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.