This week I've been on holiday from work so I've been trying to get out as much as I can to try and find as many birds as I can and, hopefully, give a bit of a boost to my NMT list.
Saturday started off badly when I called in at Middle Marsh, the nature reserve in my local area which I helped set up, and found that about half of the reedbed area had been burned to the ground by vandals. This has been a very bad year so far for deliberate fires on greenspace and nature reserves in Middlesbrough and the wider area. Earlier in the year several patches of the grassland at Middle Marsh were burned, and similar fires have been happening in long grass and scrub areas all over Teesside since late winter. Luckily for Middle Marsh half the reed area and the scrub and woodland behind it is still intact - presumably too wet and/or green to burn. It should all grow back although I don't know what effect a fire at this time of year will have - the young green shoots of this years growth of reed has been burned, along with the dead stems of the last several years, so it may take a while before that part looks like a reedbed again - watch this space.
From there I headed out to Saltholme and Seal Sands. There were lots of birds, including recently hatched young of many species - from the familiar Mute Swan, Mallard and Canada Goose to the less commonly seen Lapwing and Avocet. The Black-headed Gulls, which breed in colonies in several places, have many well grown chicks, but the Common Terns that often nest in among them are still quite a way behind them and have no chicks yet. This is because the 'Black-heads' being resident in the UK year-round are able to start breeding sooner than the terns which are migrants that spend the winter in Africa and have only been here for a few weeks.
I didn't add anything to my NMT list on Saturday, however, or on Sunday when I had to drop Sue off at the bus station in Leeds and took the opportunity to meet up with some friends there. We went to the lovely RSPB reserve at Fairburn Ings - a large part of which is on a former coal mine but now holds many different wetland habitats and the wide range of species associated with them. We saw Buzzards, terns and grebes and heard lots of warblers and one cuckoo. The sight of a small mammal - probably a Bank Vole - halfway up a tree in broad daylight was something none of us (all naturalists) had seen before.
On Monday I went to South Gare - which I think I neglect a bit in favour of Saltholme - and was rewarded by two new NMT birds - a Red Kite that flew in off the sea from the north (goodness knows where it was coming from), and then a Spotted Flycatcher, which Nick, one of the regular South Gare birders, had just found in some bushes. I watched it flycatching for a few minutes and was able to get one very poor picture (below). Unlike its dapper black and white relative, the Pied Flycatcher, Spotted is a streaky brown and grey bird.
From the gare I decided to go along the coast to Saltburn, in the hope of seeing some seabirds that are less commonly seen at South Gare. Saltburn was crowded with tourists (not surprising on a very hot and sunny Bank Holiday Monday) including right at the end of the pier where I set up my scope. There were many Kittiwakes on the sea but it was a while before I was able to get a good enough view of a Fulmar (NMT #147). I had been hoping for a Razorbill (a smaller relative of the extinct Great Auk) but although I saw a couple of birds that might have been this species, my views weren't good enough to rule out the similar Guillemot.
Late that evening when I was getting ready to go to bed I decided to check the local 'bird Twitter' to see if anything interesting had been seen that day - and immediately knew that the next day I was going to be doing my biggest NMT ride yet - to Whitby, 30 miles away across the moors. The reason for this sudden crazy plan was that a Lesser Grey Shrike and 11 European Bee-eaters had been seen in farmland just out side the town. I've seen both of these birds many times before, in other countries, and I've even seen Bee-eaters in the UK once (a group of 6 in Dorset in 1997), but the Shrike would be a 'British tick' and both species would be fantastic birds for my year-list.
I got up at 4am on Wednesday morning and was out of the house by ten to 5 (a record time for me - I rarely make it up and out in less than an hour). The first challenge was the steep Ormesby Bank, which I nearly made it to the top of before getting off to push, followed a few miles later by the even steeper Birk Brow, which I didn't even attempt - instead I pushed the bike the whole way up it. After that the hills were gentler and the flat stretches longer. I stopped for a rest at Scaling Dam - a great birding site which I've talked about before in this blog (see Franklin's Gull at Scaling Dam ) but unfortunately the hide was locked so I couldn't get a good view of the birdiest part of the lake. The journey from Scaling down to the coast was beautiful - Skylarks singing everywhere, Curlews and Lapwings displaying at me as I cycled past their breeding territories, and a Barn Owl flying along in front of me (I think this is already my best year ever for Barn Owl sightings). In Whitby I realised that actually there hadn't really been any tourists worth talking about in Saltburn the day before - at least not compared to the crowds that had come to see the site of St Hilda's monastery, the place where Captain Cook learned to sail and (last but not least) the fish and chip capital of England (at least according to some people). Just south of the ruins of Whitby Abbey there are arable fields interspersed with caravan sites and it was on the edge of one of these, in the middle of a field, that a group of birders with telescopes and cameras were standing around looking as if they had just been watching something but weren't anymore - Uh oh! Thankfully what they had been watching had only flown into the next field and was quickly relocated sitting at the top of the hedge.
It was the Lesser Grey Shrike - a bird which doesn't normally come any closer to Britain than southern France and Eastern Europe but which had somehow managed to overshoot by several hundred miles. Shrikes are passerines, aka 'songbirds' (and they do sing), but the old name for them - the Butcher-birds - gives you some hint about their nature. They were called Butcher-birds because they are little hook-billed predators that sometimes impale the corpses of their prey on thorns or barbed wire for retrieval later. In the case of the Lesser Grey the prey is mostly beetles, grasshoppers and other insects but the larger members of the Shrike family will eat small birds, reptiles and rodents.