Monday, 16 August 2021

Seaton Snook, Seal Sands etc

Seaton Snook is a little spit of rocks and sand dunes projecting into the north side of the River Tees just inside the river mouth. South of it is a deep channel (Seaton Channel), with the mud flats of Seal Sands on the other side of the channel. North of it is saltmarsh and the wide sandy expanse of North Gare Beach. 

It is over-looked by the imposing bulk of the Hartlepool Nuclear Power Station but despite that it is a great place for birding - particularly waders, terns, skuas, divers, grebes and (in winter) Snow Buntings and Twite. For the past week or so several Arctic Skuas have been being seen regularly in the river mouth and even landing on the beach there. Large numbers of terns have also been roosting on the beach, including two species that I hadn't seen yet this year, so on Saturday I decided to cycle the 18.5km from my house (it's only 8km as the crow flies, but sadly I'm not a crow) in the hope of adding these and a few other species to my list for the year.

Although I was out of bed at 5am, I didn't leave the house until after 7 as I was checking the moth-trap which I had had running in my garden the night before (44 moths of 13 species - not a bad haul - all released unharmed of course). I went as directly as possible to Seaton Snook, stopping only briefly on Newport Bridge (3 Little Egrets in the mouth of Billingham Beck) and again at the side of the road in Saltholme and Greatham Creek (lots of birds but nothing very unusual). By the time I got to the Snook it was just after high tide and there were a few birders there already. Almost the first bird I saw was a dark shape with swept-back wings, dashing over the water just above the waves. Bingo! An Arctic Skua and number 158 for my NMT list. I was able to show it to a couple of fairly new birders who were there and we saw it, and 1 or 2 more, over the next ten minutes or so, as they chased terns, hoping to get them to drop any food they were carrying. This habit of robbing other birds of their food is called klepto-parasitism and all skuas do it, although the biggest ones, such as Great Skua (aka Bonxie) will also kill and eat birds such as Puffins and gulls. The smaller species of skua are called 'jaegers' in North America, with Arctic Skua being called Parasitic Jaeger. (For a bit more about skuas, you can read this blog I wrote back in 2018 - Sea-watching, Skuas and a fish-supper). 

After the skuas apparently all went down onto the water in the river mouth (and so became almost impossible to see) I concentrated on the many waders - plovers and sandpipers - that were running, and flying, to and fro across the sand. Most abundant were Ringed Plovers and Dunlin (probably a few hundred of each) but it was really nice to see 48 Knots, many of which were still in their brick-red, summer plumage which gives them their full name of Red Knot, although it's much more common in the UK to see them in their grey winter colours. 

I actually took this picture of a summer plumage Red Knot at Long Point
in Canada in June 2009, but the ones I saw on Saturday looked pretty
similar. As with many Arctic-breeding waders, the red colouration almost
certainly helps nesting Knots avoid the attentions of predators in the tundra,
where  reddish-brown colours dominate the vegetation 

After satisfying myself that there wasn't a Grey or Golden Plover or a Whimbrel to add to my list, I turned, with some trepidation to the large numbers of terns which were sitting on the sand a little too far away for my old scope to deal with easily. The Sandwich Terns were mostly pretty easy - at least 500 in different parts of the beach and on the Snook itself (I was actually looking from the beach) - large pale terns with dark bills and shaggy black crests. The smaller ones, however, were much trickier. Thankfully by this time there was quite a group of birders around me, one of whom had a much better scope than mine and he picked out an Arctic Tern (NMT #159), with its blood-red dagger-shaped bill distinguishing it from the Commons which have longer, thinner, more orangey bills. Later on we saw more of both species and I was able to get this photograph which shows (just about😊) those differences, along with the shorter legs and somewhat greyer underparts. 

I thought that was my last addition to the list at the Snook (having dipped on a Golden Plover that someone else saw, and having unsatisfactory views of what was probably a Whimbrel flying through). It wasn't until I was looking through the photos on my camera the next day that I saw a picture (below) that I had taken of a juvenile tern with very obvious dark edges to some of the wing feathers. After checking the books and consulting with a friend who is a much better birder than me I came to the conclusion that it was a juvenile Roseate Tern - one of our rarest breeding birds (and the rarest breeding seabird) in the UK. Although I didn't identify it in the field, according to the precedent I set with the Jack Snipe back in February  (see Saltholme, Greatham Creek, Bellingham Beck and a couple of surprises at home afterwards), I am counting it on my Non-motorised Transport year list (#160). [EDIT - everyone makes mistakes and both me and my friend made one in this case - it was actually a juvenile Sandwich Tern (see below)]

Juvenile Roseate Sandwich Tern, Seaton Snook. [Edit - The juvenile plumages
of the two species do look a bit similar, and very young Sandwich Terns do 
have  shorter bills than the adults (and all dark) but if I'd looked closer at
the books and other pictures online, as I should have done, I would have
 spotted my mistake.] 

The downside to examining the photos closely was that I realised that the golden blobs that I  saw amongst the Lapwings, Dunlins and Ringed Plovers at Greatham Creek on the way back home, weren't Golden Plovers as I had thought, and were in fact probably juvenile Dunlins. You win some you lose some.

However, I did add two more species to the list on the way home that really were what I thought they were - two lovely summer plumage Grey Plovers (showing why North Americans call them Black-bellied Plovers) which another birder showed me on Seal Sands, and a flock of 33 Barnacle Geese at Saltholme. Unlike the lone Barnacle Goose I saw on a farm pond earlier in the spring, I am counting these ones as there are part of a self-sustaining feral population breeding, probably in North Yorkshire. 

Barnacle Geese are slightly smaller than Canada Geese, to which
they are closely related. In their wild populations, in the Arctic, they
often nest on high cliff ledges. The name comes from an old belief
that they hatched out of Barnacles (as they were only seen in the
winter and then mysteriously disappeared)

As well as five new birds for the year list I saw several other species that I have not seen very many of this year including Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Common Sandpiper and Great Egret and lots of other common birds.

The next day, Sunday was grey and drizzly for much of the day but news of a Brent Goose (a bird which has eluded me so far this year) at Greatham Creek, got me out out the house and north of the Tees for the second day running. Unfortunately there was no sign of our smallest goose by the time I got to my destination but I did hear the distinctive calls of two Whimbrels flying overhead (NMT #163162). Despite almost certainly seeing this twice the day before I had decided not to count them as I didn't think the views I had were good enough, so I was really glad to add this relative of the Curlew to the list. Like the Curlew, the Whimbrel has a long downward-curved bill, but unlike that species it has dark stripes on the head and in most of the UK is only ever seen on migration in spring and autumn. 

One final bird that I'll give a 'shout out' to before finishing is the Black Swan that has been hanging round Saltholme, and associating with a Mute Swan, for quite some time now. This species is native to Australia and at any given time present in ones and twos in the UK, dotted around the country. They didn't find their way here naturally though and there is no self-sustaining population here so it doesn't count on the list. Nonetheless they are handsome birds, as this photo shows, and are worthy of a mention.

Black Swans are not entirely black - they have white feathers
in the wings which can be seen in flight

Monday, 26 July 2021

New species for my NMT list after a long break

Until yesterday it had been over a month since I last added any birds to my Non-motorised transport year list, despite several trips where I had thought I was certain to get some new species. However, last week the news was released that a pair of Mediterranean Gulls (known to birders as Med Gulls) had nested among the Black-headed Gulls and Common Terns at Saltholme RSPB reserve, and were feeding two well-grown chicks on an island just in front of one of the hides. Then on Friday a Caspian Tern (a really rare bird which would be a British 'tick' for me as well as a new NMT bird) appeared at Saltholme and kept coming back to the same place over the next couple of days.
I was unable to go birding on Friday and Saturday but Sunday was free so I planned a trip to Saltholme for that day, with the hope that I would get both species, plus maybe a few of the others that are still missing from my list. 

I left the house later than planned on Sunday morning and by the time I was getting near Saltholme the tern hadn't been seen for several hours so I went straight to the hide where the Med Gulls were. Immediately after I walked in the two birders that were already there suddenly started looking at a bird in the air, and snapping off pictures of it, so I raised my 'bins' and there was a lovely Mediterranean Gull - NMT #155. It was one of the parents (the chicks were still unable to fly) but, surprisingly, it wasn't a full adult. Instead of pure white flight feathers it had some black streaks on them, indicating that it was a 'second-summer' (or sub-adult) bird. Med Gulls don't reach full adult plumage until their third year, unlike the similar and slightly smaller Black-headed Gull (very common in the UK) which do it in two (larger gulls like Herring Gulls take 4 years). I rushed back to my bike (outside the hide) to get my camera but by the time I got back it had gone. Despite waiting for about 45 minutes it didn't come back, although I did get a quick glimpse of the two chicks before they vanished into the vegetation on the island.

I decided to go down to the Saltholme Pools Hide to see if the Caspian Tern was visible again and to see what else was around. Just before I had set off from home a group of six Ruddy Shelducks had been found in the same area that the tern had been frequenting so I was hoping to see them. Ruddy Shelduck is one of those tricky species that can be countable or not countable depending on the origins of the individual birds you see. As a native species they only just reach the very east of Europe and are unlikely to turn up naturally in the UK from these 'truly wild' populations. It is commonly kept in captivity and many solitary birds seen in the wild here are probably ones that have escaped from collections. However, there are some self-sustaining feral populations in different western European countries, which show some tendency to move around in the summer, so a group of six showing up at Saltholme at the end of July seems more likely to be from a feral breeding population (and therefore 'tickable') than to be birds which have escaped themselves from captivity (which wouldn't be). However, there was no sign of either Caspian Tern or Ruddy Shelducks so after a while I went back to the other hide to try and get some pictures of the Med Gulls.

When I walked into the hide I saw straight away that one of the Med Gull parents was there on the ground with the two chicks. It was the other parent this time, a full adult, with pure white wing tips and I was able to get lots of pictures of all three birds for the next twenty minutes or so. Mediterranean Gulls are quite similar looking to Black-headed Gulls but the adults and sub-adults have larger, redder bills and darker heads (properly black, unlike Black-headeds, which are really brown on the head). This one was starting to lose some of the black on the head, indicating that it is moulting into its winter plumage. I have never seen Med Gull chicks before so it was interesting to see that they look (to my eye) more like miniature Herring Gull chicks than like slightly larger Black-headed Gull chicks as you might expect.

When I had had my fill of watching the Med Gulls (and the Common Terns, Canada Geese and the opportunistic and predatory Lesser Black-backed Gull hoping for an easy meal in the form of a Common Tern chick), I moved on to the Wildlife Watchpoint where the was a Little Grebe with a cute baby, and then the Phil Stead hide where I had my lunch and watched a Grey Heron and a Little Egret fishing for their lunches.

As there had still been no reports of the Caspian Tern by the time I finished my lunch I cycled up the Seaton Carew Road to Cowpen Marsh, Greatham Creek and Seal Sands to see what I could find up there. What I found was a nice Great Egret with the Littles on Cowpen Marsh, Grey and Harbour Seals on Greatham Creek and a few Dunlins, Redshanks, Avocets and other waders scattered around the area.

Great Egret at Cowpen Marsh 

Harbour Seal (above) and Grey Seal (below). As well as the size difference
(Grey is quite a bit bigger) the shape of the head is an easy way to tell them
apart. I think Harbour looks a bit like a King Charles Spaniel and Grey looks
like an English Bull Terrier.

When I had exhausted the possibilities of the Seal Sands area I checked Twitter on my phone and saw that the Caspian Tern had just been found again at its 'usual' spot at Saltholme, viewable from the road, so I raced back to join the small group of birders which was gathered there. There was quite a heat haze and I was struggling to find it in my telescope (with a monopod instead of a tripod) so one of the other people let me look through her scope. There it was - the world's largest tern, with its massive red bill, and behind it, on the other side of the lake, were two of the six Ruddy Shelducks. NMT #156 and 157 in the same scope view.

The Caspian Tern, which is not much smaller than a Herring Gull, and much larger than all the other terns you are likely to see in the UK, is found in five continents (it doesn't reach South America or Antarctica) and I have seen it in three of them. In Europe it is usually restricted to a few scattered areas in different parts of the continent and in the UK it is a fairly rare bird with about five being seen in most years. The photos below are a bit blurry because of the heat haze but you can see the large red bill and get an impression of a large bird, next to the Black-headed Gulls it was sitting with.

Tuesday, 20 July 2021

A visit from a little Urchin (Mrs. or Mr. Tiggywinkle)

When we moved into our house in 2017 the back garden had very little in it that was green, apart from one very large Leylandii tree. Although it was quite a good sized garden, all the places where there might have been lawns, vegetable plots, shrubberies or flower-beds were covered in plastic sheeting with several tons of gravel on top and the rest was concrete or wooden decking.

Since then we've been gradually removing the gravel and the plastic and replacing it with greenery of one sort or another. We've now got two patches of lawn (mowed very infrequently and with some nice wildflowers in), a flowerbed, a small herb garden, a little raised veg bed and my 'wild area' complete with a (rather unusual) pond (see The Making of a Pond for more about the pond).

Since then we've seen lots of birds (including the Grey Wagtail mentioned in the blog about the pond), 73 species of moth and butterflies including Red Admiral and Small Copper. 

However, one thing I was pretty certain we were never going to see was Hedgehogs - we're in an area of mostly terraced houses with no gardens and moreover, our garden has high brick walls around most of it, and a busy road at the front.

So imagine my surprise when Sue and I were sitting outside on Sunday evening, enjoying a beer in the gathering dusk, and Sue suddenly said 'There's a Hedgehog'. It took me a few seconds to register what she was talking about as she surely couldn't be talking about an actual hedgehog in our actual garden. 

However, she was, and there sitting under the old wooden garden table on one of the remaining areas of gravel, was a Hedgehog. She or he had obviously come in from the front, through the gap under the fence  (which was just there by chance as we didn't deliberately put a gap in when we got the fence made). It stayed there for a few minutes and then shuffled off - we took our eyes off it and couldn't find it again. 

Mister or Mrs Tiggywinkle? - You can't tell easily from just looking at them

Back in April, Emma Walker, a local hedgehog enthusiast (she doesn't like being called an expert, although compared with me she is one),  had written this article (Hedgehogs in Spring) for The Tees Online website, and I remembered that she had mentioned having a special feeding-station in her garden for hedgehogs. 

One of Emma's Hedgehog visitors (photo by Emma Walker)

So yesterday I spent several hours in the afternoon constructing a Hedgehog Restaurant out of some spare wood we had lying around. I have to say that I am quite pleased with the results.

Me with the Black & Decker Jigsaw which made this
actually quite an easy job to do

Stage 1 completed - the frame with a nice little arched doorway

Stage 2 - the baffle is now in place to stop cats being
able to get at the food

Stage 3 - the lid. Just a single sheet of ply-wood held on by three strips of
rubber cut from an old pair of wellies

And what's on the menu - chef's specially selected dry catfood, with
a locally grown wine (okay - it's water) to wash it down

And the final touch - a heavy flower pot on the lid to stop cats being
able to just lift up the lid

The food dish this morning - showing clear evidence of having been
nibbled by something - hopefully a Hedgehog

And now you might be wondering about the slightly cryptic title of this blog-post. Let me explain - 'Urchin' is one of the old country-names that have been used for Hedgehogs in various parts of the UK and Ireland (others being Furze-pig and Hedge-pig). This also explains the origins of the name of the spiky seashore creature called the Sea Urchin. Our species, the European Hedgehog is actually one of 17 species in five different genera which are native to different parts of Europe, Asia and Africa. They are unrelated to the superficially similar Porcupines (which are rodents) and Echidnas (which are Monotromes - bizarre egg-laying mammals related to Duck-billed Platypuses).