Saturday, 24 April 2021

Garganey, 'Gropper' and other migrants - The NMT hits 125 with lots of summer visitors still to come

It's the 24th of April and I've just realised that it is over two weeks, and 6 new NMT birds, since I last gave you an update, so here goes.

The weather has been really weird here since I last blogged - we had a lovely warm(ish) spell, followed by snow on the 11th of April and bitter cold for a few days and now we've had dry sunny weather for at least a week which looks like continuing for a couple more days before we get some much needed rain.

Consequently, it hasn't always felt like Spring, and it seems that the birds have felt that too, as there are several common Spring migrants that I have yet to see - including Swallow, House Martin, Whitethroat and Reed Warbler (even though these species are now present in the area, at least in small numbers).

On Saturday the 10th I was in the North Tees Marshes again. Having missed a Garganey at Holme Fleet the Saturday before by getting there too late in the day (it's quite a shy species and this one stayed hidden in the reeds once all the noisy birders were stood around gabbing), I was really glad that it stuck around all week, so I set off while it was still light. I was the first birder there and got a brief view of it (but long enough to get a few photos) before it disappeared into the reeds again. Garganey is a small duck which, unlike most of our ducks, visits the UK in the summer and spends the cold months in Africa. The male is a handsome bird with a dark brown head except for the thick white stripe on the head and neck going back from the eye. The female however, which this was, is much plainer and can be quite hard to separate from a female Eurasian Teal. It does have a more strongly marked head though, which can just be seen on my rather blurry photo, below. This was number 120 for the list.

Garganey is thought to breed in the Teesside area but they are very inconspicuous
during the nesting season so I was quite lucky to see this one before it disappeared 
off to wherever it decides to nest.

Continuing north from Holme Fleet I visited the  birdwatching screens and hides at Greatham Creek, Seal Sands and 'The Long Drag' (yes that is what it is called, and it feels it if you're on foot at the end of a long day's birding). There were several common species of waders on the mud in various places and 4 Red-breasted Mergansers at Seal Sands (the tide was quite high) but nothing new for the list until I was nearly back at the road  - at which point 2 Grey Partridges (NMT #121) flew across the path and into a field where I got nice views but no photos. This once very common farmland bird is now on the Red List for Birds of Conservation Concern as its populations has declined severely in recent decades. As its name suggests it has a lot of grey in its plumage but is nonetheless quite pretty with an orange face patch and dark reddish-brown on the belly. On the way home I spent quite a while birding around the Saltholme area and was able to get much better views than I had previously of the two rare ducks that have been lingering here - Green-winged Teal and American Wigeon, and was able to get some usable pictures of the latter. I was chuffed to realise afterwards that I had seen 14 species of duck in one day (if you include Shelduck as a duck - some people put them in a different group), which I think is pretty good going.

from left - male and female Eurasian Wigeon and male American Wigeon

Female Eurasian (left) and male American (right) Wigeon

After a nice clear day and a warm afternoon, we had a small snowfall that night and the next morning a trip to my local patch (the new Middle Marsh Nature Reserve) was a visit to a winter wonderland - nonetheless, I heard my first Willow Warbler (#122) of the year - newly arrived from Africa. Like the Northern Wheatear that I mention in an earlier blog, the Willow Warbler is a very long distance migrant, with some populations flying from southern Africa to far eastern Russia to breed in the spring, and back again in autumn. This is a small greenish-yellow warbler which is quite hard to distinguish froma Chiffchaff, by sight. The songs, however, are completely different, and the lovely, descending, liquid warble (too many adjectives? 😊) told me that this one was a Willow Warbler.  Also of interest that day were three Guillemots and a Harbour Seal giving nice views to anyone who walked round the Middlesbrough Dock basin, and very excitingly for me - the news that two of the local nature-lovers had seen (and even managed to get video footage of) a Water Vole ('Ratty' from The Wind in the Willows) on the beck in Middle Marsh. I knew they were upstream in Berwick Hills and Park End but I didn't think they were this far down the beck corridor. This is another creature which has suffered terrible losses in the UK in recent decades but seems now to be making a slow recovery.

On the 17th, for the 3rd Saturday in a row I went north of the Tees but this time spent the whole day in the Saltholme area, visiting most of the good birding places two or three times and taking the opportunity to linger in some beautiful spots, enjoying the birds and the sunshine. The day started off, when it was only just getting light with the monotonous 'fishing-reel' (or 'bicycle wheel' if you prefer) song of a Grasshopper Warbler across the road from Dorman's Pool. I didn't manage to see this elusive, streaky brown warbler (known by many birders as the 'gropper'), but while I was listening to it, one of the other birders pointed out a Barn Owl hunting a little way behind it. I saw what was almost certainly the same bird a couple more times, including carrying a prey item (probably a vole and probably back to its nest). The two blurry photos below were the best  could manage, I'm afraid. These two species were #123 & 124 for my non-motorised bird list.


The last new NMT bird for the day was Ruff - a medium sized wader which gets its name from the flamboyant head and neck feathers of the breeding males. There was a small group right on the other side of one of the Saltholme pools, shimmering in the heat haze. There had been reports of a Yellow Wagtail (another newly arrived migrant) in the same area but I was unable to find it.

In the days since then I have been out in the field a lot with work, including several visits to my local patch - the new Middle Marsh Nature Reserve in North Ormesby. Although I haven't seen any more new NMT birds I have added two species to the list for the Middle Marsh area - Gadwall (a pair on the beck while I was doing a Facebook live broadcast last Sunday) and a Common Sandpiper, which I saw while showing two visiting ecologists round the site for the first time. I think this brings the bird-list for the site to 64 species. 

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Tuesday, 6 April 2021

One rare(ish) bird, "What is an Ouzel?" and a mini-essay on grouse moor management

Spring is here but the weather is still quite wintry (with a few warm days) and a lot of the winds have been coming from the northern quarter of the compass. Possibly as a result of this, the spring migrants have been relatively thin on the ground and have taken a bit of an effort to find.

After the Wheatears that I saw on the 28th of March, the next spring migrant to be added to my NMT list for the year was Sand Martin (NMT #113 on the 31st of March), represented by a flock of at least 44 feeding on aerial insects over Portrack Marsh in Stockton-on-Tees, on one of the few warm days. Although a few birders round here have seen Swallow and House Martin (both close relatives of the Sand Martin) I have yet to connect with either.

On Saturday I went north of the Tees again, despite the fairly strong northerly wind and had a lovely day's birding around the Saltholme and Greatham Creek areas. There were lots of birds around (I saw 65 species and there were others that I missed), but as I had seen most of them on previous visits, I only added two species to the NMT list. 

The first of these is the "rare(ish) bird" mentioned in the title of this blog - a Green-winged Teal. This is the North American version of our Common (or Eurasian) Teal, which is now recognised by the International Ornithological Congress (IOC) as a separate species (they used to be considered sub-species). I say "rare(ish)" because, as with the American Wigeon that I saw in mid-March (see there are always a few Green-winged Teals knocking about the country, and this bird (or another one) has been visiting Saltholme every winter for at least 10 years now. It is distinguished from 'our' Teal by the vertical white bar on the sides of the breast and the absence of an obvious horizontal white line. This is visible from quite a long distance - a good thing for me as the bird  was nearly 400m away in a slight heat-haze.

The second new NMT bird for that day was the Common Sandpiper which had been eluding me every time I stopped at Billingham Beck  on the way to and from Saltholme. Most of our Common Sandpipers spend the winter around the Mediterraneam or further south but some occasionally over-winter here. Consequently, I am not sure if this bird was an early spring migrant or one that has been here since last year. 

Also of interest on Saturday were another Spoonbill at Saltholme, and a White Wagtail (this is the  more widespread version of the species that includes our Pied Wagtail - as I'm only counting full species for the NMT it doesn't count on the list). I had assumed that this was the same bird I saw at the end of February but pictures taken by better photographers than me (enabling reading of the rings) have shown that there have been at least three different Spoonbills at Saltholme so far this year.

Today (Tuesday the 6th of April) I took advantage of a day off to make what I think is my longest NMT journey so far this year (certainly the hardest, with strong northerly winds, snow showers and some very steep hills), into the North York Moors National Park.

Having made it up the whole of Ormesby Bank (10% slope in some places), non-stop for the first time, I headed to a little village with a stream running through it where I know that Dippers breed, and, ta-daah, before I'd even got off my bike I'd seen one sitting in the middle of the stream under the bridge. Dippers are Passerines (songbirds) but unlike most songbirds they spend their whole lives in or near water, and actually submerge themselves completely when searching for insect larvae and other aquatic creatures on which they feed.

There are 5 species of Dipper in the world, all very similar in size, shape,
and lifestyle, but varying in plumage a bit. The full name of our species
is White-throated Dipper and it is found in fast-flowing streams across most
of Europe and parts of central and western Asia 

When I first saw the wood and wire fence hanging down from this bridge
(a couple of weeks ago), I worried that it might put the Dippers off from breeding
here this year (I don't remember it being there on previous visits), and possibly 
even lead to the birds being injured. It doesn't seem to have done so and this
bird flewaway safely after I had watched it for a few minutes

From the Dipper site I headed up into the edge of the Moors to the outskirts of Kildale village, where I again struck lucky as soon as I arrived at my destination. My target species was a Ring Ouzel, which as well as being my second new NMT bird of the day, was also my second 'ouzel' (actually, now that I think about it, it was my third ouzel of the day - read on to see why). This brings us to the question in the title of this blog - What is an Ouzel? The Ring Ouzel is a bird in the Thrush family, very similar in size and shape to our common Blackbird, but with a large white crescent on the chest (clearest in the males) and white edges to the wing and belly feathers. It is a summer visitor to uplands in the UK and so is sometimes known by the old name 'Mountain Blackbird'. Interestingly, the previous species I talked about, the Dipper, used to be called the Water Ouzel.  The name Ouzel comes from the Old English word 'Osle', and was originally applied to the widespread Eurasian Blackbird, which is why I realised as I was writing this that I actually saw three species of Ouzel today.

The bright white chest crescent on this otherwise mostly black bird, 
marks it out as a male Ring Ouzel. This was one of three that were found
 at the weekend, but despite struggling to the top of a hill in a bitterly cold
wind I was unable to find the others [after getting home I learned that the
others were still there and have now been joined by a fourth]

Immediately after spotting the Ring Ouzel I saw and heard a Red Grouse (NMT#118). Similarly to Pied Wagtail, this is actually the British and Irish subspecies of a much more widespread species - the Willow Grouse (known as Willow Ptarmigan in North America where its range stretches from Alaska to Newfoundland, making it a good candidate, surely, for the title of most widespread game-bird in its natural range).

If you are a fan of Famous Grouse whisky you should recognise this
bird from the picture on the bottle. I took this picture in November
2018, in almost exactly the same spot as I saw today's bird

Red Grouse seen through the smoke from a controlled heather burn -
November 2018

Although Red Grouse is a wild, native bird in the UK, it is much more numerous than it would be if the moors weren't carefully managed by regular burning of the heather for the industry that is 'Driven Grouse-shooting'. Although burning encourages the young growth of heather, on which the grouse feed, when done over a whole landscape, as it is in huge areas of upland Britain, it creates a very uniform habitat and has many negative effects on moorland ecosystems. These include changes to peat hydrology, chemistry and physical properties, changes to the chemistry of water in rivers and streams, killing of trees and shrubs, the reduction of the diversity and extent of boggy areas and the consequent diminution of the whole web of moorland life, from the invertebrates to large birds. There have also been many documented instances of illegal killing of birds of prey by game-keepers on grouse-shooting estates, and despite being a National Park, the North York Moors is notorious for this. Consequently, while I was on actual heather moorland today I saw very few bird species, and no large birds of prey - there should be Common Buzzard, Hen Harrier, Short-eared Owl and Merlin but sadly they are very hard to find in much of the moors. 

Having tried and failed to see more Ring Ouzels, I retreated to a (slightly) lower altitude where I started to see more birds again - Lapwings, Curlews, Oystercatchers (all upland-breeding waders), my only Mistle Thrush of the day, and, in a small area of open deciduous woodland, I heard my first Green Woodpeckers of the year (bringing the NMT-list to 119). Unlike our other two British woodpecker species, Green Woodpecker mostly feeds on the ground (ants being its main food), although it still deserves the name woodpecker as it excavates its nest holes in tree-trunks. The call of this species is an unmistakeable loud laughing sound, which gives it its old country name of Yaffle. Readers of my generation may remember the children's TV programme Bagpuss which featured a character called Professor Yaffle - 'an old wooden bookend in the shape of a woodpecker'. Judging by his name he must have been a Green Woodpecker (although being made of wood, he was entirely brown).

I went home (into the teeth of a northerly gale) via the imposing (and visible for miles around) monument to Captain Cook near Great Ayton (read more about this, here Although I didn't add any more new species to my year-list I did hear several flocks of Siskins in the conifers, and saw my only Rook of the day as I was hurtling down the steep hill into Great Ayton.