named after Francesco Cetti, an Italian zoologist, mathematician and Catholic priest, was unknown in Britain before 1972 but can now be found in many places in the southern half of England. It appears to be spreading north and has colonised Teesside in the last few years. As well as the Cetti's there were  six other warbler species singing at Bowesfield and various waterfowl on the ponds. A couple of House Martins which were feeding on aerial insects over the ponds along with some Sand Martins and Swallows took my year-list to 133.

From Bowesfield I headed (via the bike shop in Stockton for some replacement brake-blocks - all this cycling has been taking its toll), to the  Saltholme area  where two potential new NMT birds had been seen. The first was a Greenshank (#135) on Saltholme West Pool which another birder got me onto a couple of minutes after I got there. 

Greenshank is one of my favourite waders. This photo was taken by
Richard Prior in France but you can see some of my own photos in
the blog post I wrote about the species last year 
(Species Spotlight - Day 7 - Greenshank)

Carrying on for another mile or so I came to the place where some birders were already parked looking for my big target-bird of the day - although 'big' in this case only refers to how much I wanted to see it, as it was a Little Gull, which as its name suggests is tiny for a gull, being a similar size to a Blackbird (although with much longer wings). As soon as I got there the bird moved out into view and was spotted by one of the other birders through his scope. A few minutes later it flew around a bit and I got a really good view of it through my binoculars (I didn't have my scope or my camera with me as I wanted to travel light). Number 136 for my NMT list and my last new bird of the day.

While I was watching this delightful little bird showing off its distinctive charcoal-grey under-wings, contrasting almost white upper-wings and neat jet-black hood, its beauty and grace actually brought on a strong emotional reaction in me. I realised that I had an answer to a question which I have been asked many, many times over the years and never been able to answer - viz. "What is your favourite bird?". I now know that my favourite bird is definitely an adult summer-plumaged Little Gull.  As I didn't get any photos of the bird I will instead share the link to the Wikipedia page for the species ( which more than does it justice and includes some great photos of the breeding plumage. After reading that I hope you will think twice before saying "I hate seagulls, they're all evil".

Little Gull, like many birds, has very different plumages at different
stages in its life. The bird I saw yesterday was an adult in summer
plumage - with a black head and very light grey back and upperwings.
This bird, photographed in Geneva by Richard Prior, is a young bird in its 
1st-winter plumage - also beautiful though, in my opinion.

Many thanks to my old friend Rich Prior for letting me use his photos in my blog, in the absence of any of my own.

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