Wednesday, 19 December 2018

More about gulls- and a really good book

After I wrote my blog-post about 'seagulls' last week ("Seagulls" and another green area in North Ormesby) a couple of comments by friends on Facebook made me realise that I still had a bit of work to do to convince people that gulls are anything other than flying nuisances that exist to cause annoyance for humans.

Then yesterday, completely unconnected, I picked up a book I started reading earlier in the year and hadn't quite finished. It is called Field Notes from a Hidden City - An Urban Nature Diary by Esther Woolfson (and incidentally it is one of the things that inspired me to start writing this blog). Esther Woolfson lives in Aberdeen, in the North of Scotland and this is a lovely book, tracing the course of a year and describing affectionately, but also scientifically, some of the creatures, plants and wild places that she encounters in and around the city and even in her house.
Just by chance (it's a few months since I last put it down and I couldn't remember where I was up to), my bookmark was in the middle of a passage about urban gulls and how unjustly vilified they are. Rather than try and paraphrase it I am going to quote sections of the entry from the 11th of August (page 313-322).

On the playing field of a school near the centre of town, a collection of infant gulls is resting on the grass, twenty or so of them, their parents lying nearby, or padding around them in the careful way they do. A row of soft-feathered, grey-brown chicks stands neatly along the edge of the roof of an old garage on the periphery of the field, lined up one by one on the moss-covered grooves… I watch them for a while, this peaceable, domestic scene, adults and chicks dotting the grass, pursuing their social, complicated lives.
This is gull season, even more than the other seasons in this sea-edge town of harbour and fish-houses and long-term city-gull residences. All year round, gulls and their young are everywhere, feeding, flying, calling. The sight and sound of them are as much a part of the place as the stone or air but now is the culmination of the months of gull preparation for nesting, egg-laying and hatching, months during which there have been calls from rooftops, imperious white heads peering from among chimneys; weeks where the fledglings were being fed in the nest.
Although the gulls’ move inland has been fairly recent in other places, Aberdeen’s gulls are long-time residents, nesting on city roofs for the past fifty years at least. Among the reasons we know of for gulls becoming more urban are the usual ones, the ones we caused ourselves. Following the introduction of the Clean Air Act of 1956, prohibiting the burning of waste, gulls began to feed at landfill sites. In the years since, as we’ve increasingly depleted the life of the seas and filled the streets of our towns and cities with edible rubbish of every sort, gulls have moved into cities to feed on still more of the things we’ve left behind.
Most commonly, the gulls are Herring Gulls, Larus argentatus, the birds referred to dismissively, often contemptuously, together with every other large, white-and-grey coastal bird as ‘seagulls’… When I think about the word and the way it’s used, I regret that so many people in urban areas where gull numbers are increasing appear to have so little time or sympathy for these remarkable birds. It seems ironic too that a single word seagull should be used of one of the most complex families of birds to be found on earth. (pages 314-5)
Woolfson goes on to talk about the work of Niko Tinbergen, a Dutch zoologist, who spent a lifetime studying the behaviour and ecology of Herring Gulls. Although I've been hearing about Tinbergen since I was at university, to my shame I have never read his great work The Herring Gull's World: A Study of the Social Behaviour of Birds, but after reading about it here, it is now on my list of books I have to read very soon.

Visible, audible, omnipresent, drifting endlessly in the sky above us, L. argentatus is another of the ‘urban exploiters’ who seem numerous, safe in their very existence, but who aren’t; birds whose numbers have been falling until now they occupy their own place on the ‘red list’ of endangered species in the UK.

In a newspaper article, someone complains of the sound of gulls in London, on the grounds that they ‘squawk’. ‘Squawk?’ Tinbergen writes: ‘The voice of the herring gull is wonderfully melodious…’ and I agree, it is. There are few sounds as evocative, as stirring, as the profound plaintive beauty of their calls. Tinbergen enumerates the calls of Larus argentatus: call-note, charge call, trumpeting call, mew call, alarm call, ‘choking’ and the sounds made during courtship and mating. The ‘mew’ call, the one most associated with desolation and tristesse, the call that seems to be the summation of loneliness and sorrow is, Tinbergen says, nothing at all to do with sadness, but instead ‘indicates breeding activity, with an emphasis on the friendly attitude towards mate, territory, nest and young’. (page 317)

Incidentally, other urban exploiters who seem to be numerous and free from danger include our two most archetypal city birds - the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) and the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), both of which, along with the Herring Gull,  are on the most recent version of the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern (Birds of Conservation Concern 4), because of how steeply their numbers have dropped in the UK in recent decades. 

Field Notes From a Hidden City - An Urban Nature Diary by Esther Woolfson (2013) is published by Granta Publications and is still available from bookshops (you'll probably have to order it) or online.

The Herring Gull's World: A Study of the Social Behaviour of Birds by Niko Tinbergen (1953) was published by New Naturalist, with the most recent edition being from 1990. 

[NOTE - The Clean Air Act of 1956 was introduced following London's Great Smog of 1952, which, according to government estimates was the direct cause of at least 4000 (possibly up to 10,000) deaths]

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Weeds and wildflowers revisited

During my recent visit to Henry Street Rec (see Seagulls and another green area in North Ormesby )
I photographed a couple of undistinguished-looking little plants which most people would classify as weeds but which I think are worth looking at nonetheless.

The first, Common Mouse-ear (Cerastium fontanum) was growing at the side of the main path near the entrance on Henry Street. This is one of a group of small, white-flowered plants in the family Caryophyllaceae (the Campion family) which fill some botanists with dread but which I really love. In early spring I can often be found with my head down and my bum in the air looking at one or other of these little beauties with a hand-lens (for some reason, some people think this is rather eccentric behaviour).  
Sadly lacking its pretty little white flowers at this time of year, Common Mouse-ear  may get  its name
from the shape of its leaves. A single plant can produce as many as 6.500 seeds.

The other plant, Charlock (Sinapis arvensis) is one of the many yellow-flowered plants in the Cabbage family (Brassicaceae). It can be a troublesome weed of arable crops and looks quite similar to Black Mustard (Brassica nigra) from which we get the mustard seeds that we use in cooking.

Charlock - Sinapis arvensis

"Seagulls" and another green area in North Ormesby

Seagulls are a bit like grass. That may sound like an odd statement but the thing they have in common is that a lot of people think that there is one thing called grass and one thing called a seagull.
In fact there are  about fifty species of gull in the world of which seven are common in the UK (and many more that can be seen here more infrequently) while grasses are even more diverse with about 12,000 different species worldwide of which over 200 have been found growing wild in the UK. I might talk more about grasses (which I think are amazing) in a future blog but gulls are my main focus today.
A couple of weeks ago I visited a small park near to my house and took some photos of what I found there. The park is called Henry Street Rec ('Rec' is short for Recreation Ground) and it is just around the corner from my house. I recently learned a bit about the history of the  Rec. This part of North Ormesby used to be a very popular place to live, with houses on McBean Street, which faces directly onto the park, being the most expensive in Doggy. Then at some point (I haven't been able to find out exactly when - if you know, please leave a comment below) toxic waste was found under the surface of the field and, overnight, fences went up around the park with "Hazardous Waste" signs stuck to them and nobody was allowed in. The toxic material seems to have been left over from some industrial works that used to be on the site. This situation lasted for a long time and nobody wanted to live on McBean Street, or the nearby roads, anymore. Local people say that it caused the death of North Ormesby and made it into an undesirable area.
The hazardous material was eventually cleared away and the park restored but many people still think of it as 'the toxic site', years after it has been turned back into a lovely open space with a wide area of mown grass as well as some wilder areas with trees, bushes and long grass,

One of the first things I saw was a Common Gull, which was being very faithful to one small patch of grass next to the St Alphonsus Primary School field. The Common Gull, despite what you might think, is not our most numerous gull and there are some authorities that say that it gets its name from the commons, or public grazing land, where it could be seen in the winter. This medium-sized gull has a yellow-green bill and legs and a grey back. Its scientific name, Larus canus, means Grey Gull.

The 18th Century English naturalist John Ray suggested that this bird should actually be called the 'uncommon gull', although it is now a frequent sight on school playing fields in the winter - often far from the sea
Very near to the Common Gull, but unfortunately not close enough to get both species in one picture, were a couple of Herring Gulls. This is probably the species that most people are thinking of when they talk about 'seagulls'. It is fairly similar looking to a Common Gull but is a larger bird, with a lighter grey back and it has a red spot on its beak. 

The Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) is part of a very complicated group of
closely related species found across the whole northern part of the globe
At this point a Lesser Black-backed Gull flew overhead, and I managed to get an in-flight photo of it. As its name suggests this species has dark wings and back but is not as big as its relative, the Great Black-backed Gull.
The dark grey/black of the upper wings can just be seen on this Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) . To be absolutely certain that this was not a Great Black-back I would like to see its yellow legs and feet
The fourth gull species that I saw at Henry Street Rec that day was Black-headed Gull. This small gull really has a chocolate-brown hood, rather than a truly black head, and only during the breeding season at that. For most of the year it has a white head with a greyish smudge behind the eye. It has a red bill with a black tip, and reddish legs. I didn't manage to get a picture of any of the 'Black-heads' I saw on that day.

These four species are the ones you are most likely to see in towns all over the UK, and none of them is actually called a seagull. In fact there is no species called a seagull anywhere in the world, unless you are using the scientific names, in which case the Great Black-backed Gull, whose name Larus marinus literally means 'gull of the sea' is the bird you are looking for. This is the largest gull in the world and can be told from the Lesser Black-back by its jet black, rather than dark grey, back and wings, and by its pink legs. Although it can be found inland it is much more commonly seen at the coast.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

North Ormesby Nature - Wilkie's Field

I was talking last week to a guy who grew up in North Ormesby (or Doggy, as it is called by local people) and he was telling me about some of the places he used to go and play when he was a kid.

One of these, Wilkie's Field (I'm not sure about the spelling), is about 200 metres from my house. The chap I was talking to, who was a similar age to me, told me that the name came from a Mr Wilkie who gave it to the people of North Ormesby. I have not been able to find anything out about who Mr Wilkie was or when and why he made this generous gift, so if anyone reading this knows more, please leave a comment below.

On the first sunny day after this I went to have a look at Mr Wilkie's legacy. It is a small (slightly over 1 hectare (1ha=100m x 100m)) area of mown grass with trees around three sides and a nice patch of fairly recently planted woodland in the southern half. The Ormesby Beck flows northwards on the western side and there is an old-looking stone wall (very overgrown with brambles) separating it from the beck. A beck, by the way, is a small to medium-sized stream in many parts of the north of England - including Middlesbrough which has several of them.

Although Wilkie's field is no Maasai Mara, and is unlikely to have any rare species of plant or animal, it is a nice little patch of green which, I suspect, is not visited by all that many people. This is probably mainly because of where it is - hidden away, behind a pub and a bingo hall, with the only access points being down a small road of fairly posh houses, or through two car parks.

Wilkie's Field from above. The blue line is the Ormesby Beck 

View from the north-west corner looking east towards the bingo hall
View from same place looking south-east

It got me thinking of my own childhood and of Lewis's Field. This was a similar area of grass and trees behind the house that I grew up in in Liverpool. I used to play there with my friend Gavin, as did countless other kids of my generation and before. It was where I saw my first Tawny Owl. It was also where my brother Simon and I met the lady who led the local Cub Scouts pack (4th Allerton, Drake Pack) which led to many happy (mostly) years for both of us in the Cubs and then the Sea Scouts, which I believe has been an important part of making me who I am now. I have lovely memories of hiding in the long grass (which at that time wasn't being mown by a cash-strapped Liverpool City Council), walking along the top of the high brick wall which ran along one side and playing in what remained of a burned-out sports pavilion (from when it was a sports field owned by Lewis's department store).

It seemed enormous to me when I was in primary school, but in fact, using the amazing free-to access technology that we all have at our fingertips now, I can see that  it was actually pretty small and only slightly larger than Wilkie's Field (13,923 sq. metres compared with 12,150 sq metres for Wilkie's Field).

You may have noticed that I am talking about Lewis's Field in the past tense. This is not just because it was forty years ago that I used to play there, but because Lewis's Field is now covered in houses. Sometime around 1980 or '81, when I was starting in secondary school, the council sold it off to a developer and with surprising rapidity, it disappeared.

Reminiscing about my childhood haunts has made me realise that we need to value what we have got, and to fight for it if we want to be sure of keeping it. By the time I was playing there, Lewis's Field was probably already doomed - it hadn't been maintained for some years, the tennis courts were long gone,  the former pavilion was a hazardous eye-sore full of broken glass and goodness knows what else, the wall I walked along was old and crumbling, and fewer and fewer children were actually using it. The campaign to save it (during which our teachers encouraged us to go there to play (on the day when councillors were coming to assess how well used it was)) was too little, too late and its demise was inevitable.

Last week, at a series of meetings over three days, about how we can make North Ormesby better, several people said that we needed more green places for children to play in. I went home on the first night and after looking at Google Earth for a while, I came to the realisation that there is actually quite a lot of greenery, from mown parks to more wild semi-natural spaces, within a few minutes walk of every house in Doggy. The problem is that people don't know about them, or they do know but in their heads those places are far away and 'unsafe' and not places they would think of taking their children or encouraging them to go on their own.

When I was making dens in the undergrowth on the edge of Lewis's Field it was still normal for kids to play out in any patch of rough ground, climb trees and cycle for miles. I know the world has changed, that roads are busier, people are much more aware of dangers that were in fact always there and kids have many more things to occupy them at home than when I was young. In many ways, the world (at least for children growing up in urban Britain) is a much, much better and safer place than it was forty years ago, but I think there is a real danger that if we insulate our children, and ourselves, from the natural world, and don't allow them to get their hands dirty, to pick blackberries, climb trees and make dens in the undergrowth they will grow up immeasurably poorer (while seeming richer, perhaps) than they might have done and they won't even know what they have lost.

                                           Some more pictures from Wilkie's Field

The planted woodland in the middle of the field - it contains several
native tree species including Ash, Silver Birch and Hazel
Hazel (Corylus avellana) coppice 'stools'. There have been many traditional uses for Hazel
including fencing, basket making and boat-building (plus the nuts which are
nice to eat, of course). Maybe we'll see some of those crafts being practiced again in
North Ormesby one day.
The tree in the middle is an Ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior), by the way 
A clump of Hard Rush (Juncus inflexus). Its presence on the southern edge of the
field might indicate that it gets a bit boggy at certain times of year
Although much of the field is very species-poor municipal grassland, there are some patches, such as this one, with a few common wildflower species. In spring and summer this spot will be white, yellow, purple and yellow-brown with the flowers of White Clover (Trifolium repens), Daisies (Bellis perennis), Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus repens), Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) and Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata). To some gardeners these would all be considered weeds but to me, especially in the absence of rarer or more interesting wildflowers, they are a welcome sight and will provide nectar for the insects that pollinate them.

Friday, 23 November 2018

If humans disappeared overnight

On my way home from dropping Sue at work this morning I was looking at all the houses, streets and factories and thinking about how different the place must look compared to what it had been like before humans came along. Then I got to thinking about what would happen if humans disappeared overnight - how long would it take before a hypothetical alien visitor couldn't tell that we had ever existed? At first I looked at the buildings and thought, "they're pretty solid. The shapes of those will surely be around for ages". And similarly with roads - the flat tarmac surface looks pretty impenetrable. But then I looked at the weeds growing in the cracks in the pavement and in the tarmac of poorly maintained roads, and also remembered what I had read and seen on telly about Roman cities in the UK (and this is true for ancient ruins everywhere) - all over the south of England there were sturdy villas, temples and civic buildings made by the Romans but by our times many of them had completely disappeared and we wouldn't know about them if archaeologists hadn't discovered them, often covered by quite deep layers of soil which must have accrued since the Romans left in 410AD.

I started thinking then about what the world, or just this little bit of it, would look like after 10 years, 100 years, a million years etc. I imagined forest taking over again, natural ecosystems re-establishing themselves in our cities, houses collapsing quite quickly once the roofs fell in and maybe after a few hundred years our towns and cities, our fields and our roads would be, on a quick inspection anyway, as if we had never existed. And after a million years? How hard would a visiting archaeologist have to look to see any trace of human civilisation?

When I got home I did a search on the internet and quickly discovered (unsurprisingly) that I am not the first person to do this 'thought experiment'. One of the first things that came up when I put in the search terms "If humans disappeared from earth" was this very interesting little video with the title "What would happen if humans suddenly disappeared?" Watching it I realised that I had not thought about what would happen to factories, nuclear power plants, sewage treatment works and garbage facilities if the power went off - the short-term impacts could be quite severe for the plants and animals that we left behind. Or maybe they wouldn't, we just don't know. I also hadn't thought about what would happen in the space around our planet - apparently all our man-made satellites would fairly quickly start to fall back to earth and burn up on re-entry to the atmosphere. After only three years, without humans to maintain it and nudge it back into a stable orbit every now and then,  this would happen to the International Space Station.

So here's the link for the film - it's less than ten minutes long but it's very thought provoking.

So, have you watched it? What did you think of it? 

Although it did mention potentially lasting human impacts such as nuclear waste, the Pacific Garbage Patch and the possibility of a chemical nuclear winter, there was no reference to the effect we have had on the atmosphere by the amount of CO2 we have put into it over the last 200 years. I suppose that if a chemical nuclear winter and/or a new ice age happened the current climate chaos that we have unleashed would pale into insignificance.

Another thing that wasn't talked about was the evolution of new species, not only to fill the gaps left by all the species that we have driven into extinction, but also to occupy the new niches that our existence has created - such as the cities, of course but also nuclear waste dumps, garbage-filled seas and (maybe) an ice-free Arctic. 

Friday, 12 October 2018

Birding on a Blustery Day - and a Bonus

I was at South Gare at first light this morning, hoping to find newly arrived migrants (birds, not people, that is) that might have been driven to seek shelter from the strong southerly winds and rain.

I spent a good four hours looking in all the main places where birds are seen at the gare (the Bomb Hole, the Tea Bushes, Cabin Rocks, Shrike Bushes, the Quarries etc)  - most of which are picturesquely but inaccurately named and many of which I have only just learned the precise locations of. It was so windy that in many cases my first fleeting view of a bird was also my last one, but I still managed to identify several, including at least one (possibly two or three) Ring Ouzels, several Bramblings in flight and a constant trickle of Redwings coming off the sea and flying inland.

The Ring Ouzel is a bird in the thrush family and looks very like our common Blackbird, except that the males have a large white crescent on their chests. They breed in mountains and upland moors in Britain and Scandinavia, as well as high mountains further south, and spend the winter in various places around the Mediterranean. The one I saw today, as well many others that have been seen along the east coast in the last couple of days, are likely to be birds that bred in Scandinavia and have just flown across the North Sea. It's a similar picture for Redwings (another member of the thrush family) and Bramblings (a finch closely related to the Chaffinch but with orangey colouration and a different call) - both these species breed in northern Europe and spend the winter further south.

As well as meeting some nice birds I also met some nice birders and got to know couple of the South Gare regulars, including one who has been birding there for 20 years, and another who grew up locally, used to go there as a child and has recently moved back to Redcar after many years away. I have found it hard up to this point to get to know the local birders much (except for the bird-ringers) and particularly at South Gare, so it felt like a bit of a breakthrough today. They were both very informative about the best places to look for birds, and the exact locations of the different spots. I've now got them all marked on Google Earth on my computer (the spots, not the birders).

And the bonus...

When I got home, around lunchtime, having thought that my birding was over for the day, I looked on the local bird club website and saw that a Spotted Sandpiper, normally only found in the Americas, had been seen on the beach at Marske, about five miles along the coast from where I had been all morning. By now it was pouring rain and so I decided to have lunch first and then headed out again to try and get a new bird for my British list (I've seen them in the USA and Canada before). On getting out of the car at Marske I was almost blown off my feet by the wind but I persevered and headed to the group of people and telescopes that I could see down on the beach. It was a refreshing change to be able to 'get onto' the bird almost as soon as I arrived (as you will know if you've read my previous blog about twitching a Franklin's Gull, it doesn't always happen like that) and I watched it through my scope at close range for about twenty minutes, battling with the wind to stay on my feet the whole time - as was the bird which  was feeding among the pebbles at the edge of the beach and it was really something, the way it was being blown around but just carrying on catching small insects. After I'd really studied it for a while I decided to risk getting my camera wet (it was still raining moderately) and managed to get a few photos - I wasn't expecting to be able to, given the wind, but the bird being so close made it possible.

The Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularia - the second bit means 'spotted') is closely related to, and very similar to, the Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleuca) which is found in many watery habitats around Britain and is a familiar sight to most British birders. It gets its name from the big bold spots all over the breast of the adults in breeding plumage. However, this one was a juvenile, hatched this year, and so didn't have the spots and in fact looked very like a juvenile Common Sandpiper, but with a slightly shorter tail relative to the length of the wings.

The Spotted Sandpiper I saw today is the 333rd species of bird that I have seen in the UK or Ireland.

Spotted Sandpiper - as well as the shorter tail, the smudge on the side of the breast
is greyer and more uniform in Spotted than it is in Common Sandpiper

The pale barring on the edge of the wing - just about visible in this photo -
shows that this  is a juvenile and not a winter plumage adult

Friday, 28 September 2018

Coatham Marsh and an Invasive Aquatic Plant

Last Friday I visited Coatham Marsh - a nature reserve managed by the Tees Valley Wildlife Trust. It is an area of open water, reed-beds, and brownfield land situated just back from the coast between Redcar and the South Gare.
This is the approximate outline of Coatham Marsh Nature Reserve
- I don't know where the exact boundaries are

This wasn't the first time I had been there but on previous occasions I had mostly stayed near the entrance, where the main ponds can be viewed fairly easily. This time I explored a bit further, and even crossed the railway line (on a footbridge - I didn't risk getting a £1000 fine for trespassing on the railway).

Most of the birds I saw were on the two ponds nearest the entrance and on the channel that runs through the middle of the reserve from west to east - 66 Gadwall and 5 Shoveler (two kinds of duck), plus a few Coots, Moorhens, Little Grebe, Mute Swans and a Grey Heron. Away from the watery habitats are several little hills, which are actually mounds of slag from the furnaces of the nearby steelworks. I can imagine that these are botanically quite interesting during the spring and summer, but I was there a little late in the season to see many of the plant species that flower there (including a few species of orchids, apparently). I'm already planning a few visits next year, when I might also see (and hear) some of the other birds that breed there - including Reed and Sedge Warblers.

The channel in the middle of the reserve - apparently it's called a 'fleet'.
Some of the reed-beds can be seen behind it
One thing that I was quite sad to see was a large amount of a plant species called Floating Pennywort (Hydrocotyle ranunculoides). This is an aquatic species which is native to North and South America and was brought to the UK as an ornamental species for aquaria and garden ponds - from these it escaped into the wild - possibly by small fragments of the plant being carried by wild birds. It was first seen in the wild in the UK in 1990 in Essex and from there it has spread across south-east England and the Midlands, with small pockets in other parts of the country (including Coatham Marsh unfortunately). It is one of five species of aquatic plants that were banned from sale in the UK in 2014 because of their negative effects on native habitats and species.

Floating Pennywort, unlike its close relative, the native Marsh Pennywort (Hydrocotyle vulgaris), forms dense mats of vegetation floating on the surface of the water in canals, ditches and slow-moving rivers - the negative effects of the species in the UK include changing the oxygen availability in the water, threatening populations of fish and invertebrates, blocking up drainage systems and out-competing the native plant species. For more information on it, visit this website -

Floating Pennywort

And a closer view

Looking west from one of the bridges across the central 'fleet'
The mass of pale-green vegetation at the water's edge is all Floating Pennywort

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Pomarine Skua - from bogey-bird to latest lifer

On Monday I went out to South Gare for my second attempt to see a Pom Skua that has been hanging around the mouth of the Tees for over a week now (it's a real one this time - the previous one was re-idenitifed as an Arctic Skua on examination of photographs by experts).
This time, as I walked along the pier at the end of the Gare, at about half eight in the morning, almost the first bird I saw, flying towards me and then settling on the sea about twenty feet from me, was my target bird. I watched it for about 20 minutes there, then it flew back towards the end of the pier and settled on the water again (it doesn't seem right to say 'landed on the sea') and I watched it for about another hour, along with several other birders, flying occasionally and allowing me to get some reasonable pictures of it. I eventually had to leave it so that I could go and have my penultimate session of radiotherapy.

Then yesterday (Wednesday) I took two friends birding on the north side of the Tees and we went to North Gare (the shorter pier opposite the South Gare), and again, almost the first bird we saw as we walked along the pier was the same Pomarine Skua flying over our heads this time and then circling round a few times, allowing my friend to get some pictures of it.
Until this week, Pom Skua has been one of my biggest 'bogey-birds' - i.e. a bird that has eluded me despite forty years of birding and many attempts to see it.

The photos below were all taken by me on Monday - I didn't take any yesterday. The ones on the water show the spoon-shaped tail-feathers quite well, while the ones in flight show that the ends of the central tail-feathers (the spoons) are actually broken off. The yellow colouration on the neck and also the dark breast-band are visible on some of the photos. The other bird in one of the photos is a young Herring Gull and shows the size of the Pom well (almost the same size as a Herring Gull - in other words, bigger than an Arctic Skua would be.)

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Radiotherapy - a patient’s perspective

A month ago I wrote about the experience of having my pre-radiotherapy ‘planning scan’ and the three little tattoos that came with it [My First Tattoo]. I have now nearly finished my radiotherapy and it is about time I wrote something about it [I should say at this point that this post is the first one that I am writing in response to a request - one of the radiographers that has been doing my radiotherapy saw last month’s post and liked it, and asked if I was writing anything about the experience of having the treatment].
Before you have radiotherapy the doctors decide what total dose of radiation they want you to have. This is then divided into a number of smaller doses, called fractions, to allow the non-cancerous cells to recover between the treatments. In my case it was decided that I would have a relatively small dose, so I am only having fifteen fractions, rather than twenty-five or even more, as some of the other patients I met were having. The radiotherapy department is only open Monday to Friday and so I have been going in to the hospital (James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough) every weekday since the middle of August and will have my last two fractions on Monday and Tuesday this week.

I had been warned that it might make me very tired and also result in other unpleasant symptoms such as soreness of the skin and damage to my oesophagus (my gullet) which would possibly make swallowing difficult. This last one was because of the location of my cancer - in the middle of my chest right next to my oesophagus. It wouldn't be the same for everyone having radiotherapy and there might well be different symptoms that other people get when the treatment is to different parts of their bodies. However, because I was having a relatively low dose I was told that I might not get any of these symptoms very badly.

On the first day of treatment, before the actual radiotherapy happened, my wife and I were brought into a room for a chat with one of the radiographers, and a radiography student, who told me again about the process and the possible side effects and answered any questions we had. Then, after a short wait I went through to the room where the machine is that would be used for all my treatments. A quick google search for ‘radiotherapy machine’ will show you that there are many different designs of machines but the one being used for my treatment looks almost identical to the one in the picture below (I was allowed to take a picture of 'my one' but I am not allowed to use that picture in social media or my blog).

Once in the room I got acquainted again with the ‘bean-bag body mould’ that they made for me when I had my planning scan. It was fastened to the bed and, once I had taken the clothes off my top half, I got onto the bed and wriggled until I fitted inside the mould, lying down with my arms stretched back horizontally above my head. Then they had to get me into exactly the right position, which is where the tattoos came into play. As I am lying down when they do this it is hard (impossible actually) for me to see what is going on, but what I think happens is that they use beams of light to get me lined up properly - all I can hear is various numbers being called out (e.g. “17.1, 69.3” and “I’m 2 millimetres supe on the head” or “4mm post on the patient”) and various other mysterious things of this sort. If I am slightly out of position they might ask me to shuffle up or down a couple of millimetres or else they might just push my body down slightly on one side (by the way - any radiographers reading this - you are all brilliant and all really lovely but it would really nice if you could somehow warm up your hands before this bit - brrr).

Once they have got me properly lined up, the machine springs to life and does a couple of turns around me (presumably to check that everything is okay) and then the radiotherapy staff all leave the room for about ten minutes while the machine executes a pre-programmed dance around my body. Until a couple of days ago I thought that it was different every time, but apparently it is exactly the same each time - but from my point of view some treatments seem longer than others.

While the treatment is going on I don’t feel anything - just as you don’t feel anything when you have an X-ray (and this is basically just an extra-strength X-ray), but as I have to lie completely still it can get a little uncomfortable and the urge to scratch my face or rub an itch on my nose can get almost unbearable. It is probably a good tool for meditation. The room that I have my treatment in has a large picture of Whitby harbour and abbey on the ceiling so I can distract myself by counting the windows on the buildings or focussing on one point on the abbey - I use different tricks each time. Also, there is usually some music playing so that can also be helpful - although once or twice the song has been something that I really want to tap my foot along with, and it has been hard to lie absolutely still. After about ten minutes the radiographers come back in and tell me that  can sit up. Then I get my shirt back on and go home until the next time. 

I have so far got off very lightly with the potential side-effects. I have been using moisturiser on the skin of my chest (but not as often as I was told I ought to) and I haven’t had any soreness or redness of the skin. Likewise, I have not noticed any difficulty swallowing that might indicate damage to my gullet. My wife thinks that I am a bit more tired since having the radiotherapy but I haven’t really noticed it and it’s certainly nothing like as bad as I was expecting it to be. As I am nearly at the end of the treatment I think I may get away with it altogether, but I have been warned that it might take me up to six weeks to get back to normal, so it is possible that I may get some of the side effects (and particularly the tiredness) after the treatment is finished.

My radiotherapy has been an additional precaution after the main treatment for my cancer, which was my chemotherapy (about which I intend to write more soon). As I understand it, I am having it just in case there are any stray cancerous cells still hanging around that the tumour might grow back from. As my haematology consultant explained it to me, with my kind of lymphoma the best chance of curing it is on the first go, and if it comes back it is likely to be much more problematic. The scan I had after the chemo had very positive results and I think that my cancer is now gone.

The radiotherapy staff that have been looking after me, and doing my weekly reviews with me, have all been great - very caring and gentle and willing to answer questions and I want to take this opportunity to say thanks so much to all of you.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Sea-watching, Skuas and a fish supper

If you're not a birder you might wonder what "sea-watching" is, and why anyone would do it? The name makes it sound like it is just staring at the sea for hours on end. In fact the reality is not that different. Sea-watching is a rather specialist sub-set of bird-watching which involves sitting (or standing, but I prefer to sit) at a point on the coast, often at the end of a headland or pier/jetty, and scanning the sea with your binoculars and/or telescope to see, and hopefully identify, as many seabirds as possible.

Although most birders will do some sea-watching at various times during their lives, mostly because that is the only way to add certain species to your life-list, there is a small 'sub-community' of birders who are addicted to it and spend several hours a day at certain times of year braving all weather to stare out to sea in the hope of seeing a rare petrel or perhaps an albatross or even (in their wildest dreams) something supremely rare such as a Red-billed Tropicbird.
At this point I have to confess that I am definitely NOT part of this sub-community. I have quite a short supply of patience when it comes to scanning the mostly birdless waves in the hope of glimpsing a shearwater or skua which will probably be so distant that even if I do see one I probably won't be able to identify anything but the commonest species.

However, occasionally (usually when lots of interesting things have been seen at a bit of coast near me over the preceding few days) I am tempted to take my scope and my folding chair out to the coast to sit for an hour or so doing my best to identify whatever I see. That is exactly what I did this morning. Over the past few days, from several different points along the coast of North Yorkshire and County Durham, people have been seeing hundreds of terns and Manx Shearwaters, and smaller numbers of Arctic Skuas, with among them occasional Black Terns, Roseate Terns, Pomarine Skuas and Long-tailed Skuas. Despite the fact that both species are seen every year round the coasts of Britain in varying numbers I have never seen Long-tailed (Stercorarius longicaudus) or Pomarine (aka Pom) Skua (S. pomarinus) and so I headed out to the end of South Gare (see this morning to see what I could find.

Before I tell you what I did find I think I need to tell you a bit more about Skuas. They are medium-sized to largish seabirds (the smallest is about the size of a Black-headed Gull and the largest is similar in size to a Herring Gull), that make their living by chasing other birds such as small gulls and terns and harrying them until they drop whatever food they are carrying, at which point the skua dives down and catches the food for itself. In other words, they are the pirates of the sea-bird world. The four species that are regular in the UK all nest in northerly parts of the northern hemisphere  but come further south outside the breeding season. Two species, Great Skua (S. skua) and Arctic Skua (S. parasiticus) breed in the very north of Britain while the other two mostly breed inside the Arctic Circle and have never bred in the UK. They are very impressive birds to watch and when one appears in the middle of a group of feeding terns or Kittiwakes they stand out immediately as something different, with their swept back wings, mostly darkish coloration and purposeful flight (Great Skua is a little more lumbering than the other three). [Note for North Americans - the three smaller species of skua are known as Jaegers on your side of the Atlantic, so if you have heard of them and are confused, I am talking about the same things]

This morning, when I got to the end of South Gare the first thing I saw was a (relatively) huge crowd of fishermen, accompanied by several children. This was mostly explained by the fact that it was a Bank Holiday Monday during the summer holidays and the weather was nice. It was also partly explained by the fact that (as my father would have said) the Mackerel were 'in' - in other words there was a large shoal of Atlantic Mackerel just off-shore. The fishermen were catching lots of them - sometimes two or three on one cast. Some of them were keeping them (one had a large bucket full of Mackerel) while others were throwing them all back - I don't know why, because they are delicious. The Mackerel were probably there because they had been chasing another shoal of smaller fish, such as Sprats, and these were also providing food for the large numbers of terns, Kittiwakes (a small marine gull) and Guillemots. These gave me plenty to look at and gave me hope that I might see some skuas. My hope was not ill-founded and after a few minutes I saw my first Arctic Skua of the day - a dark, long-winged shape dashing across the waves towards a group of terns over on the other side of the river mouth. Over the course of the next hour-and-a-half I saw several more Arctics (or the same two several times) and three other skuas which I didn't positively identify but which were most likely also Arctics. As well as these there were hundreds of Common and Sandwich Terns, and Kittiwakes and smaller numbers of Guillemots, Gannets, Cormorants, Shags and large gulls as well as a few Grey Seals just offshore. Sadly I didn't see any Poms or Long-tails, even though an adult Pom with its unmistakable spoon-shaped tail feathers, was seen just behind where I was sitting, on the other side of the river at Seaton Snook while I was looking in the wrong direction from South Gare. Never mind! I am planning to go to Seaton Snook tomorrow morning to see if I can strike lucky there.

I didn't go home empty-handed however. One of the fishermen who had been throwing (actually kicking, in his case) the Mackerel back into the sea must have noticed my disapproval and asked if I wanted any of them so I went home with two lovely fish which Sue and I ate for tea this evening.

A small group of Common Terns (Sterna hirundo)
A Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) - the all yellow bill and black-tipped 'dipped  in ink' wings
distinguish adults of this species from  other common species of gulls
A Common Guillemot (Uria aalge)
A Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus) comes up for a look around.
The scientific name of this species means 'hook-nosed sea-pig'.
The two Mackerel that I was given
And one of them just before I ate it this evening

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

A foray into bird photography

Non-birders often assume, on hearing that I am a birdwatcher, that I take photos of the birds that I see. However, I have never really been much of a bird photographer, and until the advent of digital cameras I didn't even attempt it. When I got my first small digital camera, several years ago, I did some 'digiscoping' - taking pictures of birds through a telescope by holding the camera up to the eyepiece of the scope and zooming in as far as it would let me, and then clicking. I actually got some nice pictures that way but my cameras never seemed to last very long and I think their life might have been shortened by the fact that something was pressing against the extended lens of the camera in a way that wouldn't happen with more normal photography. 
As you might remember from my post about the Franklin's Gull twitch a few weeks ago (, it is possible to take pictures with a mobile phone camera held up to binoculars or a telescope, although the resulting pictures are not always very good (I've heard this technique referred to as 'phone-scoping').

Last year a fellow birder very kindly gave me a really good camera that he was no longer using (having upgraded to one with a bigger lens) but for various reasons I haven't used it much until now today, when I went to South Gare and then Redcar beach to try it out on whatever birds I came across. 

The results, some of which are shown below, were quite encouraging. Even on maximum zoom the birds are quite small in the pictures but by cropping the photos afterwards I was able to at least get identifiable pictures of several birds. 
I also tried using my mobile phone (an oldish i-Phone 5) to take some pictures through my telescope and the pics are much better than I was expecting. However, it is very tricky to do, the results are pretty hit and miss as you can't see very clearly what you are actually photographing until you look at the pictures afterwards, and the birds have often moved out of the field of view by the time you've actually taken the picture. I've included a couple of my best shots using this technique, below all the ones taken with the 'real' camera. I'll let you judge (and please let me know what you think, in comments (but be kind as I know I'm not a very good photographer 😊)).

A very zoomed-in shot of a Little Egret (Egretta garzetta),
fishing on the Blast Furnace Pool at South Gare

A Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) resting on a discarded lorry tyre
(about 20 metres away from the Little Egret)
A Sanderling (Calidris alba). This small wader (slightly smaller than a Song Thrush) breeds in the high arctic but is seen  in the UK in the winter, and as a passage migrant in spring and autumn. This was one of the most numerous bird species on the beach this afternoon, with several small flocks in constant motion up and down the shoreline
One of the five juvenile Knots (Calidris canuta) which were at Redcar this afternoon.
This is another arctic-breeding wader which returns to these shores in autumn and winter.
Being a juvenile this one can't be more than a few weeks old
An Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus). The white collar is only seen outside the nesting season

A Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)
A juvenile Herring Gull
The above photos were all taken with a Canon PowerShot SX40 HS. The three pictures below were taken with an iPhone5 through a Bushnell SpaceMaster telescope with a 22x wide angle lens. For the last one I zoomed in on the phone before taking the picture.

Oystercatchers and one Sanderling 
Herring Gulls of various ages
Oystercatcher and Sanderlings

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Vertical gardens - the flora of the walls of North Ormesby

This morning on my way home from church I went for a little walk around the place where I live - North Ormesby, aka Doggy (apparently a corruption of 'Dock End'). There are lots of old brick walls here, many of which are in quite bad repair, with graffiti and boarded up windows, but also with lots of plants growing out of them, so I decided to take pictures of as many different plant species as I could and tell you a bit about them.
The most obvious group of plants which grow on walls in the UK is the ferns. Ferns grown in many different types of habitats as well as walls, but there are some species (such as many of the Spleenworts (Asplenium  spp.) and the Polypodies (Polypodium spp.)) which rely largely on walls, rock-faces and other vertical surfaces (e.g. trees in some places), while others, such as Male-fern (Dryopteris filix-mas) are more commonly seen on woodland floors but will also happily live on walls as well.
Today I found four fern species growing on the walls I walked past - Hart's-tongue (Asplenium scolopendrium), Maidenhair Spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes), Wall-rue (Asplenium ruta-muraria)  and Male-fern. In a few places they were growing quite densely along with other kinds of plants. Generally, the more neglected the wall, the richer the flora was, and in some places there were even small trees growing out of cracks. Closer inspection of the pictures will show that most, if not all, of the plants are actually growing on the mortar holding the walls together. This is rich in lime (calcium carbonate) which would naturally be found in alkaline rocks such as limestone and chalk, and this may explain why at least some of the species do so well on walls.
Maidenhair Spleenwort, with a little bit of Wall-rue poking through it
(I took this photo in 2016 just outside North Ormesby)
Newer walls can have ferns too. This is Male-fern growing with Wall-rue
Hart's-tongue (left) and Maidenhair Spleenwort (right)
A single Male-fern growing with lots of Wall-rue
A rich growth of four species of fern in one place, along with a
few mosses (which, sadly, I am not able to identify)
Buddleia (Buddleja davidii) - a very successful non-native species in the UK.
It really likes  walls, alleyways, factory roofs, and waste-ground.
Its beautiful flowers are very attractive to many of our native butterflies, so ecologists
don't tend to mind it as much as some of the more problematic invasives.
A little moss-like flowering plant called Procumbent Pearlwort (Sagina procumbens).
If you live in the UK, look between the cracks in the pavement next time you go out
and you will probably see this very widespread but very inconspicuous plant
Annual Pearlwort (Sagina apetala) - a close relative of Procumbent Pearlwort,
here growing with Wall-rue and Maidenhair Spleenwort
Pellitory-of-the-wall (Parietaria judaica). This relative of  Stinging Nettle
is widespread on walls in the UK. Its pollen, apparently, is highly
allergenic, so if you suffer from hay-fever, don't sniff it.
One of two species of Bellflower (Campanula portenschlagiana  or  poscharskyana)
which are common escapees from gardens in England and Wales
Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) - a very common plant of
woodland, hedgerows and waste-ground. It is less common on walls
Grass doesn't just grow on lawns. This one is the very inappropriately named Water Bent (Polygon viridis), an alien species in the UK, which is proving quite successful at colonising dry habitats in urban areas
A young birch tree (Betula sp.) in a very unusual place -
a wall in the car park at the back of Barclays Bank