Tuesday 28 June 2022

A Special Tern at The Long Nanny. Sunday 29th May 2022

We awoke in Wooler to rain so made the decision to take it easy for the morning. We had three weeks to look forward to so there was no rush to get out there and besides we had to hit the supermarket to stock up on provisions for the week. Wooler, nestled at the foot of Cheviot, the highest hill in these parts,  seemed to be a quiet little town and not much was available on a Sunday morning so it was off to Berwick for the shop. Apart from a couple of long staying birds there had been nothing new of interest reported locally in the morning so we took a very satisfying Sunday lunch at the Tankerville Arms hotel close to the cottage before considering our options for the day. After a rest for a while we then only ventured out once the weather had improved.

Our priority bird for the Northumberland leg of our trip was the American Black Tern that has been resident in the past three summers at the Long Nanny Tern colony between Beadnell and High Newton on the coast and just a dozen miles from the cottage. Long Nanny isn't a tall old lady but rather a tidal inlet of the North Sea that has produced a small estuary with sandy banks and a dune system which many Terns, mainly of the Arctic and Little species, use for their breeding site. The American Black Tern was discovered in the colony of mainly Arctic Terns but it was only realised that it was indeed the American subspecies of the Black Tern last summer when a couple of eagle-eyed birders noticed the pro-American features when reviewing photos taken of the bird. Once the rarer tag had been applied, the bird became the focus for many birders to visit the Tern colony. We already had the American variant on our life list, having seen a juvenile at Longham Lakes in Dorset during October 2019 but it would be good to see an adult and get the year tick to boot.

juvenile American Black Tern

We had been tempted to visit Long Nanny in 2019 but had been deterred by the ridiculously high parking fees that applied in the only carpark close enough to the Tern colony. The whole area of dunes and coast is managed by the National Trust and we all know that they are sadly huge rip off merchants and enjoy fleecing tourists at every turn. For the similar reasons a visit to the Farne Islands wouldn't be part of our agenda for this holiday. So it was with some reticence that I parted with a princely sum to park in the, unsurprisingly, virtually deserted carpark at High Newton-by-the-sea. Of only two other cars there, one was manned by a Northumberland parking officer who eagerly watched our every move and made sure that I paid the highly inflated going rate. Not for the first time I thought how refreshing it would be to actually welcome visitors to the area instead of trying to ward them off through high charges but that is obviously pie-in-the-sky and fanciful thinking. Pretty much everywhere else in Northumberland offers free or affordable parking, except for those places where the NT governs, and to think I thought the Trust was a charity. But hey, we were on holiday and I guess that if a small fraction of my money made its way into helping out looking after the Terns then it would be worth it.

It had turned into a lovely sunny and warm afternoon so it didn't take too long for me to stop grumbling and we soon relaxed into the tranquil atmosphere of singing Skylarks and Meadow Pipits, and the soft swoosh of breaking waves on the shore behind the dunes. Of course having never been here before we took the longer than it needed to be route and emerged at the inlet by a fine looking wooden footbridge over which the pathway continued onto Beadnell. That was pleasant enough but the warden's hut and the Tern colony was at the other end of the estuary some 800 metres away! Luckily though a path led along the boundary fence so that we didn't have to retrace our steps. From the bridge you could see many of the Terns which were resting on the sandy edge to the inlet. The American Black Tern was amongst the throng and stood out like a sore thumb!

Spot the special one! American Black Tern with Arctic Terns & a Little Tern

The walk to the hut took us another fifteen minutes with frequent stops to check on the American Black Tern which was still stood on the sand. We also saw our first Eider Ducks of the year and a couple of Little Gulls were dip feeding over the water. The most numerous bird though were Arctic Terns, many hundreds of pairs breed in the colony. We did see some Little Terns, also new for the year, but mostly they were further out on the estuary and our views of them was hampered by heat haze. As we trudged through deep  sand to gain the hut, a couple of Sandwich Terns bombed past so we had pretty much ticked everything we had hoped to see even before we'd reached the main viewpoint.

At the hut we acquainted with the volunteers on duty and got the lowdown on the colony. The American Black Tern (ABT) couldn't be seen from the hut, the dunes blocked the view to all but the furthest reaches of the beach. Within a few minutes though the ABT was airborne but frustratingly it flew straight out to sea! That familiar sinking feeling set in and I wondered if my initial record shots were going to be my lot. The warden on duty assured us that the ABT would be back, apparently if on a fishing trip it could be gone  for any amount of time. The day before I listened to some birders while watching the Albatross at Bempton telling that they had dipped the Tern because it had flown out to sea and had stayed out all day. We hoped we wouldn't have to come back another time so crossed our fingers and toes. There was plenty to entertain us at we waited. A large number of Arctic Terns nest very close to the hut on the sand within the marram grass but there are more birds flying around. I set myself to capturing some of those returning with fish. The fish are offerings for their mates since no eggs had hatched yet. The fish are always delivered with gusto, the incoming Arctic Terns are noisy fishmongers. It's the noise though that makes a Tern colony, that and the antics of the birds themselves.

Arctic Tern

We watched as one of the volunteers had to run to an advanced post close to the estuary to deter a group of walkers, and their dogs, who had ignored the signs prohibiting access to the beach. The wardening of a Tern colony is vital, without the folk who give up their time to look after our birds the whole colony would soon be disturbed, the birds would vacate the site and we'd all miss out on the sight and sound of the breeding colony. I felt better for handing over the parking fee knowing that so many were working hard on my behalf to protect such beautiful birds. I'd like to think that the Terns themselves are pleased to be given the help to raise their own families. Not all of the relationships between the Arctic Terns are so amiable though and we watched many squabbles between neighbouring pairs, some of which were taken into the air above our heads.

Arctic Terns have to rest sometimes and use wooden posts and the hut roof for temporary respite. Earlier in the year we saw a small party of Arctic Terns at Farmoor, identifying them there is always a bit tricky when views are distant over a reservoir. Here however, when they are just feet away there is no difficulty at all, all discerning features are easily seen. Besides there are no Common Terns nesting at Long Nanny so little chance for confusion. The warden told me that earlier in the season, the American Black Tern had also taken to sitting on the shed roof, how I'd have loved a repeat of that. But at least we had the Arctics to admire while the Black Tern remained at sea.

I spotted it first, buzzing around the furthest dune grass like a manic black bee. The American Black Tern had somehow snuck back into the colony unseen but was now flying around and giving good but fairly distant views to the handful of us that had stood expectedly waiting for it to return. I checked my watch, it had only been gone for thirty minutes so I doubted that it had actually flown out to sea at all. The juvenile ABT that we saw in Dorset three years ago was a fairly sedate flier as it hawked insects, in contrast this adult bird was positively hyper as it charged around every which way it could. It was easy to follow though. After a few minutes it dropped down onto an unseen section of beach.

American Black Tern

Another species of Tern breeds at Long Nanny, there is a small colony of Little Terns that nest almost at the edge of the water towards the mouth of the inlet. They were very distant and even scope views were destroyed by the heat haze on this warm afternoon. Luckily for us though occasionally one of the Little Terns would fly back from a fishing trip and pass right by the hut. They were hard to spot as they flew in though, they are half the size of the Arctic Terns, and whizz past so I failed in my efforts to get photos of them. There are easier places to photograph Little Terns.

Little Tern

The American Black Tern was mobile again although to begin with it only flew around its favoured part of the colony so it remained distant from the viewpoint. It then flew out to the sea again and I watched it as it passed the furthest waves that were breaking on the shore. It seemed as if it had gone out to sea for sure this time but just a few minutes later it suddenly appeared to our right and then passed right past us at the hut. It was flying downwind in a northerly direction so I had to be quick to capture the bird as it rattled past at speed. Appraising the differences between this American version of the Black Tern compared to our familiar European type wasn't that easy in the field but basically this bird has a jet black body which is uniformly the same as the head, in the European bird the head is darker. Also the underwings of the American bird are very pale, almost white as opposed to the dusky grey appearance of the European one. There are other subtle differences between the two and it is much better dealt with in this Birdguides article than I can summarise. I've actually never taken many decent shots of adult European Black Terns, not as close as this American was anyway.

The best was still to come, the ABT started making several circuits of the whole colony and frequently passed overhead as it flew past the viewpoint in both directions. This was exciting stuff and terrific to watch and we both felt extremely privileged to be watching our second rare seabird from a different part of the planet in two days. Of course, strictly speaking the ABT isn't a seabird but rather a marsh tern, a bird of inland marshes and wetlands but this particular bird had obviously decided on being a seafarer and life in an Arctic Tern colony, far removed from the species normal habitat. It took me a while to adjust and get my sights in when photographing the Tern, mainly because it moved so quickly, and my earlier analogy of it being like a feverish black bee seemed very apt, the ABT certainly buzzed around the colony like one. 

By the time the ABT had settled down into the colony again, I was feeling as if I'd had a decent work out in a Gym (not that you'd be likely to find me in one of those very often, if ever, unless there's a bar available). The constant swivelling and aiming the camera high overhead had taken its toll. I had to sit down for a bit. 

The ABT didn't reappear so half an hour we called it a day and began the walk back to the car, this time choosing the correct and shorter route. Skylarks abound in the dunes and one would erupt into song every few yards. It was also nice to see them at eye level rather than from underneath as they hovered hundreds of feet above. Many were already feeding young at the nest as these photos testify.


Meadow Pipits were present in good numbers. One sang heartily from the ground although the resulting image could tell a different story, "Oi, you!".

Meadow Pipit

The final birds of the day were encountered at the carpark which was still virtually empty and I wondered how much more cash the NT would raise if they reduced the parking fee a bit. Four Song Thrushes were feeding on the grassy edges to the carpark, not rare birds but we seldom encounter them at home anymore. We had a terrific visit to Long Nanny and even without the American Black Tern it would have been well worth it. But just as with the Albatross at Bempton the day before, it's the special bird that makes a place really special. I hope to see the ABT again one day and hope it continues to summer in Northumberland for many years to come.

Song Thrush

Year List additions;

221) American Black Tern, 222) Little Tern, 223) Eider

Sunday 26 June 2022

Alby, Alby, Alby! Oi, Oi, Oi!! 28th May 2022

We had a two week holiday booked in Scotland for the first couple of weeks of June and were looking forward to it immensely. It would be our first summer break there since before the pandemic took over everybody's lives and we couldn't wait. Because it's such a long drive to the Cairngorms (around 500 miles from our house), we usually choose to stopover on the way and do some pre-holiday birding. Last September when we finally returned to Scotland after the enforced three year hiatus, we had chosen to visit the Galloway coast for a couple of days, a decision that proved to be a poor one owing to our target birds having had already moved away for the winter. In late May though we wouldn't have such issues since it's always a good time to be birding anywhere. I deliberately didn't even start looking for somewhere to stay until a couple of weeks before our intended dates, knowing that the longer you leave things then the more likely you will find some bargains available in the accommodation stakes. My intention was to revisit Northumberland, an area that we had last stayed in during 2019 when we had a very enjoyable week birding before moving on up to Scotland. Initially we had no plans for such a long stay this year and were planning just a few days away before the main break but then we realised that with the impending Queens Jubilee festivities taking over the end of May and the first few days of June and the fact that there would be two bank holidays which would make for just a three day working week, I decided it made perfect sense to book a cottage for the entire week instead. So I found a place to stay in the charming small town of Wooler and we now had a three week break to look forward to!

I'm never one to go straight to a place though, unless there's a good bird to go straight to, so started watching the reports of birds that may be available between home and Northumberland. The obvious candidate for a visit was the Black-browed Albatross at Bempton Cliffs, in fact it was a given really since there is no point in amassing a year list if you don't tick off the "easy birds" and incredibly, with the Albatross's reappearance at Bempton again this year, it falls into that category. A few days before we were due to leave a Woodchat Shrike had been found at Flamborough Head and it had stayed put too so we would have another target to aim at as well. 

For once a road closure, on the M62 near Goole, actually helped us because the diversion took us into North Cave, a great place name is that, and it conjured up images and the music of, in my opinion, possibly the best living singer-songwriter on our planet. A lucky rerouting because as I drove up the high street and into town, my own reworked version of "Stagger Lee" reverberated around my head, "I'm that bad M**********r called Old Caley", I spotted a nice little cafe which served us both up a fabulous breakfast. A day always seems better with a Full English in the belly. Away from the main road into East Yorkshire the drive was less stressful too so I made a mental note to always choose the Nick (sic) Cave route in future.

Surprisingly we had only ever been birding at Flamborough Head once before, a heady day (at the time) some years ago when we saw a Red-breasted Flycatcher, Yellow-browed Warbler(s) and a Common Redstart in the plantation there. We've been to neighbouring Bempton Cliffs more often but only because it took three visits to initially see the Albatross and two subsequent attempts before I managed to get some proper views and photos. The East Yorkshire coast is a long old drive from home after all. We wouldn't do Flamborough much justice on this trip either because we wouldn't even get out of the lighthouse carpark since the Shrike had been frequenting a gorse filled field adjacent to it. It was nearing midday when we arrived and we joined a few birders who were lined up at the edge of the carpark overlooking the field that supposedly held the Woodchat Shrike. The bird hadn't been seen since early morning but we diligently scoured the gorse bushes anyway. An hour had passed with just Yellowhammers and Linnets noted. Then a flash of white wing panels and a large white rump patch of a brownish bird rapidly flew from a distant gorse stand to a hedge at the field edge. We had the Woodchat Shrike, along with two chaps stood next to us who turned and asked everybody, "Did you see it, it just flew to the hedge". It seems that everybody else missed it. Not the views I'd have asked for but sometimes you just don't get what you want when birding.

With no further sign of the Woodchat for the next half hour, we decided to venture the few miles up the coast to Bempton Cliffs. There had been no reports of the Black-browed Albatross (BBA) since one early that morning when it was reported to be "on the sea". Having had a lot of disappointment last year when the Albatross was on the sea and then flew straight out and away from the cliffs, we steeled ourselves for another likely return visit later in the year. There would still be a couple of guaranteed year ticks at the RSPB reserve and it's always a great place for a wander anyway. I spoke to a member of staff and was told that there was still no sign of the BBA so we made our way to the cliff paths with little expectation of seeing it. One of our target year ticks was gained from several hundred metres away, it's impossible to miss Gannets at Bempton because they are everywhere. 

The first birds we stood and studied however, were a couple of many peoples favourites, the Puffins. As we admired a particular Puffin perched on a small ledge on the cliff face, a helpful chap that I've met a few times before on my travels before, informed that there had been no sign of the Albatross all morning and that he'd given up and was heading home. It seemed as if we really may be out of luck this time but we had a few hours that we could wait and see if it reappeared. For now though the Puffin and the constant stream of Gannets coasting past was sufficient entertainment. Our spirits were high. We were now in full holiday mode and the everyday stresses of life were seeping away.

We walked on towards the New Roll Up viewpoint, from where the Albatross could be seen on the cliffs when resting and when it was in residence last year. Apparently it had chosen a different ledge this year and when at home could no longer be seen from any position above the cliffs. We joined just another half dozen folk and were told yet again that there had been no sign at all of the celebrity bird. I scanned the cliffs and the air around it and remarked loudly, "What's that then?". Soaring around the cliffs was the Black-browed Albatross! Perhaps it was waiting for us. In any event I felt as if we had been greeted by an old friend. I took a few quick record shots and then urged Mrs Caley to head to the next viewpoint, Staple Neuk, from where the best views and photographic opportunities of the Albatross would be gained.

We were overtaken, our own pace is never sharp, by a few other birders and toggers on the way so it was evident that the news of the BBA reappearing had spread quickly. Every other bird was ignored on the way but we still had to wait for a vantage point at the viewpoint. The Albatross had disappeared again but other watchers assured us that it had settled on the cliff out of view. Five minutes later the Albatross swung into view again but only for a couple of quick banks out from the cliffs and back in again.

While we waited for another appearance from the Albatross, I studied our next year tick, Kittiwakes that flew eagerly about the cliffs. There are thankfully thousands of the gregarious and handsome Gulls at Bempton. They are raucous birds, and their noisy "kittiwake, kittiwake" calls echo around the cliffs. With the breeding season only just getting into full swing, many Kittiwakes were involved in collecting nesting material. Most of the birds were flying quite low down, beneath us at the viewpoint, but occasionally one would sweep by nearer to eye level and I devoted my attention to them.

From Staple Neuk, as well as marvelling at the thousands of seabirds teeming around the cliffs, you can study many of the Gannets close up on their nesting ledges. I admit that having seen the birds of the cliffs so many times in my life that I now tend to just watch and listen to the comings and goings rather than rattle off photos. You certainly can't marvel at a seabird colony in Bicester. You can't do that in Bicester is an often used phrase of mine when I'm enjoying something that you just couldn't do in Bicester, like walking along a sandy beach or climbing up a mountain. We don't have an awful lot on offer at home. I envy people who can take a walk along a beach or a clifftop any time they like. They are lucky folk indeed. I spotted a Gannet that had just arrived back on the cliffs and reaffirmed its bond with its mate by bill-clapping and interweaving their necks snake-like fashion. They seemed happy to meet one another once again.

A stir went up amongst the crowd, the Black-browed Albatross was flying again. This time the huge seabird was more obliging and soared around the cliffs for over twenty minutes giving me ample time to wait for some more interesting photographic chances to present themselves. For most of the time the BBA was flying beneath the viewpoint giving views of the back of the bird but on a few sweeps it passed higher up. It was then then I took most of my shots. Last year it was difficult to get images of the birds underwings since it always seemed to bank away from and toward the cliffs with its underside facing out to sea. Today it was showing its gleaming white body and underwings almost every time it turned towards the open sea, my guess is that the wind conditions must have been different presenting a change in the way in which the birds flew in the updrafts. Either way the Albatross was absolutely masterful and was clearly in its element.

The Albatross returned to its cliff ledge so it was time to focus on the other birds again. More time to indulge in the Kittiwakes and Gannets and also the Auk species. Puffins, Razorbills and Guillemots are ubiquitous around the cliffs. The sheer numbers of birds racing in and out from their nesting spots is overwhelming and no photos do the scene justice. 

A break from the seabird festival came in the shape of Peregrine Falcon passing high overhead. I imagine that some of the seabird species make hearty meals for the resident Peregrines, but it's more likely that some of the many Pigeons and Jackdaws make up most of their diet. The falcon hung on the wind above for us for a good few minutes before the bird suddenly accelerated out of view.

A Razorbill appeared in front of us and nestled into a stand of pretty daisy flowers providing a serene few moments in the frenetic life of the seabird colony. Razorbills are odd looking birds with large blunt tipped bills. This bird had clambered up onto the festooned ledge in order to get a good spot from which to launch itself off for a flight out to sea. It stayed in amongst the flowers for some minutes though, checking the coast was clear before finally stretching its wings and taking to the air. 

There was one last flypast from the Black-browed Albatross and this time it pulled some weird shapes as it dealt with an itch behind its ears. It headed out to sea where it settled on the water and took a bath. Even a bird with the magnificence of an Albatross looks diminutive when on the sea beneath cliffs two hundred metres high. I doubted that we'd see the BBA again since in our experience once it goes out on to the sea to bathe and preen, it always continued over the horizon. 

So while the Albatross sat on the sea I occupied myself with more shots of the other inhabitants. A bird I was keen to get some photos of was the Fulmar, a close relative of the Albatross, and a bird that also has complete mastery of the updrafts and cliff winds. Fulmars speed along the cliffs with outstretched wings seemingly having great fun as they hang and soar on the wind. In fact to my eye it looks as if their kind looking faces are always wearing a gleeful smile.

The Black-browed Albatross defied my prediction by suddenly reappearing out of nowhere and gave us our closest flypast of all that day. Not as close and as thrilling as our visit last September but enthralling nonetheless. The gasps of delight and the laughter and celebrations from people who see the Albatross for the first time is incredibly uplifting and proves how invaluable nature is to us. The Albatross is a star and long may it continue to provide enjoyment to all who get to admire it.

It was time for us to start our further journey northwards and to our holiday cottage in Wooler so we bade goodbye to the Albatross and hoped we'd see it again one day. Because of the northerly wind direction, Gannets and Fulmars were riding the air above the clifftop and were all going the same way as us. More opportunity to take yet more full frame close ups.

Back at the visitor centre, our attention shifted to the Tree Sparrows that flourish in the area. They nest in boxes provided and under the roof of the centre's building as well as take full advantage of the many feeders provided. Sadly Tree Sparrows are hard to find in our home county nowadays so it's always good to see them on our travels. There were already young birds out of the nest too.

On our way towards Northumberland, I did a quick recce of Wykeham Forest raptor viewpoint, from which Honey Buzzards are regularly seen. We really should have stayed for an hour or so in the hope of seeing one of them but it was already heading towards six o'clock and we had a couple of hours driving at least before we'd reach our holiday base for the next week. I did have a crazy idea that we'd be able to drive back to the forest on a day trip to see the Honey Buzzards but after the arduous drive through North Yorkshire and past the big north-eastern conurbations of Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Newcastle I realised that that would be plain daft. We'd have to visit the forest, and maybe the Albatross, another time.

Year List additions;

217) Woodchat Shrike, 218) Gannet, 219) Kittiwake, 220) Black-browed Albatross