Saturday, 21 September 2019

Birding the 'In Between Time'

The autumn has started and so Sue and I took a trip north of the Tees to one of our favourite birding haunts - Saltholme RSPB reserve. The first thing that had changed since we last went birding north of the river is that the Tees Transporter Bridge is closed while essential engineering and maintenance works are taking place, so we had to drive the long way round (if you don’t know about the transporter bridge, read more about it in this Wikipedia article - Tees Transporter Bridge).

You have probably noticed that I haven’t written a blog post for a while. One reason for this is that for birds (or rather, for birdwatchers) the summer is actually quite a quiet time (for birds it's actually a very busy time - see below for why). The winter brings all sorts of interesting species from northern latitudes that come here for our warm (really!!) weather. The spring is full of migrants  arriving back from Africa (the ones for whom our winter is just not warm enough) and nearly everything is trying to find mates, territories and nesting sites, and, mostly, making a big noise about it. This is the great time for birding by ear as  the territorial songs of all the small birds are unique to each species and so birdwatching is often just bird listening. In the autumn birds are heading back to their wintering grounds and this is the best time for really rare things to turn up, particularly on the coast and on offshore islands, as everything is on the move and migrating birds are at the mercy of fast-moving weather systems -  especially during October when places like the Isles of Scilly and the Shetlands can play host to birds from North America and Siberia at the same time - as well as (in the case of the Scillies) hundreds of birders hoping for a few lifers. 

In the summer, however, all of the non-breeding migrants and most of the rarities have gone to their nesting grounds, and all of our breeding birds (both migrants and residents) have finished singing, nest-building and (mostly) fighting off their rivals and are settling down to brood their eggs and then raise their chicks. To do this successfully (without being eaten by a predator) they generally try to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible, singing (if at all) only in the very early morning and not sitting out in the open very much. 

In the case of ducks, they have even more reason to be inconspicuous in summer as this is the time they moult their flight feathers and are flightless for about a month (you could say that they are doing essential engineering and maintenance work on their feathers). The normally colourful males (drakes, to use the proper term) lose much of their bright feathering and go into a scruffy looking plumage called eclipse plumage. This makes them less visible to predators and more likely to survive to breed again next year. In some species, including our most familiar duck, the Mallard, the eclipse drakes look very similar to the females.

Once we arrived at the reserve it was obvious that the hot, sunny weather, and it being a Saturday, had brought the visitors out in large numbers as the car park was very full - unlike the main lake, which had been partly drained so that, yes you guessed it, essential engineering and maintenance works could be carried out. In this case they are creating some new islands for nesting birds such as Common Terns and deepening the lake in places, as well as installing a new sluice-gate to enable them to lower the water levels in late summer, leaving large muddy areas for wading birds such as Black-tailed Godwits passing through on their southerly migration.

The diggers were working in the middle of the lake, presumably taking advantage of the dry weather and so there weren’t many birds to see from the visitors’ centre - mostly just small birds such as Great Tits, Tree Sparrows and Goldfinches on the bird feeders, so we headed down the track to the Saltholme Pools Hide. On the way there Sue spotted a Kestrel hovering in the distance and we also saw small flocks of three species of geese - Greylags, Barnacles and Canadas. These flocks are all descended from birds released from captivity (‘feral’ is the correct scientific term) but they are still nice to see nonetheless, especially the Barnacle Geese, which look like smaller, neater, black and white versions of the more familiar Canada Goose and are hard to see as a native bird in Britain unless you make a special trip to the north Cumbrian coast and the west of Scotland in the winter.

When we got to the hide there didn’t seem to be much happening, bird-wise, except for about six common species of ducks (Mallard, Gadwall, Shoveler, Wigeon, Tufted Duck and a single female Pintail, if you’re interested), reasonable numbers of Lapwings and a few Little Grebes. There may  have been a couple more duck species to be found but we were distracted when another birder pointed out what was definitely the bird of the day for me, and a lifer for Sue (woo hoooo) - sat on a low post on the other side of the nearest bit of water was our smallest bird of prey, a Merlin. This small falcon has been hanging around Saltholme for at least the last ten days, apparently mostly feeding on Migrant Hawker dragonflies, which, along with the smaller Common and Ruddy Darters were very much in evidence today (sunny summer weather and watery places are usually good for seeing dragonflies).

After the Merlin flew off, showing its distinctive pointy-winged falcon shape, we headed to the Paddy’s Pool hide where we got fairly distant views of our fourth goose of the day - a small group of at least 13 (maybe up to 20 but some were hidden behind grazing cows - part of the management regime here) Pink-footed Geese. This group is a tiny fore-runner of the huge flocks that will be seen in different parts of the UK in the winter. Pinkfeet (as birders tend to call them) breed in Iceland, Greenland and Spitsbergen but leave those places in late summer to spend the winter further south, including the UK (especially Norfolk, Lancashire and Aberdeenshire where very large flocks can be seen). We couldn’t see the pink feet on these birds as they were too distant, and in any case they are not the only British goose with pink feet. Instead what clinched the identification was the small compact shape compared to the nearby Canadas and Greylags, their dark-looking heads and their small dark bills (the bill actually has a bit of pink on it but you can’t see it at any distance).

From Paddy’s Pool we continued our circuit of the main lake, on which we saw a Great Crested Grebe halfway through its transition from handsome chestnut summer plumage to sleek grey and white winter plumage (and so, neither handsome nor sleek), to the Wildlife Watchpoint hide. A couple of Moorhens, a Coot and a Little Egret were the only waterbirds here with a few Blue Tits, Great Tits, Goldfinches and another Tree Sparrow on the feeders so we headed back to the visitors centre and the end of our visit to Saltholme.

On the way home we went to Greatham Creek and Seal Sands but there was nothing particularly earth-shattering there so I will tell you about those places in a future post.

I called this post 'Birding the In Between Time' because it really felt like that today - in between summer and autumn with birds in between plumages and even the place we went to being in between one thing and the next. However, it was a good day's birding with some very nice birds seen - particularly the Merlin of course (unfortunately it was too distant to get a photograph of but if you go to Saltholme's Twitter page ( and scroll down you can find some pictures and video of it - you can also see what the main lake looks like at the moment and read about the work going on.