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Saturday 28 April 2012

Mopping Up!!

Mopping Up? - probably what most of us have been doing over the last couple of weeks!! Will the rain ever end? When was St. Swithin's Day?

Anyway, because of the foul wet and windy weather that seems to have been without let-up for the last fortnight, I've done very little on the bird-watching front. This gives me the opportunity to do a mop-up on a few recent things that I've not posted about.

I've not seen too much of our Sparrowhawk lately. These next images were taken during the bird's last (brief and unsuccessful) visit to our garden. I originally had this bird down as a juvenile male, but a few months down the line I'm beginning to think that its probably a female, as it seems quite large, even though the barring on the breast is a bit rufous - anyone any thoughts on this?

Sparrowhawk - our garden
On this same day, a male Reed Bunting payed us a visit. He came quite a few times, but I've not seen him for a while now - hopefully he didn't fall victim to the Sprawk!

Reed Bunting (male) - our garden
The day after this, I attempted some owling, and found an owl at one of my sites, where I'd not seen one since January.

Little Owl - my Site No.08
Just up the road, the Tree Sparrows were showing well.

Tree Sparrow - Staunton Harold Reservoir
My next stop was at a farm near Shepshed (my LO Site No.24), where I had recently put up a Little Owl box. I sat in my car and observed the box, with nothing happening. After an hour or so a Little Owl flew from behind me and settled in a distant tree. It stayed there for about an hour before flying off to my left. After about another hour, with the light fading fast, I gave up waiting.

Little Owl - my Site No.24
As my nearest LO site (No.17) was only a couple of miles away, I headed off there, just to see if an owl was out - there was one, but high in a distant tree, so only a very poor record shot was obtained, which I won't post here.

Nothing very exciting is visiting our garden at present. It's easy, in those circumstances, to overlook how amazing some of the common birds are. The Goldfinches' flashiness seems incongruous with the more subdued tones of most of our other garden birds.

Goldfinch - our garden

About a week ago, a brief owling run, foreshortened by the onset of heavy rain, resulted in just three owls being seen, and only one (just about) being photographed, at one of my sites, near Twycross.

Little Owl - my Site No.17
After this, I was walking to one of my LO sites near Snarestone when the heavens opened, and so I turned back, but only after I'd grabbed some shots of a Linnet and a Blue Tit in the hedgerow beside the track.

Linnet (male) - nr. Snarestone

Blue Tit - nr. Snarestone
On Thursday I did another turn of duty at Rutland Water. The Ospreys were busy sharing the incubation of three eggs, but it was a disappointing session, photographically, not helped by driving rain for most of the time. It started brightening up towards the end of my shift, and I was looking forward to trying to find some owls on the way home. Unfortunately, however, the night shift showed up a little late, rather than the 10 minutes early that I expected and so, by the time I left at 20.30, the light was long gone. A stop nearby at where I'd found my latest Little Owl site revealed nothing. 

On my way home from my previous watch at Rutland Water, I'd stopped off at a place that looked owly, opened my window, and immediately heard Tawny Owl. Sitting watching, I'd had three in sight at one time, and was pretty certain I heard a fourth, and possibly a fifth!! I'd been hoping to get back to this place after this last shift, whilst there was still a fair bit of light. However, at 21.00 it was as dark as the previous time. As it was windy, I wasn't too hopeful of seeing any owls, but again, immediately I stopped and opened the window, I heard calling Tawnies. It was not long before one perched on the telegraph pole beside me, with another perched the next pole down, and a third "kee-wick"ing behind me. I spent nearly an hour here sitting in my car just listening and (as far as was possible) watching as they flew around and perched in various places. It was so dark that I only managed some record 'silhouette' shots. I must try to get here a little earlier next time when there's a bit more light!

Tawny Owl (#1) - nr. Knossington

Tawny Owl (#2) - nr. Knossington

Saturday 21 April 2012

Northumberland Rocks!! - 12th to 15th April, 2012

My wife and I had an invitation to join friends Russ and Carole in Northumberland for a weekend of celebrations to mark their 25th Wedding Anniversary. Russ is an old friend of 48 years standing, and Northumberland is probably my favourite English county, so it was an easy decision!

Thursday 12th April

We were late setting off as we had to wait until mid-afternoon for some results to come in from the vet. It was, therefore, about 18.00 before we got to our B&B in Beadnell, in the north of Northumberland. As our B&B was only five minutes from the north beach, we set off there as soon as we'd sorted ourselves out. 

The tide was coming in (at about mid-tide), and there were some waders on the rocks (not the Northumberland Rocks of the title to this post) and along the shoreline, and a group of about a dozen Eider was on the water. I was busy trying to get some photos of the Turnstones, whilst my wife was further up the beach. 

Turnstone - Beadnell
It had been sunny at the beach/water interface for about five minutes when we first arrived, but then the beach was in full shade. My wife found a bread wrapper full of bread on the beach - a full loaves-worth, but mixed brown and white. She was concerned about the polythene bag that it was in and so I broke up the bread and started casting it on the beach, so that she could put the bag in her pocket, out of harm's way. I was expecting to be inundated by gulls. I didn't expect the Eider to suddenly home in on me, keeping the gulls at bay !!

My problem in taking photos was getting far enough away from them - even with the zoom wound back to 150mm.

Eider (drake) - Beadnell

Eider (female) - Beadnell
The Eider had their fill, and then left a few meagre scraps for the waiting gulls. Meanwhile, I'd been trying to get some images of the small flock of Sanderling. This was not easy as the light levels were low, and they are never still! I did get a few passable ((at least I think so!) images, but not as good as I would have liked.

Sanderling - Beadnell
By the time I turned my attention to a Redshank the light was almost gone and the tide was coming in. I managed to salvage one shot and then it was time to head up to the Craster Arms for a meal and a few pints of Old Rosie.

Redshank - Beadnell
Friday 13th April

Undaunted by the portents of the date, we set off for a walk along Beadnell's south beach. This stretches for about 2 miles (3km) and the sand is only broken by the entry of the Long Nanny stream. The south side of the stream is occupied by nesting terns in the summer, including Little Tern, but although some terns were in evidence, none were on the beach. Shortly after leaving the village, my wife had a dizzy spell and so, having checked that she was going to be OK I set off southwards along the beach, more looking at the dunes behind the beach than out to sea, as there seemed to be relatively little out there. 

A male Kestrel was hunting the dunes, and I could see two more further down. In the dunes were Linnet and Meadow Pipit. I noticed something on a fence wire that was not the expected pipit - a Stonechat, but I was not near enough for a decent image.

Stonechat - Beadnell Beach
Further south I started to try for images of the pipits, and this was far from easy as they were very active and not at all confiding. At one point I had a pair quite close for a split second but they disappeared behind a dune (as did the fence that they were favouring). I stealthily climbed up the dune and found the fence - and a male Kestrel on a post, making a meal of a lizard! I've never been this close to a Kestrel 'in the wild' before, and I was amazed that it did not spot me and beat a hasty retreat. It just carried on eating (even when I adjusted my position a little) until the lizard was down its throat, then lazily looked at me, opened its mouth at me as if in protest, and then looked away again. It eventually flew, but I was too close to manage the flight shot. It's a pity that the light was in the wrong direction here as I might have got some of my best ever Kestrel images. I'm pretty pleased with what I did get, however, so please forgive me if I indulge myself with images of this bird.

Kestrel (male) - Beadnell Beach
After the Kestrel departed, I caught up with a pair of Meadow Pipits, but only at a distance.

Meadow Pipit - Beadnell Beach
It was time to go back and check on my wife, and I found she'd fully recovered and had been watching the terns out in the bay.

As nothing was planned until mid-afternoon, we returned along the beach, past the harbour and then out onto the spit that's known as Ebb's Neuk, where remains of a 13th Century chapel have been found (now covered over again). Passing seabirds, and a couple of seals were spotted before we headed along the north sea-wall. We saw a number of waders, but only Black-tailed Godwit and Ringed Plover were photographed.

Black-tailed Godwit - Beadnell
Ringed Plover - Beadnell
We left ourselves time for a lunch at the Craster Arms, accompanied by a very frugal measure of Old Rosie - well I didn't want to cause any embarrassment in the church afterwards when Russ and Carole would be renewing their vows!

I'm not a churchgoer, and I'm not sure what I was expecting, but the friendly and relaxed service was something of a surprise, with the lady vicar making witty quips, Carole playing the organ, and Russ playing guitar. The hymns threw us a bit, but when we looked at the preface in the hymn book all was explained when it stated that more than 90% of the hymns contained did not appear in the usual two common hymn books.

After the service we all repaired to the nearby Beadnell Towers Hotel for some liquid refreshment and a chat, and later the remarkable cake, an excellent representation of a Fender Stratocaster, was cut - and sampled!

There was time after this get-together for another walk along the north beach - tide well out - before meeting up with some of the guests for dinner at the hotel. The Eider were back in the water, but photographable, and the Oystercatchers were quite active on the rocks (no not those rocks!).

Eider - Beadnell
Eider (female) - Beadnell

Eider (drake) - Beadnell
Oystercatcher - Beadnell
After a good dinner at the hotel, it was off to the Craster Arms again where many of the guests at Russ and Carole's 'do' had congregated and there was live music, and a drop more Old Rosie.  Thus ended a really enjoyable day!

Saturday 14th April

We'd got all day to play with before Russ and Carole's party in the evening, so my wife and I set off for Lindisfarne (aka Holy Island). We took the coast road, stopping just north of Seahouses where there was a pond with a Redshank at the water's edge.

Redshank - north of Seahouses
We then continued towards Lindisfarne, arriving a little early for the tide to lower enough to allow us to cross the causeway - the published table said 12.00, but we crossed at 11.40. 

First call was at Oswald's for lunch before the crowds arrived, we then set off for a walk past the castle. There were plenty of birds around, but all at a very great distance, and nothing unusual was spotted as I'd not got a scope with me, and no usable photos of birds were taken. 

By the shoreline, past the castle, was a large area of grass on which people had painstakingly formed piles of stones. It looked amazing as you approached, and some of the piles had been very skillfully created. However, when one looked closer some of the more simple arrangements had been created with a real artistic flair. No these aren't the rocks either.

Stones on Lindisfarne
After our walk past the castle we headed back into the village to buy an ice-cream at the Post Office. On a previous visit we'd been really taken with Doddington's Alnwick Rum ice-cream. Woe is me - they'd stopped selling it!! We had to make do with a substitute, which we enjoyed while sitting in the nearby gardens.

Heading back to the car, I suddenly spotted an owl on the lawn outside Oswald's (our lunch stop). It wasn't your usual sort of owl! Since we'd been gone, a local Birds of Prey Centre had set up a small display. I've mixed feelings about such establishments, but it does enable you to see some fabulous birds at much closer quarters than you would in the wild. This particular establishment specialises in rescuing birds from cruel and neglectful owners and, indeed, all four birds on display were rescued birds. The owl that I'd first spotted was an amazing White-faced Scops Owl, a native of sub-Sahara Africa. The others were a female Peregrine Falcon, a female Kestrel, and a male Harris Hawk (the latter was kept in the background as it was not yet used to being in public).

White-faced Scops Owl

Peregrine Falcon (female)
Kestrel (female)
Having spent some time with these birds, we set off back across the causeway, stopping for a while in the middle to check out the birds. Only a pair of Shelduck provided any usable images.

Shelduck (female and drake) - Lindisfarne causeway
That night we were at Russ and Carole's party. They'd got a large marquee set up in the garden, complete with stage and sound mixer desk. Apart from the excellent spread that Carole had prepared, we were entertained to some great music, ranging from bagpipes to rock, from a whole raft of musicians, including a significant part of 'The Leisure Society', one of whom just happens to be Carole's son (if you don't know of The Leisure Society, look them up on t'interweb).

I'd been warned that I'd been asked to do my bit, and I was a bit nervous in the face of such talented musicians, particularly as it'd been five years since I'd packed up my band, and I hadn't played since then. In the event, it was great fun to be back playing with Russ, and I think that I got away with it - just!! This was our band way back in 1965 (Russ on the left, and me on the ground to the right).

Fingal's Friends - 1965
And this was us (christened Half Fingal by Russ) last Saturday - I did vocals and harmonica on Hoochie Coochie Man, and Jenny Jenny/Keep a'Knockin'.

Half Fingal - 2012
We'd had a brilliant weekend, in a marvellous corner of England, culminating in a great evening - Yeah - Northumberland Rocks!!! A big Thank You to Russ and Carole for inviting us to share in your great occasion. Here's to your next twenty-five years!!

Sunday 15th April

For reasons which don't need explaining we had a bit of a slow start on the day, setting off homeward at about 10.30. Rather than thrash down the A1, M18, and M1, we took the gentle route by cutting inland and heading down along the Pennines, on minor (often single-track) roads. The scenery is stunning on this route and, in spite of falling snow before we set out, and sleet in the vicinity of Hadrian's Wall, we had bright sunshine for most of the journey.

We stopped just before the ford by Arkengarthdale as there were quite a few birds around, including Wheatear.

Wheatear (male) - Arkengarthdale
Lapwing - Arkengarthdale

Red Grouse - Arkengarthdale
The last two images above are of the same bird - notice how the red 'eyebrow' is raised more prominently in the upper of the two images.

Further on in our journey we had another stop on Whitaside Moor for a more confiding Red Grouse - I thought that the bird looked quite comical in this image - and very inviting as a source of lunch!

Red Grouse - Whitaside Moor
At about 16.30 we realised that we were only about halfway home, and so cut over to the A1 by Bedale - end of the enjoyment!

Thank you for getting this far with this rather long post. I expect that the next post will be very much shorter!