Thursday, 23 April 2020

Birds and plants during Isolation Exercise

This morning for my daily lockdown exercise I went on a bike ride through my local 'patch' on the edge of North Ormesby, (known variously ( and only to me so far) as 'the Lower Ormesby Beck Nature Area', Ormesby Beck Meadows and, 'the nature reserve' (which it currently isn't by any definition)), then along Dockside Road, in the direction of Redcar (didn't get that far though) to South Bank, and then back by almost the same way except for a detour along part of the Teesdale Way. It was a lovely morning and I was hearing birdsong almost as soon as I left the house. On entering my little 'nature area' almost the first thing I heard was the beautiful flutey warble of a male Blackcap, with the repetitive song of a Chiffchaff in the background behind it, shortly followed by the sweet, descending song of a Willow Warbler. 

Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler look extremely similar - small, thin-billed greeny-yellow birds in the Leaf-warbler Family (Phylloscopidae) - but they are readily distinguished by their songs. In fact they were once thought to be one species, along with the closely related Wood Warbler, called the Willow Wren. It wasn't until Gilbert White published his observations of their different songs and habits in his book 'The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne' in 1789, that people started to accept that they were different species, and even then Chiffchaff wasn't formally described as a species until 1817. 

A bit further along my route (but still within 'my' patch), in some scrubby woodland beside the Ormesby Beck I heard a harsh rattle, and then another one from a bit further away, which I recognised as Lesser Whitethroats. I managed to record a bit of video footage (see - Chiffchaff and Lesser Whitethroat Song) where you can hear a Chiffchaff saying its name over and over, and then at the 10-second and 36-second mark you can hear the rapid chatter of one of the Lesser Whitethroats. . These are the first ones I had heard this year and were probably newly-arrived after a long journey from their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa. 

You might be surprised to learn that often, particularly at this time of year, birders only actually see a small proportion of all the birds that end up in their notebooks (or whatever electronic equivalent they are using to record their 'sightings') - I could have wasted a lot of time trying to see all the various warblers, thrushes, Wrens and other birds that I heard this morning, but in most cases there was no need, as I knew straightaway what they were. This is not because I am some sort of birdsong genius, but because they are relatively common birds that I have learned to recognise by song after many years of birding, and also, they were all species that I was expecting to be there, if not today, then in the very near future. If a scarcer, or more patchily distributed species, such as a Pied Flycatcher or a Common Redstart had been singing on my local patch, I would probably have needed to get a look at it before confidently identifying it, as I just don't know those species' songs very well, plus that would be a more unusual occurrence.

After leaving my little local patch, having added Great Tit, Blackbird, Song Thrush and Wren to the day's birdlist, I continued east and a bit north, past some fields containing several pairs of Lapwings  - some of which were noisily seeing off potential predators. I managed to get to the edge of the Tees itself a couple of times, adding a couple of pairs of Shelduck to the list, as well as lots of Herring Gulls, a mating pair of noisy black-and-white Oystercatchers, a much quieter pair of Ringed Plovers and my first Swallow of the year (only one, so it's not summer yet), before turning round and heading back.

The return route, with detours to South Bank Station and along part of the Teesdale Way, was of more botanical than ornithological interest. A patch of striking, but as yet unidentified (while I wait for the opinions of the experts) fumitory by South Bank Station was the first to pique my interest. 

An as-yet-unidentified fumitory (Fumaria sp.)

Nearer to home, and just after the Teesdale Way joined the course of the Ormesby Beck (or the other way round) I noticed a diminutive grey-green plant growing along the stone ramparts of the man-made channel in which the beck flows at this point. Once I got my binoculars on it I was pretty sure that it was Sea Wormwood (Artemisia maritima), a salt-loving plant which is not very common in this part of the country, and was able to confirm this with closer views (and smells - it has quite strongly scented leaves), and photographs. A bit further upstream, in a little patch of saltmarsh at the edge of the beck, along with more Sea Wormwood, I found two more salt-loving plants - Common Scurvygrass (Cochlearia officinalis) and Sea Plantain (Plantago maritima). The first of these is as close relative of Danish Scurvygrass, which you have probably seen as a pinkish-white haze at the sides of main roads that have been gritted a lot over the winter (see Cycle Ride to the Sea for more about this). All three of these plants are a good indication, if the periodically exposed mud and its proximity to the Tees estuary were not enough, that the beck at this point is still tidal, with salt water coming in twice a day.
Sea Wormwood - a scarcer relative of the much commoner plant, Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)
Common Scurvygrass - not a grass at all,
but actually a member of the Cabbage Family
(the thin leaves poking through are Sea Plantain leaves)
Sea Plantain - the fleshy leaves are a defense mechanism against
drying out in the salty environment in which it lives
By this time I was looking forward to being home and, except for a brief stop at 'Ormesby Beck Meadows' to listen for Lesser Whitethroats again, and to add  Stock Dove to the day's birdlist (as well to the 'all-time' list for my local patch - I've not seen one there before), I lost no time in getting there and back to jigsaw puzzles, witty banter with my family and 'sheltering in place', as they call it in the US.