Sunday, 24 June 2018

A preamble to Amble and beyond; Northumberland 31st May-1st June 2018

Our annual trip to Scotland and this time we're heading back to our beloved Cairngorms which we'd missed last year after taking in the Outer Hebrides instead. But first we'd have a couple of days birding in Northumberland, mainly just relaxing and exploring an area we know little about and to hopefully see some good birds, plus the luxury of a couple of country hotels to spend the nights in.

The main object of this diversion was to see a special and scarce seabird that in the summer is generally found only in this part of the UK since it breeds on a small island just off the coast of Amble. I had booked Mrs Caley and myself on a boat trip that cruises out to the island and that was leaving at 14:30 so plenty of time to get to Amble beforehand since we'd left home at 08:00. It's a long old journey though, some 275 miles, but it went well with no hold ups and as we ate breakfast at a cafe somewhere near Scotch Corner I hatched an alternative plan. As I am prone to do! It would be a preamble to the preamble! (Sigh)

An hour later at 12:30 we pulled up alongside a shallow body of water very close to Hadrians Wall known as Grindon Lough. An American Wigeon had been present here for a few months and was pretty reliable so it was worth a look. I reckoned we had about 45 minutes to find the bird before leaving for the boat trip. I scanned the eastern end of the lake, the area where the duck was supposed to frequent, but could only find Eurasian Wigeon and a couple of Teal. We moved to the other end of the Lough and scanned again but once more it was just our common species that were seen. This wasn't going to plan at all and my hopes of a relaxing few days were dissipating rapidly and I was already getting stressed. At 13:00 I turned around and threatened to give it up and leave but thankfully stopped at the eastern end again and this time saw the American Wigeon close in to the near shore. Thank goodness! It must have been under the bank and hidden by overhanging grass when I first looked and hence I had missed it but now Mrs Caley and I enjoyed reasonable scope views albeit at some distance and distorted by a heat haze. After a few minutes the duck, accompanied by a female Eurasian Wigeon, hauled out onto the bank which was at least a bit closer and allowed me to take a few record shots. Not the first I've seen, in fact I think it's 6 now in the UK, but nice after dipping one in Inverness in February.

American Wigeon
It was now after 1 o'clock and we were still around an hour away from Amble so we hit the road again. All was well until we came to a hold up at some roadworks on the A1 by Ashington. I had to, even though I didn't like to and much to the disgust of other motorists, sail all the way down the outside lane and push in right at the last opportunity into the single remaining lane. Needs must! I also decided on a small diversion which thankfully paid off (for once) and we finally arrived in Amble about 25 minutes before the sailing time. Parking was easy (and free!) so now we could relax and feel like the holiday was properly beginning. 

The boat was operated by "Puffin Cruises" lasted just an hour and carried just 12 passengers so would be a pleasant little trip. It was now a blazing hot day and as we waited for the boat to be readied we watched some beautiful Eider ducks (and drakes) swim and feed amongst the slime and weed in the rather filthy inner harbour. As we looked towards a young herring gull it viewed us just as intently (probably hoping we had chips).

Juvenile Herring Gull
We boarded the boat and the skipper, after eyeing me up stated, "I know what you've come for" and then added "it's a low tide afternoon so we won't be able to get in close". Give me a break! Who ever mentioned the tides? Apparently they're important to seafarers, right Captain Harris? Amble is a small coastal town but was bustling with holiday makers and day-trippers so I was glad when the boat left the noise (and the smell of chips) behind and we moved out into quieter surroundings. The estuary was fairly calm although a noticeable swell rocked the boat once we'd ventured out into open water. Just offshore a fog descended and we could see no more than 50 yards in any direction! That wouldn't do at all and my stress levels rose once more. The fog bought some reward though in the form of a Great Skua which passed low overhead. Unfortunately because of the poor visibility it was right on top of us before I could positively identify it so it went unrecorded by the camera! But there'd be more Skuas later in the holiday so I wasn't too bothered. I should clarify now that the boat was sailing out to Coquet Island and although landing isn't permitted, we would do a complete circuit enabling good views of the birds that nested there. If the mist lifted that is! Eventually however the mists did thin out and we could see the lighthouse, crafted in the style of a castle (the story of why was related to us but I've already forgotten), and thousands of seabirds milling around as well as hundreds of common (I think) seals. 

Coquet Island
There were many terns coming and going but most were Sandwich Terns with a few Arctic Terns and no sign of the target bird. Better still there were lots of Puffins both flying past and floating on the sea. The boat passed very close to some of them enabling me to get some good photos and from a perspective that I'd not managed before being usually stuck up on a cliff watching them fly to and from their burrows. 

Sandwich Tern
Arctic Tern
There were also Guillemots and Razorbills and a few Kittiwakes noisily went on their way. In addition to the Sandwich and Arctic Terns there were Common Terns around too now but still no sign of my target bird which prompted me to inquire of the Skipper whether we'd see any? The reply was both encouraging and disappointing when he said that "Aye, they'll be around but with the low tide we won't be able to get within 50 yards of them". I didn't think that sounded so bad until he also added "on a high tide we can get within just a few yards"!

The boat was manoeuvred to a point opposite some "garden" sheds and where a number of nest boxes had been sculpted out of some wooden pallets and set into a dry stone wall (you can make these out on the photo of the lighthouse above, just to the left of the little church). This is where the UK's largest (and only?) breeding colony of Roseate Terns was based, a bird that I'd only seen a few times before and not for a fair few years. I tried to pick some out but it wasn't easy so I resorted to taking some random photos of the designated area in the hope that I'd get a few Roseate's to view later. Looking through binoculars at the nest sites was tricky owing to the rocking boat but I did eventually manage to observe them. In fact once my eyes were adjusted they were reasonably easy to pick out since they appear very white, particularly in flight, and have very long tail streamers compared to the accompanying Common and Arctic Terns. They also have a very subtle pink wash to the breast, hence the name. I failed miserably in getting a flight image though! We were however, treated to a pair getting down to the business of making more Roseate Terns. Oooerrr!

Roseate Tern's
The visit was brief and we soon left for the harbour but there were more Puffins to see as well as the support cast, including a juvenile Gannet that appeared to having fishing line and a hook attached to a wing which served as a reminder to the perils that our birds are facing every single day.

Juvenile Gannet (with trailing fishing line)
Adult Gannet
Back on dry land the noise and the waft of chip fat returned but we consoled ourselves by enjoying one of the best ice creams that I've ever had (almost as good as the one by the Trevi Fountain in Rome many moons ago). Our hotel for the night was only a few miles away so we had time to go to a nearby (and quite famous) nature reserve, the Druridge Pools, which at all times of the year holds good birds. We were looking for a long staying Glossy Ibis but there was no sign of it on the flashes. Lots of waders were feeding there, Turnstones, Dunlin and Sanderling were all seen but there was no sign of a reported Pectoral Sandpiper. 

Ringed Plover
A couple of Whooper Swans were very late in still being here at the end of May but the best bird and biggest surprise was seen after I had committed a cardinal sin. I returned to the car to collect my scope so that I could search through the wading birds more precisely but for some inexplicable reason had left the camera with Mrs Caley. As I walked along the path a fantastic female Merlin buzzed straight past me in pursuit of a Skylark. I could have taken some crippling shots of a bird that I rarely see let alone photograph and the bloody camera wasn't on my shoulder. I am never making that mistake again!

Skylark (pre Merlin attack)
The first hotel was lovely with very nice food even though we were given a room right at the back and above the kitchens so the aroma of chips (or rather sautéed potatoes) pervaded once again. Perhaps they had placed us well away from other guests since they had heard that I can snore for England!

At breakfast we watched the only Nuthatch that we'd see on this trip (they are extremely rare in the Highlands) before leaving for another crack at the Glossy Ibis. Again there was no sign on the floods but this time we got chatting to a couple of locals and they advised us to try an area known as the Budge Fields which are located further down the reserve. Almost as soon as we'd looked out of the rudimentary viewing screen Mrs Caley exclaimed "there it is!" and sure enough it was. Not close but a nice bird nonetheless and the day was off to a good start. 

Glossy Ibis
The shallow pools on the Budge Fields also held about 20 Black-tailed Godwits in various stages of plumage. The brick red summer plumaged birds being particularly eye-catching (but not photogenic).  

Black-tailed Godwits
We moved a few miles down the road and joined a small band of "Toggers" who were assembled at a place where a Barn Owl could reliably be seen. This morning though it had been hunting at some distance away and had apparently flown off out of sight. We chatted for a bit and learned of a Little Owl that we must have drove past earlier without seeing; "it was sat on the stone wall right by the road!". Oh well you never see them all. I scanned the fields in front of our position and spotted the Barn Owl stood atop a fence post about half a mile away. Another long distance "record shot"! The "Toggers" one and all remarked "how did that get there without us seeing it?". I thought to myself that "maybe they should invest in some binoculars and use them rather than standing around comparing pictures!" To be fair though they were good chaps and quite informative about the local birding scene and I apologise if any of them are reading this but it's poetic licence.

Barn Owl
Cresswell Pond was next where a couple of Avocets were sifting through the mud at the shallow end. These birds are possibly the furthest northern breeding Avocets in England? The Barn owl could be seen from there too but was now about a mile away! A male Reed Bunting sang weakly (as only they can) from the reeds nearby. On our way out we briefly looked for the Little Owl but there was no sign so we decided to head elsewhere.

Reed Bunting
Our original plan was to do some birding on Holy Island (Lindisfarne) but there wouldn't be enough time to make a safe exit from the island (it's connected to the mainland by a causeway that is flooded at high tide) and also, after many scarcities and rarities had been seen there the week before, it had gone quiet with nothing reported of note through the previous couple of days. So as an alternative we went to Low Newton by the Sea to view a small lagoon where a Wood Sandpiper had been seen the day before. The whole area there is owned by the National Trust so parking was only available a half mile away for a fee or even further away without. The NT don't deserve any of my money so we walked the extra yard or two and arrived by the scrape 30 minutes or so later. Needless to say there was no sign of the Wood Sandpiper but we did pick up some Ringed Plover and Dunlin and also found 4 fine Yellow Wagtails which were unexpected. 

Yellow Wagtail
The bushes here held a few Sedge Warblers and Common Whitethroats both of which would be hard to find further north. 

Sedge Warbler
We lingered a while just enjoying the beautiful surroundings and tranquility and watched various birds use available perches to preen and as song posts.

female House Sparrow
male Stonechat
We decided to head to our second hotel near to Melrose in the Borders early for a change since the weather was beginning to look a bit threatening with the forecast thunderstorms gathering. The Dryburgh Abbey Hotel is stunning and looks a bit like Downton Abbey off the TV (so our daughter remarked anyway)! The gardens are beautiful and the River Tweed runs right alongside the grounds. After checking into probably the most spacious room that we've ever stayed in (at the front of the hotel!) we explored the riverside and found a couple of loafing female Goosanders on rocks in the shallow water.

female Goosander
A pair of Oystercatchers had obviously nested on one of the hotels balcony's since one was stood sentinel on a parapet as the other busily collected worms from the lawn to feed (presumably) a chick or chicks. 

Thunder was now rattling not too far away so we took in the bar and enjoyed a couple of drinks. A local cyclist annoyed the hell out of me with his declaration that all Scots are behind the England team in the forthcoming World Cup! Yeah, right? I think not somehow! 

Midway through the night we were serenaded by two Tawny Owls having a sing song ding dong at each other but it was too dark to make them out in the trees. I looked in likely spots before breakfast but couldn't find them.

so it was on to the remaining 170 miles drive north and to our cottage for the next fortnight where we can settle in and get into some serious birding and hopefully find the special birds that make the area so appealing. 

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

It ended with a Churr. The weekend of 26/27th May

With our holiday to Scotland coming ever closer this would be our last chance to add locally a few birds on to the year list (that I don't keep). The urge was to travel up to the east coast and mop up some rarer waders but in reality the driving didn't appeal so close to the 600 mile trip coming up so on Saturday morning we headed to Farmoor to see what might have pitched up there. It had started drizzling and we know that Farmoor can be really good in poor weather having been there just a few weeks ago when a couple of Great Skuas flew in during a rain shower. As we left town the rain increased in intensity so we decided to divert into our local nature reserve (Bicester Wetlands) and sit the worst of the weather out in the hide there.

Arriving on site we were greeted by a mass (by BWR standards) of Swifts and House Martins swarming around the water treatment works. I reckoned about 50 Swift and 200+House Martins were busy hawking for insects along with smaller numbers of Swallows. I set about trying to capture some images of Swifts in particular but managed to have one of those hopeless half hours during which just about every shot was useless! Hopefully I'll learn from my mistakes and do better next time.

Just about the only decent shot.
Male Gadwall
We were also greeted by Swifts flying above the car park at Farmoor although there were probably nearer100 in all. The previous evening it had been almost flat clam on the reservoirs but today it was breezy which was much more promising. The rain had just about abated and the sun was threatening to make an appearance as we headed along the causeway stopping to admire both a male pied wagtail and one of his fledglings.

We could hear an Oystercatcher tootling away and then saw it flying towards one of the tern rafts (that have been almost completely taken over by gulls) but it was met with hostility by the occupying Black-headed Gulls and was moved quickly along. It was happily asleep on the rafts later though.

The Black-headed Gulls were also not amused when a Cormorant attempted to alight close to their chosen nest spot and one repeatedly dive bombed the intruding bird. I watched the altercation for a while before being distracted by a Great crested Grebe flying towards me. I've been trying to get a decent photo of one in flight for a while so took my opportunity.

The causeway was devoid of any waders other than the Oystercatcher and the only birds of note were a Red-crested Pochard and a couple of Greylag Goose goslings.

The "Grey" twins!
We returned back along the causeway and Mrs Caley noticed a couple of small waders scuttling up the edge of F1. The travelling companions were a Dunlin and Sanderling and were feeding happily on small insects at the waters edge.


After the magnificent and slightly disturbing storms of Saturday night we returned to Farmoor early on Sunday hoping that the bad weather had grounded some interesting waders or terns (and Black Tern in particular). Wishful thinking I'm afraid since the only birds that had arrived overnight were a Turnstone and a (different to yesterdays) Sanderling.

 The female Red-crested Pochard was still present and a pair of Black-headed Gulls were busy making new ones whilst a pair of Coots did a spot of DIY to their nest.

female Red-crested Pochard
Black-headed Gulls
 We did a circuit of F1 looking for anything unusual but all we found was a pair of Bullfinches and a very high flying Hobby.

male Bullfinch

Hobby high up in an increasingly "stormy" sky
Whilst we grabbed a coffee and some sustenance at the cafe, a message arrived via twitter informing that 2 Black Terns were currently being seen at Boddington Reservoir just north of Banbury. We still hadn't connected with these fabulous little terns yet this year having missed them at both Farmoor (twice) and Grimsbury in the last week so it seemed prudent to take the 45 minute drive north to get them.

Parking is easy at Boddington, right next to the reservoir, and within seconds of leaving the car we were both watching the Black Terns. They were doing whole circuits of the reservoir and I set about trying to choose the best place to get the best views. We opted for the Western bank which would at least afford a viewpoint less affected by the sun (which was now blazing). Every 5 minutes or so the Black Terns would fly back into range (but still well out). The problem with trying to capture them on camera was that they'd fly about 10-20 feet above the water which put them in the tree line before dropping to the water surface to pick flying insects. The camera doesn't track birds at distance very well when the background is solid behind them, so in the end I had to shoot on manual and hope that the focussing was correct. The results although far from great did at least provide acceptable record shots.

Black Tern
Another bird that we like to see at this time of year is the charismatic Nightjar. Oxfordshire, to my knowledge doesn't have any breeding Nightjars so most summers we travel down to Berkshire and to the heathland and commons that surround Newbury to see them. Our usual site at Snelsmore hadn't held any last year but I had learned of a different spot to try (the power of twitter again!) so we headed there around 20:00 to do a recce well before the birds would be on the wing. Nightjar only appear as it gets dark which would be around 21:00 so we had a bit of waiting to do. A fine Tree Pipit singing from the top of a tall silver birch tree helped pass the time.

Tree Pipit
As the sun dipped below the horizon the midges came out. There is a trade off with heathland birdwatching in the evening and that is having to deal with biting insects! They really are little beggars and can be most unpleasant if you stand around too long. At 21:10 we were grateful to the first roding Woodcock that flew past uttering it's strange squeaky calls which at least took our minds away from the wee beasties that were so irritating. I'll be looking for more Woodcock when in Scotland next week and will hopefully locate one roosting on the ground too. Several more (or it could have been the same one doing a circuit) appeared overhead as the time passed.

Woodcock in "roding" flight
There was a full moon which was helpful and promising since it helped to keep the night brighter but also just to the north there was a mounting thunderstorm and some lightning began illuminating the darkening sky! We wouldn't have long before it arrived over the heath. Just as our spirits were flagging a bit, at 21:25 a Nightjar began churring unseen from one of the nearby trees. A few minutes later it flew past us followed by a second bird, presumably its mate. For the next 20 minutes in the little light that remained we'd forgotten all about the midges as were treated to a fantastic show by the pair of Nightjar which at times were flying and displaying just feet above our heads. They are amazing birds to watch especially when the male "wing claps" and calls to his mate which then dutifully flies in closer. The male bird also has white wing patches which are used in the display to entice the female but it is the strange churring song of the male that is the most captivating. Emitted from an exposed perch high up a tree it sounds almost as if aliens have landed. There is also a "quick, quick" call broadcast when the Nightjar is flying which is just as eerie. Obviously photography is almost impossible in such low light but the spectacle is one not to be missed. 

male Nightjar in display flight

male Nightjar "churring"
I have a video of the males churring song, with some dodgy commentary, whilst the lightning raged just a short distance away here; Nightjar and lightning