Friday, 22 May 2015

The Farne Islands and Beyond

So I've done it! I've finally landed a job with an iota of relevance to my chosen professional. For the next three months I will be working as a ecological field assistant in Angus, conducting  bird and butterfly surveys in the Scottish uplands. It is most certainly a start! Though I am over the moon with this opportunity it does however mean that I will have to depart the patch for the foreseeable future and as such the last week has been filled with as much avian cramming as humanly possible. Trips to Stobswood, Druridge and Cresswell have all been characteristically rewarding though the real jewel in the crown was a pilgrimage to Inner Farne a few days past. 

Yes, Wednesday found me making my yearly pilgrimage to the Farne Islands to catch up with the interesting assortment of seabirds that call the islands their home. Waiting for our boat in Seahouses I managed to catch up with the famed chip munching Eiders in the Harbour though on this occasion they seemed more interested in donuts that chips. It was fantastic to get so close to these iconic Northumbrian seaducks and half an hour well spent in my books, more so given the pleasant sunshine. A brief gander around the Harbor turned up 25 Ringed Plover, 2 Dunlin and 4 Turnstone whilst a Kestrel put in a brief appearance overhead and yet more Eiders loafed around on the sea. True to form I managed to indulge my inner child and spent a good while rummaging around in the exposed rock pools, rewarded with nice views of a host of tidal critters including a rather nifty Brittle Star. Before long however it was time to depart for the islands where the crossing provided nice views of some passing Gannets as well as both Grey and Common Seals, the former not budging as the boat crept to within a few meters of where they snoozed  on the rocks. Great beasts!

Whose a pretty boy then
Grey Seal
Arriving on Inner Farne we were immediately greeted by the characteristic clamor of the islands breeding seabirds; noisy, smelly and fabulous in equal measure. Arctic Terns clustered the docks and mobbed us as we made our way up towards the visitor centre. It was nice to see some birds engaged in full courtship displays, "dancing" and passing small fish to their partners having arrived back from their epic migration. Truly, it baffles me that such small birds can make it to the Antarctic and back in less than a year! Anyways, moving onto the island both Sandwich Terns and Common Terns were noted in droves and proved a lot more placid that their Arctic cousins. Black-Headed Gulls sat on nests left, right and centre and any areas of available grass were occupied by nesting female Eiders, all of which looked rather snug on their bed of plucked Eider down. Puffins were noted in their hundreds as they scurried to and throw, occasionally crossing directly in front of us on route back to their burrows. The rocky viewpoints held the usual array of seabird species with Kittiwake, Guillemot and Razorbill giving up close and personal views and the odd Herring Gull lurking about in search of a meal. For me the islands nesting Shags proved the real highlight however with pairs now nursing some truly monstrous chicks. Adult Shags are splendid birds complete with their mesmerizing emerald eyes and punk rock crests though the chicks leave rather a lot to be desired in terms of ascetic appeal.. Departing the site we picked our way back across the island stepping over Puffins and Terns alike and noting a pair of Swallow and more bizarrely a Rabbit as we made for the docks. I was lead to believe the Farnes hold no mammal species? How strange. All in all a fantastic day had by all!

Look at that eye!
Arctic Tern choosing its next victim
The clown of the bird world

 Back on dry land a few visits to some favored local sites yielded a decent variety of bird life. A few trips to Druridge Pools failed to turn up any of the reported Temmicks Stints though the drake Garganey showed well and provided a suitable compromise. Alongside this eye catching migrant duck a decent array of common wildfowl with Shoveler, Teal, Tufted Duck, Mallard, Gadwall and Shelduck all noted in force. Wader wise the floods here proved mildly disappointing with only a few Lapwing and Redshank noted though a drumming Snipe was a pleasure to behold. The shelter belt held a few smart Whitethroat, all of which were in full song whilst further exploration threw up both Willow and Sedge Warbler as well as a male Greenfinch and at least five Tree Sparrows. A distant Barn Owl was an added bonus though this turned out to be the first of four birds noted that morning with distant birds at Widdrington Station and Widdrington Moor and a much more showy specimen at Cresswell Pond though this was about all of note visible at Cresswell. Perhaps with the exception of 6 Avocets dosing on the sand bank alongside a scattering of Oystercatcher and Dunlin and a brief Little Egret. Further pottering along the coast turned up a Yellow Wagtail at Hemscott Hill, a large number of Hirundines and Swifts and a pleasant scattering of Stonechat, Linnet and Tree Sparrows though before long it was time to return home and give the patch a scouring before I am forced to abandon it for the summer..

Barn Owl at Cresswell Pond
A very pleasant Swallow at Druridge Pools

Back on the home front the unequivocal highlight of the trip came in the form of a singing Garden Warbler at Stobswood, species number 118 for this years Patchwork Challenge. Surely tomorrows trip has the potential to take me to 120 before I depart for foreign climes? Anyways, alongside said little brown warbler a nice array of summer migrants sung around Stobswood with Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler present in double digits and Whitethroat and Blackcap noted on multiple occasions. The woody areas held a handsome Marsh Tit and a few more regular patch residents whilst a gander around the Alder Carr provided a few radiant Yellowhammer, Grey Partridge, Buzzard and a brief views of a petite male Sparrowhawk as it tried its best to apprehend one of the local Goldfinches. Onto Stobswood Pools and a female Goosander on the large pool was a tad unseasonal. Whimbrel continue to trickle through the patch with 8-10 birds noted on this occasion alongside a good number of Curlew and of course the sites resident Ringed Plover, Lapwing, Redshank and Oystercatcher. A female Stonechat nearby marked only my third patch record of this species whilst other bits and pieces of note include a Tree Sparrow in the hedges surrounding Middle Stobswood Farm, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Kestrel and a pair of rather late Wigeon. And there you have it, quite a bit of bird based waffling this week though I fear I am compensating for a few weeks of silence as I acclimatize to life in Scotland. I am slightly nervous at the prospects of turning my hobbies into a paid job but I am sure all will be right in the end. Who knows, maybe this could be the start of a long and prosperous career in ecology? I can only wish..


Sunday, 10 May 2015

Patch Ticks A'Plenty

Stobswood continued its productive streak this weekend with two new species added to my ever growing patch list. The first somewhat of a surprise addition and the second an overdue scarcity. Following my recent success with Iceland Gull, Whimbrel, Bewick's Swan and Hen Harrier I wasn't really expecting many new species so early in the year. How wrong I was.. I am of course referring to the drake Mandarin unearthed of Stobswood Pools yesterday evening. I know at least two of these gaudy oriental ducks have been in the area of late but truth be told Stobswood was the last place I expected to find one. Aren't they meant to favor vegetated water bodies? Anyways, a rather soggy trip around the pools proved more than worthwhile when said handsome duck lifted out of one of the sites drainage ditches, putting on a brief show as it circled around before flying east towards the large pool. Always a pleasure to behold and a somewhat overdue Northumberland tick for this novice county birder. The second "surprise" came in the form of a smart Wood Sandpiper located earlier today on the shores of Widdrington Moor Lake. Wood Sand is something I had been expecting to find for a few years now and this one didn't disappoint. Both birds bring in 2 points each for this years Patchwork Challenge taking me up to 117 species and 131 points for the year. Not bad!

Whitethroat - Druridge Pools
Elsewhere on the home front my local Barn Owls continue to delight with at least two birds in evidence during last nights visit. One bird in particular proved very confiding and hunted contently around me for a good 10 minutes before a Carrion Crow took a disliking to it and drove it off. A good few waders are still passing through with 12 Whimbrel and a Common Sandpiper perhaps the most interesting. A few smart "Black-Bellied" Dunlin are also passing through with small groups observed on both Stobswood Pools and down the road at Widdrington. Elsewhere the residents continue to delight with Curlew, Lapwing and Oystercatcher thick on the ground and at least 4 pairs of Ringed Plover in evidence despite the recent bout of flooding that put an end to at least two nesting attempts. Elsewhere migrants continue to trickle in with 2 Swift new for the year and 6 Wheatear loitering on the opencast. Whitethroat numbers continue to build with my latest warbler count revealing 3 birds alongside 7 Blackcap, 10 Willow Warbler and 15 Chiffchaff. No Garden Warblers yet however. These aside a few other encounters of note include 3 Great Crested Grebe on Widdrington Moor Lake, 2 Shoveler, masses of hirundines and both Buzzard and Kestrel patrolling the sites grassland. I wouldn't like to hazard a guess as to the next "new bird" at Stobswood but if things continue at their current pace I wouldn't rule out a Curlew Sandpiper, Temmicks Stint or perhaps more ambitiously, a Crane.

Barn Owl - Stobswood Pools
A brief jaunt to the coast today culminated in a few hours spent combing Druridge Pools. Things didn't start off too well when I reached to hide to find that I had missed a fly by Turtle Dove by mere seconds. Bugger. A female Redstart by the entrance to the site was somewhat of a consolation. My first of the year no less. Whitethroats were again very numerous here with a few even posing for the odd photograph, contrary to their usually skittish nature. Willow Warblers sung from the shelter belt and at least 2 Sedge Warblers were heard during the duration of my stay. The newly replenished floods outside the Budge Screen seemed relatively quiet in comparison to last week though a reasonable array of birds could still be seen. The best of which was surely the 2 breeding plumage Ruff. Nearby 3 Avocets dozed in the shallows and a elegant female Pintail dabbled amid the usual cast of Shoveler, Shelduck, Teal, Gadwall and Mallard. Elsewhere here 3 Grey Herons were noted whilst a number of Coots scrapped ferociously. A rummage around the other areas of the site produced a mixed bag of Tree Sparrow, Linnet, Goldfinch, Reed Bunting and a lone Kestrel whilst a single Whimbrel was heard as I departed the site for a stroll through the fields at Chibburn. Little was seen here however with the exception of a single Grey Partridge whilst a lone Red-Legged Partridge was picked up further up towards Widdrington Village. Is it just me or are RLP on the up in the area of late? No doubt released from one of the nearby farms for a spot of shooting. 

Canada Goose - QE11 Country Park
Swallow - Druridge Pools