Thursday, 4 November 2010

Rain Rain everywhere!!

What a day! Thrashing about SE Northumberland on a range of work errands this morning, I was wishing I had a boat rather than a car! Cresswell, Ashington, Arcot - all areas with much more than their fair share of water! Both the Blyth and Wansbeck look extremely swollen and we also had to stop work on a bridge at Prestwick Carr as the water level came dangerously high. 

No Waxwings in sight during my journey through Ashington but I understand they are still around Asda. a number of Mistle Thrushes seen amongst small parties of redwings around Acklington, Amble and Hauxley - perhaps suggesting a mini influx? A quick stop off for some scran at Cresswell Pond, where mud is still showing, produced a couple of Goldeneye, a dozen golden plover, good numbers of curlew, lapwing and dunlin with a few redshanks. 5 whooper swans flew over the hide as I left, heading inland. Someone in the hide reported a med gull amongst a group of Black Headed but my bins just didn't allow me to confirm them! Two sparrowhawks, both male, one at Hauxley reserve and one in Ellington reminded me of the excellent talk last week from Ian Newton.

All in all, not a bad return for so many short journeys and brief stop offs but that rain is going to have an impact and it will be interesting to see how much over the next few days.


Saturday, 23 October 2010

Say Aye Tae a Pie

Sometimes work can be a pain, sometimes its alreet!

A few weekends ago was definately one of the latter as we headed north into bonny Scotland on a water vole fact finding mission. Our intrepid crew consisted of Tom Dearnley (Driver), Kevin O'Hara (navigator) and me (back seat counterweight). Its a long journey, especially around Perth where we have three goes at finding the right road, during which time Newcastle go from winning 1-0 to losing 2-1 to Stoke City (I ask you!).

The journey is filled with lively banter, most memorable of which is Kev goading us with tales of mouth watering pies from the butchers at Ballater. By the time we reach, Carter Bar, we are all drooling and craving pies something rotten. Needless to say, the butchers is closed when we get there and we have to settle for a tasty italians.

It's cold in Ballater, minus 1 degree celsius, we understand. That was evident from the young ladies frequenting the doorstep of the village pub. No need for extra hatstands here.

Next morning, I'm gazing out of the window at beautiful mountain terrain, with lots of pines and layer of low clouds, tucked around like a scarf. There's a small flock of blue and great tits on the feeders, scrapping with Jackdaws as I make my way down to breakfast. If only my room had been at the front where some crested tits had been flitting around the tree tops!

What a great breakfast mind - all the trimmings and a big bowl of porridge to start the day.

We meet Prof Xavier Lambin (Aberdeen University), who has been researching water voles for some time and can therefore be considered to be expert in these matters. An hour later, I am convinced this has been a trip worth every second as Xavier outlines the fantastic success of the work that has been going ahead in Scotland, guided principally by his research work.

Once in the field on the nearby Balmoral estate, its a "red day" with first red squirrel, followed by red grouse and then two tremendous red deer stags sitting majestically in front of Queen Victoria's hunting lodge! Signs of water voles were everywhere in this very untypical area for the species and we even found burrows in the rocks around a bridge, showing how resiliant they are and how easy it is to miss signs. We also disturbed snipe and mountain hare during the short walk before coming across a large herd of red deer lurking on the low ground (obviously aware that stalkers would be on high ground!). 

On the return journey, prolonged by a massive detour because of a fatal road accident, we reflected on the project which has seen a focus on mink control and involving lots of volunteers. Any gaps in water vole populations can be plugged by a "hard" translocation, ie: animals are moved into the suitable area immediately rather than from a captive bred release on a vole sex farm. In this way, hardy and aclimitised animals have a greater chance of success as the hardiness has not been bred out of them. Its essential that there is good quality monitoring and effective mink control but this method seems to be far preferable to the alternative. Its certainly made us go for a total rethink about this knotty problem and with FC potentially on board, it may have a greater chance of success.

Overall, a good weekend, spoiled only by the collision with a barn owl in the mist on the way back near Ridsdale. But some marvellous and legendary pies!

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Halcyon Hauxley

Saturday dawns as a fantastic autumnal morning, crisp and clear, with an inviting forecast. Perfect for a bit of birding.

Leaving the choice of site to others can sometimes be a dangerous thing but this time Toms choice of Hauxley feels right - not too far and we always feel guaranteed to see something worthwhile. We haven't been up there as a family since the fire so I am also curious to see the reactions to the new facilities as well.

Checking out the sightings board in the new and temporary visitor centre, now open, there is a decent list but nothing outstanding. This board has been enhanced by some great sketches by John Steele, worth a look if you're up there. We decided to head down to Erics Hide because of the position of the sun and the wind (its pretty cold today but also very sunny).

Despite the lateness of the year, there are still plenty of wildflowers in bloom, including devil's bit scabious looking majestic. The haws and hips are weighing down the branches, yet to be discovered by winter thrushes, whilst sloes, black just a few days ago are now turning dusky purple following the first of the frosts. Sunning itself on a hawthorn bush, a drowsy speckled wood butterfly languidly took to the air once brushed by the shadow of my camera, joined by another further on along the pathway. Recently common in the area, this was still a surprise view given the relative lateness in the year.

Equally late, the reserve was alive with swallows, urgently stocking up for their impending overseas sojourn, their in-flight menu presumably mainly tipulids, which appear to be commonplace today. Swooping and darting across the sky, these birds appeared to consist mainly of juvenile birds, their urgent feasting suggesting imminent departure. Although young, their mastery of the air was wonderful to watch. Alongside the few perched precariously on the fence-line, a solitary wheatear sits tucked in the sun, its buffs and browns in sharp contrast to the dark scrub. Obvious to me, it took an age to alert my companions to its location.

Amongst the wind blown spume and stranded seaweed, redshank and dunlin feast while mallards and teal sit out the wind, unsure to stick or twist. The nearby fields are full of curlew, hidden from view until disturbed but settling again, just out of sight apart from one individual which continues to probe the mist soil. Alongside is a single godwit, probably bar-tailed, probing the depths, showing clearly the differences in size, shape and colour as well as bill shape.

A dark blob dips and weaves across the water, low to the surface, a sudden shift catches the full light, a turquoise streak as the kingfisher reveals its true colours before passing from view. Poor Tom, dipping on the wheatear as he positioned the scope, double dips, his disappointment palpable.

Perhaps this explains his unusual haste as we move hides, the cathedral space of the new hide fittingly reverential as we sit in hushed tones, searching the sky for a renewed view of the jewelled vision. Three little grebe bob and weave close by, their feeble airborne sojourns creating laughter and some amusement as I try and recall words from the Mikado: “three little grebes are we.....”

More curlew, dunlin and a group of lapwing are sheltering from the growing breeze, curlew numbers rising during our stay until a good size flock approaching 200 is formed. Three snipe hide at one end of the spit, nervously watching wigeon as they graze the waterline. The gang of geese, constantly fidgety, provide a constant background noise but stick to one side of the site, leaving space for a group of 15 cormorants, one of which is diving so frequently he appears otter-like for a brief moment.

Deciding to head down the coast for a while, we wander down the tree lined path, small flocks of tits and finches occasionally breaking cover to dart into safety once again just ahead.

Kingfisher” - two voices simultaneously trill as an unmistakeable cobalt and copper flash breaks the skyline ahead. Smiles all around prove the value of the day and everyone is happy heading back to the car. Sunshine shines on flower rich banks amongst which goldfinch hang from umbel-heads, a group of over 50 as big as any I have seen for some time. A single tree sparrow joins them from time to time as they wend their way from plant to plant, perpetual motion, a charm in every sense. Tom couldn't wait to add his score to the tally board.

East Chevington and the sky is darkening almost menacing.

A walk through the dunes to the burn mouth for a change, drawn by the glimpse of whitecaps on the sea. Unexpected colours adorn the sand, late blooms from bloody cranesbill, alongside waxcaps and rose galls drawing the eye to a mass of cowslips, proof positive of a hefty crop earlier this year. As we progress, a skein of geese appear from the sea, ragged V's form a breakdance across the sky, these Canada Geese oddly attractive in the air, my least favourite on the ground.

Amongst the beach debris, wrack, kelp and trunks of trees, pied wagtails trill and dip, with a grey wagtail providing some colour amongst the monotone debris. A rock pipit catches the eye, hidden amongst the trash, suddenly popping into the air before dropping out of view. Along the top of the beach, a small bird rises, followed by others, until 9 birds are moving away along the dune edge – surely too early for snow bunting!!

The waves are crashing against the base of the dunes, surging upwards and scattering a large group of dunlin and sanderling into the sky. Forming and breaking, constant movement, their antics comical yet purposeful, I find myself thrilled by the scene. Trish is equally hushed. A single ringed plover lurks amongst the group, his mask suggesting nefarious purposes that belie his true intent. Gulls of all sizes , creeds and colour crowd into the small space at the edge of the waves, searching weed, salad tossed by the waves to reveals scraps of food, requiring robust jousting for a rewarding morsel . Spume topped waves remind me of instant whip, peaks and troughs of creamy foam creating a backdrop to the scene, which completes a memorable day.

Cold hands and face remind us of the approaching winter, but this is my favourite time of year. And to hear my youngest proclaim a love for birdwatching crowns it all.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

School Gull Fantasy

As I approach/pass my 50th birthday (delete as appropriate), I find myself confessing to lingering around the margins of Monkseaton High School, armed with my binoculars hoping to catch a long lingering look, and perhaps a bit of action?

Because the school fields at Monky appear to quickly becoming one of THE places to see gulls, which are gathering in increasingly impressive numbers. I have yet to spot anything hugely significant but personally that doesn't worry me. It's the growing numbers and variety of birds of all ages, almost like a living larus manual in one place, as well as the opportunity to watch these birds interact.  

I thought it had gone quiet at home, where the Herring Gull nest has seen the last of its fledglings and its now safe to walk the streets of Monkseaton free from a gratis guano helmet. Because the birds have found somewhere better, hidden amongst the legoland spaceship that dominates the landscape of this part of North Tynesides coast.

Sitting behind a large metal fence, just in front of the "carbuncle", one presumes the birds feel especially safe in this seat of learning. It's often a case of a few birds acting to pull in more and more until the site becomes significant. There has always been a decent gull roost here in past but it appears as if this may be getting bigger. To my shame, I haven't been undertaking any counts and I also find gull plumage to be tricky at times but this site is close to home so worth dropping in for a look whenever I can. It will be interesting to see if the numbers grow, if they respond to tides, etc. This might also allow me to check the nearby fields more regularly for curlew as they sometimes pop up here at high tides, especially in rough weather. Bearing in mind that the whole lot will probably get built on in the future where the hell will these birds go then (I will make space for curlews om my roof if possible).

I now have to brush off the guidebooks (Grants Gulls has rarely been used previously to be honest) and make use of whatever else I can find such as;


It was totally safe to do this at anytime a few weeks ago but now the schools are back its best to avoid the hordes of scantily clad nubiles and visit in the evenings!

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Breakfast Epiphany

Blearly eyed, unshaven and groggy, I wandered into the kitchen and threw back the curtains (rolled back the blind really), revealing a murky morning, mirroring my demeanour.

But all was quickly shaken off by the image that confronted me.

Not a naughty neighbour, caught in flagrante delicto, or an alien mothership waiting to take over North Tyneside ......... but a breath catching moment nevertheless!

Because right in the middle of the glass was a perfect image of a bird, caught in perfect freeze frame and looking just like a fossil.

The image was immaculate, every little detail of the feathers crystal sharp, the graceful arc of the wing - ironically the opposite of the clumsiness of a moment of collision caught like a photograph on the glass.

But I was immediately struck by that prehistoric similarity, a fleeting and chance record of millennia of evolution, resulting in the collared doves that occupy my garden. Sadly, one less now and not long before the rain or a window cleaners shammy removes this final memory.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Haggerston Hawkmoth

During a visit to Haggerston Castle's Italian Walled Garden, a hidden garden which is currently being restored, I spotted a Hummingbird Hawkmoth, feeding itself on lavender and scabious. It was quite flighty and did not stay long before zooming away over the wall. But it made a visit to Haggerston worth while. A bit of calm amongst the frantic holidaymakers!

Not sure who to credit the pic for but GREAT job!

Friday, 16 July 2010

Majestic Tree gets a Trim

I am pleased to report that the Black Poplar (yet to be confirmed) at Acklington has recently had some gentle pruning of the main problem branch. This may have removed the major threat at present and it is worth noting that the tree fully retains its majesty.

Meanwhile another cut means that the DNA testing may not be undertaken this year as the funding to do this has become a victim of the current public spending restrictions. Other avenues are being pursued - after all we have used DNA to track down Pine Marten this year, and to confirm that all NE water voles are from Scotland, so its proven its value and with a bit of luck we can squeeze a little it more out for this importnat tree.

As a footnote - all my cuttings have failed. They were doing great but appear t have succumbed to fungal disease.

Many thanks to John Davison for the update and photo.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Chemical Sites Hosts Poor Mans Perfume?

During a recent visit to the Shasun Wetland site, we noted an impressive plant which was nearly 6 foot tall. Not quite in flower, it posed a bit of problem until I was able to key it out as Ploughman’s Spikenard (Inula conyza).

This herb is usually found on dry banks and in copses, principally on limestone or chalky soil, although its distribution –s principally southern England. In Northumberland it is very restricted and it is listed in Swan’s Flora as a “limited colonist” but the only records listed are over 100 years old from Ballast Hills in Willington (Flora of Northumberland).

It has upright stems, rising from a biennial root, generally only a foot or two in height, often purplish in colour and downy, are branched and terminated by numerous small flower-heads of a dingy yellow or dusky purple, only about two-thirds of an inch across, the ray florets inconspicuous and the leaf-like scales of the involucre rolled back. The leaves of the plant are narrow, of a dull green, egg-shaped and downy. Their margins are either entire, or toothed, the teeth ending in horny points.

The plant has a slight, but not unpleasant, aromatic odour, hence, perhaps, one of its local names of Cinnamon Root. True Nard is an expensive , spicy perume, prized amongst the ancient world and originating in the Himalayan region. Richard Mabey suggests that this is a more rustic version (!), sometimes used as a room freshener by hangin from ceilings (Flora Britannica).

The older herbalists considered Ploughman's Spikenard a good wound herb, and it was frequently taken in decoction for bruises, ruptures, inward wounds, pains in the side and difficulty of breathing. It also had a reputation as an emmenagogue (, and the juice of the plant was applied externally to cure the itch. It is not listed in Culpepper’s famous Herbal, although Spikenard is included – Spignel in this case, a plant with a close association to the whin grasslands of Northumberland, but not the same plant at all.

The very smell of the plant was said to destroy fleas, and the leaves have been recorded as being burnt as an insecticide. Great Fleabane is one of its popular names. Indeed, its specific name, Conyza, is derived from the Greek word for dust or powder, and refers to its power of killing noxious insects.

The leaves have sometimes been substituted for Digitalis, but may be readily distinguished by their entire margins to the leaves or, when toothed, by the horny points terminating the teeth.

The plant is also known as Cloron's Hard, Horse Heal (used along with Elecampane), Cinnamon Root & Great Fleabane.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Wild Goat Chase????

Whitelee National Nature Reserve has its own flock of "Wild" Goats (Capra aegagrus), which roam at will across the moorland, well almost! In fact, they are constrained to Kielderhead and Whitelee by a fence (although I think they have learned to walk around it now.

Very occasionally there is a need to intervene with these animals, usually if their numbers get too large (which may result in damage to the population as well as the site. Thus an annual census is taken to make an informed decision on whether a cull may be required (which is very rare).

Thus a beautiful sunny day in June 2010 saw us deposited at Whitelee, armed with binoculars, sun cream and Mars Bars. Joined by rangers from the Forestry Commission, we divided the ground up. My colleague for the day, Anthony, and myself elected to climb to the White Crags, circle across the top of the watershed and then descend down the Batinghope Burn.

At 1510ha, a NNR, SAC and SSSI, this is Northumberland Wildlife Trust’s largest reserve and is notable for its active blanket bog and heather heaths. Some of it is even in Scotland!

The ground that we covered was principally moorland, with a little bit of recently planted woodland.  At first view an open vista but once entered its full of small gulley's and peat hags, many of which could easily hide a Billy Goat and his hareem.

Within five minutes, I remembered my age as my first wind went and the second never really got there! Its pretty steep and being out of condition, it was very hard going across the tussocky heather. Despite my stertorous gasping, the trip was enlivened by the soaring of Skylarks and numerous Meadow Pipits, darting from under my labouring feet in places. Breeding appears to have been reasonably good for these species, although for nearly an hour these were the only birds we saw (the exception being the odd wood pigeon flapping around the nearby conifer blocks).

Reaching the top was a relief to my aching lungs and the ground flattened off. Most notably, the entire blanket bog was a dry as I have ever seen it, crusted in places. Water lurks beneath the surface still, but the availability of insects for feeding young is bound to take its toll this year, adding to an over harsh winter. A couple of small-leaved sundew were noted.

Crossing the watershed, still with naught but "mipits" and skylarks, we entered the rough ground around the top of the Coomsden Burn and dropped in to the Batinghope Burn, where the ground is fairly steep and broken in comparison to other areas. Within minutes we had  picked up additional species, the most obvious being a pair of Common Buzzard with two young, both of which were able to fly and join their parents for short periods, being coaxed by the female. Willow warbler, stonechat and pied wagtail were later joined by a single juvenile wheatear, just close to a large sheep stell, where it probably had recently emerged from a nest. On the burn, we startled a dipper and a couple more pied wagtails. In the shelter of the valley, there were a few butterflies, small white, small copper (3) and a single brown job that we couldn't quite see for long enough.

The valley bottom has a few small flushes and standing pools, one of which was alive with the biggest common toad tadpoles I have seen for years! A few small frogs were also noted and by taking the time to look we also found the pool to be full of Palmate Newts, one of which was extremely pale, almost white.

Shortly after this we flushed another dipper, presumably a mate to the previous one. It was at this point that I decided to entertain Anthony by plunging off the bank side into the burn, soaking myself in the process as well as crunching my leg on boulders. One look at my leg and it was," I think we'll look at that WHEN we get back" (a later visit to the General confirmed it wasn't broken-so what was that mystery white object projecting from the shin?).

On meeting the others and comparing notes, we had the addition of Golden Plover (with young) and everyone agreed it had been a lovely day - but NO GOATS!,nnr,REF_CODE,LABEL

Friday, 14 May 2010

Blue Flag - Load of Bull?

Call me a cynic (many have, many will) but is there much value, in biodiversity terms, to this "prestigeous award"? Listening to the local councillor describing how they had to "battle against whatever nature throws up at them" to achieve the coverted Blue Flag just got my blood boiling!!

The previous day, I watched as the council tractor drove its way around Cullercoats beach removing all the untidy seaweed that the twice daily inundation had thrown up onto the golden sands (soon to be frequented by teenagers intent on tombstoning or supping alcopops until totally legless).

Ironically, this preceeded ourvisit which was aimed at surveying the beach as part of the Big Seaweed Search ( We went ahead regardless of this and the fact that it was High Tide (oops!!)and we were able to locate a good range of marine algae which had escaped, principally by virtue of being underwater at the time.

Meanwhile, on the next door "Blue Flag"beach at Tynemouth Longsands, home to surfers brave enough to take on the North Sea, North Tyneside Council have spent lots of time and effort on restoring the dunes only to find that the winter weather make a heavy dent on their efforts (

Well, is it any wonder!!!

Dunes are built from windblown sand that is trapped around obstructions such as grass or SEAWEED, starting of the process of dune construction. Removing this material through mechanical beachcleaning not only removes this building block but it also takes away some of the sand that is vital to ensure replenishment occurs. ITS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE!

In a more enlightened statement than his unnamed colleague above, Cllr Ed Hodson, cabinet member for the Environment, has been quoted as saying: "These sand dunes are an important coastal habitat and sea defence. I believe it's vital that the area continues to be closely monitored so we can take action to protect the dunes whenever necessary."

Absolutely right! But lets make sure the balance is correct between biodiversity AND beach cleaning. Perhaps moving rather than removing the seaweed would be better? For instance, it could be positioned next to the embryo dunes to provide sand trapping material and it would also leave behind some of the vital material which, as it decays, provides food sources for the shorebirds for which this stretch of coast is designated as an SSSI (although not in the best position)!!! After all there are worse things under all that sand (asbestos from the Plaza for one thing - I recall seeing Souxsie and the Banshees there - sigh!!).

It might also save some money? Now, as a Cooncil Tax payer, I am all for that!

Winslow Homer - Tynemouth Beach

Friday, 9 April 2010

Plant Heritage Meetings

The following may be of interest to some of you.


Meetings 2pm for 2.30pm start at the Durant Hall, Unitarian Church, Ellison Place, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 8XG - unless specified


  • Dr Ann Borland, Director Moorbank Botanic Garden

  • Kirkley Hall
  • Blagdon Hall
Saturday Oct 16  - THE WORLD GARDEN
  • Tom Hart Dyke — from Columbian kidnapping to the calm of Kent!
Saturday Nov 13 -  Very Special GARDEN PLANTS

  • Kenneth COX of Glendoick Gardens

Visitors most welcome at meetings for which there is a £2 charge for non-members. Details of membership & other Group activities at meeting or tel: 01661 853247

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Great White Eejit

Well worth traipsing to Druridge Bay through the hail and rain to get some cracking views of the Great White Eejit (as Tom continues to call this magnificent bird). Seen close up to grey heron the bird was fishing well in the flooded grasslands. Obviously the excess of rain has added to the amount of standing water but the new sluices also appear to have helped by raising the water table. The downside of this is the poor state of the paths, especially around the entrances but those of us keen to see the bird were well prepared.

To make the visit even better, we were rewarded when a peregrine took a teal and sat in full view consuming the meal - thanks to all the birders present for lending their scopes for even closer views. Plenty of shoveller, teal and wigeon around and a growing black-headed gull flock adding some much needed noise - we'd noticed that the bay was pretty quiet but had been blaming the weather.

Prior to this a trip to Cresswell had given us two magnificent drake goldeneye, together with a range of wildfowl - noticeably more gadwall than in previous visits. Water levels were high but obviously dropping as there was a lot of flotsam surrounding the hide left behind as the water dropped (outfall was clear).

A good day all round despite the dreadful weather and another bird added to the new lexicon of species descriptions!

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Poplar Show to be Axed?

Is it possible that the local authority may be due to commit a hienous act of vandalism by removing one of the counties oldest trees?

Acklington Poplar
Following a call from a "concerned resident" about plans to fell a tree in the grounds of a local school, a series of curious events unravelled.

Situated  in the grounds of a small school, the tree is causing a problems because of the fears it will drop some of its timber onto unwitting children going about their bean bag races and other lawful activities (provided competative sports have not been banned).

Tree surgeons have visited and pronounced this to be a terminal case as the tree has honey fungus (the arboricultural equivalent of athletes foot?). The verdict is that it must go, thereby removing the danger but coincidentally robbing the pupils of a fantastic part of their local heritage.

The school is the oldest in Northumberland, built around 1865 and the tree was in its old age at that time. At approx. 80ft tall, it is a fine specimen and probably 250-300 years old. As a veteran tree, its is therefore entirely worthy of protection in its own right. Add to this the biodiversity value of a tree of this nature, with rot holes, gnarled bark and lots of nooks and crannies to be filled by a range of wildlife and we are faced with a dilemma.

But the crying shame is that this is probably a BLACK POPLAR, one of the UK's rarest trees and something virtually unrecorded in Northumberland. Only one other is listed in the county Flora and the veracity of that may be doubtful.

The problem with Black Poplar is that they are VERY VERY hard to identify. As with many of this genus, hybrids occur and true individuals are hard to pin down. But I have a secret weapon in this way - DNA profiling! Getting some leaf material will allow us to look at its genetic fingerprint in a way that will be definitive.

Thus I eventually found myself in the beautiful village of Acklington on a mission to visit the tree and to see what could be done to conserve the species, but if possible the specimen itself.

Firstly - what a tree - huge, gnarly and imposing. Secondly, the school don't want to see it go really and are actively looking into more land to replace that lost in preserving such a worthy specimen (I now have somewhere to send all my Sainsbury's School Vouchers as a gesture of appreciation). Thirdly, it looks really well to me!!

Gnarly old bugger!!  (30cm rule in centre)
Accepting one large and unruly branch, snaking over the playing field, the tree does what it should in that it will occasionally lose twigs, particularly in windy weather. But there is no obvious and major rot or damage other than this "superbranch" which suggests that some prudent amputation may save the patient rather than the proposed terminantion.
Superbranch - for the chop?

Honey fungus is a fact of life for most trees, they live with it all of the time and it often only becomes a major issue when they are stressed for other reasons. The tree outside my house, for instance, which hides my nakedness from neighbours (phew!), has it. But unless Virgin Media chew up the roots when trenching for cable TV in the area or some other damage occurs, the tree will live with honey fungus, even though it may be the final nemesis.

So plans to cut it down may be premature although some pruning and even pollarding may be worth considering, even if the school succeed in securing alternative sporting facilities on a nearby field.

As a safety net though, I returned home armed with a bagful of hardwood cuttings, many of which are installed in a small plot in my garden, a few pots and also into water to encourage some rooting. As soon as some of the tight little buds start to spring open, leaf material will be taken for the DNA test and then it will all get REALLY interesting.

As a footnote, its worth adding that Her Majesties Prison's at Acklington and Castington have both offered to help propagate cuttings in their nurseries. What a fantastic project that will be when we get it going. They are a superb partner with real commitment to progressing nature conservation as well as putting something back into the community.

As a further footnote - the school REALLY do want to save this tree and I am sure that the local authority do as well but in the latter case there are lots of conflicting pressures that make this a very interesting case.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

In the Gutter

What a cracking morning when I rolled out of bed to the sound of blackbird, goldfinch and the ever-present spuggies, cheeping away fit to bust. Although there remains a slight chill in the air, the early morning sky suggested a day better than the forecast (much like normal - do they ever get it right?). Keen to test out his new bins, Tom even suggested a bit of birding but this was trumped by the suggestion for us to check for newts at New Hartley.

Newting is something that Tom and I both enjoy but this is a site with a distinct difference. Not your normal beautiful lily fringed pond but a series of road gulleys in a new road surrounding the SSSI. Since the nearby housing estate was built and this curiously twisty road was put in, we have spent many hours fishing unfortunate amphibians from the road drains and returning them to their preferred habitat.

Think of yourself as a newt.

You wake up after a bloody hard winter, and the sap is rising! Struggling through the undergrowth in search of a nice warm pond, you come across a large concrete cliff. Once down this you either turn left/right or progress forward. 

Right or Left leads to a large hole full of water (hard to see in the dark) and OOPS - in you go! Great - water! But ********! There's no way out. 

Progress forward - another cliff, too hard to climb so turn right or left.

Right or Left leads to a large hole full of water (hard to see in the dark) and OOPS - in you go. Great - water! But ********! There's no way out.

Effectively these road drains (gulley pots) act as pitfall traps for the amphibians. Bad enough for common species such as toads or smooth newts, but New Hartley Pond is an SSSI because it has regionally important populations of Great Crested Newt.

Over the last two years we have rescued hundreds of newts from these drains, including some cracking cresties. Sadly, many have also perished in them, along with some pheasant chicks, water shrew and numerous small mammals. 

Taking Trish with us (promising not to be all girly) and armed with a bucket and net (plus my LICENCE - for I am a fully authorised and vetted Great Crested Newt fondler) we set off full of enthusiasm. And while most of Tyneside was probably at the shops (nae footie today-except for the Bay away in the Vase - 3-3 draw!) we conducted our very own rescue.

The water in these drains is full of all sorts of crap, but mostly leaves, all of which are really dark. Newts are a bit hard to spot in them so a careful check of the catch is  required. There are 28 gulley pots in total and it took us nearly three hours as many were stuck shut, requiring a bit of a whack with a lump hammer to shift them.

What a team! There were 151 amphibians recovered - of which 11 were Great Crested (I was surprised by this as I still think its a little early in the season). Sadly, there were also 6 dead cresties and this really p***** me off. God knows what effect this has on the overall population.

The bucket was totally alive when we went to repatriate the catch in the nearby ponds and every single newt took to the water with great enthusiasm. We tried to photograph the vivid colours of the bellies before release but couldn't do this justice and as we didn't want to stress the newts anymore than needed, we left it.

Despite the stink, we all felt this was a good afternoons work. We also recorded great spotted woodpecker, yellowhammer, goldfinch, rook, blackbird, great tit and blue tit (was that also a chiffchaff calling?)

On the way back home, Trish mentioned a hoopoe one of her colleagues dads had seen in his Ashington garden yesterday! He took a photo so am looking forward to that!

Monday, 8 March 2010

Mud wrestling

The emergence of a glorious sun this morning had the spuggies cheeping fit to bust - Buggers.

Despite the aching limbs arising from a day of toil (after yesterdays wet but rewarding session spent forcing trees into less than hospitable soils at Shasun - planting a canny blackthorn hedgerow mind), the prospects of a bit more fresh air proved enough to ensure we would escape the shackles of a warm duvet for a bit of a "trip oot". The tea and toast helped as well, and I am sure Trish appreciated me making it for her (again).

Whilst waiting for the "slap" to dry, I noticed that they were going to have a 19 gun salute at the Collingwood Memorial to mark the 200th anniversary of the real hero of Trafalgar (born in Morpeth and lived in Chirdon). As it sounded fun to see South Shields blasted to pieces (hopefully not the chippies or the great Indian restuarants), we decided to curtail the birding and visit somewhere local.

Gosforth Park Reserve then - somewhere Trish hasn't seen and just a few minutes away - brilliant! And sure enough it did not let us down as we were rewarded with a good range of birds within seconds of arrival, including great, blue, coal and long-tailed tits, great spotted woodpecker, chaffinch, robin and blackbird. Loads of badger sign and some very active latrines, suggesting these animals have been on the Dulcolax recently!

The new "flash" has grown enormously since my last visit and held wigeon, a couple of teal, assorted gulls and a few coot, accompanied by two mute swans. As we peered through the unmanaged hedge to this well hidden gem, 13 goosander flew it with a quite spectacular splash and started lording it!

Squidging through the muddy paths onto the boardwalk, we slipped our way to first one hide (obviously recently used by the army to practice urban assault) then onto the  second one. Here we were rewarded with a single female goldeneye, and a good number of wigeon, mallard and 13 coot (that's where they are then!).

Heading back for a quick dash to the feeding station hide, we heard first one then and an answering water rail. Sidling up for a better look, they took fright of my bright red jacket and simply shut up (a lesson for me there I reckon). However, we were happy enough with that record and moving on were pleased to note four roe deer nearby (also flushed by the jacket - thank god there's no bulls around), quickly followed by a pair of treecreeper and then another pair, a jay and two more great spotted woodpecker.

Arriving at the hide (about four hours later because of the need to act out scenes from the Somme in transiting the pathways), we flushed another deer and then a nuthatch and mistle thrush. Swimming over to the hide proved to be less than rewarding as it only added reed bunting to the list.

Needless to say, by the time we had trekked back through the mud (we had forgotten the 4x4, sherpas and canoes - stupid idiots!), the 19 gun salute was only a few minutes away, but more minutes than we had to spare. We did make it back home, just in time for a lovely fried egg butty and chose to sit in the garden with those spuggies, straining our ears for the sound of systematic "birthday" explosions and reflecting on (i) the mud (ii) the poor state of the reserve and (iii) the usual "warm" welcome from other visitors demanding proof of NHS membership and legitimate access to THEIR private reserve. We never did hear those bangs, unless we mistook them for the remarkably regular slamming of car doors in Monkseaton at precisely 3pm?

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Dove is in the air

Wake to "cooing" close by.

Nope Trish is still asleep - its a bloody collared dove sitting in the tree outside the window!

Can't really complain, can I? After all, it is St. Valentines Day and no doubt they are feeling amorous as well? The sap may be rising (in the trees) and things begin to pop up unexpectedly, so it will soon be time for these stupid birds to continually lay eggs on the roundest branch of the (council owned) Whitebeam outside my house and watch them roll onto the pates of unsuspecting passers by. Why don't these birds build a proper nest? Just imagine if we all built houses like that!They'd be marketed by Barretts!

Do you birders know that single girls who want to find out who they will fall in love with should go birdwatching on Valentine's Day, according to an ancient art called ornithomancy? The practise of  reading signs from birds dictates that the first bird an unmarried woman sees is an omen of her future husbands character. Are you worried?

My Shamen tells me that anyone lucky enough to see a dove can be sure their future marriage is happy.

Good job the curtains were closed then! Or was it..........?

After this rude awakening, what better way to mark this VERY special day than huddling up in the Holywell hide, twiddling with my new scope and taking in the wonders of nature? Well, I am sure I can think of something better! Especially with the reserve being so quiet!

The weather was very still, with barely a wisp of wind and the sun at a low angle making the pond obsidian and gloomy. Meagre fare as well, with two drake goldeneye being the pick of the bunch. A few pochard, couple of tufted duck and a shy grey heron lurked around the far end of the pond, while a handful of greylags spend some time being bossed by a canada goose before settling down by the public hide. There were not many gulls either, a few black headed, herring and greater black-backed

Lots of robins singing and the feeding station was busy, with a good gathering of greenfinch, goldfinch and the ubiquitous tits darting from feeders to treetops and filling the air with excited calls. The male Great Spotted Woodpecker made a transitory appearance before disappearing east, almost as if he had heard that most birders would be busy ensuring their other halves would be in receipt of love and affection, scant reward for months of absence in pursuit of ticks.

Luckily for me, my lovely lady is also a fantastic companion on trips out and even encouraged the purchase of the Nikon scope after we found my Spacemaster had more mould than a Stilton (following a drenching and inadequate storage)! Tom has therefore inherited the old scope, which appears to be encouraging him to take a greater interest.

As we left, we were treated to an influx of fieldfare into the far edge of the village, feeding amongst stubble. A total of 96 was counted but there must have been more out of sight.

Not the best of days perhaps, but my favourite bird was, as always, the one on my arm.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Planes, Sprains and Automobiles

I take my hat off to Heather Mills. 

It must have been hard enough to have to put up with that whinny over-rated soppy scouse fop when she married him, apparently for her "share of his fortune" (which condemned her to more public vilification than Saddam Hussein), but she then took a massive risk by becoming the Long John Silver of  Dancing on Ice, only to fall in mid Choctaw Turn. 

Following a smattering of the white stuff and a brief appearance from a solar flare, the glass like pavements of Whitley Bay brought me down to earth with more than just a bump as I cartwheeled into the air and landed heavily on my back. In futre years, I will remember with some fondness all those good samaritans who walked past me as I lay gasping for air outside the Salvation Army Charity Shop. Perhaps the absence of empty bottles of "dog" could have provided a clue that I wasn't waiting for a place in the hostel but was actually injured?

Anyhow, the resulting neck, back, rib and shoulder strains played some part in restricting this weekends outings. The need to jump in the Volvo and chug up to Town to open up the work space, so lots of Batty folk could meet and discuss all things myotis, meant that we had to be in Newcastle, so a trip to Big Waters looked the best bet.

Arriving at the reserve, prospects for birding looked poor as the cloud layer had descended so far that it was like walking under a suspended duvet! Piercing this gloom at frequent intervals, the shriek of aero engines sounded as if EasyJet had determined to reduce costs by landing in Dinnington and asking passengers to walk the last few metres to the airfield.

Pressing on regardless, there was little of note along the paths to the main hide (except meeting an old friend I hadn't seen for years!). It was bitting cold and quite depressing but this soon changed once we reached the hide (increasingly reminiscent of a gentlemans club) and changed from wellies to carpet slippers. First views into the feeding station showed it to be chocka with birds, almost wall to wall with blackbirds and great tits vying with moorhens (25) for the prize of "how many can we squeeze into a mini". But not for long as a superb male Sparrowhawk made the first of many forays to ground zero that afternoon, scattering the small birds from their gastronomic distractions like seed sown across a field. This was obviously an american accipiter though, as it never hit its target that day! 

Despite the threat, the feeding station was busy, with all the usual suspects present, together with a few yellowhammer, reed bunting, 25 tree sparrow, a single long-tailed tit and a superb male great-spotted woodpecker.

The main lake was still (!!!!) frozen, and this provided a platform for over 70 lapwing, hustling a decent number of mallard, teal and wigeon for space. A couple of coot, three cormorant and two female tufted duck made up the number with a single drake goldeneye being the pick of the crop. Now this guy must have something about him as he was slowly joined by a hareem until 11 females were drifting to and fro with him darting between them and throwing his head backwards in a wonderful display of optimism. Perhaps this was well placed, as I later learned that other goldeneye recorded elsewhere that day were all males!

Throughout this display and the periodic honking of overflying grey geese (greylag I think), the blanket of cloud remained firmly fixed above us. Every ten minutes or so, the roar of aircraft broke the perfect silence. At no point did any bird stir in response to this, not a single one wanted to take to the sky and intercept the metal monster as it ploughed overhead. It's really disappointing that such avian selfishness was displayed - surely everybody knows that birds are destined to commit self-sacrifice in the face of man's ingenuity and temerity in taking to the sky, forcing birds to consider themselves unworthy of sharing their natural element?

Perhaps I am totally missing the point here? Perhaps hundreds of goldeneye had actually minced through the turboprops, producing that miasma of fog, above which the great god, Aviation, could rule? I think not! But then again, I am partially responsible - my eldest works in aerospace design.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Brilliant Bittern

What a great picture from my mate in Worcs. Would love this as a garden tick!

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Almost quiet on the West Monky Front

Snow outside, soft, warm bed inside - no competition!

As a result, we decided on a rare trawl around the local patch, following the tracks up to Murton Village and back. The snow blanket made everything look uniform, hiding any humps and hollows that add some variety to this otherwise uniform farmland landscape. 

There was a distinct difference just as soon as we stepped from the suburban birdtopia, where starlings, blue tits and house sparrows filled the air with tweeting and squabbling, into a veritable agricultural desert 

It was almost silent and there were few signs of life except for massing wood pigeons over near Earsdon and a magpie sitting in one of the few hawthorn trees that have been left in situ.

I often find this walk a little uninspiring but today its got me thinking. Some recent work on the culverted letch has left a great opportunity for some screen hedging and as soon as that thought entered my head it was obvious how much could be achieved here just by reinstating the hedgelines, filling in the gaps and giving the vista some character back. Without doubt it would also provide much more scope for birds and other forms of wildlife, especially if there was some rough grass and a little open water. Perfect for an agri-environment scheme to promote biodiversity. Not sure if this would be considered a priority though as it isn't in a key target zone. Even more worrying is the prospect that this area will probably be covered in houses before too long, like most of North Tyneside!!

Apart from a couple of crows and black headed gulls, there was really little about. A skein of 90 pink-footed geese announced their approach as they passed northwards. It always amazes me how these birds form such great formations, changing shapes every few moments almost like iron filings around a magnet. 

At Murton, the hedges around the stables were filled with house sparrows, joined by a couple of blackbirds and blue tits but nothing exceptional. The return leg, across rougher ground, offered the prospects of better fare but this was shaping up to be nothing more than a pipe dream until we approached the old farm building. Suddenly we were met with a beautiful tinkling call as a yellowhammer perched on the tip of a hawthorn tree singing away. It was joined by another and then a third before the two newcomers flew behind the building. Against the snow and in full light from the warm sun, the bird looked magnificent, its markings crisp and sharp. A fourth bird appeared on the top of the building giving me hope that this "patch" might prove worth a regular visit.

We were able to get quite close to one bird which was feeding to the rear of the building. Two large rats were present and it appeared as if the birds were utilising areas where the rats were digging. At times, they were so close that it looked as if the rodent would turn on the bird and that would be one less farmland bird to record. I have no idea if rats would take a bird like that, but cant see any reason why they would not if food was scarce.

Apart from the robin singing in the trees on the final leg of the walk, that was it! It was a great walk because of the snow but  those yellowhammers made it extra special.

Travelling up to Ash with Trish, we saw a short-eared owl on a fencepost at West Hartford and 9 grey partridge in a field near to Sheepwash. I was glad we took the long route!

Friday, 29 January 2010

Whale Meat Again

Its rare to find whales washed up on beaches but there have been two in eight months along the Northumberland Coast.

The minke whale found on Druridge Bay was not that much of a surprise as minke whales are often seen off the coast, sometimes in reasonably sized pods.

However, the Sperm Whale that was beached at Beadnell earlier this week was more of a surprise. Although not unique, they are unusual, being deep water animals more likely to be found in the Atlantic rather than in the relatively shallow waters of the North Sea. As a result, I thought it was a "must" to go and have a look myself, having seen the TV footage.

Arriving at Beadnell, it wasn't hard to find the corpse - just follow your nose - quite literally!!! After a few days ashore, together with some recent dental work from the Natural History Museum, the carcass is "maturing" and a trail of blood and tissue along the beach illustrated the gory mess created to thwart souvenir hunters. 

The smell gets worse as you approach the whale, a kind of smoky fatty smell that stays with you for some time. Certainly, many of the visitors were regretting their curiosity and perhaps the fish and chip suppers may reappear in due course

I was very sad to see such a magnificent animal in such a position. This individual is about 30 foot long and weighs, I am told, over 37 tons and its probably not fully grown. Whilst I would obviously prefer to see any animal in its natural environment, the opportunity to see a Sperm Whale is probably quite remote (although I have had a very close encounter with a Minke). 

As a result I was curious about the animal, fascinated to see the massive upper jaw, with it sharp teeth and serrated palate, the large distinctly notched flukes and the numerous deep gouges along the flanks and heads, perhaps indicitive of underwater struggles at some time during its life! 

For some reason, the penis is lying outside the genital slit - cue jokes about Moby Dick!!

Whether this individual is a stranding or a washed up corpse is uncertain. Its certainly provoked a lot of interest and with discussions underway about marine conservation zones, perhaps this was a timely occurrence? I would add that the dolphin found on Druridge Bay beach the same day, which would normally have been quite exciting, has almost been forgotten about. What it does show though, is that a wide range of cetaceans ARE found of the Northumberland Coast, we just don't notice them as often as we should.

Whilst there, I noted 2 bar-tailed godwit, 17 sanderling, a few redshank, 13 oystercatcher and 8 eider duck. A single wren shrieked from the dunes.

Driving home as night fell, I couldn't shake the images and that awful smell stayed with me for the entire trip, picking up 77 mute swans at QE2 lake on the way as the light disappeared. It was only when I got home that I realised my shoes were caked in Beadnell sand, complete with whale goo and that awful stench!

As a footnote, did this Sperm Whale have a taste for seal pups? Might that explain the headless seal pup corpses being washed up on the coast in recent weeks?

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Border Reiving

Busy day making a foray over the border to St. Boswells to finalise a longterm aerial photography study which will prove to be immensely useful. Using these images, a consultancy company has produced a vegetation map (on a GIS), which although not perfect, is very close to providing detailed vegetation information for the entire Tweed catchment. Doing that by foot would have required an army of trained surveyors and a budget similar to that required for the purchase of one whole trident missile!!!

I love the trip up over Carter Bar, the views over the hills and the journey into the hinterland between our two nations. Plus its a chance to get some Red Kola and a bridie.

No piper at Carter Bar today which encouraged me to have a quick stop to capture the magnificent views over the Cheviots and to have a little peep at Whitelee as well. There is still snow about up here and more forecast for the next few days. Birdlife on the journey had mainly been crows and pigeons, but a flock of fieldfare (50+) crossed the border in the opposite direction to me just as I got out of the car. Further on I surprised a buzzard feeding on roadkill, something I have not seen myself before.

Post meeting, another buzzard along the road to Kelso and a couple of cormorants robbing the riparian owners of a few fish were the highlights of an otherwise relatively sparse birding drive. But it was a lovely day for a trip along the Tweed and around the Cheviots.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Murder at the Moor

Last night I witnessed a murder.

In fact, I am hoping to see it again tonight on my way home.

As I passed Gosforth Park and approached West Moor, the sky filled with dark shapes moving slowly towards the roundabout and surrounding fields. At first I thought they were starlings but as I got closer I saw they were crows, hundreds of them funnelling onto the roundabout and filling the fields, trees and hedges, totally oblivious to the passing rush hour traffic.

They have been massing for a couple of days now, and I'm wondering if there's going to be a crows' court.

A 'murder' of crows is based on the persistent but fallacious folk tale that crows form tribunals to judge and punish the bad behaviour of a member of the flock. If the verdict goes against the defendant, that bird is killed (murdered) by the flock.

The basis in fact is probably that occasionally crows will kill a dying crow who doesn't belong in their territory or much more commonly feed on carcasses of dead crows. Also, both crows and ravens are associated with battlefields, medieval hospitals, execution sites and cemeteries (because they scavenged on human remains). Perhaps with such a large gathering they simply fall out with each other and a squabble turns into something more serious (bit like the Bigg Market then!).

Whatever the reason, this is a wildlife spectacular and one I feel privileged to observe, especially so close to the urban centre of Newcastle.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Boulmer Bound

After looking forward to the weekend since 8am on Monday, the rain on Saturday was a bit disheartening, threatening to limit any potential excursions. Washing the car usually leads to the gods rewarding me with a deluge but after weeks of travelling through blizzards and clarts, the trusty old volvo really needed a clean, not least to remind me of its original colour!

On this occasion, this proved to be good fortune, as the sun emerged from its hiding place before the suds had bubbled, inviting a trip out. Scooping up the bairn and wor'lass, we headed up the coast in such a hurry we forgot to eat. Coming to the rescue, the Amble chippy! On the way for the comestibles, just past Hauxley, a field full of 8o+ Curlew hove into view with a handful of Oystercatchers furrowing into the abundant mole hills around the dunes. The chippy also gave a chance for a quick scan of the harbour where we noted 32 cormorants "sunning" themselves on the sandbank, with a couple of grey seals in the harbour. The usual eiders were lurking awaiting a few chips, which gave the chance for my first new factoid of the day - apparently these birds are also known as Cuddly Ducks, because they make pillows and duvets from their feathers. Now I always thought they were known as Cuddy's Ducks, something to do with St. Cuthbert (Cuddy) but this news makes much more sense to me so has been added to the birding glossary for all of time.

A short stop at the top of the bank between Alnmouth and Longhoughton gave great views across the recently re-engineered river Aln. Having been allowed to do what it should do and flood into low lying land once the flood banks were removed as part of the 4Shores Project, the river has shaken off its shackles and is once more free and independent. Its great to see it changing  back into something more natural. Today was no exception, it looked fine, although the lack of a scope was a distinct drawback! However, the ether was filled with whistling Wigeon, over 400 clustered around the pools to the east, alongside a couple of Shelduck. After a quick viewing we headed for our main destination, Boulmer, drawn by the prospects of snow bunting or something equally sexy!

Gawd! It was cold though, with a slow but very cold breeze coming off the land. Low tide and immediately in front of the car park we were greeted by a good size group of mixed waders, feeding furiously despite the presence of four bait diggers. Dunlin, redshank and curlew were on the sand with 7 Ringed Plover feeding in the strandline. 10 Bar-tailed Godwit were vigorously piercing the sand after morsels, a nice surprise for me and first of the year. We all remarked on the effort they were putting in, presumably after the same prey that the anglers were seeking, but with much more economy and less impact upon the beach!

Walking up the beach we picked up robin, blackbird and starling, all on the kelp wrecked on the shore before the first of a number of Rock Pipit teased us with very fleeting views as it hid in and out of the scrub. I love these little birds, typical LBJ! Every movement was scrutinised in case of a shorelark or something else but sadly we dipped out totally. To be honest, this made no odds to me as the beauty of wildlife watching is being out in the countryside, especially in company. Watching the numerous oystercatcher, curlew and dunlin, together with the shelduck was delightful. A single fieldfare hopped in and out of view on the sandy cliffs before flying off in the direction of Howick. Before turning back, we had a number of eider offshore and a single scoter dragged itself onto a reef. In amongst the piled up kelp, four turnstones, turning rotted vegetation not stones, seemed happy enough to lurk (almost unseen) within a foot or two of us.

The clouds, gathering thickly, led to heavy rain as we returned to the car, with a large group of 300+ lapwing heading west across the village. The walk had been great, especially as it had been unexpected. Finally, we noted 60 odd swans in a field close to Druridge Country Park, probably Mute but as it was getting murky we pressed on without stopping.

Of course, reading others blogs will always tell you that the choice of site was wrong on any particular day but no destination is ever wrong in Northumberland as far as I am concerned. There is always something wonderful and inspiring to see.