Friday, 12 November 2021

Celebrating freedom with some birding

Today, on my first day being allowed out of the house after having Covid, I went for a bike ride to Seal Sands, a wide bay/inlet at the point where Greatham Creek flows into the River Tees. The tide was still quite high when I got there and I spent quite a while, first in the bird-hide and then walking along the sea wall on the south side of the inlet - looking at various ducks and other water-birds, and chatting to a friendly employee of the nearby PD-ports who pulled up in his van as I was scanning the water with my scope. I thought he was going to tell me I couldn't be there but had actually stopped to tell me about another bird-hide I didn't know about and about how much he loves watching the seals.

I had been hoping to see a Long-tailed Duck which has been seen in the area a few times recently, but in the absence of that I enjoyed watching Red-breasted Mergansers - with 2 males occasionally doing a sort of half-hearted version of their slightly comical courtship display to the females. There were also a few Common Goldeneyes, a Great-crested Grebe (in its grey-and-white winter plumage) and some distant Shelducks. 

Red-breasted Mergansers (1 male and 5 females) 

A male Red-breasted Merganser. Despite its long thin bill (with tooth-like
serrations for catching fish), this is actually a kind of duck. It's one you are
unlikely ever to see on a park lake though.

Female Goldeneyes. Although much less flashy than the male (which I
featured in a blog back in March Saltholme & Seal Sands), this is still a
lovely little duck with it's chocolatey brown head.

After going as far as I was allowed along the sea wall I went down to the the hide on 'the Long Drag' (I love these local birders' names for sites, that mostly don't appear on any maps) to have my lunch while counting the waders on the mud - 11 Redshank, 2 Black-tailed Godwits and a Curlew. On the way back up to the road I looked through the Wigeon and Teal on the tidal pools (c50 and c10 respectively) but didn't see anything unusual among them. 

The wind was pretty strong by now, so after talking to two birders next to the seal-watching hide, who had just been photographing a flock of Twite (that sadly flew off as I approached), I headed back, into the wind, towards Saltholme and then (after a fairly fruitless exploration of the reserve (still no Merlin for the NMT-list 😞)) home.

Wednesday, 27 October 2021

Two arctic birds bring the NMT list to 171

On Saturday, after nearly three weeks without a new bird for the NMT list, I added two species to the list. 

The second one was, on the face of it more exciting, as it was a properly rare bird and a ‘lifer’ for me - meaning that I haven’t seen it anywhere in the world before. It was an Arctic Warbler that had apparently been at Hartlepool Headland since the 6th of October and over the last few days had started being seen regularly by large numbers of birders. The Arctic Warbler is a small, mostly green and white bird which looks quite similar to our Chiff-chaff and Willow Warbler, to which it is closely related, but unlike them has a long creamy-yellow stripe above the eye (the technical term for this is the supercilium) and a faint yellowish bar on the wing. It is also slightly bigger with a stouter bill. Arctic Warblers breed in northern birch forests, usually near water, across a vast area reaching from northern Scandinavia going east as far as western Alaska, and the whole population spends the winter in South-east Asia. If you look at a map you will see that one turning up on migration in Hartlepool is a bit lost - it should be a lot further east by now.

This one was in the sycamore trees just in front of the Borough Hall on Hartlepool Headland and being small and very mobile was not always easy to see. When I got there it had been seen about 15 minutes before and it took a couple of hours of waiting and searching by a scattered flock of fifty or more birders before it was refound  and gave great, although neck-breaking, views to most of the gathered crowd. This photo was taken by my friend Dave Barlow, the day before I was there, and is used with his permission.

Photo ⓒ Dave Barlow

The other new NMT bird was a Black-throated Diver (aka an Arctic Loon to North American birders), which had been (and still is, at least up to yesterday) hanging around near the HMS Trincomalee in Hartlepool Marina. I called in there on my way to the Headland. It took a bit of finding as there were no other birders there when I arrived and I didn’t know exactly where it had been being seen. However, eventually I got very close views and was even able to get some photographs (divers are usually bobbing up and down in the waves on the sea and so are often pretty hard to photograph). Of our three regular divers in the UK, Black-throated was the one I thought I might struggle to get on the NMT list for the year but in the end it is the one that I have seen most easily.

This bird is in its winter plumage and so looks, at first glance, quite similar to Red-throated and Great Northern Divers in winter. However, it is much darker than Red-throated, and without the uptilted bill, and is smaller and slimmer than a Great Northern. The white patch on the flanks, near the tail-end is often quite visible and is a useful feature for identifying a Black-throated Diver at a distance out to sea. If you want to see this bird in its beautiful summer plumage - with pearly grey head, chequered back and black throat patch - your best bet is to make a trip to northern Scotland in summer, where it breeds on small lochs in the highlands.

Tuesday, 5 October 2021

Birding by Bike and Boots - NMT Update

As it's been about a month and a half since I last wrote, and I've been on a lot of different trips and added seven birds to the NMT list, rather than write a blow-by-blow account of every birding trip I've been on, I'll just say something about each of the new birds, with a few other species thrown in occasionally when it seems appropriate.

When I last wrote, my Non-Motorised Transport bird list for 2021 stood at 162. If you remember it being 163, that is because, erm, I made a mistake and misidentified a young Sandwich Tern as a young Roseate Tern (resulting in a red face for me for a few days after it was pointed out to me). If you read that blog now you will see that I have amended it.

#163 Razorbill - 22nd of Aug. On a trip to South Gare I did a little bit of sea-watching at the end of the Gare. There were lots of Guillemots (hundreds) on the sea, a couple of Purple Sandpipers on the rocks (my first of the autumn), a single Common Scoter and another duck (that might have been a Scaup) flying north, and one or possibly two birds that I was pretty sure were juvenile Razorbills. With my confidence in my own ID skills slightly knocked having just been told a few minutes before about my tern mistake, I was doubting myself even after getting a photo which I would normally have been perfectly happy with. The bill doesn't have the white lines of the adults but it is still a different shape and the face is much 'messier' than that of a Guillemot (Common Murre for my North American readers). A month later there was a big (and very unusual) influx of Razorbills to inland locations including the River Tees at Stockton and Middlesbrough Dock where I was able to get some lovely pictures of an adult (see below). I wrote about this in an article on the website 'The Tees', which you can read here - Why did the Razorbill raise 'er bill?

A young Razorbill - South Gare, 22nd Aug 2021

Winter plumage (probably adult I think) Guillemot. South Gare
22nd Aug 2021

Adult winter-plumaged Razorbill - Middlesbrough Dock Basin
20th September 2021  

#164 Black Tern - 12th Sept. Black Tern is one of three small terns known collectively as the 'marsh terns'. The other two (White-winged Tern and Whiskered Tern) are both rare in Britain and Ireland although both have been seen at Saltholme in the last few years (in fact I wrote about seeing one of them, in this blog, in 2019 - Another Twitch - White-winged Tern at Saltholme). Although Black Terns have bred occasionally in the UK, they are much more commonly seen on migration (in spring and autumn) between their wintering grounds in Africa and their breeding sites in freshwater marshes in Scandinavia and Finland. They are seen every year around Teesside but seeing them can be a bit hit and miss so I was very pleased when I heard that three were hanging around at Saltholme just after I got back from my holiday in the south of England. They were flying around feeding actively on the main lake in the reserve and were almost the first bird I saw after I arrived there.

Unfortunately, this very dark and grainy picture was the only one I was
able to get of one of the 3 very mobile Black Terns at Saltholme on
the 12th ofSeptember. You can at least get an impression of a dark-
winged bird with a lighter tail and a distinctively-shaped black face mask

#165 Curlew Sandpiper - 12th Sept. After watching the Black Terns for a while I went down to the Saltholme Pools Hide and after much searching managed to get a view of a juvenile Curlew Sandpiper which had been being reported there. Like the Black Tern, Curlew Sandpipers are passage migrants in the UK, but they travel a lot further - between the Arctic tundra in northern Siberia, where they breed in summer, to their winter areas in central and southern Africa. They are quite similar to the much more common Dunlin, but more slender and longer-legged with a (hard to see) white rump patch (between the tail and the lower back). 

Juvenile Curlew Sandpiper, Saltholme, 12th Sept 2021. Adults in the
summer are much more striking, being mostly a dark brick red colour.

#166 Golden Plover - 12th Sept. While watching the Curlew Sandpiper I heard that some (European) Golden Plovers were on the causeway in the middle of the west pool but I couldn't get a good view so I went round to the other side to view them from the road and was able to get a few distant pictures. Although this species does breed on the North York Moors, not far from Middlesbrough (where I tried and failed to see it earlier in the year), it spends the winter in much larger numbers around the Tees estuary.

Golden Plovers at Saltholme, 12th Sept 2021. The bird in the middle
here is still showing some of the black which, in breeding plumage,
covers the face, breast and belly 

#167 Brent Goose - 25th Sept. Another trip to South Gare resulted in a couple more new birds for the list, with the first being 3 Brent Geese swimming along the shore at Bran Sands. This is our smallest UK goose and they are much more maritime than the other species that we get here. There are two subspecies found in Britain - the Pale-bellied and the Dark-bellied forms, with a third, the North American subspecies (known as Black Brant) being an occasional visitor to these shores. Both the Dark- and Pale-bellied forms can be seen in this area occasionally, with these ones being Pale-bellied

3 Pale-bellied Brent Geese with immature Herring Gulls,
Bran Sands, South Gare, 25th Sept 2021

#168 Red-throated Diver 25th Sept. Another short sea-watch from the end of the Gare yielded (among other things), a brief view of a single Red-throated Diver (unfortunately too brief and distant to get a photo). This may have been the same one that has subsequently been photographed several times just along the coastline in Redcar, but which, sadly can be seen on the pictures to have a scrap of fishing net tangled round its head and in its bill. 

#169 Little Stint 3rd October. After several failed attempts to see a Little Stint this year (including three trips to Redcar Beach for a bird that had been seen there), two days ago at Dorman's Pool (part of the Saltholme complex of pools) I finally got several quick views of one that has been moving around that area. The light was lovely and Dorman's was full of birds that evening, with large numbers of Wigeon, Lapwing, various species of gulls, several Dunlin, at least 8 Ruff (both male and female, showing the marked size difference between the two sexes of that species) and 1 juvenile Black-tailed Godwit. It was really enjoyable sitting there in the hide sifting through all the birds, taking pleasure from the common ones but also looking for anything unusual. The Little Stint kept appearing and disappearing but I managed to get a few poor shots, of which this was the best. You can at least see the short bill, and one of the white lines on the back ('braces') which show it to be a juvenile.

Little Stint, Dorman's Pool, 3rd Oct 2021

Monday, 16 August 2021

Seaton Snook, Seal Sands etc [with a correction]

Seaton Snook is a little spit of rocks and sand dunes projecting into the north side of the River Tees just inside the river mouth. South of it is a deep channel (Seaton Channel), with the mud flats of Seal Sands on the other side of the channel. North of it is saltmarsh and the wide sandy expanse of North Gare Beach. 

It is over-looked by the imposing bulk of the Hartlepool Nuclear Power Station but despite that it is a great place for birding - particularly waders, terns, skuas, divers, grebes and (in winter) Snow Buntings and Twite. For the past week or so several Arctic Skuas have been being seen regularly in the river mouth and even landing on the beach there. Large numbers of terns have also been roosting on the beach, including two species that I hadn't seen yet this year, so on Saturday I decided to cycle the 18.5km from my house (it's only 8km as the crow flies, but sadly I'm not a crow) in the hope of adding these and a few other species to my list for the year.

Although I was out of bed at 5am, I didn't leave the house until after 7 as I was checking the moth-trap which I had had running in my garden the night before (44 moths of 13 species - not a bad haul - all released unharmed of course). I went as directly as possible to Seaton Snook, stopping only briefly on Newport Bridge (3 Little Egrets in the mouth of Billingham Beck) and again at the side of the road in Saltholme and Greatham Creek (lots of birds but nothing very unusual). By the time I got to the Snook it was just after high tide and there were a few birders there already. Almost the first bird I saw was a dark shape with swept-back wings, dashing over the water just above the waves. Bingo! An Arctic Skua and number 158 for my NMT list. I was able to show it to a couple of fairly new birders who were there and we saw it, and 1 or 2 more, over the next ten minutes or so, as they chased terns, hoping to get them to drop any food they were carrying. This habit of robbing other birds of their food is called klepto-parasitism and all skuas do it, although the biggest ones, such as Great Skua (aka Bonxie) will also kill and eat birds such as Puffins and gulls. The smaller species of skua are called 'jaegers' in North America, with Arctic Skua being called Parasitic Jaeger. (For a bit more about skuas, you can read this blog I wrote back in 2018 - Sea-watching, Skuas and a fish-supper). 

After the skuas apparently all went down onto the water in the river mouth (and so became almost impossible to see) I concentrated on the many waders - plovers and sandpipers - that were running, and flying, to and fro across the sand. Most abundant were Ringed Plovers and Dunlin (probably a few hundred of each) but it was really nice to see 48 Knots, many of which were still in their brick-red, summer plumage which gives them their full name of Red Knot, although it's much more common in the UK to see them in their grey winter colours. 

I actually took this picture of a summer plumage Red Knot at Long Point
in Canada in June 2009, but the ones I saw on Saturday looked pretty
similar. As with many Arctic-breeding waders, the red colouration almost
certainly helps nesting Knots avoid the attentions of predators in the tundra,
where  reddish-brown colours dominate the vegetation 

After satisfying myself that there wasn't a Grey or Golden Plover or a Whimbrel to add to my list, I turned, with some trepidation to the large numbers of terns which were sitting on the sand a little too far away for my old scope to deal with easily. The Sandwich Terns were mostly pretty easy - at least 500 in different parts of the beach and on the Snook itself (I was actually looking from the beach) - large pale terns with dark bills and shaggy black crests. The smaller ones, however, were much trickier. Thankfully by this time there was quite a group of birders around me, one of whom had a much better scope than mine and he picked out an Arctic Tern (NMT #159), with its blood-red dagger-shaped bill distinguishing it from the Commons which have longer, thinner, more orangey bills. Later on we saw more of both species and I was able to get this photograph which shows (just about😊) those differences, along with the shorter legs and somewhat greyer underparts. 

I thought that was my last addition to the list at the Snook (having dipped on a Golden Plover that someone else saw, and having unsatisfactory views of what was probably a Whimbrel flying through). It wasn't until I was looking through the photos on my camera the next day that I saw a picture (below) that I had taken of a juvenile tern with very obvious dark edges to some of the wing feathers. After checking the books and consulting with a friend who is a much better birder than me I came to the conclusion that it was a juvenile Roseate Tern - one of our rarest breeding birds (and the rarest breeding seabird) in the UK. Although I didn't identify it in the field, according to the precedent I set with the Jack Snipe back in February  (see Saltholme, Greatham Creek, Bellingham Beck and a couple of surprises at home afterwards), I am counting it on my Non-motorised Transport year list (#160). [EDIT - everyone makes mistakes and both me and my friend made one in this case - it was actually a juvenile Sandwich Tern (see below)]

Juvenile Roseate Sandwich Tern, Seaton Snook. [Edit - The juvenile plumages
of the two species do look a bit similar, and very young Sandwich Terns do 
have  shorter bills than the adults (and all dark) but if I'd looked closer at
the books and other pictures online, as I should have done, I would have
 spotted my mistake.] 

The downside to examining the photos closely was that I realised that the golden blobs that I  saw amongst the Lapwings, Dunlins and Ringed Plovers at Greatham Creek on the way back home, weren't Golden Plovers as I had thought, and were in fact probably juvenile Dunlins. You win some you lose some.

However, I did add two more species to the list on the way home that really were what I thought they were - two lovely summer plumage Grey Plovers (showing why North Americans call them Black-bellied Plovers) which another birder showed me on Seal Sands, and a flock of 33 Barnacle Geese at Saltholme. Unlike the lone Barnacle Goose I saw on a farm pond earlier in the spring, I am counting these ones as there are part of a self-sustaining feral population breeding, probably in North Yorkshire. 

Barnacle Geese are slightly smaller than Canada Geese, to which
they are closely related. In their wild populations, in the Arctic, they
often nest on high cliff ledges. The name comes from an old belief
that they hatched out of Barnacles (as they were only seen in the
winter and then mysteriously disappeared)

As well as five new birds for the year list I saw several other species that I have not seen very many of this year including Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Common Sandpiper and Great Egret and lots of other common birds.

The next day, Sunday was grey and drizzly for much of the day but news of a Brent Goose (a bird which has eluded me so far this year) at Greatham Creek, got me out out the house and north of the Tees for the second day running. Unfortunately there was no sign of our smallest goose by the time I got to my destination but I did hear the distinctive calls of two Whimbrels flying overhead (NMT #163162). Despite almost certainly seeing this twice the day before I had decided not to count them as I didn't think the views I had were good enough, so I was really glad to add this relative of the Curlew to the list. Like the Curlew, the Whimbrel has a long downward-curved bill, but unlike that species it has dark stripes on the head and in most of the UK is only ever seen on migration in spring and autumn. 

One final bird that I'll give a 'shout out' to before finishing is the Black Swan that has been hanging round Saltholme, and associating with a Mute Swan, for quite some time now. This species is native to Australia and at any given time present in ones and twos in the UK, dotted around the country. They didn't find their way here naturally though and there is no self-sustaining population here so it doesn't count on the list. Nonetheless they are handsome birds, as this photo shows, and are worthy of a mention.

Black Swans are not entirely black - they have white feathers
in the wings which can be seen in flight

Monday, 26 July 2021

New species for my NMT list after a long break

Until yesterday it had been over a month since I last added any birds to my Non-motorised transport year list, despite several trips where I had thought I was certain to get some new species. However, last week the news was released that a pair of Mediterranean Gulls (known to birders as Med Gulls) had nested among the Black-headed Gulls and Common Terns at Saltholme RSPB reserve, and were feeding two well-grown chicks on an island just in front of one of the hides. Then on Friday a Caspian Tern (a really rare bird which would be a British 'tick' for me as well as a new NMT bird) appeared at Saltholme and kept coming back to the same place over the next couple of days.
I was unable to go birding on Friday and Saturday but Sunday was free so I planned a trip to Saltholme for that day, with the hope that I would get both species, plus maybe a few of the others that are still missing from my list. 

I left the house later than planned on Sunday morning and by the time I was getting near Saltholme the tern hadn't been seen for several hours so I went straight to the hide where the Med Gulls were. Immediately after I walked in the two birders that were already there suddenly started looking at a bird in the air, and snapping off pictures of it, so I raised my 'bins' and there was a lovely Mediterranean Gull - NMT #155. It was one of the parents (the chicks were still unable to fly) but, surprisingly, it wasn't a full adult. Instead of pure white flight feathers it had some black streaks on them, indicating that it was a 'second-summer' (or sub-adult) bird. Med Gulls don't reach full adult plumage until their third year, unlike the similar and slightly smaller Black-headed Gull (very common in the UK) which do it in two (larger gulls like Herring Gulls take 4 years). I rushed back to my bike (outside the hide) to get my camera but by the time I got back it had gone. Despite waiting for about 45 minutes it didn't come back, although I did get a quick glimpse of the two chicks before they vanished into the vegetation on the island.

I decided to go down to the Saltholme Pools Hide to see if the Caspian Tern was visible again and to see what else was around. Just before I had set off from home a group of six Ruddy Shelducks had been found in the same area that the tern had been frequenting so I was hoping to see them. Ruddy Shelduck is one of those tricky species that can be countable or not countable depending on the origins of the individual birds you see. As a native species they only just reach the very east of Europe and are unlikely to turn up naturally in the UK from these 'truly wild' populations. It is commonly kept in captivity and many solitary birds seen in the wild here are probably ones that have escaped from collections. However, there are some self-sustaining feral populations in different western European countries, which show some tendency to move around in the summer, so a group of six showing up at Saltholme at the end of July seems more likely to be from a feral breeding population (and therefore 'tickable') than to be birds which have escaped themselves from captivity (which wouldn't be). However, there was no sign of either Caspian Tern or Ruddy Shelducks so after a while I went back to the other hide to try and get some pictures of the Med Gulls.

When I walked into the hide I saw straight away that one of the Med Gull parents was there on the ground with the two chicks. It was the other parent this time, a full adult, with pure white wing tips and I was able to get lots of pictures of all three birds for the next twenty minutes or so. Mediterranean Gulls are quite similar looking to Black-headed Gulls but the adults and sub-adults have larger, redder bills and darker heads (properly black, unlike Black-headeds, which are really brown on the head). This one was starting to lose some of the black on the head, indicating that it is moulting into its winter plumage. I have never seen Med Gull chicks before so it was interesting to see that they look (to my eye) more like miniature Herring Gull chicks than like slightly larger Black-headed Gull chicks as you might expect.

When I had had my fill of watching the Med Gulls (and the Common Terns, Canada Geese and the opportunistic and predatory Lesser Black-backed Gull hoping for an easy meal in the form of a Common Tern chick), I moved on to the Wildlife Watchpoint where the was a Little Grebe with a cute baby, and then the Phil Stead hide where I had my lunch and watched a Grey Heron and a Little Egret fishing for their lunches.

As there had still been no reports of the Caspian Tern by the time I finished my lunch I cycled up the Seaton Carew Road to Cowpen Marsh, Greatham Creek and Seal Sands to see what I could find up there. What I found was a nice Great Egret with the Littles on Cowpen Marsh, Grey and Harbour Seals on Greatham Creek and a few Dunlins, Redshanks, Avocets and other waders scattered around the area.

Great Egret at Cowpen Marsh 

Harbour Seal (above) and Grey Seal (below). As well as the size difference
(Grey is quite a bit bigger) the shape of the head is an easy way to tell them
apart. I think Harbour looks a bit like a King Charles Spaniel and Grey looks
like an English Bull Terrier.

When I had exhausted the possibilities of the Seal Sands area I checked Twitter on my phone and saw that the Caspian Tern had just been found again at its 'usual' spot at Saltholme, viewable from the road, so I raced back to join the small group of birders which was gathered there. There was quite a heat haze and I was struggling to find it in my telescope (with a monopod instead of a tripod) so one of the other people let me look through her scope. There it was - the world's largest tern, with its massive red bill, and behind it, on the other side of the lake, were two of the six Ruddy Shelducks. NMT #156 and 157 in the same scope view.

The Caspian Tern, which is not much smaller than a Herring Gull, and much larger than all the other terns you are likely to see in the UK, is found in five continents (it doesn't reach South America or Antarctica) and I have seen it in three of them. In Europe it is usually restricted to a few scattered areas in different parts of the continent and in the UK it is a fairly rare bird with about five being seen in most years. The photos below are a bit blurry because of the heat haze but you can see the large red bill and get an impression of a large bird, next to the Black-headed Gulls it was sitting with.

Tuesday, 20 July 2021

A visit from a little Urchin (Mrs. or Mr. Tiggywinkle)

When we moved into our house in 2017 the back garden had very little in it that was green, apart from one very large Leylandii tree. Although it was quite a good sized garden, all the places where there might have been lawns, vegetable plots, shrubberies or flower-beds were covered in plastic sheeting with several tons of gravel on top and the rest was concrete or wooden decking.

Since then we've been gradually removing the gravel and the plastic and replacing it with greenery of one sort or another. We've now got two patches of lawn (mowed very infrequently and with some nice wildflowers in), a flowerbed, a small herb garden, a little raised veg bed and my 'wild area' complete with a (rather unusual) pond (see The Making of a Pond for more about the pond).

Since then we've seen lots of birds (including the Grey Wagtail mentioned in the blog about the pond), 73 species of moth and butterflies including Red Admiral and Small Copper. 

However, one thing I was pretty certain we were never going to see was Hedgehogs - we're in an area of mostly terraced houses with no gardens and moreover, our garden has high brick walls around most of it, and a busy road at the front.

So imagine my surprise when Sue and I were sitting outside on Sunday evening, enjoying a beer in the gathering dusk, and Sue suddenly said 'There's a Hedgehog'. It took me a few seconds to register what she was talking about as she surely couldn't be talking about an actual hedgehog in our actual garden. 

However, she was, and there sitting under the old wooden garden table on one of the remaining areas of gravel, was a Hedgehog. She or he had obviously come in from the front, through the gap under the fence  (which was just there by chance as we didn't deliberately put a gap in when we got the fence made). It stayed there for a few minutes and then shuffled off - we took our eyes off it and couldn't find it again. 

Mister or Mrs Tiggywinkle? - You can't tell easily from just looking at them

Back in April, Emma Walker, a local hedgehog enthusiast (she doesn't like being called an expert, although compared with me she is one),  had written this article (Hedgehogs in Spring) for The Tees Online website, and I remembered that she had mentioned having a special feeding-station in her garden for hedgehogs. 

One of Emma's Hedgehog visitors (photo by Emma Walker)

So yesterday I spent several hours in the afternoon constructing a Hedgehog Restaurant out of some spare wood we had lying around. I have to say that I am quite pleased with the results.

Me with the Black & Decker Jigsaw which made this
actually quite an easy job to do

Stage 1 completed - the frame with a nice little arched doorway

Stage 2 - the baffle is now in place to stop cats being
able to get at the food

Stage 3 - the lid. Just a single sheet of ply-wood held on by three strips of
rubber cut from an old pair of wellies

And what's on the menu - chef's specially selected dry catfood, with
a locally grown wine (okay - it's water) to wash it down

And the final touch - a heavy flower pot on the lid to stop cats being
able to just lift up the lid

The food dish this morning - showing clear evidence of having been
nibbled by something - hopefully a Hedgehog

And now you might be wondering about the slightly cryptic title of this blog-post. Let me explain - 'Urchin' is one of the old country-names that have been used for Hedgehogs in various parts of the UK and Ireland (others being Furze-pig and Hedge-pig). This also explains the origins of the name of the spiky seashore creature called the Sea Urchin. Our species, the European Hedgehog is actually one of 17 species in five different genera which are native to different parts of Europe, Asia and Africa. They are unrelated to the superficially similar Porcupines (which are rodents) and Echidnas (which are Monotromes - bizarre egg-laying mammals related to Duck-billed Platypuses).

Sunday, 11 July 2021

Various ramblings - including camping in the Moors, a few flowers, some ducklings and being temporarily housebound

Last weekend I decided to go for an overnight trip down into the North York Moors - taking my tent with me on my bike and camping somewhere before heading back the next day. The idea for this came because a Black-browed Albatross had been hanging out for a few days at the RSPB's Bempton Cliffs reserve near Bridlington and I thought I might be able to cycle down there to try and get in onto my NMT list. According to Google Maps it would be a 60-something mile journey, going straight through the Moors, so I thought I could probably manage it there and back in two days.

Thankfully, by the time the weekend came, the bird had not been seen for a day or two so I decided on the shorter journey down to Rosedale Abbey, in the heart of the Moors, where there is a really nice campsite that Sue and I stayed at a couple of years ago (and they do a special rate for backpackers (including 'bike-packers'). I say 'thankfully' because I realised long before arriving at Rosedale Abbey that there was absolutely no way I would have made it to Bempton (almost three times as far away from my house).

The route that Google Maps took me on, and which I foolishly followed without checking the steepness of some of the hills, took me up a slope on a Forestry Commission track, called Ingleby Incline, which used to be a railway line for the ironstone quarrying industry. It was so steep that the only way they could get the empty wagons up to the top was by using the full ones going down the parallel track, connected by pulleys, to pull the empty ones up as they descended. I didn't realise this until I got to the bottom of the slope. I managed to push the laden bike (with bags weighing 24kg) a third of the way up before I had to take the bags off and carry/push everything up separately in several stages. Luckily it was a very quiet path used by hardly anyone else, so none of my stuff got nicked when I left it unattended. It took me about an hour to get all my stuff up a mile of track.

Luckily, once I was at the top of Ingleby Incline, most of the rest of the way to Rosedale Abbey was either level or downhill, but nonetheless, when I got to the campsite I had to lie on the ground for a while before attempting to put my tent up. Once I had it up a very friendly couple, Ian and Sue from Doncaster, took pity on me and gave me a very welcome cold beer (Hobgoblin Gold - delicious).

Despite the rigours of the journey I was able to see and hear a lot of birds although, sadly, nothing that was new for my NMT list. I had been hoping that I might add Golden Plover, Redstart and possibly even a Short-eared or Little Owl to the list but the closest I came was a bird calling at the top of High Blakey Moor that I think was probably a Golden Plover. However, I couldn't get a view of it and I started to doubt myself afterwards and wonder if it might just have been a slightly odd-sounding Curlew - a species that seems to be still doing fairly well in the North York Moors (unlike in much of its former range) and which I saw and heard many times over the two days.

Very close to where I heard the possible Golden Plover I came across a lovely Ring Ouzel, my second of the year (see my blog from the 6th of April for more about this species - Other birds I saw or heard included a pair of Stonechats scolding me as I had my lunch (and got my breath back) at the top of Ingleby Incline, good numbers of Yellowhammers, Skylarks and Meadow Pipits still singing, and occasional Lapwings and Oystercatchers in the grassy areas of the moors.

Although I had no new birds for the year I did see a couple of plant species that were new to me - one welcome and one not so welcome. The welcome one was Wood Horsetail (Equisetum sylvaticum). Horsetails are primitive fern-like plants, that reproduce by spores and so don't have flowers. There are several species found in the UK - most are uncommon or rare, although you may know the commonest, Field Horsetail, which is often incorrectly referred to as Mares-tail, and which can be a problem plant if it gets into your garden. Wood Horsetail, however, is one of the less common ones and is usually found in wet woodlands and mountain slopes. It is the only British Horsetail where the 'branches' (the long thin bits coming off the vertical stem) are themselves branched. This gives the plant a rather feathery look, which you can perhaps see in this (rather poor) photograph.

Wood Horsetail in damp woodland above
Rosedale Abbey, North Yorkshire

The other, less welcome, new plant that I saw was an 'alien invader' - a  plant called Alpine Cotula (Cotula alpina) originally from south-east Australia which has started to become established in a few parts of upland England and one area on the north-west coast of Scotland. In England it is mostly found along roadsides in the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors, and doesn't seem to be spreading much from there, but in Scotland it is becoming a bit of a problem by taking over areas of short coastal turf which previously had a great diversity of plant species. I have seen two other species of Cotula (also known as Buttonweeds) in London so as soon as I saw this one I wondered if it was one of these. Not having any books with me (my camping stuff made my bags heavy enough as it was) I couldn't check it properly and later started to doubt myself, deciding instead that it was a young stage of Pineappleweed - another alien invader but one that has been established here for a very long time. It was only when I got home and put the pictures on a Facebook botany group that someone (a very experienced botanist from the Yorkshire Dales) told me what it was.

Alpine Cotula, growing by the roadside above Hob Hole
in the North York Moors. Personally, I think 'Alpine Buttonweed'
would be a better name for this species as the others in the
genus Cotula are called Buttonweeds

Just next to the Cotula were several interesting native plants
including Bog Pimpernel (the pale pink flower in this photo), 
and Common Yellow-sedge (the grass-like plant with the little spiky
flower heads looking like the sort of mace carried by a cartoon
mediaeval knight)

I'll finish this blog with a brief summary of the time since my (exhausting) Moors trip, and explain why I haven't seen very many birds for most of the last week and probably won't before at least Friday of this week.

The day after I got back from Rosedale Abbey Sue and I went to visit two old friends in a small market town in County Durham and while they were there I made a little pilgrimage to the rare plant that I discovered there two years ago and which long-time readers of this blog might remember me writing about back then (Four-leaved Allseed - Polycarpon tetraphyllum). I was very pleased to see the colony still there and looking healthy.

On the Monday I decided to have a day off work and cycled over to Dormans Pool (part of the Saltholme complex of pools and marshes) to try and get a look at some Bearded Tits that had been seen a couple of times in the preceding days. This is a pretty rare species in Britain and is restricted to reedbeds. I've been trying to see them at Dormans since I started my NMT list, but have had no luck, mainly because they are shy birds that stay hidden in the reeds most of the time. Sadly, despite standing at the edge of the reedbed for an hour and a half I only saw Reed Buntings, Reed Warblers and lots of the usual waterbirds, although a Marsh Harrier did brighten up the day. On the way home I saw several species of ducks with young, including my first ever sighting of Pochard ducklings. 

Adult female Pochard (right-hand bird) with four well grown ducklings -
Saltholme area, 5th July 2021.
There was another group of younger, still fluffy, Pochard ducklings in the
same place but I didn't get any good photos

Adult female Gadwall with ducklings - Saltholme area, 5th July 2021.

Adult female Shelduck with well grown young - Billingham Beck, 5th July 2021

Great Crested Grebe chick - Saltholme area, 5th July 2021. This one is
quite well grown but still retains some of the stripeyness that makes the
young ones look like mint humbugs

Even more sadly than not seeing Bearded Tits, on arriving home I learned that one of my family members had tested positive for Covid and that we would all have to isolate in the house for at least the next ten days - which explains why I haven't seen many birds since then and probably won't til at least the end of the week. Thankfully, the person who has Covid is young and fit and is so far not seriously ill and the rest of us have had at least one dose of the vaccine. Also, so far, none of the rest of us have tested positive, so maybe we'll be free on Friday. In the meantime I'm spending as much time as I can in the garden, learning a new appreciation of Herring Gulls and the occasional Swift, and keeping my eyes open for something exciting like an overflying Osprey or a  Black-browed Albatross talking a little excursion from Bempton Cliffs.