Friday, 12 November 2021

Celebrating freedom with some birding

Today, on my first day being allowed out of the house after having Covid, I went for a bike ride to Seal Sands, a wide bay/inlet at the point where Greatham Creek flows into the River Tees. The tide was still quite high when I got there and I spent quite a while, first in the bird-hide and then walking along the sea wall on the south side of the inlet - looking at various ducks and other water-birds, and chatting to a friendly employee of the nearby PD-ports who pulled up in his van as I was scanning the water with my scope. I thought he was going to tell me I couldn't be there but had actually stopped to tell me about another bird-hide I didn't know about and about how much he loves watching the seals.

I had been hoping to see a Long-tailed Duck which has been seen in the area a few times recently, but in the absence of that I enjoyed watching Red-breasted Mergansers - with 2 males occasionally doing a sort of half-hearted version of their slightly comical courtship display to the females. There were also a few Common Goldeneyes, a Great-crested Grebe (in its grey-and-white winter plumage) and some distant Shelducks. 

Red-breasted Mergansers (1 male and 5 females) 

A male Red-breasted Merganser. Despite its long thin bill (with tooth-like
serrations for catching fish), this is actually a kind of duck. It's one you are
unlikely ever to see on a park lake though.

Female Goldeneyes. Although much less flashy than the male (which I
featured in a blog back in March Saltholme & Seal Sands), this is still a
lovely little duck with it's chocolatey brown head.

After going as far as I was allowed along the sea wall I went down to the the hide on 'the Long Drag' (I love these local birders' names for sites, that mostly don't appear on any maps) to have my lunch while counting the waders on the mud - 11 Redshank, 2 Black-tailed Godwits and a Curlew. On the way back up to the road I looked through the Wigeon and Teal on the tidal pools (c50 and c10 respectively) but didn't see anything unusual among them. 

The wind was pretty strong by now, so after talking to two birders next to the seal-watching hide, who had just been photographing a flock of Twite (that sadly flew off as I approached), I headed back, into the wind, towards Saltholme and then (after a fairly fruitless exploration of the reserve (still no Merlin for the NMT-list 😞)) home.

Wednesday, 27 October 2021

Two arctic birds bring the NMT list to 171

On Saturday, after nearly three weeks without a new bird for the NMT list, I added two species to the list. 

The second one was, on the face of it more exciting, as it was a properly rare bird and a ‘lifer’ for me - meaning that I haven’t seen it anywhere in the world before. It was an Arctic Warbler that had apparently been at Hartlepool Headland since the 6th of October and over the last few days had started being seen regularly by large numbers of birders. The Arctic Warbler is a small, mostly green and white bird which looks quite similar to our Chiff-chaff and Willow Warbler, to which it is closely related, but unlike them has a long creamy-yellow stripe above the eye (the technical term for this is the supercilium) and a faint yellowish bar on the wing. It is also slightly bigger with a stouter bill. Arctic Warblers breed in northern birch forests, usually near water, across a vast area reaching from northern Scandinavia going east as far as western Alaska, and the whole population spends the winter in South-east Asia. If you look at a map you will see that one turning up on migration in Hartlepool is a bit lost - it should be a lot further east by now.


This one was in the sycamore trees just in front of the Borough Hall on Hartlepool Headland and being small and very mobile was not always easy to see. When I got there it had been seen about 15 minutes before and it took a couple of hours of waiting and searching by a scattered flock of fifty or more birders before it was refound  and gave great, although neck-breaking, views to most of the gathered crowd. This photo was taken by my friend Dave Barlow, the day before I was there, and is used with his permission.


Photo ⓒ Dave Barlow


The other new NMT bird was a Black-throated Diver (aka an Arctic Loon to North American birders), which had been (and still is, at least up to yesterday) hanging around near the HMS Trincomalee in Hartlepool Marina. I called in there on my way to the Headland. It took a bit of finding as there were no other birders there when I arrived and I didn’t know exactly where it had been being seen. However, eventually I got very close views and was even able to get some photographs (divers are usually bobbing up and down in the waves on the sea and so are often pretty hard to photograph). Of our three regular divers in the UK, Black-throated was the one I thought I might struggle to get on the NMT list for the year but in the end it is the one that I have seen most easily.



This bird is in its winter plumage and so looks, at first glance, quite similar to Red-throated and Great Northern Divers in winter. However, it is much darker than Red-throated, and without the uptilted bill, and is smaller and slimmer than a Great Northern. The white patch on the flanks, near the tail-end is often quite visible and is a useful feature for identifying a Black-throated Diver at a distance out to sea. If you want to see this bird in its beautiful summer plumage - with pearly grey head, chequered back and black throat patch - your best bet is to make a trip to northern Scotland in summer, where it breeds on small lochs in the highlands.




Tuesday, 5 October 2021

Birding by Bike and Boots - NMT Update

As it's been about a month and a half since I last wrote, and I've been on a lot of different trips and added seven birds to the NMT list, rather than write a blow-by-blow account of every birding trip I've been on, I'll just say something about each of the new birds, with a few other species thrown in occasionally when it seems appropriate.

When I last wrote, my Non-Motorised Transport bird list for 2021 stood at 162. If you remember it being 163, that is because, erm, I made a mistake and misidentified a young Sandwich Tern as a young Roseate Tern (resulting in a red face for me for a few days after it was pointed out to me). If you read that blog now you will see that I have amended it.

#163 Razorbill - 22nd of Aug. On a trip to South Gare I did a little bit of sea-watching at the end of the Gare. There were lots of Guillemots (hundreds) on the sea, a couple of Purple Sandpipers on the rocks (my first of the autumn), a single Common Scoter and another duck (that might have been a Scaup) flying north, and one or possibly two birds that I was pretty sure were juvenile Razorbills. With my confidence in my own ID skills slightly knocked having just been told a few minutes before about my tern mistake, I was doubting myself even after getting a photo which I would normally have been perfectly happy with. The bill doesn't have the white lines of the adults but it is still a different shape and the face is much 'messier' than that of a Guillemot (Common Murre for my North American readers). A month later there was a big (and very unusual) influx of Razorbills to inland locations including the River Tees at Stockton and Middlesbrough Dock where I was able to get some lovely pictures of an adult (see below). I wrote about this in an article on the website 'The Tees', which you can read here - Why did the Razorbill raise 'er bill?

A young Razorbill - South Gare, 22nd Aug 2021

Winter plumage (probably adult I think) Guillemot. South Gare
22nd Aug 2021

Adult winter-plumaged Razorbill - Middlesbrough Dock Basin
20th September 2021  

#164 Black Tern - 12th Sept. Black Tern is one of three small terns known collectively as the 'marsh terns'. The other two (White-winged Tern and Whiskered Tern) are both rare in Britain and Ireland although both have been seen at Saltholme in the last few years (in fact I wrote about seeing one of them, in this blog, in 2019 - Another Twitch - White-winged Tern at Saltholme). Although Black Terns have bred occasionally in the UK, they are much more commonly seen on migration (in spring and autumn) between their wintering grounds in Africa and their breeding sites in freshwater marshes in Scandinavia and Finland. They are seen every year around Teesside but seeing them can be a bit hit and miss so I was very pleased when I heard that three were hanging around at Saltholme just after I got back from my holiday in the south of England. They were flying around feeding actively on the main lake in the reserve and were almost the first bird I saw after I arrived there.

Unfortunately, this very dark and grainy picture was the only one I was
able to get of one of the 3 very mobile Black Terns at Saltholme on
the 12th ofSeptember. You can at least get an impression of a dark-
winged bird with a lighter tail and a distinctively-shaped black face mask

#165 Curlew Sandpiper - 12th Sept. After watching the Black Terns for a while I went down to the Saltholme Pools Hide and after much searching managed to get a view of a juvenile Curlew Sandpiper which had been being reported there. Like the Black Tern, Curlew Sandpipers are passage migrants in the UK, but they travel a lot further - between the Arctic tundra in northern Siberia, where they breed in summer, to their winter areas in central and southern Africa. They are quite similar to the much more common Dunlin, but more slender and longer-legged with a (hard to see) white rump patch (between the tail and the lower back). 

Juvenile Curlew Sandpiper, Saltholme, 12th Sept 2021. Adults in the
summer are much more striking, being mostly a dark brick red colour.

#166 Golden Plover - 12th Sept. While watching the Curlew Sandpiper I heard that some (European) Golden Plovers were on the causeway in the middle of the west pool but I couldn't get a good view so I went round to the other side to view them from the road and was able to get a few distant pictures. Although this species does breed on the North York Moors, not far from Middlesbrough (where I tried and failed to see it earlier in the year), it spends the winter in much larger numbers around the Tees estuary.

Golden Plovers at Saltholme, 12th Sept 2021. The bird in the middle
here is still showing some of the black which, in breeding plumage,
covers the face, breast and belly 
 

#167 Brent Goose - 25th Sept. Another trip to South Gare resulted in a couple more new birds for the list, with the first being 3 Brent Geese swimming along the shore at Bran Sands. This is our smallest UK goose and they are much more maritime than the other species that we get here. There are two subspecies found in Britain - the Pale-bellied and the Dark-bellied forms, with a third, the North American subspecies (known as Black Brant) being an occasional visitor to these shores. Both the Dark- and Pale-bellied forms can be seen in this area occasionally, with these ones being Pale-bellied

3 Pale-bellied Brent Geese with immature Herring Gulls,
Bran Sands, South Gare, 25th Sept 2021

#168 Red-throated Diver 25th Sept. Another short sea-watch from the end of the Gare yielded (among other things), a brief view of a single Red-throated Diver (unfortunately too brief and distant to get a photo). This may have been the same one that has subsequently been photographed several times just along the coastline in Redcar, but which, sadly can be seen on the pictures to have a scrap of fishing net tangled round its head and in its bill. 

#169 Little Stint 3rd October. After several failed attempts to see a Little Stint this year (including three trips to Redcar Beach for a bird that had been seen there), two days ago at Dorman's Pool (part of the Saltholme complex of pools) I finally got several quick views of one that has been moving around that area. The light was lovely and Dorman's was full of birds that evening, with large numbers of Wigeon, Lapwing, various species of gulls, several Dunlin, at least 8 Ruff (both male and female, showing the marked size difference between the two sexes of that species) and 1 juvenile Black-tailed Godwit. It was really enjoyable sitting there in the hide sifting through all the birds, taking pleasure from the common ones but also looking for anything unusual. The Little Stint kept appearing and disappearing but I managed to get a few poor shots, of which this was the best. You can at least see the short bill, and one of the white lines on the back ('braces') which show it to be a juvenile.

Little Stint, Dorman's Pool, 3rd Oct 2021