Monday, 29 March 2021

Some more "Non-motorised Birds" - Including "Super-Bird"

 A male Northern Wheatear aka "SUPER-BIRD"  at South Gare 
(read on to find out why they deserve this title)

Hi everybody. Sorry it's been a couple of weeks since I last blogged. I wanted to wait until I had a few more birds to talk about that were new for my NMT list. Since my last post on the 15th of March I have been to South Gare (twice), done an evening visit to Ormesby Hall to look for owls, and spent quite a bit of time around the 'becks' of East Middlesbrough. In that time I have added 8 new species to my non-motorised bird list for the year, bringing it up to 112, as of yesterday.

On the 17th of March I celebrated St. Patrick's day by going in search of a bird which doesn't actually exist in Ireland - the Tawny Owl (although as St Patrick is thought to have grown up in Britain he probably saw and heard it in his childhood). I braved the wind and went out, just as it was turning dark, for a bike ride to a few likely places. I started by heading down to Grove Hill and along part of Marton West Beck, crossed the beck at Devil's Bridge and down to the old Nature's World site, where I knew Tawny Owls had been calling recently. Maybe because I was too early in the evening, or perhaps for another reason, I didn't hear any owls - I could only get to the edge of the site as it was locked up for the night, but the hoots usually carry a long way so if they were in there calling I would have expected to hear them. From there I went along Ladgate Lane, through quite a bit of woodland (Tawny Owls' favourite habitat) but still no owls. A quick diversion into the north-west corner of the grounds of Ormesby Hall (a National Trust property) also drew a blank so I decided to go round to the other side of grounds - along Ladgate Lane and up Church Lane. This is a very quiet, badly lit road (it was pitch dark by now) which leads up into the back of Ormesby village. I hadn't gone very far before I was rewarded with the distant hoot of a Tawny Owl, and then another one a bit closer (or maybe the same one). Number 105.

A few days later, on the 20th March I made the trip to South Gare for the second time this year. Thankfully it was a lovely day with none of the ice that made the last trip a little 'interesting' (or foolhardy maybe). Before getting to the Gare I made a detour/ short-cut through the Tees Valley Wildlife Trust's Coatham Marsh Reserve. Although I didn't get any new birds for the list here, it was lovely to cycle past the lakes and waterways and I saw lots of waterbirds, including a few Pochard, a singing male Reed Bunting and a couple of Little Grebes (aka Dabchicks, which I also heard making their distinctive whinnying 'song'). 

Two Pochard - the male above and the female below. Photo
taken 6th of March 2021 at Greenabella Marsh

Once I got to the Gare I didn't have far to go before I saw a couple of birders standing looking at something behind the fence around the old blast-furnace. It was #106, a Little Ringed Plover. Before the 1930's this migratory wader (which was in Africa a few weeks ago having spent the winter there) was a rare vagrant to Britain. Around that time there was an increase in the number of old gravel pits and quarries that were being flooded to create small lakes. These, as well as other man-made reservoirs, had many gravelly shores and islands, which made excellent breeding habitat for the Little Ringed Plover. It quickly spread, after successfully nesting here for the first time in 1938. It now nests at many sites across England and Wales, with maybe as many as 1,300 pairs. Like the much commoner Common Ringed Plover it is a stocky little bird which is light brown above, and white below, with a black neck collar. Unlike its cousin though, the LRP (as birders call them) has dull pinkish (not orange) legs, no orange on the bill, and,  in breeding adults, a distinctive yellow ring around each eye.

Having had a good long look at the LRP I went on to the end of the Gare - stopping briefly to look at some Redshanks, Oystercatchers and Curlew on Bran Sands on the way. I later heard that I had just missed a couple of Avocets on the beach - they were flushed by a dog just before I got there. From the very tip of the Gare I managed to pick out a distant Guillemot (Common Murre to any readers in North America), still in its winter plumage. This was NMT bird number 107 and was closely followed by #108, a Rock Pipit (appropriately on the rocks) and #109, a Stonechat, in the bushes and long grass at the end of the road. While watching the Stonechat I could hear a Skylark singing his heart out above me and also managed to get this nice picture of a lovely male Common Eider just offshore.

From South Gare I went along the coast to Redcar Beach, where I was hoping to add Common Ringed Plover to the year list, but no luck, although I did count around 200 Sanderling, over 100 Turnstones and 4 Purple Sandpipers, among the hundreds of dog walkers and other people enjoying the nice weather

On the 24th of March, while actually at work (showing my colleague Caspar around the new Nature Reserve in North Ormesby), Caspar, pointed to something inside an abandoned shopping trolley that had been dumped in Ormesby Beck. It was a Water Rail (NMT #110), thankfully not trapped in the trolley. It scuttled away into the reeds, quickly followed by a second one which came from a different direction. These are the first that I've actually seen on my local patch, although another birder messaged me a week before this to say that he'd seen and heard one in the exact same spot.

The last two NMT 'ticks' (tick=a new bird for a list), were both seen yesterday. The first of these, Common Ringed Plover (at last), was represented by three birds apparently displaying to each other at a potential breeding site about a mile and a half from my house. Last year I saw one at the same site that seemed to be guarding a nest, although I never proved breeding success. I am planning several visits there later in the season to see if I they nest again (although it's rough ground, they are small brownish birds, and the closest possible viewpoint is 100 metres away, so it might still be hard to prove if they do). 

It was still early in the day when I'd finished looking at all the best birding spots within easy reach of my house, so I carried on along the Teesdale Way to Coatham Marsh and South Gare. I had a little walk around the 'slag plateaux' in the middle of the Gare, looking for Wheatears and other migrants but it was extremely windy by this time and I saw very few birds in this exposed area. Not wanting to lengthen the already long ride home against the wind, I decided to turn around at this point instead of going to the end of the Gare, but kept checking every bit of flat open ground as I went, as these are the places where Wheatears are often seen during the migration periods. 

This diligence paid off and I got lovely views of two male Northern Wheatears (known as just 'Wheatear' to British birders as it's the only one we get usually) and was even able to get some pictures of one of them -  number 112 for my NMT year-list. This small bird in the Chat Family (a bit bigger than a European Robin) is often one of the first migrant songbirds that birders see in the spring, after they (the birds, not the birders) have made the journey from their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa. 

If this seems like a long way for a small bird to migrate, the British-breeding birds have got nothing on the two populations of the species that breed in North America. The ones that nest in eastern Canada fly, in autumn, through Greenland, Iceland and then across mainland Europe and the Sahara Desert, And back again in spring. However, the western population, which nests in Alaska and the Yukon Territory of Canada, is now thought to have the longest migration route of any passerine (songbird) species. 

Recent studies, using electronic tracking devices, showed that some of the Alaskan birds travelled around 15,000 km (over 9,000 miles) in spring and again in autumn. As some birds breed further east in the Yukon it seems likely that these ones have an even longer journey (although it is possible that they winter further north in Africa). 

The tracked birds travelled on average 290km per day. Long-distance cyclist Mark Beamont apparently averaged 390km a day during his amazing "Around the World in 80 Days" feat in 2017 ( - he actually did it in under 79 days) , but he was a 6 foot 3 inch adult human, weighing about 90 kilos, and moreover, he had a support team following him with food, drinks and medical assistance. The Wheatear weighs about the same as 5 teaspoons of sugar (25 grams) and has to do it without any support team. In the case of young birds in the autumn they have to navigate completely by instinct, having never done the journey before, and if that isn't hard enough, (and in common with most passerine migrants) they do it mostly at night!!! Truly a SUPER-BIRD

Northern Wheatear (male) at South Gare. The name has nothing to do with
cereal crops and in fact comes from the Anglo-Saxon for "White-Arse"
referring to the big white patch on the rump and tail, which is often all
you see as the bird flies away. 

Monday, 15 March 2021

Bike and Boots Birding - woo hooo! The century has been reached and exceeded

Rather than describe every detail of my birding over the weekend I will just list the new NMT (Non-Motorised Transport year list, for those of you that are coming late to this blog) birds and say something about each of them, and then maybe mention a few other birds I saw.

#99 - Red-legged Partridge at Smith's Dock, South Bank, Redcar & Cleveland, on Saturday the 13th of March. This was at the very furthest point of my walk on Saturday (actually beyond the furthest point), scuttling out of sight up the bank of the River Tees. Quick view but long enough to see all the distinguishing features -  black necklace on an otherwise mostly grey and beige  bird with a roundish compact body and protruding head. This is the partridge that is often depicted on Christmas cards illustrating the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas". However, this bird was unknown in Britain before the 1700s, when it was brought over from its native range in mainland Europe (for which reason it used to be known as the French Partridge).

#100 (Way-hay, Party tiiiimmeee πŸ˜ƒπŸ˜ƒπŸ˜ƒ) - American Wigeon on Port Clarence Flood (part of the Saltholme complex of pools). This was a proper twitch for a pretty rare bird (although I combined it with  normal birding in the area) - this bird has been hanging out with some of the hundreds of Eurasian Wigeon in the North Tees Marshes for the last week or so. As its name suggests, the American Wigeon is more usually found on the other side of the Atlantic where it is a very common bird across most of North America. In the UK, although it is rare, there are always a few scattered around the country for most of any given winter but the chances of one being within easy cycling distance of my house is fairly small so I'm very pleased with this addition to my year-list. Sadly it was too distant to get a photo of. It's similar in size, shape and behaviour to its commoner relative but the male (of which this was one) is easy to tell apart by its white forehead (giving it the colloquial name of 'Baldpate' in its home range)  and green band through the eye. Thanks very much to the birder who found the bird and showed it to me - I don't know your name but I am very grateful.

#101 - Whooper Swan on Dorman's Pool. I thought I'd missed my chance for an easy Whooper Swan for the year and would have to rely on the possibilty of catching a migrating flock in flight (and I have to admit I'm still not very confident at identifying them in flight). Thankfully a few days ago this one showed up at Dorman's Pool and lingered until yesterday (it seems to have gone now so I was lucky). Unlike our resident Mute Swans (but like the smaller Bewick's Swan), this species only comes here in the winter and spends the summer much further north (mostly Iceland in the case of Whoopers). 

An adult Whooper Swan at Dorman's Pool, 14th March 2021. The bill is
distinctly different from that of Mute Swan (see the picture a Mute, below). The
neck is often held straight (again, unlike a Mute) but this one was feeding very
actively in one spot, putting its neck below the surface of the water, and I
caught it halfway up (or down)

#102 - Marsh Harrier (at last) - flew over the road as I was cycling along. For the last few weeks I kept dipping on Marsh Harriers (birder-speak for not seeing something) in my trips north of the Tees - other people kept seeing them (on one occasion one flew over my head but I knew nothing about it until someone showed me the picture on his camera (at a safe distance of course)). This is a beautiful bird of prey, similar in size to a Common Buzzard but longer-winged, more slender, and definitely more graceful. Like the Avocets that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago (as well as in this article, the Marsh Harrier probably went extinct as a breeding bird in the UK in the late 19th Century, and also like Avocet has had a great turnaround in its fortunes, with an estimated 400 pairs breeding here now at scattered locations around England, Scotland and Wales.  I didn't get a photo of it but hopefully will have another chance at some point - if I do I'll share it in a future blog.

#103 - Yellowhammer at Cowpen Bewley Woodland Park. This is one those birds that visiting birders to the UK from North America often want to see, just because of its name. It is similar in size and shape to a House Sparrow, although not very closely related (Yellowhammers are buntings) and they look very different. The breeding males have bright yellow heads and bellies, with streaky brown, black and rusty red plumage on the rest of the bird. Females, and males in winter, are much more streaky with the yellow being less obvious. The one I saw on Sunday was a very bright male but he was skulking at the bottom of a bush under a very impressive array of bird-feeders. He didn't linger long enough for me to get a photo, so I've used some that my friend Rich Prior took at his home in France, where he get large numbers at his feeders - these show nicely how much the amount of yellow can vary. The first one is (I think) an adult winter-plumage male, while the second (with hardly any yellow, looks to me like a female in its first year (I may be wrong though). The third picture shows a mixture of the sexes and ages.

 ⓒ Rich Prior

 ⓒ Rich Prior

 ⓒ Rich Prior

As well as the Yellowhammer the feeders had attracted several other species, including Great, Blue, Coal and Long-tailed Tits (Marsh Tits are sometimes seen there but sadly not by me on this occasion), a few Chaffinches, a lovely male Bullfinch and at least 27 Tree Sparrows - the largest number of this species that I have seen in one place in the UK for at least 30 years (possibly ever).

Four of the 27 (maybe more) Eurasian Tree Sparrows that were at Cowpen Bewley
Woodland Park on Sunday

I don't use the word 'cute' very often, but I have to admit that Long-tailed Tits are 
extremely cute. They often travel around in large groups, especially in the autumn
and winter, making their little 'drrr, drrr' calls to each other fairly constantly

While I was sitting watching the bird-feeders at Cowpen Bewley, I spotted something out of the corner of my eye - a dark shape in the sky which turned out to be my last new NMT-bird of the day. It was...

#104 - Common Buzzard. As with the Marsh Harrier, I have missed seeing this common raptor (a bird of prey NOT a dinosaur) several times recently when I thought I was going to. The name Buzzard can lead to confusion for birders from other countries - in North America, birds in the genus Buteo (as Common Buzzard is) are just called Hawks and buzzard is an old word for what are now called New-World Vultures, such as the Turkey Vulture. To add to the confusion 'Busard' is the French word for Harriers, while the word for members of the genus Buteo is 'Buse' (presumably 'Buses' is the plural, which might explain why you often see several together having not seen any for ages). On this occasion, however, there was only one.

All photos   Colin Conroy unless otherwise stated.

Friday, 12 March 2021

Avocets, Thrushes, Snow Buntings and a winter flower - four articles I have written recently

It's been a while since I've shared the links for my posts on The Tees Online ( - the local website that I write articles (well, blogs basically) on once a month. Below are the links for the last four (including one that went live today), plus a few of the photos to give you a taster before you click.

Close-up of an Avocet - photo by Dave Barlow

Fieldfare on the hunt for worms (probably) at Cowpen Marsh
- photo by Colin Conroy

Common Whitlowgrass flowers - photo by Kevin Widdowson

Snow Buntings at South Gare - photo by Colin Conroy

Saturday, 6 March 2021

Three more NMT birds on a cycle ride to Seaton Common and North Gare

This will probably be a shorter than usual blog-post today as I saw many of the same birds as last week, in the same places (Saltholme area, Greatham Creek and Seal Sands). However,  I went a bit further this time and did a loop down the Zinc Works Road, along the beach to the North Gare pier and back through the middle of the lovely, desolate area of wetland and grassland that is Seaton Common, on the road from North Gare car park. 

As I cycled along, despite the overcast and fairly cold weather, I heard lots of birds singing - Robins, Dunnocks, Wrens, Greenfinches, Chaffinches and, as I got closer to Seaton Common, several Skylarks. I was looking out for large birds of prey, particularly as I rode past Saltholme and Cowpen Marsh, as I still haven't seen Marsh Harrier or Common Buzzard this year, and both of these are being reported regularly in this area at the moment. However, I managed to miss them both again today and the only birds of prey I saw were two Kestrels and a disappearing shape that was probably a Sparrowhawk.

I stopped briefly next to the Fire Station just past Saltholme because I had heard the sharp 'chack' call of a Great Spotted Woodpecker. I found the bird easily two-thirds of the way up one of the few trees, but it flew off after a few seconds and I carried on.

Arriving at the bottom of the Zinc Works Road (just next to Hartlepool Power Station) I soon spotted two photographers with massive lenses, who I rightly guessed were looking at one of my target species for the trip. Keeping my distance from the photographers and the hoards of dog walkers, I was able to get some of my best ever (and certainly easiest) views of Twite (NMT #96). A flock of up to 50 of these small finches (very like the much commoner Linnet) was feeding on a small path (I think the photographers must have been putting down seed for them to eat, so as to make it easier to get photographs). Consequently I was able to get a few reasonably good pictures (see the bottom of this post). 

Moving on - there was very little in the way of avian life on the beach and on the sea (lots of human life though). Seaton Common however was full of birds, although mostly of a small number of species - 100s of Eurasian Wigeon (there were probably a couple of thousand in the whole area I passed through today), a few hundred Curlew in several flocks and Lapwings almost everywhere.

On the way home I saw two more new species for the NMT list - #97 Lesser Black-backed Gull, and #98 Green Sandpiper. Lesser Black-backed Gull is a very common gull in the UK but is actually quite a scarce bird in Teesside in the winter so it was good to see a few fairly distant ones on Dorman's Pool, just east of Saltholme. Green Sandpiper is a pretty little wader - nearly black above, with a contrasting white rump which shows up clearly when the bird flies. I saw one on the low-tide mud at the edge of Billingham Beck just before it flows into the River Tees.

I had been hoping to reach the magic 100 today but sadly it was not to be. However, I was really glad to catch up with Twite before they disappear off to breed, mostly to the north of here (although some do breed in the Pennines and in North Wales.

Some of about 35 Twite that I counted (although up to 50 have been seen here
in the last few days). The bird at the top  is a male Reed Bunting that I decided
not to crop out of the picture

Twite look quite similar to their close relative, the Common Linnet. That species, 
however, never have the pinky buff face of a Twite, or the yellow bill (although 
Twites only have this in autumn and winter - it's dark grey in the breeding season).
This one appears to have a pinkish rump (the area just above the
tail), meaning that it should be a male (at least according to the books).
The colour-rings on this bird (which I didn't notice until I started writing this
post), were put there by ringers to make it possible to identify individual birds
without them having to be caught. 

Monday, 1 March 2021

Cycle ride to Saltholme and Seal Sands again

Yesterday my officially permitted lockdown exercise took me north of the Tees on my bike again.

It was exactly two weeks since I last went to Saltholme and Seal Sands and it could not have been a more different day - last time it was frrrrrreezing, with snow on the ground everywhere, only small areas of open water and strong winds in my face for much of the time.

This time it was sunny and warm (except at the very start of the day), with only a light breeze, and once I left Port Clarence and started heading north along Seaton Carew Road there were birds EVERYWHERE!

I spent most of my time looking at all the different bodies of water that are visible from the road around Saltholme itself. At the first stop, in the space of a few minutes I added Pintail, Black-tailed Godwit, Goldeneye, Pink-footed Goose and Avocet to the NMT year-list. Avocets are delicate, long-legged, black-and-white waders, with amazing upturned beaks, and I was quite excited about them as I hadn't realised they returned to Saltholme this early in the year (it turns out that they regularly show up in late February). While I was watching the Avocets, on the area known as 'Port Clarence Flood', I spotted a large white bird wading in the water. I quickly realised that it was too big to be a Little Egret and not the right shape for a Great Egret (one of which had been reported from the area yesterday). When it lifted its head I was able to get a good view of the bizarre protruberance that is a Spoonbill's bill. These are not unknown in the Saltholme area but I hadn't heard of any since last autumn so I was really pleased to find it. It was very distant but the bird later moved to a different pool where I got some photos of it.

Eurasian Spoonbill - hiding its bill but showing its distinctive horizontal
resting posture which, along with its crazy 'hairstyle' distinguishes it from
a resting Great Egret. Just visible on this photo are the leg rings that this
bird was sporting - put there by scientists in either the Netherlands or
Belgium apparently

Unfortunately I cut off the bottom of the bird in this pic but did manage
to capture the amazing spoon-shaped bill

After finding my first Little Egret for the year, I moved on to Saltholme East Pool. I quickly found more Little Egrets and a Great Egret (exactly where another birder had told me it was). It was really nice to see these two right next to each other - showing very clearly how much bigger the Great Egret is, as well as the different bill colours (black in Little Egret, yellow in Great). At this point I should say something about the name of the latter. Most British birders call this species 'Great White Egret' but the internationally accepted name is Great Egret, and as nearly all egrets are white I am using this name here. 

Great Egret showing its yellow bill, and giving a good size comparison
with a Mallard (which is roughly a similar size to a Little Egret)

A cropped shot of a distant Little Egret,
showing the black bill and yellow feet

Great and Little Egrets together - the best shot I could get showing
the size difference

Saltholme East also held many ducks including more Goldeneye, lots of Tufted Ducks and at least three male Pochard. This last was another new bird for the NMT list, as was Great Crested Grebe (not a duck although superficially a bit like one).

A male Common Goldeneye. This beautiful little diving duck breeds in northern forest lakes and
rivers in a wide band across nearly the whole northern hemisphere. A small number breed in the
north of Scotland where they use specially provided nest-boxes, placed in trees to mimic the natural
cavities that they use elsewhere in their range

Now widespread in the UK, the Great Crested Grebe (in the foreground in this picture
- the bird behind is a tufted duck) nearly went extinct in Britain in the 19th century because
of a somewhat surprising fashion  -  their breast skin, complete with the soft white
feathers, were used as a fur substitute (known as 'Grebe Fur') in ladies' couture.
This was one of the things that led to the establishment of the RSPB. 

After Saltholme I carried on north to Greatham Creek and Seal Sands, stopping briefly at Cowpen Marsh on the way to look at a small group of White-fronted Geese that were feeding in a field with several Greylag Geese (descendants of escaped domestic birds). White-fronts (as we call them) are largely grey-brown but have black bars on the belly and a band of white at the base of the bill (from which they get their name). There are two sub-species that come to Britain and Ireland - one from Greenland and the other from Arctic Russia. These were Russian ones, with smallish, pink bills (Greenland White-fronts have longer, orange bills and spend the winter in western Scotland and Ireland).

The pools and mud in front of the view-screens at Greatham Creek had a good number of common gulls, ducks and waders on them (including about 30 Knots), although nothing new for my year-list. The vast mudflats of Seal Sands held, along with another 7 Avocets and some Shelducks, a few distant Bar-tailed Godwits. On the way back up to the road, before heading home, I took another look at some Redshanks in one of the pools next to the track and spotted  one that was much whiter looking, with a longer bill and behaving slightly differently - a Spotted Redshank! My thirteenth and last new species of the day and number 95 for the NMT year-list.