Saturday, 15 May 2021

Many swallows make a Summer

Day two of our Northumberland holiday and we took advantage of tide times and good weather to visit Lindisfarne. You have two windows to cross the causeway each day and today it was safe to cross after 8.40. We'd never been before and it was very interesting to see the road was on a level with the estuary, flooding twice a day at high tide.

The causeway is over a mile long and there is a route across the mud for brave pilgrims as well, but we headed for the settlement on the far side.

The first stop was the ruined priory and active church in the main village.

For the obvious reasons everything was closed off and we couldn't explore in the ruins unfortunately. We then walked the road to the iconic castle, the one you always see on the postcards. I didn't realise it is actually now a holiday let!!! You can still walk all the way round it, looming above you on its solid rock base.

One surprise was the beach beyond the castle - it was covered in those small stone pyramids which people seem to like to make nowadays. I've no idea why but it did look spectacular.

It wasn't just about the physical landscape. Everywhere you looked swallows and house martins were skimming around over the meadows, through the streets and diving along the beach. Occasionally they would perch up, especially in an area where the fishermen had left lots of photogenic lobster pots and ropes.

Another bird present in larger numbers than you normally see were the house sparrows, taking advantage of holes left for them in new buildings for nest spaces. 

With the tide changing we headed back to our rental house in Budle Bay for a nice cup of tea. Sitting outside we saw a small bird flitting through the branches of the nearby tree. It was only one of a pair of spotted flycatchers - IN OUR GARDEN!!! Add that to the flock of tree sparrows and a calling marsh tit it was birding heaven - and a cup of tea as well!!! 

Later on I had a quick walk down to the beach behind our house. The hedgerows were alive with bird song, including one very confiding sedge warbler right by the path.
Out in the bay, a large flock of Sandwich terns were getting driven off their roosting islands by the rising tide and starting to fish in the now filling lagoon. One caught what looks like a nice juicy sand eel for its supper!

We are really starting to wonder why we haven't visited Northumberland before. On the day and a half we've been here so far it's far surpassing our expectations. It's not too touristy and the wildlife, scenery and culture are all outstanding. As long as the weather holds we should have a good break.

Friday, 14 May 2021

A short-cut to birds

 Today is the first day of our week-long trip to Northumberland. It's an area we've been through and round many times but never really explored. It always looked good and so we took the chance of an early Summer/ late spring break.

A very early start had us making good progress along the A1. We decided that we didn't need to take the direct route to our first stop, Corbridge, but that we could divert via Barnard Castle and take a more scenic route. I only had a very vague idea of the route so I just agreed and we came off the motorway and onto more rural roads lined with dry-stone walls and fields inhabited with sheep and lambs.  Barnard Castle wasn't very exciting in itself and we didn't even stop but headed towards the moorlands. (Un)fortunately Judith misread Google maps and we missed the road we should have taken. Rather than turn round we found another route and ploughed on. The scenery was getting better and better, classic upland and moorland habit with heather and gorse and even more sheep roaming wild. I had already spotted good numbers of lapwings wheeling about in the sky and curlews marching the fields. We then came round a corner and on a fencepost right by the road was the distinctive shape of a short-eared owl. I pulled off as quickly as I could, wondering whether I had been seeing things. I hadn't and the owl flapped off the post and started hunting the rough ground by the side of the road.

It did the classic owl "hover and dive" a few times though I never saw it come up with any prey. 

Finally it drifted past and then away from us but carried on hunting. An amazing start to the day but it only got better.

As well as the owl, there were numerous red grouse bubbling away. You could tell it was a big hunting area by all the burnt areas, and as ever the red grouse were stupidly tame!

A bit further on though I saw a slight different shape perched up by a barn. I stopped very quickly, jumped out of the car and immediately my thoughts were confirmed - it was only a male black grouse! 

Black grouse are much rarer than their red cousins and we have spent many hours searching for them in Scotland. To find one here, right by a main road and a barn was incredibly lucky. It only stayed a moment them flew off into the heather and started displaying some way off. Despite being tempted to stay we had to get on and with big grins on our faces carried on across the moor. It was very rich in curlew and lapwing and smaller birds, probably meadow pipits. We had almost come off the moor when we got our last spot. I very nearly ran down a merlin which flashed across the bonnet of the car, distinctive with its blue back and swept-back wings!  All of this was seen from the car on a route we weren't even supposed to be on, making up for all those times we had staked out perfect habitat and seen nothing.
Our accommodation, when we got there, was on the edge of Budle Bay neat Holy Isle. A quick walk down to the bay before day got eider on the sea, turnstones on the beach and wheatears, linnets and whitethroats in the fields. 

All looking very good for the rest of the week.

Saturday, 8 May 2021

Another Yankee

 With lockdown and the associated no-travel restrictions, many birds had arrived but had been "suppressed" by locals. With the loosening of those restrictions, and probably also with my starting to look at the bird-news feeds a bit more, targets started to appear. With my year-list never going to amount to much, it made sense to focus on any lifer potentials. One popped up only a few days after the mocking bird. Another American bird and another very common one on the other side of the Atlantic and also in Sussex - a white-throated sparrow. This one had been wandering around some allotments in a small village, Barcombe. Seemingly it had been there for many weeks if not a few months. As news had got out, it was now being tempted down to seed on a picnic table!

Another early start and on a frosty morning I pulled up into the rather small car park just after 7. It wasn't clear where to go but after wandering around for a bit I saw 3 other birders and a picnic table! Apparently the bird had been seen singing and showing well 15 minute before but now had disappeared. Those with better ears than mine claimed to hear it singing in the wood behind the table but I couldn't make it out. A nervous 45 minutes elapsed with no show. The crowd had grown to a dozen and those who had already seen it were sharing their photos with those who hadn't!! 

As so often happens in these cases, with no fanfare it suddenly appeared on the baited table. They are a very smart sparrow, much more colourful than our cheeky-chirpy Cockney sparrows. Its appearance was brief, only couple of minutes at most before it flitted back into the wood. I tossed up whether to stay hoping for a better view or to move on. To be honest, more shots of a sparrow, albeit a lifer sparrow, on a picnic table didn't excite so I picked up my gear and moved off.

Half an hour away a little bunting was behaving very well at a reserve I'd never been to before, Warnham. This wasn't a lifer - they are the sort of bird you hope to see every year - but are always sought after.  When I got there it was a very popular place with locals going on constitutional walks around the lake. A lady put me onto where to go for the hide where the bunting was normally seen which was only a few minutes walk. 

The hide was actually just a screen with bird feeders and a small pool. Lots of reed buntings were flitting around and a marsh tit was a bonus year tick for me. A vole also kept us amused feeding on the grain.

Two other birders joined me and we staked out the hide - which allowing for 2 metre distancing meant we basically hogged all the viewing spots! For some while it didn't show, then I spotted a smaller bird in the woods at the back. This drifted down to the floor but behind some grass, then eventually showed itself.

Little buntings are, as the name says, little, about 2/3 the size of a reed bunting. They all have a very distinct facial pattern, with a broad eye-stripe and a chestnut patch behind the eye. Although superficially like a reed bunting, when you see one it stands out as very different.

Another really good day. A lifer, two year ticks, good company on both twitches and nice weather. The drive back was a pleasure and I can only look forward to whatever the rest of the year brings. With a bit of luck I should get to 400 species this year, on the more generous LGRE list anyway, but even the stricter BOU list is in reach!