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

She cycles, She cycles

My wife Sue has recently taken up cycling and has just set off for her first proper cycling adventure - riding to Norfolk, from Middlesbrough, solo, over five days. I'm really proud of her - she's been training really hard over the past few months and is now much fitter than me. She has just started writing a blog of her own about her cycling exploits. You can find it at
Please visit it and if you like it (you will) you can click on 'Follow' in the bottom right of the screen, to get an email each time she adds an entry

Friday, 10 August 2018

More weeds and wildflowers - Yarrow and Sneezewort


Back in June I wrote a blog-post about a group of plants called Umbellifers  - the Carrot Family
(What is an Umbellifer? - and how to tell two of the commonest ones apart). In it I mentioned a couple of species which are sometimes mistaken for Umbellifers. One of these was Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), pictured above.

Even if you don't think you know Yarrow, if you live in the UK you will certainly have seen it - its feathery leaves and white, umbel-like flower heads are a very common sight in lawns, grass verges and weedy roadsides across the whole country. If you are a gardener you may be familiar with some of the cultivated varieties, including some pretty pink or yellow flowered forms.

Despite its appearance, Yarrow is actually in the daisy family (the Asteraceae, formerly known as the Compositae)  - if you look closely at the flower heads you can see that it is made up of lots of little 'daisies', but with white centres as well as white outer petals. Also, and perhaps surprisingly, each of these little 'daisies' is not actually a single flower, but a flower-head made up of several tiny flowers (or 'florets') - this is also true of daisies themselves and all the other members of the family, such as dandelions, thistles and sunflowers.

The first part of the scientific name of Yarrow - Achillea - is a reference to Achilles, the  character from Greek mythology, whose soldiers apparently used it to treat their wounds. The specific name - millefolium - means 'a thousand leaves' and refers to its feathery foliage. This is also reflected in one of the old names for the species, Milfoil.

Yarrow has a close relative in the genus Achillea, called Sneezewort (Achillea ptarmica). This is much less common in the UK than Yarrow and is usually found in damp grassland, although the plant in the photographs below was growing on an overgrown roadside verge in the North York Moors, and very close to some Yarrow, making it very easy to compare the two and look at the similarities and differences. The individual flower-heads look quite similar although they are bigger in Sneezewort and the way they are grouped together does not look so obviously 'umbel-like'. The leaves, on the other hand, are quite different, being long and thin with little teeth, rather than deeply divided and feathery.