Friday, 28 April 2017

Geltsdale and around ... more migrants coming in ... Pied Flycatcher, Cuckoo, Grasshopper Warbler, Ring Ouzel ...

Despite the chilly weather earlier in the week more summer migrants arrive ... as I got out of my car on a pristine but very much sub-zero morning at 05.20 a Grasshopper Warbler was reeling away by the Clesketts car park at Geltsdale ...
... a little later as the sun rose a Cuckoo sang ...
But these were not the target birds.  Black Grouse numbers last year were disappointingly low - somewhere in the 20s of displaying males resulting from poor breeding productivity the previous year.  This week we had 45 displaying males - a great result !

A walk around Miltonrigg Wood in search of migrants ... high in the leafless canopy a male Pied Flycatcher dashed frenetically from perch to perch ... then uttered just a few characteristic notes ...

... turning south down the track and more of those jaunty notes and phrases ... all delivered from just a couple of song posts ...

... further on another lovely male Pied Flycatcher was singing away from its perch ... so good to experience among the bare leafless twigs ...



... when I listened to the recording at home I noticed a feature I had not been aware of before ... each song was prefixed by a brief 'buzzy' note ...  this shows as the very up and down trace at the start of the sonogram ...

 .
... then three pairs of high and low notes followed by some complex warbling motifs ...

A quiet session in the upland part of Geltsdale while continuing the search for Hen Harriers saw more life on the walk out ... a short burst of four typewriter-like notes stopped me in my tracks ... some short grassy patches was the place to look ... a male Ring Ouzel nervously feeding among a few stones ...




... then slipped away silently ...




Friday, 21 April 2017

Book Review ... The Outrun by Amy Liptrot ... Mental health and wildlife - further positive connections

This may seem a strange choice of a book to review on this blog ... there are several reasons for this choice ...


The author returns to her natal Orkney and writes about her new life there ... she describes the birds there in a way that reflect her love of ... or perhaps her need for ... wild places as a way of feeding her addiction to extreme and powerful experiences ...

... she does not romanticise these wild places where she lives and explores ; rather, she describes them in an honest straightforward way ...

... this same straightforwardness is how she relates her earlier years in London with growing alcohol dependency and the misery that results from using alcohol in excess as a way of finding fulfillment ...

The writing style is lean and has a beautiful simplicity and clarity ... she talks about the mental health problems of her wider family and links this to her own struggles while not seeking to excuse her mistakes ...

As I read her recounting the bird experiences that she had I thought about some other 'nature writing' and how it has often grated on me through its inaccuracies and sentimental overtones ... this book never left me feeling that way ...  nevertheless the high value that she places on her wildlife experiences comes through strongly ...

I found it a great and compelling read and a work of great beauty despite its often harsh and grim content ... but more than that it is one of great intelligence and eloquence 


Thursday, 20 April 2017

Geltsdale ... singing Golden Plovers ... migrants arrive en masse

Back to the uplands of Geltsdale yesterday for more Hen Harrier monitoring ... a more spring-like day than last week which inspired the Golden Plovers to perform their lovely display song-flight ... I stood on a high plateau while one performed right overhead ...




... the butterfly-like flight with slow wingbeats was performed into the wind while the bird sang its hauntingly beautiful song 'pu -peeeo' over and again ... then into normal rapid wingbeat mode downwind to start again ...

... a flock of around fifty Golden Plovers suddenly dashed by - maybe northern breeders still to return to their breeding grounds ...

Ravens flew by, pausing to perform some aerobatics on the way and pairs of Curlews looked intent on settling into territories.

A pair of Stonechats lingered with the male catching a large moth at one point ...


Lower down Lapwings displayed exuberantly and a few Snipe 'chitted' , a Ring Ouzel dashed up a gully and a Wheatear flitted around the animal pens ...

Back in the valley the bare bushes were alive with Willow Warbler song ...


Spring had arrived !





Friday, 14 April 2017

Geltsdale, The Solway and Northumberland ... a Skydancing Harrier

This is the season for returning to the uplands in the hope of locating breeding Hen Harriers with a view to giving them some protection from those who would wish them ill ... and for me it is my eleventh year of such activity following on from each successive winter of monitoring their roost sites ... the great prize in store for us Hen Harrier workers is to see displaying birds in the spring - sky dancing ...

I witnessed harrier sky dancing this week ... but not in the way I had hoped for ... I was in Druridge Bay and it was a male Marsh Harrier that I was watching ...


... a striking individual with marked contrast on the upper wing ...


... the female became active after having perched on the ground as the male sky danced above her ...



While in the Geltsdale uplands this week with a brisk westerly blowing a Buzzard was the only large raptor .. it flew low over the burn and rose only to gain a little lift before disappearing behind a bluff ... the Golden Plovers were vocal but flew very low to avoid the steady blast while a pair of Curlews performed a high level circuit of the valley ...

The Northumberland coast provided my first Sandwich Terns of the year as I overlooked Coquet Island and saw a few Puffins buzzing back and forth ... on the Coquet Estuary a pair of Sandwich Terns fished and courtship feeding took place ...






Avocets were active and vocal as ever at Cresswell Pond where a single White Wagtail fed distantly near the causeway ...



The day I picked to watch the Solway over the high tide failed to produce the expected westerlies and both skuas and Kittiwakes were absent ... a transitional plumaged Black-throated Diver was a nice but distant surprise along with several more predictable Red-throated Divers.

As the tide fell a spring plumaged adult Little Stint joined some Dunlins and other waders just east of the harbour at Port Carlisle ...










Saturday, 8 April 2017

Spring birding ... always a joy ... St.Bees, River Esk, Geltsdale

With a brisk southerly wind blowing St.Bees Head felt more like winter than spring ... but birds were there ... and in numbers


... the ledges were packed with Guillemots ...

... and on the sea they swam in strange lines ...


... a few small parties of Gannets flew south ...


The notable absence, or near absence was that of Kittiwakes ... I saw none on ledges, a group of about ten landed briefly on the sea before moving off and I heard one call just once.  So why was my experience here so very different from how it had been on the River Tyne where they were so very present ?

The wild conditions at St.Bees prompted a move to somewhere with more potential for migrants ... so, to the River Esk above Longtown ...

A Dipper fed avidly in the edge of the river, still high and gushing from recent rains ...


and flew off upstream ...


while a pair of Goosanders were more confiding than usual on this stretch ...


but not for long ...


the Oystercatchers were now all in summer plumage in contrast to how they were only a couple of weeks before ...


Sand Martins were present in good numbers - maybe a hundred flying over the water and dipping over some riffles where some insect prey species must have been present ...



In a more sheltered area below the bridge a Chiffchaff sang away ...

I sound recorded one in Finglandrigg Wood last month and looked at the sonagram of its song ... quite a complex pattern with the 'chiff' and the 'chaff' not looking quite how I expected ...


the dense part of the tracing certainly shows an up and down succession but there is also a wide band of frequencies in both notes from about 3,500 - 7,000 Hz which is what gives the song that particular quality - less of a pure musical note and explains the 'ch' part of the 'chiff' and the 'chaff'  

Comparing Chiffchaff song with the superficially similar but actually very different song ( one of the songs ) of Great Tit does a lot to explain their very different quality ...


The frequency width of each note is much narrower so the notes have a more pure, musical quality ...

In the clear blue skies of this morning the Geltsdale Reserve had quite an Alpine feel ...


Golden Plovers sang on the high ridges near Cold Fell and Red Grouse 'exploded' close to our feet, eight Buzzards were in the air above Howgill where a Willow Warbler produced some plastic song typical of this time of year before the fully crystallised song appears.  A pair of Lesser Redpolls posed nicely on an Alder ...
















Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Book Review ... The Kittiwake


Having been inspired by the spectacle of Kittiwakes on the River Tyne, I wanted to learn more about this charismatic and delightful species ...
Searching the available literature, the combination of the Poyser brand and the author John Coulson left me in no doubt that this was the book to read ...
Although I was aware that John Coulson was a significant name in ornithology I had no idea that his interest in Kittiwakes began as early as 1949 ...
For me, the book had a particular lure because his research was based primarily on Kittiwakes on the River Tyne.  The scope of the work is global and includes some information about the other kittiwake species - Red-legged Kittiwake.

After the introduction there is a fascinating section on feeding methods and food of the species and an equally riveting discussion about winter oceanic distribution and movements ...
The following sections relate to their breeding biology and draw on research that the author conducted over more than a 50 year period ...  I have to admit that I found much of this rather heavy going and graphs were abundant ...


... after this rather low point in the middle of the book there was more enlightening material, this time about colony structure and recruitment ... the author conducted extensive ringing studies and revealed the fluid nature of the breeding colonies - many birds do not go on to breed in their natal colony and many breeders move to other colonies, sometimes hundreds of miles away in subsequent seasons ...

... The name 'Tarrock' was not familiar to me - this refers to birds in their distinctive first-year plumage ... it is of Scottish derivation and is used to describe Arctic and Common Terns also ...

... The later parts of the work have interesting sections on 'Kittiwakes and humans' and Appendix 1 describes the history and methods used at the North Shields colony - this provided welcome answers to questions that had been in my mind throughout the book ... how do you catch a Kittiwake ? ...

The lovely illustrations are by Robert Greenhalf ...


... this monochrome painting shows a Red-legged Kittiwake behind and Black-legged Kittiwake in the foreground ...

Overall a very good read and wonderful in-depth study.



Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Tyne Kittiwakes ... Globally significant ... and they're back

Following my visit to North Shields in search of gulls I went up the Tyne to see if any Kittiwakes were around their breeding sites on buildings in the Baltic Flour Mills / Tyne Bridge area ...


... approaching the Baltic the characteristic calls became audible ...




... not a great deal of space left on those ledges ... in 2004 there were 2 pairs on this building - in 2016 there were 90 pairs ...


... one flew by exhibiting those legs that determine its IOC name - Black-legged Kittiwake ...

... then in the Tyne Bridge area there were already occupied nests on the bridge itself, despite their egg-laying date of mid-May ...


... and at much lower level on some of the old buildings beneath the bridge ...






... they really are pretty special birds and this is a pretty special place where they breed ... the most inland breeding colony of the species in the world ...

... their specialness goes on and on ... the most common gull species in the world ... the most common species of gull in Britain with 370,000 breeding pairs ... the most pelagic of all the gulls in the world  ... in taxonomic terms they share their genus Rissa with only one other species - Red-legged Kittiwake ...

... they leave their breeding colonies in August and spend the winter in the North Sea and North Atlantic as far west as the eastern seaboard of North America and probably mingle with populations from elsewhere in their northern hemisphere circumpolar breeding range ...

... with these birds already on their breeding territories I thought back to the flocks of Kittiwakes I had seen just a few days earlier going east into the Solway Estuary ...


... were these birds returning perhaps from the North Atlantic to breeding colonies in Scandinavia or Arctic Russia where their nest ledges would still be ice-bound ?  did some fly overland to the North Sea rather than going round the north of Scotland ?  maybe satellite telemetry will provide the answers ...