Now that we're getting into the middle of the year, and I've seen most of the common (and several uncommon) birds that can be found in and around Teesside it is getting harder and harder to find new species for my Non-Motorised Transport (NMT) year list. Over the last three weekends I've done three fairly long and gruelling (for me) trips totalling about 140 miles and added 7 new species to my list.
The first two - Corn Bunting and Yellow Wagtail - were probably the two birds I've worked hardest for so far this year (although it is a close run thing with the last two). This involved a very early rise and a long ride up into the wilds of County Durham (actually not all that wild - quite pleasant-looking countryside really). I lost my way several times on the way there and had to push the bike for a long stretch because of signs saying 'no cycling' on a private road which was a public footpath but not a bridleway (the signs were very clear and very unfriendly so I didn't rule out the possibility of there being hidden cameras and an angry land-owner with dogs). It was even worse on the way back as I went down a track marked as a 'public byway with access for all vehicles' - in order to avoid the unfriendly footpath of the outward journey and also minimise the amount of busy A-road I went on. Unfortunately this byway turned out to be a 2 kilometre long mud-bath, as a result of which I had to take the bike wheels off twice to clean them enough to keep them turning and eventually carried the bike (and my panniers) for about 700m.
Despite all this, I think it was worth it. Corn Bunting is now a very scarce bird in the UK. It used to be a common farmland bird over much of lowland Britain but between 1970 and 2003 numbers are thought to have fallen by 89%, due, probably, to changes in farming practices and also possibly because of lower numbers of the insects with which they feed their young. The species is still just about hanging on in parts of County Durham and North Yorkshire and it was one of these remaining pockets, that was my destination on this trip. If you google Corn Bunting you will find pictures of a not-very-exciting-looking plump brown bird (its plumpness giving rise to its old country name 'Fat bird of the barley'). However, it has a very distinctive song which sounds like a bunch of keys being jangled. I had been told three different possible places that I might hear them and it was in the last of these that I struck gold and heard the jingle. It sounded quite close but it took me a few minutes to find the bird - sitting on an overhead wire right next to (and in the shadow of) the pole. I heard another one singing in a different place a bit later although I didn't get to see it.
|This was the best picture of the Corn Bunting that I was able to get - |
very blurry but it does show the relatively long tail that is characteristic
of members of the Bunting Family
Although I only had two Corn Buntings and one Yellow Wagtail (another declining bird in the British countryside) I did see and hear more Yellowhammers in one day than I have done for a very long time. I started hearing them singing their 'little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeeeeese' song from almost every hedge (it seemed) from almost as soon as I left the urban fringe of Stockton-on-Tees.
The second weekend I stayed more local but for the first time I went to both South Gare (on the south side of the Tees) and the marshes around Saltholme (north of the Tees) on the same day. At South Gare the only new bird I added to the list was Little Tern. This small seabird nests on sandy and shingly coasts, where it is very vulnerable to disturbance from dog walkers and other beachgoers and, like so many of our birds, is in trouble with populations going steadily down.
|The yellow bill with a black tip, as well as the small size, distinguishes |
Little Tern from its larger cousins - Sandwich Tern's bill is the other way round
(black with a yellow tip) while Common and Arctic have red bills
After South Gare, and a quick cup of tea at home, I headed out again to try and see a Wood Sandpiper which had been hanging around for a few days at Cowpen Marsh (in exactly the same spot as the Little Gull two weeks before). On the way past Saltholme I had three Swifts screaming overhead - NMT #140. Arriving at the layby opposite the southern end of Cowpen Marsh I searched in vain for a small brown wader until a carful of birders turned up with sharper eyes (and a better scope) than me and I got reasonable (but too distant for a photo) views of my first Wood Sandpiper in several years.
The third gruelling trek was this Saturday just gone and it was my longest cycle ride yet this year (about 50 miles in total). Although it didn't involve carrying my bike through any mud, I did have to push it up several steep hills, as I went up into the North York Moors National Park in the hope of seeing a couple of birds which breed up there and not anywhere else around here - Redstart and Pied Flycatcher. I was unlucky with Redstart, even though I went to an area where several had been singing a couple of weeks before. In one beautiful spot in a small river valley I met a few other birders who were also looking for the same two species. They told me where they had seen a male Pied Flycatcher so I locked up my bike and went for a walk, very quickly seeing the same bird they had seen. After going back to my bike I saw another one- doing its characteristic behaviour, flying out from a branch to catch flies. Unfortunately the only picture I managed to get was this very blurry one which shows only the top half of the bird - it's still enough to tell you that it's a Pied Flycatcher though so I've put it in anyway.
After I'd started to write this post this morning I had to go out to work - leading a group on a nature walk along the River Tees (it's a tough job but someone's got to do it 😀) - and one of the many beautiful sights we saw was a small group of Common Terns patrolling up and down the river, occasionally diving in to catch a fish. These were the first ones I had seen this year and bring my NMT year-list up to 144.