Sunday, 11 September 2016

Somerset and beyond

Last week I had the pleasure of counting Shelduck in Somerset for an infrastructure project and whilst I was there I managed to get a little bit of birding done. The nearby Steart WWT reserve was a boon as there had been a Grey Phalarope in the pools by Steart Gate and also a Wryneck on the Coastal path.

As well as Shelduck I managed 6 Curlew Sandpipers and a Little Stint amongst the throngs of Dunlin and Ringed Plovers. Once work had finished on the first day I walked back to the car via the coastal path and saw the Wryneck scrubbing around on the deck. It was really relaxed as people werent pushing it for an excellent view so most of the time it was head first in an ant nest with just its arse showing as in the picture below but on occasion it would hope up and give a lovely pose before settling down again. From what I heard it got booted a lot of the time so I was lucky to get such extended views.

Typical view of the Steart Pangolin
After work on the Monday we headed to Cornwall as there was a window of opportunity for a few large shears and we hoped to get a couple of hours at Porthgwarra before it got dark. Roadworks nobbled our time but we arrived in Penwith with 90 minutes to go before dusk when the fog closed in. Its a long way from Somerset to the end of Britain and three hours is a long time to journey for nowt. Thankfully the local Chough kept us entertained as we got marvellous views despite the dodgy visibility. Sadly the seabirds didnt play and we could hear but not see the runnel stone and a handful of Gannets, Fulmars and Shag were our only reward.

On the Tuesday after work I was knackered and slept for an age waking up just before dark giving me just time enough to connect with the Grey Phalarope at Steart WWT. It was point blank near the Wall Common Borrow Pit and didnt care about my presence feeding merrily in shallow pools littered with invertebrates. Myself and Paul who I work with decided to do some invert searching on the walls of the B&B we were staying in. As it is an 11th century manorhouse there was plenty to be seen. Spiders galore with Steatoda nobilis, Zygiella x-notata, Walnut Orb-Weaver, Clubiona sp and plenty of Amaurobius similis and A. ferox plus the odd Eratigena atrica. Other invertebrates were in short supply but there was a fine Oak Bush Cricket which was new for me and a large bat species was in one of the bushes and scrabbled out of the spotlight before identification.

It had been a profitable August on patch with additions including Coot, Merlin and Hobby. As my youngest was starting school this week and was only in for a couple of hours in the afternoon I filled the time between dropping her off and picking her up with some casual patching. This paid dividends as a Red Kite drifted over the village at Barmston as I arrived before continuing south over the fields. A Snipe was a belated year tick and I also managed my second patch record of Gadwall with a pair in the bay. Coming back the following day was more challenging but a smart adult dark morph Pomarine Skua battled south against the wind close in with sad looking spoons which were very battered. A few Teal and Common Scoter were also moving but my visit was brief as I had to pick up Abby from school.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Climbing Scafell Pike

A non-birding post! I have been working in West Cumbria for a few years on and off and I have been keen to get up Scafell Pike but time, weather and work have never aligned to allow this to happen. Last week I was doing some dusk work starting at 6pm and the forecast was for a sunny but cool day with highs of 18c. It was ideal and so I found myself at the foot of Scafell Pike in the National Trust car park starting to ascend at 09:00. I had been warned this was a particularly steep approach and not the most interesting. I did a bit of reading and it became apparent that a reasonable walker should take between 2-3 hours. Now I'm a lardy bloke but I am definitely walking fit so I felt I was aiming for inside three hours up. As I was on my own I wanted to go slow and steady.

It was a cool 15c when I arrived and I made steady progress to 200m although this seemed to take ages as the legs warmed up. There weren't that many folks about so I was determined to get a jump on the masses who would surely follow. I walked along side Lingmell Gill as the treeline disappeared. The gradient ramped up quickly and the crossing of Lingmell Gill was a welcome respite in the middle of perhaps the toughest section of the climb. The gill was in spate after overnight rains which were the reason for the cool temperatures. This made it a little hazardous crossing over and a small queue had formed as people scrambled with either little dignity or wet feet. When it got to my turn I plotted my course only for a mis-step to leave me stuck with my feet the wrong way round and I decided wet feet were a better option than falling over. My boots are leather and goretex so they werent likely to dry out anytime soon and my car boot now has an aromatic flavour!

Beyond the gill it is a steep staircase of rocks and from here to 400m was perhaps the most demoralising as it was over an hour since I had started and yet it was very challenging. The National Trust are continuing with repairing the footpath to prevent erosion in this section. A few other walkers were about in this section and one family in particular were good for pacing against. I finally crept in front as I got to Lingmell Col and the Hollow Stones which have travelled down the col from a cliff on the peak. Here I was at 550m and I had made good time over the last 100m ascent or so despite the gradient. After eating my Malteaser Cake from the excellent Gosforth bakery I suddenly felt jet propelled and the gradient eased significantly.

I climbed from 550-700m in next to no time as the peak of Lingmell appeared to my left and then the path veered violently up and right towards Scafell Pike. The family I was walking near had disappearred behind me and I felt good. However the remainder of the walk was both steep and rocky. A fell runner flew past me and I started to slow and flag. Physically this was the hardest part as I was tired as well as the difficulty ramping but my spirits were good. The grind from 700m to 800m was long and slow and this took well over half an hour as I found I had been going for nearly 2 and a half hours. I didnt think that I would make it in my planned three hours but I was phlegmatic. The walk had been much more enjoyable than I imagined and I was sure I would make it to the top.

A cheery voice piped up from beside me encouraging me as a man from Lincolnshire extolled what a glorious day for a walk. I smiled and we walked together for a while. It was now a cool 10c and the gradient suddenly slackened just a little. We were recounting our experiences of the walk thus far when all of a sudden we were there. Just fifty metres of walking remained. I had flown up the last 150m of ascent in about 20 minutes and I hit the peak at 11:57 having taken 2 hours 57 minutes. I was very chuffed and I thanked the gent for the distraction on the final approach. A few photos and it was time to descend.

After 100m and 10 minutes of descent it was obvious that I had just beaten the masses up the mountain as people of all shapes and sizes huffed and puffed up the final approach. The crowds only got worse as I went down. Going down was extremely difficult as my quads rebelled and I remained pretty slow. The descent was less exciting and by the time I was down to Lingmell Gill I just wanted to finish as I was knackered. The water had dropped a bit and I crossed without further flooding of my boots. The temperature now well exceeded the predicted 18c and was well into the mid 20s making hot and sweaty work.

The final half an hour was just painful as I maneuvered my sore legs over the steep gradient and finally I arrived back at my car. I was delighted and a little overwhelmed. I was extremely proud of myself and the endorphins were rushing. Doing it solo was also great fun surprisingly as I shared my experience on the journey with fellow walkers rather than a couple of mates. People were almost entirely gracious and pleasant and the achievement was palpable. As a certain Jonny Rankin posted on my facebook post, Live To Win! I certainly did.  


Here is a quick blog on the first part of my Spanish holiday written in situ a few weeks back:

We are holidaying in Spain again in order to clear the old credit cards and so I find myself back on the Costa Blanca. This time we are staying on the 'Villa-steppe' of Ciudad Quesada. A tad soulless but warm and with a pool and plenty of birding closeby all family members have their needs catered for. We are now halfway through our second week and it's been a fantastic break as we were all in need of a bit of R & R. On the nature front and I have managed a few walks locally and a couple of trips to El Hondo plus a bit of bug hunting with the smalls. It's been profitable and much fun has been had.    

We arrived on Saturday 30th July amid a bonkers check-in thanks to Leeds being chockablock. It was barely better in Alicante but calm was restored once we were ensconced in our hire vehicle watching the first of many Pallid Swifts wheeling above us. A steady 40 minute trundle to Ciudad Quesada including passing through Santa Pola salinas revealed Yellow-legged Gull, Bee-eater, Flamingo and Spotless Starling. From the balcony Sardinian Warbler and quite bizarrely, Whiskered Tern dip feeding over pools were noted. 

 On Sunday morning I took the girls to the lookout tower at the north end of La Mata parc natural. It soon became evident that the place was heaving with terns as dozens roosted closeby and a similar number hawked over the scrub. The latter were all Gull-billed Terns with families seemingly supplanted from their breeding areas to this large water body. Turtle Doves flew over the scrub on occasion and both Woodchat and Iberian Grey Shrikes were noted surveying their surroundings. Some of the regular Mediterranean fare was seen as Iberian Green Woodpeckers, Hoopoe, Black-winged Stilt and Thekla Lark were seen. The children were soon bored and I let them off.

I headed back on my own to the watchtower on the Monday morning and it was more of the same. I saw the welcome sight of a pair of Montagu's Harriers breeding in their regular location and also a second male came and had a head to head briefly with the resident bird before heading back presumably to an adjacent territory on the Lemon Tree Road. A pair of Red-rumped Swallows hawked over the pump house which presumably held a nest inside although there was no sign of offspring. These have been extremely numerous here this year. With no smalls in tow I was able to search through the terns, gulls and waders with Slender-billed and Audouin's Gulls added. Little and Common Tern remained around the breeding island and Stone Curlew, Curlew Sandpiper and Common Sandpiper were the water highlights. By this time I was up to a meagre 40 species. Not great but not too bad. In the evening a juvenile Gecko was noted on the walls but it wasn't seen again. 

A quiet day followed around the pool and then my inlaws were arriving on the Wednesday for a week of sun. This allowed me a snatched 90 minutes around El Hondo, the hidden gem of European birding. I reached my Roller spot in hope of the azure winged beast and was soon met with my first Cattle Egret transiting to the dump nearby. Zitting Cisticolas bounced through the glasswort and Plain Tiger butterflies were evident en masse. These relatives of the Monarch are a real local speciality. A movement on a date palm reveals that the Rollers had shifted a bit in the last 7 years and an adult flew away in an elaborate display flight in order to draw me from the nest. I obliged and moved to the visitor centre at San Felipe Neri. Here perennial favourites such as Marbled Duck, Squacco Heron, Little Bittern, Glossy Ibis, Purple Gallinule and Collared Pratincole made me feel at home. On the Crested Coot release pool four neck-ringed adults were present along with their common relatives and a mixture of offspring of both species were knocking about. The tick-ability of the adults is dubious but the young birds have rather better credentials.  More in part 2.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Knocked My Spots Off

With my family away enjoying the Isle of Wight I had my own timetable this weekend. Aside from ordering Black Tie, Saturday largely consisted of birding. An early morning seawatch at Ulrome wasn't particularly profitable despite plenty of birds passing. Having not visited for virtually 2 months I added Knot, Arctic Tern and Common Tern to the patch yearlist. In difficult windy conditions Sandwich Terns and Kittiwakes streamed past but not much more unusual. A couple of candidate Curlew Sandpipers escaped identification as they flew south. A wander round the patch revealed very little with no new gulls or waders although a juvenile Sanderling kept a young Dunlin company.

News that the North Cave Wetlands juvenile Spotted Crake was showing well on and off encouraged me to head out late afternoon in a rare twitch. This species is a proper bogey for me having missed several at Blacktoft and elsewhere. Running commentary on site by a birder who kept sighing and tutting was bloody annoying but after an hour or so I picked it coming out to forage on a barren spit. This was a tease as the geese flushed it back into hiding. A further twenty minutes later it emerged for Steve Routledge and me before flying towards us. It was within 15 yards and foraged for half an hour in the open. My photos were compromised by the emergent vegetation provding a screen but it was lovely as it feed and drank on the waters edge and saw off a Snipe whilst being bullied by Moorhens which gave a sense of scale for this diminutive denizen of the marsh.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Back at Barmston

Light easterlies and late May can sometimes being rich rewards to the coastal patcher and so inset out at 5.30 this morning to Barmston with dreams of drift migrants. As is so often the case reality and expectations diverged but I did manage my 2nd patch record of Bar-tailed Godwit plus additional patch year ticks in Garden Warbler, Reed Warbler and Swift

A Whimbrel south was a bonus and Fulmar over the fields was just odd. The new additions took me to 97 species/113 points for patchwork challenge. I also managed a new flower, Columbine Aquilegia vulgaris, which looks pretty natty I think. 

Bog-based Botany

I am a novice botanist but I'm trying hard to make some progress in this area and a dearth of upland plants is in the process of being rectified. Four new ones today were Bogbean (above), Round-leaved Sundew (below), Common Cotton-grass and Dwarf Birch. This moves me onto 1126 for my pan-species list and my 300th plant species. This all coincided with some epic birding. A breeding plumaged Black-throated Diver preceded Merlin, Hen Harriers, Golden Eagle, Greenshank, Red Kite and a Marsh Harrier! Madness.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Getting the Pan-list moving

Spring is well underway and I have been merrily ticking away for my PSL list. Since the beginning of April the new species have been coming with a fair regularity with a total of 18 new additions to take me on to 1096, a mere 11 species ahead of 'arch nemesis' Pete Mella. In all seriousness, its been a magnificent effort by Pete to catch up over the last six months and no doubt he will surpass my score soon, never to look back!

From the 18 species there is a single fungal pathogen, the Groundsel Rust, Puccinia lagenophorae. This I found quite widely but it was noted in Wansford whilst birding. Moving my bird table in the garden revealed two new species of woodlouse, both very common but Common Pygmy Woodlouse, Trichoniscus pusillus was a treat as it was pretty small. Common Rough Woodlouse, Porcellio scaber is definitely something I have overlooked in the past.

There was a single Hemipteran, Empoasca vitis or Smaller Green Leafhopper, is something I have certainly seen and noticed before but a recently acquired clip on macro lens for the phone allowed it to be identified. This was on my roses in the garden, a source of plenty of invertebrate frustration and observation. Two dipterans were in quite different stages of their lives with a leaf mine of Holly Leaf Miner, Phytomyzaq ilicis seen in Cumbria whilst an adult hoverfly Eupeodes luniger was in the garden. A Syrphus sp. photographed well but not perfectly wasn't torvus and didn't look like ribesii but an ID couldnt be found due to slightly fuzzy back legs.

There were three final insects this month with two Coleoptera and an Ant. The beetles, 24-spot Ladybird, Subcoccinella vigintiquatuorpunctata and Hawthorn Leaf Beetle, Lochmaea crategi were both noted at a site in Cumbria. A trip to Wharram Quarry revealed tons of Yellow Meadow Ant Lasius flavus under the various stones. 

Ornithological Idiocy

How brains and birds become mutually exclusive