Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Birding Bonanza

Upland Updates
On Saturday 14th I headed east to cover the Cumbria/Northumberland border for a couple of hours and had a productive spell seeing a female hen harrier and a male goshawk. Another lovely sight was a flock of siskin 100 plus strong sporadically flying back and forth a sitka sprcue plantation. On the 18th and 20th Feb I had short-eared owl wing clapping on Geltsdale in v low light and a nice number of active woodcock. Long-eared owl continue to be very vocal in nocturnal hours. On the 24th I had 300 plus fieldfare going to roost in the ling heather. Black grouse cocks lekking on Geltsdale on the 25th Feb.

A Clean Slate
I spent an afternoon on the 15th Feb covering local woodland down the valley to clean out the nest boxes ready for the coming breeding season. I emptied over 15 boxes in total with 3 having wasp nests in and 4 having pied flycatcher nesting material consisting of birch bark, sheep wool and moss. The others had been occupied by great/blue tits with one nest having a solitary blue tit egg in. I managed to discover a few different feathers whilst out in the field with the best one being a primary from a tawny owl. I also collected feathers of woodpigeon, carrion crow and woodcock. 

Sublime Solway
On the 16th dad and I covered the Scots side of the Solway to see what species we could observe. An adult Mediterranean gull on the Cummertrees loop was a good start. Our geese estimates were 8000 barnacle and 4000 pink-foots in the vicinity along with 200 lapwing, 200 curlew, 200 bh gulls, 50 golden plover and 5 reed buntings. Further to the west we got an adult bewick's swan with 20 whoopers.

Large string of starlings
Overhead murmuration
Startling every time
Dad and I called into Rigg for the starling roost on the 16th Feb and were treated to a wonderful display of 300,000 birds getting shaped by four raptor species! Merlin, 2 peregrines, 3 sparrowhawks and 2 buzzards interacted with the flock and a kestrel hunting nearby. On the drive back home we got two barn owls roadside on the Hayton stretch! 

Rigg roost, peregrine pushing them up from below...
Wonderful Wader Roost
An afternoon out to the Scots side Solway with dad on the 23rd Feb. We timed the trip to co-inside with high tide on springs and added to it a force 5-6 SW wind creating a big tidal surge. Our first stop was at Newbie where we came across around 3000 oystercatchers on a high water roost! There was 6 turnstones and 7 redshank feeding around them. Some fascinating behaviour was observed while I was eating my sandwiches as a carrion crow flew over the roost at an intense speed and the waders did not react at all. Very shortly afterwards a female kestrel flew over and a small number of oystercatchers attempted to take flight before realising it was a false alarm. Minutes later a female sparrowhawk appeared overhead and the before we had seen the raptor the 3000 plus oystercatchers were in flight in a hugely frantic manner! It always fascinates me how birds know of a potential threat in a split second whether it's through communication or sharp awareness...just wonderful to watch. 

Oystercatchers leaving high water roost
Fantastic Mr Fox!
Later on the 23rd February I saw one of the most beautiful sights of the year so far just on the border to WWT Caerlaverock. It was a country red fox roaming the rough grass searching for prey. We observed it from the car and the mammal was only 100 yards away as it flushed possibly a rat in a failed attempt to catch it. What a stunning animal and I felt like the luckiest and richest person on the planet while watching it. I feel sorry for people that have such hatred and negativity when they see this super-species.  

One of my winter highlights!! A memorable sight of an icon of our countryside!
Habitat shot
Wildfowl Records
Other Wildfowl records on the 23rd were female scaup, 10,000 barnacle geese, 200 pintail, 200 pink-footed geese, 1000 knot, 500 dunlin, 200 wigeon, 400 golden plover and 300 lapwing. Sightings were around Cummertrees and WWT Caerlaverock. 

Shoveller drakes and duck...
Magic Merlin
Just as we were leaving Brow Well in admiration of the high water line and localized flooding we saw a small raptor sat in a hawthorn only 10 metres from us and as we reversed back to have a look it was a female merlin taking flight and travelling away from us!

Thanks for looking :)

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Gowk the Cuckoo - Childrens Book Review

The fourth title in the 'Chick Books' series was released in the winter of 2014 and is called 'Gowk the Cuckoo'. The name Gowk comes from the old Norse name for cuckoo and the story follows the fascinating seasonal journey of the species and covers a number of unique ecological behaviours. 


Some of the information included in the story incorporates recent discoveries and research from satellite tagged birds by the British Trust for Ornithology in Norfolk. One of the tagged birds was even named 'Gowk' after the character in the book. Local company's Cley Spy and the Broads Authority provided their support by sponsoring the book. 

The story is jam-packed with factual species information which will intrigue adults along with the children. The cuckoo's famous nesting tactic of been an avian brood parasite is included in the text which is enough to ignite any readers senses as Gowk provides a wonderful introduction to host manipulation. Other species information is included into the story like why they have evolved to look like a sparrowhawk and how they are able to eat poisonous caterpillars that other bird species can not!

Part of Gowk's migration includes a refuge stop on the Island of Malta. The island has a high profile reputation for illegal persecution of migrating birds, which is covered in the story as Gowk just escapes being shot. I think it is very important to introduce children to the 'sad side' of British wildlife from a young age. Targeting their emotions can trigger a reaction and potentially help spur them on. 

Overall Gowk is an important edition for any budding naturalist. This story could inspire the reader outside in an attempt to experience this wonderfully unique species.

Here is 5 amazing cuckoo facts to finish with- 
  • The name cuckoo is onomatopoeic, which means that it is taken from the birds call (like, for example, curlew and hoopoe).
  • Each season a female will lay between 12 and 22 eggs, all in different nests.
  • More than 120 species have been parasitised by cuckoos in Europe: in Britain the most favoured species are dunnock, meadow pipit and reed bunting. 
  • Adult cuckoos move back to Africa as soon as the breeding season is over – as early as the second half of June in southern England. One satellite tagged bird from Norfolk only spent 6 weeks in England in 2011!
  • The cuckoo spends nine months of the year in tropical Africa, where it has never been heard to sing!
Order Gowk the Cuckoo online here - NHBS, Amazon and Waterstones.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

A White Wilderness...

The big freeze set in on Geltsdale valley (along with a lot of the country) which provided some wonderful winter wildlife and photography opportunities out on the moors. 

Sun setting up on the moors...
Looking west from 'The Loop'
One of the wildlife highlights was encountering a solitary snow bunting up on 'The Greens' on Jan 30th. I got the bird in flight heading up the valley to the east. Another highlight that day was the number of black grouse on our side of the fell which was at least 14 birds (4 cocks) after a quiet spell with limited sightings previous to this. 

Black grouse, grey hen
As I was walking through a birch woodland further down the valley I suddenly heard a mighty crash down by the Gelt. I was curious so headed down that way and came across a mature Oak tree lying horizontal over the river and you could see by the base and uplifted roosts that it had just came down very recently. The sheer weight of the nine inches of snow that fell that night put so much pressure on the upper canopy of trees in the area that a number of them fell to their death! It was a very strange feeling for me hearing that Oak fall, knowing that it had lived for 200-300 years before coming to its death due to a brutal snow storm. But where there is death with nature there is normally a huge amount more of life involved as that tree will service a huge number of connected ecosystems. 
As I made my way back to the house I heard a brambling overhead which would be another nice record for the day.

Lonely Hawthorn...
Red Grouse cock bird having a poo on the wing!
Freeze frame...
The following day myself and dad watched a healthy number of black grouse on the opposing fell side with some birds feeding on exposed grass seed and a group of eight perched on a silver birch next to a well walked track. Another record from the house was a juvenile peregrine flying with real intent up the valley to the east. 

The New Water looking down stream
On Feb 1st we were at the start of a high pressure spell providing clear skies and low winds so I headed up the valley to attempt a broad-based field session consisting of birding, animal tracks, owl roost site monitoring and starscape photography later on. 
My first record was fox, stoat and rabbit tracks half way up the valley adding interest to the monochromatic ground level. I dropped down to a gill to check a number of crags for roosting activity and saw two tawny owls side by side high up on a crag. I also flushed 4 woodcock when working my way up it. 
At dusk I continued to the east up the valley and saw a short-eared owl taking off from the heather and flying away from me. Small numbers of red grouse were also seen making their way to roost. 

The Newbiggin Bend - A frozen waterfall and 5 feet icicles...
I arrived at a location known as the Newbiggin Bend, where two river networks meet. The sandstone cliffs are facing northerly along with the waterfall which meant they get very little sunlight throughout these short days. This provided a wonderful winter spectacle of large icicles and a frozen waterfall! Now my attention turned 100% to photography as I spent the next three hours trying to capture the best images I could. After the battery died I finished relatively happy with my results so trundled down the deep snow and ended up exhausted back home down the valley two hours later. A great winter adventure and I hope you like some of the photos featured in this post.

Thanks for looking, I really appreciate it :)