New Things.

After last year’s miles spent pursuing a bird list for the year I want to do something different. So I stayed local. I hung out in bits of mainly woodland and just looked. And waited. And looked some more. In doing so I started to see things I had not seen before. Not new species, but things I should have seen if I was not so blinkered to identifying stuff and moving on. So for the first quarter of the year I have seen the following that I consider new.

Marsh Tit and Willow Tit in the same morning.

Sparrowhawk nests -probably up to four from last year in the bare branches of winter. Later feeling the air move across my face as one burst through a hedge close.

Jay whistling as it walked along and under a hedge. Not mimicry as such, but not the harsh indignance.

Exploring a hollow Oak tree inside and out.

Badger hair on a wire fence.

Roe Deer that came down to 4m from me before walking off.

Willow Tit pair feeding in the bush I was sitting under.

Genuine pleasure in having a Robin sit close by in the garden.

Honey bees nesting wild in a Sycamore.

Discovering the challenge of ferns.

Woodcock roding using ‘quizicks’ and no grunts. Til’ then I had assumed they did both together.

Roe deer died of natural causes curled up in a ball -previously shot, RTA or tangled in a barbed-wire fence.

Sky dancing Red Kite -active flight to height then active flight down. A real wow event.

Barn Owl. Standing leaning against a post it didn’t see me and was flying around to 10m then I put my bins down and it got such a shock it looked like it couldn’t believe a person was standing where it was hunting. It then spent the rest of the time hunting well clear of that spot and me.

Noticing then reporting pollution in Causey Burn. Later being transfixed by the blue grey lifeless stream as I searched for anything to prove the stream was alive or had life in it.

Watching a Stoat climb down from a tree. First using Ivy then a fallen branch.


Burn down the ecosystem

The flow of a river connects across a landscape, many landscapes. It is a simple version of that truth as the downhill flow takes it away from where it was, to where it is; briefly.  It touches everything without bias. Each stream and river has many names, yet we do not know the name it calls itself. For many the stream is life, is alive. Not just full of life but it has rights (1) as though it too ‘should be able to sing; to be able to play with the stones, fishes, birds’. in a way we once did.

How did we fall out of touch with this world?

In a world of commodities, everything can be bought and sold. Everything has a price, nothing has value.  Anything that is not seen to create profit becomes worthless -profit at any cost. We create more profit by hiding true costs -not cleaning up our shit.

And so, it is with rivers and streams. There is enough written about the way water companies are transferring profits to shareholders. I will leave that to the experts and just narrate an anecdote told to me by one who was there.

A man sits by the edge of a burn. Its waters, crystal clear. At times of rain these waters become swollen and discoloured. Eventually, the levels drop and again runs crystal clear. Odd bubbles are created where water hits the rocks. These are so regular that it is mistaken for normal. He raises not one eyebrow, and the tranquil scene is punctuated by the sound of water flowing. A sound we love and a sound we know can be ‘heard’ by plants. It encourages growth of roots towards them.

After a while he wonders, ‘Why have I not seen a Dipper here on this beck?’ The thought passes. Other signs of life demonstrates a wondrousness and bounty. It is Spring; leaves and flowers break out of their winter coats. Green colours the world.

After some days of sitting in contemplation he concedes the stream is not smiling and joyous. Its shine is clouded by a blueish tinge. There is a weird smell that is likened to the opening of a bathroom door -tinged with a chemical after taste. Again he lets the thought pass. Not his issue. He doesn’t live here. There is enough of interest to last a pleasant hour. The thoughts flow through him, over him and surround him. The sunshine warms him. A stone gatepost stands alone from a wall that no longer exists. Cloaked in moss is it worthy of spiritual adoration like a standing stone, its meaning lost in time.

Does a gatepost have the spiritual significance of a standing stone?

On a foul day when spiritual thoughts are hard to come by he chooses for no good reason, other than to satisfy his own curiosity, to go upstream. The rocks of the rapids in and around the constructed bridges create the familiar and reassuring bubbles and sound. The rocks are green with moss, not speckled with Dipper poo. Even so, it chimes with his brook.

The path winds away from the river and for once he can see a bigger picture. Trees continue to crowd the banks; wild garlic is just emerging; and Great Tits are calling ‘Teacher’. Perhaps asking for help to read the information boards speckling the banks. They describe and celebrate the wildlife of the stream. None of which this bird has witnessed in a while.

What sounds like a waterfall, shows itself beyond a bend. It is a waterfall and from it spouts the froth and bubbles of a bath with a tap on full. It foams and froths like white horses galloping up onto a storm hit beach. The pipe is the outflow of a sewage treatment works and it feels like creeping death has arrived in the woodland.

Cleaned water from the sewage treatment works reacts with the detergent in the stream.

Upstream of the pipe that froths, the stream is equally pallid and lifeless. After a diversion of being offered a tour of the treatment works he heads further upstream. The blue grey water clings to rocks as it pushes aside the streamside grass. The stream is released from the wood and out between arable fields and brown field grassland by the railway.

Against the flow he arrives at the source and pushes his nose into other people’s business. As he peels back the curtain to reveal the company polluting the stream, he realises he has a chance to return the stream back to full health by turning off the polluted dripping tap. As he reaches out to shut off the flow, many more hands are turning the tap the other way. In fact, they want it opened wider. ‘We want cheap goods’ they clamour. ‘We do not want to pay the full cost. We are happy to accept the consequences of pollution

(1) A rivers rights

Establishes that all rivers shall possess, at minimum, the following fundamental rights:

  • The right to flow;
  • The right to perform essential functions within its ecosystem;
  • The right to be free from pollution;
  • The right to feed and be fed by sustainable aquifers;
  • The right to native biodiversity;
  • The right to restoration.

No idea.

I have been told, by someone who wasn’t there to see it, ‘No photo, no proof’. So, I will now tell you something, that due to no photographic evidence, did not happen.

It had been a sunny day and the wind dropped ahead of storm Otto, that was yet to arrive. It was a little after five and the sun was already out of the valley. I was checking out my adopted wood for Tawny Owls. I left the path nearly stepping on a male Pheasant. Both of us almost had a heart attack. I assumed that was me done for the day; the game was up. I was announced as present at the register of items in the wood. Other Pheasants though, were still coming into roost, so perhaps his proclamation was, at best, ambiguous.

The first tree here is a climbable Oak. Its trunk is just broader than my shoulders. When I lean against it my silhouette is lost; apparently it is the outline of the shoulders that gives man away. I am good at leaning, if it was an Olympic event, I would definitely make the team.

Its trunk is broader than my shoulders’.

Three Song Thrush sing, literally above the Robins which have now swapped their melancholy Autumn jumble of notes for a more structured song: each couplet distinct from the next.

Winter XC767150 European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) :: xeno-canto

Spring XC721516 European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) :: xeno-canto

Detail of the lower trunk.

Darkness rises out of the meadow. I am lost in thought, straining ears to find an owl. I do not notice the deer when she first arrives. At 20 metres she isn’t looking in my direction but will run as soon as she does. I stand still. She walks slowly forward nibbling -a piece of grass, a blackberry leaf; all is calm. Its unusual if you don’t see a Roe Deer, but they know the distance at which they are safe.

At 15 metres she looks directly at me. Her nose black as though she has been eating treacle can’t scent me. Ears, too big for her head, can’t hear me. Her black eyes, ready for a night out, can’t seem to pick me out. Though she knows there is something there. She moves her head to try to get a fix on what has changed about the Oak since she last passed by.

I resist the urge to get my phone to prove this is happening. Any movement now would be futile. She would quickly reach top speed and this moment would be gone. She stands in the half light and looks again. Transfixed I remain still, though my heart beats a bit faster.

Sniffing the air, her whole muzzle twitches, but proffers no new information. She raises her head and lowers it; then left and right. Each time trying to catch a whiff of air that will confirm something -anything. Returning to nibbling and walking she moves closer. Delicately she lifts her hooves, and her slim legs look as easy to break as sticks. Continuing to move closer she reaches 10 metres. She has stopped the exaggerated data gathering, returning to just rotating her ears. More grass, more bramble leaves less distance.

I anticipate her panic when she sees me. A pause. A look. More sniffing. 8 metres, becomes 7, becomes 6, becomes 5. At 4 metres I am seriously wondering where this will end. She turns right, stops eating and moves a bit faster. She crosses the stream and looks back from 30 metres. I move to get a better look. She picks up the pace leaps two fences and has gone, as though she was never there.

One can always see faces amongst the trees in the half-light.

Look. Listen. Enjoy. Protect.

I continue my self-imposed exile from chasing lists.

But I have a new list -‘Things I haven’t seen before’.

A male Peregrine -display flight at a ‘new’ site.

A last year’s Sparrowhawk nest.

A Jay whistling as it follows the line of a recently planted hedge; searching. The closest I can find to the call is this. I need more time to explore Jay mimicry.

A Roe Deer, a Grey Squirrel, a Hare and a Woodcock meet in a wood. But they don’t, they are all things I flush while I look.

I find new places to sit.

Long-tailed Tits come almost within arms length. I am surrounded by their cloud of activity. What do the sounds mean? When to use the sharp ‘srih-srih-srih’ over the explosive ‘Zerrrr’ over the clicking ‘pt’? Do they not have time to sing? Why has this never occurred to me before?

I follow the flock. Using the bridge, unable to fly, I find myself in the lead. I wait, but they go out as far as the Hawthorn boundary. I settle down, they never were in any hurry. I too am in no rush. I lean back, lay on the ground and look up. The wind moves the extremities of Ash.

I keep track on the flock by their calls. Transfixed by the gentle sway I notice more. Suddenly, there is a panic amongst the flock. Alarm calls ring out. The wood falls silent. 30cm above my face, between me and my view of the tree top flies a Sparrowhawk.

I put it there as a fact for you to believe. In reality, and at best, I saw a grey shadow. A grey shadow that moved with pace; and force; and presence. The power moved the air, it brushed my face. For the briefest of moments, I knew, if I was a small bird, I had no chance. 

Obligation. [ɒblɪˈɡeɪʃ(ə)n]

an act or course of action to which a person is morally or legally bound; a duty or commitment.

Sit still. No! Really sit still. Don’t travel miles for one bird; for one list. Sit still and look. What do you see? A crystal ball, or a useless trinket.

Don’t force it. Wait. The rain and sleet land on the dry side of a Sycamore, only after running down twigs and branches.

One Blackbird shouts about her day. The stream here runs grey while the profits of Northumbria Water flow as far as Hong Kong. Lichen suddenly appears as appliqué on twigs. Its water, fresh and clean.

With darkness grows a weird feeling bordering on claustrophobia. The storm passes. Evening sun sends Pheasants to roost in the trees. Even the oldest Oak has one. In the stag’s head of snags white neck-ring gleams; its safe here. There is no I; everything is connected.

Returning, the wind drowns the road. Unseen by walkers on the path I explore more.

A Buzzard sees all.  Ancient flora emerges; the Royal Fern tight, like eggs in a nest.

Here fallen trees live on. There is no death of Gaia.

Scars in fallen branches holds gleaming treasure.

Treasure, never to be held, only stolen.

Spring arrives, cautious and early.

This is 2023’s gauntlet.

#228 -a review of 2022.

Even I can’t explain why I do what I do sometimes. 2022 was going to be a year without restrictions so I had two aims 1) build a decent 5km from home list; and 2) add birds to my Birdtrack list that are not there from the previous 9 years of use. Easy, little pressure and enjoyable birding with other wildlife thrown in to boot.

Then along comes a bloke we all like to call Barry -‘coz that’s his name. Barry reminds me of the challenge he had in 2020 to see 220 species in that year. Now we were free to travel would I be interested. Not really. I am not a list person. Not true. I watch birds I have lists. What I mean is I dont want the pressure of this list.

So on brand I continued slowly with my 5km list mainly being the extent of my year list. And looking at it now it explains why I did not go for the wintering RFBlutail in Teesdale or the white-winged gulls at the fish quay. Certainly the latter I expected to get in Gateshead or failing that the next winter period. This self-finding was reinforced by a Cetti’s Warbler near the Metro Centre just ahead of a February storm.

A stocktake at the end of March gave me a total of 123 up from my 112 of February, but it does still not explain why I did not go for RNDuck -too far. I must still have been in denial that I was in a race, but it was starting to change as you can see in The List made me do it when I made several trips to hear and see the Siberian Chiffchaff in Gateshead but outside my 5km. At this stage Barry was two ahead. I think though it was the ‘I MUST see that Scaup’ that really meant I was now in the game.

April was not the crulest month as it included two trips to Norfolk. The first to accomodate my Dad’s medical appointment meant I could tick off Lakenheath -Garganey, Bittern and Crane on the way down. Glossy Ibis outside the hospital and Frampton on my way back. That was an amazing place and should be on everyones bucket list.

Two days later back in Norfolk and the Red-breasted Goose had done the decent thing and moved to Blakeney 5 mins walk from where we stayed and just past the singing Firecrest. Later that week we got a trip around Cley with Barry and Denise. By the month end Barry was pulling ahead and adding great photos to his blog including of a Marsh Harrier food pass that we saw at Cley.

So I had to pull my finger out in May. This though had not become a hardship. The list was becoming an important feature of my daily life. Barry packed in some amazing birds including the best in 5km bird of the year a Lesser Grey Shrike almost in my parents village -ahhg! For me it included a good list of upland birds and my first ‘must see that bird’ twitch. It had been the weekend to go to Bempton but the Albatross was less reliable and so the American Black Tern in Northumberland was a good prize and a beautiful bird especially when it came with a bonus Pec.Sand -my first in Spring. Not Barry’s White-tailed Lapwing, but a point is a point. Barry had also been adding other friends to the race and at the end of the month I was part of a three way tie (in two horse race) on 181.

June was a very dry month. We were away in the first week my Dad was now in hospital and because of this my Mum had to go into respite care. In fact the start was so slow I did think I would just pack it in. I don’t live in Norfolk and I work full time how can I compete; especially now Barry had added another mate who regularly gets 220+ each year? But after a good talking to I thought ‘Its birding’. ‘You like birding’. ‘Treat yourself to a day out’. So I had planned to go to the N. Yorks raptor watch point. But then the Albatross returned and as it got closer to the day a Turkistan Shrike was at the same site. OMG! two lifers in a day and Gos on the way back. I dropped behind but I was ‘back on full bonus.

July was not the month I expected. Normally, I give myself over to the ephemeral butterflies but this year remained full on birds. So much so I split the blog for the month in two. The first part included a mad dash for Cattle Egret and then the sadder sight of Sandwich Terns hit by Avian flu. A sum. plum RNGrebe was a beaut. and knowing I would have to fight my resistance to seawatching a dark phase fulmar was special.

The second part of July included a sickening wait for Caspian Tern hoping one at least would stay til the weekend. Even through the strong heat haze that carrot beak was a sight for sore eyes. I hadn’t forgotten the 5km list and eventually added Kingfisher. And a Tawny Owl almost in the garden had me still buzzing the next day. Though the Merlin over added to all three lists -year, 5km and garden. Boom!

Temperature hit new UK highs before dropping again at least in the NE and a black backed intermedius LBBGull felt ample reward as I was going to have to get into gulls as well as seawatching for those extra ticks. A great evening of Manxies going past Church Point and a Chewit at Saltholme saw me drag my sorry ass from 4th to 3rd with 193, but already there was one into the 200s quickly followed by Barry in early August.

This meant some serious gull watching. I went first with adult Caspian followed by Barry going to Cromer and maxing out on a serious lot of gullness -Casp and YL included. And then me getting my own YL Gull as others in NE seemed to also be getting interested in gulls looking at the reports on Twitter. But Cape Gull came and went without making it onto a list.

Temperatures rose again in August and would have seemed high if we had not had July’s records. To prove it wasn’t all gulls a Norwich Hospital visit did allow us to take in Honey Buzzard. I also watched young kites in Norfolk (still a wow) and listened to waders. I remembered why I go birding. But not seeing Spotted Crake back in NE did make me question the whole darn year list thing. Again!

August was a short month going away knowing I was missing Ickys, Wryneck, and Greenish Warblers I convinced myself this was already a 10 year high list even if I was now going for a minor medal. But in this surreal world a most unexpected garden tick. On 23rd August a Gannet flew over the garden and became the 100th species in or around the garden over our 30 years. It was the third garden tick of the year -Peregrine (long overdue) Merlin (anticipated) and this Gannet (not in my wildest dreams). A few days later as we drove to Heathrow a Greater Sandplover back in the North East underlined the feeling of slipping behind.

September began late after a superb trip to Puglia and with more hospital visits I really had only had one weekend in September. So what do you do in trying to catch up. Well one should look at the species available and go and add them. One shouldn’t try to find your own birds. It was great fun but added no new birds. So if it hadn’t been for the Curlew Sandpiper in my 5km on the Tyne there was a fear of no additions in the month. So with that and Greenshank I again continued to plug away at the 5km that started the year. But then a random Nighjar roosting at Saltholme over several days followed by a self-found YBW. So I was behind but may make the 220 target still.

October brings another YBW find. And when the winds set in the west a pick-me-up deliberately saved for the occasion with the Black Grouse of Langdon Beck. Quickly followed by a beautiful 1st Winter Lesser Yellowlegs. And it picked up pace with Whooper Swans demonstrating how hard migration can be and Velvet Scoter for good measure. A late Hobby munching on dragonflies and a winter plum. Slav Grebe may the list move on whilst highlighting my lack of any Skuas at this point. A fifth species of Grebe -BN in a week did make me look up the Scottish Pied Billed until I realised where it is in Argyll. Perhaps it will come souther! Grey Phalarope made it a two Phal year, just showing how different this year has become. GWEgret south on a seawatch was an odd sight as it battled a strong SW wind and being dive bombed by a GBB Gull. Black Scoter and Raven made a long trip into Northumberland worthwhile. And just before the month end a Siberian Stonechat. Closley followed by a Mealy Redpoll took me to 211.

Eight weeks left to close the gap on Barry to just 20 (from last months 21). This came down to 19 quickly into November with the long staying subalpine warbler sp. Then back to North Tyneside a few days later for a very accommodating Pied Wheatear, but by now the racing around was again wearing a bit thin. I really am not doing this again. But birds remain important and an unexpected Hen Harrier was up there with the migrating Whoopers as bird of the year. Soon followed by a fly past Waxwing. A early morning Northumberland seawatch was the business -Dovkies, Long-tailed Duck, Black-throated Diver and Great Northern. These were followed by my first good find of the year –Hume’s Warbler which took me to the 220 target number we had set off for. Followed by Ruddy Shelduck and White-fronted Goose. Finally, King Eider and Water Pipit to close the month only 23 behind Barry.

Then drifting into December Tundra Bean Goose on the way back through Lincs. Hooded Crow closer to home in the start of some good winter weather. Then, while ‘my’ Hume’s Warbler is still bouncing around a the garden in Low Newton I find another great bird –Bonaparte’s Gull in Hartlepool. Then as the year started to close the returning drake American Wigeon was hidden amongst other ducks in the small amount of open water left in the ice at Big Waters NR. At last before the year end managed to get back one of only two dips. A 1st winter male (or poss female) Black Redstart, though it was nearly taken by a Kestrel. So even though I could have got more it is now only RNDuck that was a true went for and didn’t see. And finally, it took until nearly the end of December to add Mistle Thrush to this year’s from the garden list.

Congrats to Barry with his 248, but don’t ask me to do this again.

228 for the year.

118 in my 5km from home.

56 in or over the garden.

Rarest 5km bird -by a country mile Lesser Grey Shrike, Barry.

Rarest Bird 2022-Turkestan Shrike, Me in June and Barry before it left.

Best Bird 2022 -Black-browed Albatross, I am going to say this as I was the only one in our group to get it.

Worst Dip -Kelling Heath!

Best Birding moment -close thing between the Whooper Swan’s migrating down the coastline or Hen Harriers hunting.

Best Self Found -Hume’s Warbler, me. Followed by Bonaparte’s Gull, also me. Barry’s Montagu’s Harrier as they crash out as a breeding species in the UK is a useful find.

21 new birds to my Birdtracklist. Siberian Chiffchaff, Bittern, Crane, American Black Tern, Black-browed Albatross, Turkestan Shrike, Red-necked Grebe, Cattle Egret, Caspian Tern, Honey Buzzard, Lesser Yellowlegs, Grey Phalarope, Black Scoter, Siberian Stonechat, (W.) Subalpine Warbler, Hume’s Warbler, Ruddy Shelduck, King Eider, Hooded Crow, Bonaparte’s Gull, American Wigeon

4 new birds to my self found list. -Hume’s Warbler, Water Pipit, Tundra Bean Goose, Bonaparte’s Gull

2 Lifers -Black-browed Albatross, Turkestan Shrike

Birdtrack mean no species 2013-2021= 172.6

Birdtrack mean no species 2013- 2022 = 178.0

Top 6 most frequent species to Birdtrack:

December -freedom from ‘the list’.

The last there and back trip to visit parents in Norfolk took up the first weekend. I joked that its fine as we would pick up Short-eared Owl and Bewick’s flying over the car. All was going well as on the way into Norfolk and a SEO did fly alongside the car but only 50% of the people in the car saw it. The journey back was a bit better. We had seen a group of Whoopers alongside the A17 in a waterlogged cropped field on the way down. On the way we counted about 45 but better still self-find #259 -16 Tundra Bean Geese (225) were special; I had never noticed before how thick their necks appear to be.

A trip into Northumberland for the long staying Hooded Crow (226). This was number 19 to be added to Birdtrack this year. Then just up the road for another look at the RNGrebe -there were two and a GNDiver at Widdrington Moor Lake.

Then you start to look at the number of days to the end of this listing madness and deduct any you cant go birding on and realise you have already had your last visit of the year to many wonderful places. And you start to get a bit melancholy and think about the great birds you have seen and rosy-spectacled, you worry less about the birds you missed. So you start to plan your last days out irrespective of whether you are adding to the list.

But I still want to make sure I secure third place and head out to Hartlepool to try to find a white-winged gull or two. Arrogantly, thinking in January I can pick one up in the second winter period there are still two big gaps in this years gull list. Probably, three if you count not being able to see Bonaparte’s in May and November. However, this part was addressed when another great self-find was achieved at Hartlepool Headland. An adult winter bird flew past down to about 20m in great viewing conditions –Bonaparte’s Gull (226 -self-find #260).

In an attempt to still catch up on the winter birds not seen at the start of the year, I did manage to see the returning drake American Wigeon (227), but not the Iceland Gull at Big Waters. Then a bit later managing to catch up on one of now only two dips -so is the pervasiveness of modern technology. An early morning frosty walk at Roker added Black Redstart (228). My first sight was as it tucked away from a stooping Kestrel; a plucky Meadow Pipit followed the falcon as it headed back inland. The BR was not attracting the size of crowd as November’s Pied Wheatear, but it was equally as tame, down to a couple of metres. A bit of tail-shimmy as a nice addition to the behaviour list of for the year.

Each winter I like to have one long day out, it kind of resets the clock and gets you away from the materialistic demise of Christmas. This year brings with it a dilemma, all those places now may have one last bird for the list, or I could take in one extra site just in case. So to avoid this nagging pressure of the chase, I went local. Just outside my 5km is a remnant piece of Alder coppice. Looking at the regrowth it’s about 60 year since these were last stumps; the changes they would have lived through since the 1950s. Its probably no more than an acre of tangled growth, lichens, boggy ground and primeval feelings. Its always a place to bump into something. This year it was Willow Tits in with Long-tailed Tits, but has included LEO, SEO and a daylight feeding Woodcock that hadn’t noticed me sitting amongst trees. Nearby, an apple tree had dropped its fruit amongst the snow and about 40 Blackbirds were feeding with an odd Fieldfare in the remaining half-light and freezing conditions. Just the thing to remind me its not all about the list and what I can look forward to next year.

Staying local stopped the temptation of my regular go to winter day out -Cow Green reservoir. One year I found a Rough-legged Buzzard way up there hunting beyond England’s highest farm. Looking for a repeat performance a year later, there was a real threat to life from the amount of snow that fell really quickly by the time I reached High Cup Nick. -5 miles from the car.

Back to reality, having not added to the 5km or garden list for a few weeks, an early morning flyover Mistle Thrush (56) feels like the year has come full circle. Looking at the February chat about the decline of this species does remind me this is still a thing of concern.

228 Year. 118 5km 56 in or over garden.

A review of 2022 will follow but until then:

Ten things tips if I was going to do this again:

  1. Don’t do it!
  2. Start on day one not suddenly really get the bug three months in.
  3. Plan what to do in the first two weeks of June.
  4. You cant do enough seawatching.
  5. Dont have foreign holidays.
  6. Start your 12 months from 1st Nov so you only get one winter period.
  7. Probably a subscription to RBA would help.
  8. Go out birding. Even when you don’t want to.
  9. Enjoy the good bits -the bad bits are awful.
  10. Dont do it!!!!!!!

Bonaparte’s Gull. Hartlepool. 10th December 2022.

My submission to the Cleveland rarities committee.

Not having submitted a rare bird to the Cleveland committee before I probably need a bit on my birding C.V. an explanation as to why I was in Hartlepool to find the gull.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in birds. Some years they have had to compete with other groups but mainly its been birds. After a spell in the late 80’s early 90’s of chasing rare birds nationally I settled down to a few twitches, two or three patches I do regularly; and my one claim to fame organising the National Lockdown Garden Bird Race in May 2020. Year listing outside of my 5km hasn’t been a big thing until this year when I was persuaded by a long-standing mate from Norfolk to do one in 2022.

This year has been full of birding highs and lows, but one thing I am convinced of is I am not doing this again. Mainly, the year has been going to see other people’s birds, but my only find of the year –Hume’s Warbler was still bouncing around a garden in Low Newton 17 days on from my find. So I am having one last go to catch Barry up -impossible to win as he is 23 species ahead. As I wasn’t taking the race seriously up to March I missed 2 white-winged gulls easily available at North Shields Fish Quay last winter. So today I was down in Hartlepool trying to find a Glaucous Gull.

I parked by the Andy Cap Statue on the Headland, Hartlepool at about 9:15am. From here one of the first birds I saw was a Little Gull, distant, in the mouth of Victoria Harbour. Its stiff-winged flight, black underwings reminded me I have seen more of this species in 2022 than probably any other year. The last were at Ross Sands, Northumberland in October. Until then I had not appreciated how amazingly agile, they are. I watched one for 30mins picking food from heaving waves.

From the car I then walked East along Albion Terrace looking out across the seaweed covered rocks; the tide was a long way out. The sun was bright and low in the sky making visibility when looking south difficult, but looking north was perfect. The glare from the sun on the water meant I had to keep walking back and forth if I wanted to check colours on any birds. I could find no white-wings amongst the 20 or so Herring Gulls -including a couple of argentatus; and three Black-headed Gulls.

I followed the path round past the pier and the up towards the Lighthouse. The tide being out presenting a lot of foreshore for foraging gulls and meaning that there was no big concentration of them to search through. The mobile fish snack bar was just setting up when I scanned North. The amount of foreshore and the white dots of gulls going off into the distance did make me feel dread. They were so scattered, finding a Glauc. was going to be impossible in the time I had.

However, in my field of view, and heading my way was a small gull using a stiff-winged flight i.e. not bending at the carpel joint. Having seen a Little Gull earlier I was pleased I was going to get a closer view. The white fore-wing and outer flight feathers contrasting against the deep grey (Common Gull like) quickly made me reassess the bird. The sun was behind me and I was getting a good head on view of a small gull with a black beak in a white face flying directly down the coast towards me. It was now about 60 m North of me, and it was flying at my eye level. It was no more than 20 metres out from the promenade as it was flying over the seaweed covered rocks.

It was clearly an adult winter plumage Bonaparte’s Gull and that 60m gave me enough prep. time to look for all the features I felt were necessary. So in order as I noted down soon after was black beak, black eye, black spot (bigger than the eye) behind the eye all in a white face. The outer white flight feathers and front edge of wing were white and contrasted significantly against the grey of the rest of the wing and mantle. There was a black trailing edge to the outer flight feathers. By the time the bird past it was 20m away which meant I could see the underside of the left wing. I could see a black trailing edge to the outer flight feathers and no dark feathers on the underside of the wing. The tail was all white, again contrasting with the darker grey.

I had no doubt I was watching an adult winter Bonaparte’s Gull flying South. The bird was then lost in the sun as it headed towards the pier. At that point (10:17am) I put the bird on Twitter (@dunnock67) and onto RBA. In my haste and excitement, I put it down as South past the Garrison when I meant Heugh Battery.

I searched the bay West of the pier hoping it had gone there but had no luck. I met no other birders to share the news or the challenge. However, in looking for the bird I checked out all of the small gulls in that bay. All were Black-headed Gulls and in looking at them it confirmed four things. Firstly, they don’t have that stiff winged flight of the Bonaparte’s. Second, they use a lot of lift from the outer part of their wing, i.e. the carpel to wing tip bend exaggerates the flapping of their flight pattern. Thirdly, even looking at birds South of me and into the sun I could always see an element of red in the beak. All the birds were 20+m away and in poor viewing compared to the Bonaparte’s black beak seen with the sun behind me. And fourthly, in bright sunshine the grey wing and body feathers of the Black-headed Gull did not contrast as much with the white outer flight feathers. The grey of the Bonaparte’s was clearly darker.

I have seen one previous Bonaparte’s in this country at Newbiggin in September 2006. Though I have seen numerous Autumn birds in USA (2017) and Canada (2018). I couldn’t get to the adult Andrew Kinghorn found at Washington WWT this May due to work. I have not seen the oft returning Bamburgh bird sometimes like this year missing it by a few hours. It was last reported on twitter from 17th Nov 2022, but was probably this bird that Dave Foster had coming South past Wearmouth on 28th November suggesting that after its regular two weeks at Bamburgh it moves slowly down the coast and may get over-looked.

The image is taken clearly taken from Killian Mullarney’s contribution to Collins Bird Guide app. I feel this complies with the authors moral right to be identified as authors of the work. And for the record I would go an buy the 3rd Edition of the book. There are some significant additions most importantly for me so far they have produced a new plate for Pied Wheatear and Pacific Diver.

Self found #257 -Hume’s Warbler .

Hume’s Warbler November 2022. Low Newton Northumberland.

I had spent an hour or so seawatching at Stag Rocks, Northumberland to about 10:15 am. I was in the lee of the lighthouse and hadn’t noticed the stinging rain until I walked back to the car. The aim of the morning had been to add Little Auk to my year list. I achieved more than that with a flying BT Diver, a swimming Great Northern and a couple of Long-tailed Ducks.

It has been an unusual year as having been un-interested in year listing for a number of years I had got myself in a year race with Barry Madden of Wingsearch2020. This doesn’t help with assessing and authenticating my record but explains why having discovered the pouring rain backed by strong SW I thought it was worth calling at Low Newton. Earlier in the week Ruddy Shelduck, that had evaded me all year, was with Greylags by the scrape. Yes before anyone comments on Cat D status we had agreed earlier in the summer this species was countable.

Anyway I parked by the Tin Church and walked south to the village. The rain was relentless, but based on the fact ducks apparently dont mind that, I pushed on. I stopped on the corner where the road heads inland to the scrape. I chatted to a dog walker, as we sheltered from the rain, about the difference between Sanderling and Turnstone and added another Long-tailed duck to my Birdtrack App. before once more braving the weather.

As I walked down Farm Road between the back of the Ship Inn and Low Newton Farmhouse I heard a Hume’s Warbler calling. I understand this sounds arrogant but with several between the borders and County Durham I had been listening to calls on Xeno Canto. Having seen a couple of Hume’s previously there are two things which stand out to me. One they have two types of call but the one that’s most like a Yellow-browed Warbler seems to not have the slurr at the start and end of the call. The second thing is that they always come across as really loud or my two previous ones were. This one certainly was loud. It could be heard above the wind and rain from 20+m away.

The bird was calling from a garden with conifers at the west end and apple trees in the north side. However it is surrounded by a 5ft+ wall and visibility is reduced because of that. Even though the rain wasn’t letting up the bird was doing circuits of the garden calling loudly but always out of sight. So after 10 minutes I went to look for the Ruddy Shelduck. No luck and as the hide on the reserve was full of very wet primary school children who were helping clear willows I returned to the garden for a second go.

The warbler was still doing circuits but I couldn’t get a recording as the bird was drowned out by rain on man-made fibres of my coat. Occasionally, it could be seen in the apple trees but the views were fleeting and not enough detail was seen to produce a valid description. It was at best a greyish small phylosc warbler with wingbars.

The rain was by now horrendous, so I stood in the phone box (yes kids there is still one in Low Newton though you have to battle the Ivy to open the door) and put the bird on RBA with a My three words code and a flag to say its in a private garden. I then had to leave.

By 1pm the storm had cleared and local birder and rarity finder Gary Woodburn was able to see the bird get some decent photos in the conifer trees and importantly get a recording. Thanks to Gary for generously sharing his pics and letting me use them in this blog and the BBRC submission.

Even though I only had brief views I am happy I had identified the bird on call and the bird Gary got later was one and the same. The bird was still there to at least 30th November and had been seen fly-catching with a Swallow on 28th.

So my second rare passerine to be called on its call after my Radde’s in 2020. Buzzin!

Thanks to Gary Woodburn for sending me his photos to use.

Happy that towards the end of a very different year of chasing other people’s birds I can still find my own. The two Yellow-browed Warblers and a Little Stint had been my only contribution this far to others’ birding year.

November -what a month for rares, listing and adding 2 to the self-found list.

We head now into longer nights and politically darker days. But for birding it makes opportunities rarer and missed chances stacking up. How people do this year in year out without missing the real enjoyment of going birding for ths sake of birding I will never know.

Anyway we start with a trip to Tynemouth for the long staying Subalpine Warbler sp (212). It is definately new for the year but its just as well I haven’t already seen Western; Eastern; or Moltoni’s or someone would be crying foul for adding things. Over the week or so there have been no good photo’s of tail details, but over such a distance its impressive there are any pics at all. My guess is it will be Western, but . . . In the hour before it showed I felt suitably entertained by a 1st winter male Kestrel showing off. This included buzzing the female Pheasant that had just taken itself for a stroll in front of the gathered birders.

A few days later I was tempted back to the People’s Republic of North Tyneside. This time for a 1st calendar year male Pied Wheatear (213). My second within 12 months after last year’s Whitburn bird. This one though was closer -in the bowl of a skate park and without the fear of someone falling over the cliff edge. I am reaching the point of knowing I am not interested in a big year again. So it was in that frame of mind I judged the toggers (with no bins) and the birders (without cameras). This was mixed in with the public who wandered up to find out what was going on and going away feeling sorry for this lost bird. The lost bird whose prime habitat was a concrete pan, its graffetti and flies.

Then after such rare gems a series of soul searching questions about the futility of listing. This as people will see has come in spades at different points in the year. So after a few patch wanders that added nothing new I decided I needed a new fix. Realising I had not seen a female Ring-necked Duck in the UK I headed out west. The irony here being in March two birds in County Durham were too far to travel while the 5Km was on the rise. However, now I am out west standing on the busy Gretna Rd at Longtown for two spells of duck roulette. I am not saying it wasnt there as it is difficult viewing and whilst the sun was pleasant it made viewing in the morning difficult. My brain was so desperate to add a new tick all the badly seen tufties could have been ticked; especially the backside views of sleeping birds. I wonder how often the list overpowers the brain to see a bird that isnt there ‘For the list’. In between spells at the lake I headed out into the borders, where huge expanses of moorland hold Hen Harriers (but not today) but not as far as the Golden Eagle reintroduction programme. That will have to wait for a big day out next Spring.

‘The Dip’ however, did make me work hard through all the Tufties noting the variation and picking out candidates for first winter males. This is something I would not have done had there not been the promise of the rare. Perhaps I’ll be back to this real birding again next year.

Then in the half light of a damp day an unexpected ring-tailed Hen harrier (214) put in a bid for bird of the year. The totally unanticipated nature of the find in the near darkness made the white rump gleam like a beacon and the heart beat faster.

Nearly, as pleasing was a Waxwing (215, 118, 55) that flew past the ‘office’ window and saved the ignominy of having to twitch this species in what looks like a ‘Waxwing winter’.

With the pressure off and determined to enjoy the last few weeks of the year birding and add things ‘by accident’ I headed to Stag Rocks for an early morning seawatch. Strong SW wind and a decent sea made viewing at times a bit testy. First birds of note was the 50+ fishing raft of Shags in close and Eider popping out of near death breakers. Then the fun began 2 Dovkies (216) -one flying past and one close on the sea. A Black-throated Diver (217) pushed south into the head wind slowly, giving prolonged views. 2 Long-tailed Duck (218) reminded me I didnt get out much in the first winter period, As did the fishing Great Northern Diver (219). In the lee of the lighthouse I hadnt noticed the stinging rain til I walked to the car. So with litter pickers on the strand-line I didnt try to see if the Black Redstart was still there.

The rain getting harder as I parked in Low Newton I had to face facts but Ruddy Shelduck was going to be the milestone bird. I had toyed with this Cat D species all year -dipping and not going back for them at Saltholme, dipping at Bishop Middleham and then just not bothering when they returned to Saltholme. But this one with Greylags was easy on my way home and it wasnt going to be phased by the proper winter rain backed by a strengthening wind.

Another Long-tailed Duck in the bay and explaining to an interested non-birder dog walker the difference between Sanderling and Turnstone felt like birding. I sheltered to update birdtrack. But there from the garden of Low Newton Farm the familiar call of a Hume’s Warbler (220) -identifying bird sounds does sometimes feel like my superpower. The rain wasnt letting off but it was doing circuits of the small garden most of which was hidden by a high wall. To my ears apart from not having the YBW slur at both ends of the call the call sounds loud. In checking my first impression the bird responded to the Hume’s call on my Collins app but not the YB one. Happy and now really quite wet stood in the phone box an put it onto RBA. At last after all the hours this year I can say I found a bird and it was my first self-found Hume’s. A real Brucie Bonus.

Luckily the sun came out in the afternoon and local birder Gary Woodburn got some great pics and a sound recording. Gary has kindly offered some pics for my BBRS submission and a specific blog on the find.

Photo Gary Woodburn
Photo Gary Woodburn

There were no geese and they had taken the ruddy Shelduck with them. So I had to wait a few more days and then the last a pair of Ruddy Shelduck (221) remained at Wheatley Hill. And there was a Russian Whitefronted Goose (double Nelson) with 50+ Greylag, 1 Canada, 2 Barnies and a mixed group of Greylag x Canadas at Boldon. What a motley crew!

I went back for seconds of the Hen Harrier. It was the first time I was able to watch this species hunting at close quarters and not just coming to roost. From a hidden vantage point three hunted over rough grazing in separate fields. What joy! So far removed from listing and an amazing sense of elation.

Then to close the month my first adult male King Eider (223) at South Gare and on the way home was still looking for SEO when a self-find Water Pipit (224) landed at my feet. Quite literally. And from my records looks like my first self-found WP. #258

Having said that I am still 23 behind Barry.

224 118 55