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.