Thursday, 28 April 2016

April Patchwork

I've had a few opportunities over the last few weeks to get to Barmston and Ulrome for some Patchwork. Rather annoyingly I havent quite reached the ton in terms of points but I have added a good few migrants including the odd wintering species which had previously escaped my notice.

I am now up to 84 species and 97 points which is one point off last years effort at this time. Saturday 16th April was my morning off the swimming run and I made hay by heading to Barmston. There was very limited movement but a wander got me a pair of Tufted Ducks. A surprise chance to hit the patch up on my birthday (19th April fact fans) saw my first proper migrants on patch with Swallow, Sand Martin and Sandwich Tern all recorded. Grey Heron was also new for the year with a bird rowing north offshore. A brace of Teal were on the sea, as were three Shelduck and two Shag.

A brief after work visit on Friday 22nd April wasn't overly productive with unfavourable winds but a much wanted patch tick was recorded as a male Marsh Harrier passed through North. Some extended effort on Saturday morning say two Barnacle Geese fly north along with two Whimbrel later on. There were also two Whitethroats back on territory at Barmston.

At Nafferton a few walks and general buffonery have yielded my first village Lesser Whitethroats including one in my garden. No sign yet of the Kingfishers but the Little Egrets are still about. Rather frustratingly I found out that one of the Great White Egrets that visited Kelk and Lowthorpe over the winter was present for a week in January in the village. Gah! It even sat in the field 200m from my house. Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers have been typically gleaning and nectaring from the Blackthorn blossom in the garden. A wander down Nafferton Carrs brought me to the old Mill Pond in Wansford and here there was a good selection of wildfowl including 8 Wigeon and 5 Gadwall. At least 8 Lapwing and a brace of Oystercatchers were also noted on the floods looking like breeders.

Finally I undertook the Heronry census for the Foston - Wansford Heronry a couple of weeks ago with 18 pairs present on apparently occupied nests. The sub-group away from the main colony has gone by the wayside with the trees falling over the winter.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016


In big and bold lettering. Raptors galore. I had a week in Ross and Cromarty monitoring Schedule 1 birds on a project and myself and a colleague were undertaking occupancy checks on Red Kite and Osprey territories which was awesome. Im back up there next week and cant wait to see how the birds have progressed. We had a number of Kite territories and several Ospreys including one eating a huge Plaice next to its nest, fresh after arriving.

We also managed a single Goshawk and Peregrine, both no doubt close to breeding sites. A mix of weather with strong thermals and lots of heavy showers meant birds were very active in between. My first Sand Martin and Wheatear of the year were spotted whilst trogging round a moor not seeing Black Grouse.

On the way home we decided to have a swing up Strathdearn (or the Findhorn Valley if you prefer), Initially very quiet, all changed when a Peregrine was chasing a pair of Merlin. The Merlins were a male and female whilst the Peregrine was an adult male. All the birds were soon lost in the sky and the morning was marked by a passage of over 1,000 Pink-footed Geese north along with a quartet of Whooper Swans. Despite the wildfowl and the ever present Red Deer, it was the raptors we were here for and again a Peregrine came off the cliff face but it was grey - a young female and she was joined by the adult male who proceeded to assault her. Soon he was joined by a very large adult female who succeeded in chasing the young bird away for a bit.

No sooner had the falcons got going than the Buzzards and Ravens started appearing over the various escarpments. We started getting our hopes up and before you could say Jack Robinson a first winter Golden Eagle starts to try and force the stags over an edge. Soon joined by a Raven who tried to pull his tail feathers we got amazing views as the Eagle circled 100m above us as a skein of Geese flew nervously overhead. 90 minutes of excitement proved too much as we faced the 7 hours home (and on to the Football Ramble live show in Newcastle for me). As we were leaving two large raptors flew briskly over the hills and a jump and scope revealed two sub-adult White-tailed Eagles heading out of the valley, seemingly on a mission. Both birds had cream heads but mostly dark tails and juvenile mantles.

Friday, 1 April 2016

No Flies On Me

Spring got underway with vengeance this week as I took a week off. Three visits to the patch saw a few additions but mostly fairly standard stuff. New peak counts of Great Black-backed Gulls and Gannets hardly alleviated the standard but it was great to get stuck in. At Barmston I am currently on 75 species and 85 points which is the highest score at this stage since 2013. Additions included Teal, Canada Goose, Coal Tit, Sparrowhawk, Buzzard, Lesser Black-backed Gull and a brace of Shelduck north. The Shelduck were the 9th patch record whilst the Canada Geese were a second patch record. madness.

Syrphus torvus
Yesterday I took the girls to South Landing ostensibly to do some rock-pooling although the tide was a little high to actually get anything done. We pratted about on the beach and in the woods where they played Jake and the Neverland Pirates as I looked for inverts and flowers. My first Red Campion of the year and plenty of Alexanders which were plastered in blowflies. I managed a couple of lifers with a hoverfly, Syrphus torvus, which was identified by its eye hairs! and a greenbottle mimic, Eudasyphora cyanella with its stripey thorax. 

Eudasyphora cyanella
We went to Bempton for the annual, show the girls the Puffins trip, which was very successful as Isabelle demonstrated she could use binoculars and we saw all the nesting species including great views of loads of Puffins. All round a lovely day.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Spring Loaded

I took the girls on an amble round the village yesterday as the temperatures hit a soaring 17c. Absolute bliss and Isabelle wanted to do a little biological recording so we took her notebook out and recorded what we saw.

After a couple of queen Buff-tailed Bumblebees from Cumbria earlier in the week marked my first bees of the year, a brace of White-tailed Bumbles were pottering about the station gardens. Also present were my first Hairy-footed Flower Bees Anthophora plumipes with males zipping all over the place. Small Tortoiseshells were very much in evidence and there were Colt's Foot and Common Field Speedwell Veronica persica growing in the disturbed ground.

Common Field Speedwell
As we ambled on we saw loads of singing birds and plenty more butterflies including a couple of Peacocks. There was a brief Eristalis sp. Drone Fly on a Dandelion. Lesser Celandines were everywhere and a handful of Buttercups were still hanging on. It was fabulous to be out. Earlier in the day I found the Firethorn Leaf Miner on the Pyracantha in the garden which was new. Earlier in the week I had found Orpine Sedum telephium in a hedgerow in Cumbria and Hart's Tongue Rust Milesina scolopendrii which means five new PSL ticks taking me onto 1075. 

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Run Fatboy Run

As some of you who follow me on other social media outlets may have noticed, this year I havent been fully focused on birding. As a bloke his mid thirties and who embraced spread the day he gave up tabs I want to get fitter. So four years ago I started running a bit. Occasionally. I even signed up for the York 10k and got to race day only for my youngest daughter to arrive instead. I raised over £300 for charity without running anywhere. I promised that I would do an event but stuff got in the way and I kept trying to run and aborting due to plantar fasciitis and various other lame excuses. In 2015 I managed to finish the Couch to 5km program. I wanted to run in Central Park but my foot pain prevented me and so it petered out but I knew I could do better so when my sister suggested that perhaps I bypass 10k and just go for a half marathon I agreed. I can do this.

In August training commenced. I made really good strides, slowly increasing my distance until I was cresting 5km again. Steady, slow but then I got sick with a mystery gastric complaint and all thought of trying to run went out the window as I lost a stone in weight (not in the right way) and felt dreadful. Mentally I had chucked the half marathon in. Not enough time, not well enough. And then in November I was at a family wedding with my brother-in-law who had also signed up and he revealed he was going to follow a twelve week plan. And it started in a couple of weeks. I had enough time but only just and I was going to have to work bloody hard if I was to make the start line let alone complete the race. So training started. After work, walk to run, 4 times a week. When the 12 weeks started I could get round 5km with walking breaks occasionally. If I stuck to the program then I might get there. If I dont get injured...

So I stuck rigidly to the program and racked up over 75km in December. I was running further and further with my first double figure run on December 27th when I made mincemeat of an 11km trip out. It was then that I realised I was actually running. I was over halfway in distance and infact felt strong. But my feet! Trainers wont do. Not after a while and so I invested in a pair of neon Asics which compensate for my outturned feet and padded frame whilst seperating me with a wedge of cash. This was money well invested as my feet felt guilded in such quality casings. I was doing so well that I deviated from the regime set out. As a big lad, four runs a week was punishing my joints and specifically my right achilles tendon. I cut one of the midweekers out now that the long runs were pushing over the hour. Two 5km runs in the week and a long run on a Sunday.

Each fortnight saw a new PB in distance. 13km, 16km. All were endured and enjoyed to varying degrees. Some of the short runs were hellish in gale force conditions on the sea front at Seascale, Cumbria or in the pounding rain of Nafferton Carrs. I ran on the flat or on the hills of West Newcastle. Along the Tyne. 91km in January and now PBs were coming thick and fast. Best hour, best 10km, best 5km. And I was running without stopping. Not all the time - work wore me out with hills and walks. But I persevered and perspired. Two weeks out from the race and it was time for my final LONG long run. 19km (12 miles). I had come so far but the wind was whipping out of the west. I flew out to 10km breaking my PB by several minutes only to turn into a wall of wind. Run when I can, walk when I have to. I got to 15km in good shape and then I lost all my go. I wasnt bonking (low blood sugar) as I kept myself topped up with gels but I had just run out of steam. I gritted my teeth and slowly turned 4km to go into 3 and then 2. And 1. I crawled home but I had done it. Into a headwind I had managed to do 19km of running and at a reasonable pace.. I was going to start a half marathon.

The race my sister had chosen for my running debut was the Great North West Half Marathon. I signed up last summer and didnt dare look at it in any detail. Until after the 19km run.19km took me 2 hours and 26 minutes which giver me about a 2:40 time for a half marathon. This is very slow but I am currently in the run longer camp, not the run faster camp as there is the best part of 15 stone to drag round. The two pistons in my quads were doing me proud though and so I looked at the details of the race, race reviews and other paraphenalia. The race was to be a flat charge up and down the prom. Great for setting PBs apparently. Then I looked at the reviews and it appeared that should bad weather occur it can be hideous as was the 2015 edition. February in Blackpool - what can go wrong?

Nerves hit when I checked the weather midweek before the race. 50mph westerly gales and rain. All my worst nightmares in one quick check of the phone. My runs were still going well and I was now tapering for the race. We stayed in Manchester the night before the race and met up with my sister and brother-in-law who were half marathon virgins although both considerably fitter than me. Nervous energy abounded but pizza was taken with no beer or wine. The pain! A good nights sleep in the local Premier Inn was had, despite a stinking cough I had acquired and the presence of my two girls who were here to be super fans with my awesome wife. I woke at 4.30 and tossed and turned until 7 when I caved and got ready. We headed up the motorway to Blackpool as the wind strngthen and the sky darkened. I was concerned as rain could be problematic. I usually run in glasses but in rain they are no good and I switch to contact lenses. A mild bit of conjuntivitis was bothering me but I tried the lenses. They felt ok so I stuck with them. We walked the mile to the start and I registered just in time. By now I was bricking it. All the realisation of what was about to happen hit home as the neon horde gathered. No chips were issued which was weird but we got numbered up and took up position in the melee as my wife and children shouted support from above.

3-2-1 and we were underway. In the crowd the wind wasnt too bad and we ran south along the prom towards the pier. Turning back along the lower prom and I felt stiff but ok. I hadnt set my running app, Endomondo, up correctly so I didnt know how far I had gone. Soon we were back at the start and despite the wind I was feeling better. I reckoned I had done about a km. Starting back out from the start we went on another short loop and this was somewhat harder as the field thinned and slow runners ran amongst slow runners. The wind was now a blowing 35mph from the south west. But I was soon running north on the longest straight of the race. Past the start and onward, north along the lower prom, waves breaking over the top of the runners. I turned my phone in its holder upside down as I didnt want to flood it. I was covered in seawater but I felt really strong. And no wonder with a tailwind so strong. The wind turned to a straight southerly and strengthened. I must be at 5km I wondered and as I ran alongside a giant rabbit a miracle happened. I went past the 5 mile sign. This is insane I thought and I barrelled along as fast as my legs would take me. I was 30% further on than I thought. I was 1/3 of the way through the race. I hope I feel like this forever. And then I reached the turning point.

The race after the two short laps south of the start was made up of two longer laps to the north. I found myself at the turn and a wall of wind hit me. I had my gel that I was supposed to use at 7km and cracked on. I didnt get far as the wind stopped me in my tracks. I grinded away the 2.5 miles back to the start. Run a little, walk a little, never stopping. I felt awful by the time I got back to the start but the fastest were just starting to lap me. It looks like lots of folks chucked it in at this point but I pushed on knowing I had the relative ease of the fast wind assisted lower prom for a while. Another gel and 13km to 17km whizzed by. Not as comfortable this time but still in reasonable shape. At this point I realised that I was running with a lass with a purple coat and lime green beanie on. She would pass me and then vice versa. No competition - just it kept going like that so we started encouraging each other, aware of what was around the corner. We made it to 17km and then the final 2.5 miles/4km back was horrendous. It took ages but we pushed each other. Running when we could, walking when we had to again. 11 miles. 12 miles. I told her I would have to run in to the finish to show my kids and she laughed. The final mile was all running, into the wind, which by now had strengthen to 50mph in our faces and was laced with rain. I was weather beaten but I was sure as damn it going to do it. A small group of runners who were just behind us caught us at the last but we all ran in together. I managed to get Isabelle to join me on the way in and run through the line with her hand in mine which was an amazing feeling. I embraced the purple coated women and she hugged my wife before I did. Officially I crossed the line in 2 hours and 41 minutes but thats rubbish. It was just under 2:45 but I am convinced I could go sub 2:30 in decent conditions. I am still absolutely over the moon. A fat lad running a half marathon on just 14 weeks training. I did it. My sister managed to finish in 2:03 and my brother-in-law in 2:10 which is awesome by both of them. They came to find me when I was a couple of hundred yards away which was brilliant of them.

With the wind assisting I broke my 5km, hour, 10km and of course my half marathon personal bests (the latter because I didnt have one!). Im now very stiff and sore but I ran as hard as I could. I couldnt have done this without the support of my wife and kids who have been with me throughout and supported in horrible conditions yesterday and also morale boosting messages from Tristan Reid, Jonny Rankin and Rob Sheard amongst many others. And do you know what? I bloody loved it. Every salty, sweaty, windy moment. I might even do another.

Below are links to a few videos featuring the race.

Race Start

Chase the bunny - I was about 20 seconds behind the bunny suited one at this stage

Big Seas - some of the faster guys get soaked as we all did shortly after!

I dont normally put links by the daily express in my blog but the first picture here has us all out on the first short lap with the huge seas illustrated.


And finally an excellent Youtube video which shows exactly how windy it was. 

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Getting Panned

A thread on low hanging fruit on the Pan-species Listing facebook page had me opening my eyes for a couple of lichens and a couple of fungoid plant pathogens which are pretty easy to see. All I had seen before or so I thought but I couldnt remember where or when. These are things that are everywhere but easy to ignore. First up was Bracken Map which is a fungoid plant pathogen which occurs on Bracken and is easily seen on dead stems due to its near ubiquity. Sadly my first patch of Bracken was one of the few where it is absent but soon I had seen many patches of it including in the photo below.

The other fungoid organism was a parasite of Rubus sp. and a quick look at the remaining leaves on a bramble (didnt look like typical Rubus fruticosus) saw some small circles with pale centres, Phragmidium violaceum.

The brace of lichens were both very straight forward and you will have seen them too. You know when it looks like there is chewing gum on the floor but its not a lichen. If it is circular then on every untrodden bit of path ever meet Lecanora muralis. And that greenish wash that appears on damp brickwork that never really resolves into anything. Thats Psilolechia lucida. Not the four most inspiring PSL ticks but like Pokemon, you have to catch them all. I quite like Bracken Map as well...

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Today was a Good Today

In the words of Ice Cube, today was a good day. It started with a glorious dawn over Druridge Bay and ended with the sepia tones of a Castle Howard sunset. In between were a plethora of good birds. Some finds, a trio of small twitches and a reanimation of my trusty Canon SX50 which after 6 months of being in stasis in now fully operational.

Widdrington Waxwing
The morning started on a small hill monitoring geese as they left their overnight roosts to forage in the fields. Amongst the calls of Pink-footed Geese in the dark was a more strident unk-unk. A Tundra Bean Goose (I only know the subspecies as it was hanging out with Greylags later). As the sun came up over the North Sea I saw over 500 Pink-feet milling about on the roost I was watching but this sight was soon usurped by owls. 

Pete and me run a little 'on survey' competition to keep us focused during those quieter bits of fieldwork and I hadn't seen any owls yet this year. This changed when a white ghostly shape quartered over wet grassland - Barn Owl. Delighted I started scanning an area of restock with young Sitka Spruce coming through. A further three Barn Owls were quartering over this and a Long-eared Owl. This was outstanding! The LEO soon evaporated as the light came up but two Short-eared Owls were patrolling over the long grass. An hour or so after dawn and all the owl activity had tailed off when a Marsh Harrier came barrelling through site and promptly flushed a fifth Barn Owl. Today was a good day.

After work I managed a driveby of the Widdrington Waxwing which was happily tucking into haws on its lonesome. I didnt spend too much time with it as I wanted to see the Warkworth redpolls. I arrived at the golf course just intime to see the redpoll flock fly off south to an alder they favoured. Two birders scurried off but a tog who had been there all morning suggested that I wait for them to come back as they give excellent views when there arent too many birders. I stayed put watching the Curlew in the stubble field adjacent to the game cover crop the redpolls had favoured. Soon a trio touched down on the hedge opposite. A Mealy Redpoll and two Lesser Redpoll. These went into the cover crop and were soon joined by a dozen or so other redpoll. After 20 minutes or so they flock flew out and alighted on the hedge and the first bird I got onto was monochrome with a giant, unstreaked white rump. The Arctic Redpoll preened in the open for a couple of minutes before fluffy up into the characteristic snowball posture. There was no mistaking this bird for the Mealies that were also present. Sadly the light and the fact that my camera had just gone flat meant for just a couple of dodgy phone grabs through the scope.

I tried briefly for the Greenland White-fronts at Woodhorn Flash but couldnt pick any out so headed home to East Yorkshire. Whilst having a coffee break on Teesside I noticed that an American Wigeon had been found at Castle Howard which was en route. Naturally I dropped in and after a bit of scanning it was in the scope. A lovely drake and attached was a paramore. I never did see the female it was paired with raise its wings but nothing suggested it was anything but a Eurasian Wigeon. As well as the Yank there were at least 25 Mandarins in what is obviously another site for this species. I have always found them tricky in the dales and at Hilla Green. They certainly werent present at the site when I started birding near there 12 years ago. Another surprise was a Marsh Tit calling away and giving superb views.

I had the pleasure of enjoying this super bird with Jonathan Pomroy who produced some excellent sketches of it. Check out his website and the sketches of the American Wigeon (which are in his twitter feed).

Finally as an aside I am part of the new Patchwork Challenge Podcast and episode one has just come out. Check it out:

Ornithological Idiocy

How brains and birds become mutually exclusive