Sunday, 24 June 2018

South Gare

South Gare with some of the notable features marked

South Gare [gare rhymes with bare, by the way] is a peninsula on the east side of the mouth of the River Tees - at this point the river is flowing pretty much south to north so even though it's on the south bank of a river which flows broadly west to east and IS called South Gare (and there is a North Gare on the other side), it should perhaps be called East Gare instead.

However, although you can now walk dry-shod around a large area of natural-looking grassland, sand dunes, reedbeds and ponds, with many 'rocky outcrops' and other interesting-looking 'geological features', closer examination of some of the 'rocks' will give a clue to the truth. Before 1859, South Gare did not exist and the mouth of the river would have been much wider, with mudflats and sand dunes on both sides - the whole peninsula is in fact man-made.

In 1859 the construction of 22 miles of walls began in the River Tees, using solid blocks of blast furnace slag which were specially cast and moved into place in the river mouth. Construction of South Gare itself (which seems strictly speaking to refer only to the last 2.5 miles of the wall (although most people use it when talking about the whole peninsula)) began in 1861 and finished in 1884. An estimated 5 million tons of slag was used in the construction of the gare with 18,000 tons of cement, and the wall was then back-filled with 70,000 tons of silt and mud from the riverbed, as well as quite a lot of slag (which accounts for most of the interesting 'geological features'). The very end of the gare is a sort of pier with a lighthouse on top, the lighthouse having been built in 1884. The creation of the breakwater, as well as the dredging of the river, canalised the mouth of the River Tees and allowed it to keep itself clear by a combination of the tides and the flow of water from upstream. [NOTE  - the exact weights of slag, cement and silt used may not be very accurate as the Wikipedia article that furnished me with most of the facts used in this paragraph, uses 'tonnes' (aka metric tons) and 'tons' interchangeably whereas in fact they are different.]

South Gare is something of a mecca for birdwatchers (or birders as many of us generally prefer to be called) as it attracts many migrant birds to stop and rest during their northward journeys in the spring and their return journeys south in the autumn. Several rare and scarce birds have also been found over the years, in amongst the more common ones. In addition many birds breed on the peninsula during the spring and summer, and many others use it during the winter when they are fleeing the harsher conditions in their breeding grounds further north. Birders have their own names for many of the features at South Gare, such as the Blast Furnace Pool, Cabin Rocks, the Bomb Crater and the Shrike Bushes, and I have managed to learn some of these (I'm still not entirely sure where the Shrike Bushes are) while also inventing some of my own names, such as "the Central Highlands".

The very end of the gare, under the shadow of the lighthouse, is a good place for 'sea-watching' - by sitting with binoculars and a telescope and staring out to sea for a protracted length of time, you have a good chance of seeing many seabirds, such as (depending on the time of year) Manx Shearwaters, Red-throated Divers, Little Auks and Long-tailed Ducks. However, you will often be, as I was this morning, surrounded by fishermen trying to catch a Mackerel or a Plaice off the end. This morning there were even three guys in kayaks fishing just off-shore - a sight I have never seen before.

As well as the birds there are also other animals, including the two Roe Deer I saw this morning, and many very interesting plants. Some of these are garden plants that have apparently been dumped there, but some of them are quite rare native plants, such as Purple Milk-vetch (Astragalus danicus), which may have found their way here naturally or may have been introduced inadvertently with some soil from elsewhere.

The birds I saw this morning would mostly have been breeding there, as the spring migration is pretty much over. They included singing Skylarks, Meadow Pipits, Reed Buntings and Whitethroats (a kind of warbler), and also four Sandwich Terns in amongst the more numerous Common Terns during a short sea-watch at the end of the gare.

P.S. the name apparently comes from the name of a small settlement which once existed here but has since been demolished. I have been unable to find anything out about the etymology of the word 'gare', or the precise location of the settlement.

A 'Rocky Outcrop' in the "Central Highlands" of South Gare
Viper's Bugloss (Echium vulgare)
Pyramidal Orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis)
The largest of the several reedbeds, viewed from
the "Central Highlands" of South Gare 
Part of the "Central Highlands"
The 'plateau' of the "Central Highlands" 
Blast Furnace Pool, South Gare
View across sand dunes and beach to a rocky spit
on the south side of the tip of South Gare
Part of a former steel works at South Gare
A World War II pillbox in the
"Central Highlands" of South Gare

Cycle ride to Stockton - Postscript

I meant to put this in the main blog entry yesterday but forgot, and decided to post it as a separate 'mini blog-post' instead of editing it into the other one.
Yesterday, while we were resting by the Tees Barrage, on the way to Stockton, a chap came past us on a bike with lots of touring gear - paniers front and back and on the handlebars. Sue asked him how far he had come and, once he understood the question (his English wasn't brilliant) he said "Korea". From what we could gather, he had cycled from Korea to Laos, and then flown from there to Moscow and cycled overland from Moscow to the Netherlands, from where he had got the ferry to Harwich, and since then had been cycling round England and Scotland.
However, what puzzles me about this now, having looked at a map of eastern Asia, is that the only way to get overland from Korea to Laos is to either start in or go through North Korea. Obviously no-one from South Korea would be able to do this but I didn't think people from North Korea were able to leave very easily. It seems unlikely that someone from South Korea would fly to Laos so that he could then fly to Moscow and cycle from there.
So, did we misunderstand what he was saying to us about his journey (quite possible given his poor English and our non-existent Korean), or was he a North Korean defector who had made an epic journey to get to the UK, or perhaps someone high up in Kim Jong Un's government who is cycling round the UK on a fact-finding/spying mission? Or is he actually from Romford and was pretending not to speak much English so that he can give his friends a laugh when he gets back to Essex?

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Cycle ride to Stockton

This morning and afternoon Sue and I went on a 'little' cycle ride along the River Tees from North Ormesby to Stockton-on-Tees (a full name which nobody uses - it's Stockton). The round trip was about 23km (14.29 miles), with no major hills and only light winds (although the wind was picking up a bit on the way back).
However, because I have hardly done any exercise at all over the last five months, while I have been on chemotherapy, I have got really out of condition and found it pretty hard the whole way. Now that I am home, I am exhausted and  it was a challenge even walking up the stairs when I got into the house. Sue, on the other hand, has been training for a long cycle ride in the summer (Middlesbrough to Norfolk over five days), is now much fitter than me and found that she kept having to stop to let me catch up.
Most of our journey today was on a lovely riverside cycle/foot path and so as well as getting good exercise and fresh air, we saw quite a lot of wildlife and wildflowers. Common Terns, delicate gull-like birds, fished along the river. Many songbirds, including Whitethroats, Blackcaps, Wrens, Goldfinches and Blackbirds, serenaded us as we went along. Surprisingly we didn't see any Grey Herons, but we did get a nice look at a Little Egret. This lovely white bird in the heron family has black legs but bright yellow feet which usually stand out very clearly when it flies. Before 1989 a Little Egret would have been a rare sight anywhere in England. At that time they started to be seen in significant numbers in Dorset, on the south coast, and since then they have spread amazingly, are now breeding at many sites and you could see one almost anywhere in England.
On the way home we stopped in at the Tees Valley Wildlife Trust's nature reserve at Portrack Marsh where we watched a Kestrel catch a small rodent, lots of Sand Martins hunting insects and two powder-blue and black dragonflies called Broad-bodied Chasers ( These were two males, which can be quite territorial, and as you might expect from the name, they were chasing each other.
The grass verges along our route were a mass of colour - pink Rest-harrow and Musk Mallow, yellow Bird-s-foot Trefoil, St. John's Wort and Ribbed Melilot, and white Ox-eye Daisies.
The orange of my hi-viz top clashes slightly with the red of the Common Poppies

Thursday, 7 June 2018

More birding from hospital

I’m lying in my hospital bed at 7.30 am and if I lie quite far down the bed I can see Common House Martins (Delichon urbicum) flying to and from what I think must be a small colony (2 or 3 nests probably), which is just out of sight round the corner of the building.

House Martins build nests out of mud under the eaves of buildings so I think these ones must have got the mud for their nests from the banks of the Ormesby Beck (which also flows through North Ormesby where I live), less than 500 metres away. They might also have got some of it from puddles in the hospital grounds, much closer than the beck.

The scientific name for the genus containing the three species of house martin (Common (our one), Asian and Nepal) is Delichon. I was very amused to find out that this name was made up in the mid 19th century (when the house martins were recognised to be significantly different from the swallows (Hirundo)), because it was an anagram (or a sort of spoonerism) of the ancient Greek word Chelidon, meaning a swallow.

These ones are probably feeding chicks in the nest by now, in which case they will be working as hard as they can to catch lots of flying insects to bring back for their babies.

Friday, 1 June 2018

What is an Umbellifer? - and how to tell two of the commonest ones apart

I visited our local RSPB reserve, Saltholme, this afternoon and as well as all the birds - hundreds of nesting Black-headed Gulls and Common Terns, Grey Herons, Little Egrets, ducks of several species, a hovering Kestrel,  Lapwings, a beautiful delicate Avocet with its fine upturned beak, 3 Black-tailed Godwits and a Spoonbill - I saw several large stands of two of our commonest umbellifers.

"What's an umbellifer?" I hear you cry.

Well, I'm glad you asked that. An umbellifer is a member of the plant family Apiaceae. This family includes several plants with which you might be familiar, such as Carrots and Parsnips (it's often called the Carrot Family), edible herbs and spices like Parsley and Coriander, some of our most poisonous plants such as the Water-dropworts, the alien-looking Giant Hogweed (whose sap can give you an nasty chemical burn if it gets on your skin and then the sun shines on it), and that familiar (and not always welcome) prickly seaside plant, Sea Holly.

An umbel
The old name for the family was Umbelliferae and this comes from the little umbrellas that the flowers (and subsequently the fruits) are borne in. Each flower (they are mostly white but can be yellow, blue or even tinged with pink) is borne on a short stalk coming from a central point, like the ribs of an umbrella. The exact number of flowers to each 'umbel' (the name given to the little umbrellas) varies depending on the species and also from umbel to umbel within one plant. Many species carry several umbels together in a large head  - Giant Hogweed is an extreme version of this, with flower heads getting to 80cm (31inches) in diameter.

The two species that I saw today are much smaller than this giant, but can still be substantial plants. The first one I noticed was not even in flower yet, and what I saw first were the feathery leaves and pale green stems blotched with purple that told me straight away that this was Hemlock (Conium maculatum). This is the plant that killed Socrates and apparently various other statesmen and politicians of ancient Greece (it contains an alkaloid that can cause a potentially fatal neuromuscular blockage when it affects the respiratory system). Hemlock can grow to a couple of meters in height but you could be forgiven for mistaking its leaves for those of a fern (which is actually a very different, and much more primitive, kind of plant).
A Hemlock plant showing the flower heads
about to open - they will be umbels of small
white flowers in a few days
Hemlock is one of the few British umbellifers
to have purple spots on its stem, and none of the others are this tall

As I walked away from the place where the Hemlock was growing I thought at first that I saw some more Hemlock, but this time in full flower. Then I looked more closely at the stems and realised that they were a different shade of green, with no purple spots, and also ridged and hairy, and the leaves weren't quite so finely divided. This was a different plant. This was Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) - a common plant of roadsides and hedgerows. You will have seen this plant on many occasions, even if you didn't realise what it was. One of the old names for it was Queen Anne's Lace, although Wikipedia tells me that this name is used for several white-flowered umbellifers as well, principally Wild Carrot (Daucus carrot), and I think it is still used for this species in North America.

Cow Parsley

Not all plants that have umbrella-like heads of whitish flowers are true umbellifers. Two common plants that people often mistake for members of the Carrot family are Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), which is actually in the Daisy family, and Elder (Sambucus nigra), of Elder-flower cordial and Elderberry wine fame (not to mention the Elder Wand of the Harry Potter books), which is in the Adoxaceae - the Moschatel Family.