Monday, 24 April 2017

Pennington Marshes

I've noticed bird reports from time to time at Pennington or Keyhaven Marshes and each time I've had to look up where exactly there were, never having actually had cause to visit them before. Well, finally last week I had the opportunity to do so though the outcome wasn't as rewarding as I'd hoped. A Kentish Plover, a long-standing bogey bird for me, had been found at last light at the reserve and was still present at first light the next day. Now the trouble with this species is that it often doesn't hang around that long and it's staying can often depend on the tide. It was high tide at first light so there was a good chance as the tide fell the bird would move and may well not be relocated so this still wasn't enough to tempt me on its own. There was however a second factor in play which was that I hadn't been sleeping that well all week due to work-related stress. Having woken up in the middle of the night once more I resolved that I was going to stop the project that was stressing me out so much. This made me feel much better and I was able to get back to sleep after this. To help cement this change of tack I decided to take the day off from work altogether and so whilst I wouldn't normally have contemplated going for such an unsure twitch, this morning when it came up as "still present" at 9:30 I decided to have a go for it.

The journey down was fine though as I progressed on the familiar route south and then westwards along the M27 and with there being no further news on the pager, I did start to wonder what on earth I was doing and heavy melancholy settled over me that I was certainly wasting my time with this trip. Still, I was half way there already and it seemed silly to turn around now so I stiffened my resolve and soldiered on. There was a long delay at Lyndhurst where they seemed to be letting south-bound cars through only a few at a time but finally I was through and some two hours after having set off I arrived at the rather over-crowded small parking area to the north of the main reserve. Fortunately someone was leaving just as I arrived so I was able to park up. Predictably, on inquiry it turned out that the bird had last been seen some time ago when it had flown off. No matter, I was here now and I might as well have a look around so I got tooled up and headed off down the path.

My spirits were immediately lifted by the beauty of the location: there was lovely gorse in flower everywhere I looked with the whole area filled with bird song. Whitethroats were clearly "in" en masse with loads of them to be heard everywhere. I wandered along, feeling much more glad that I'd come now, looking and listening at all the signs of spring around me. About half way down the track I was stopped by a very distinctive and loud call that I didn't recognise. It sounded to me all the world like a large pipit call but not a Richard's (which sounds just like a sparrow). Could it be something like a Tawny Pipit? I looked carefully but there was no sign of the bird which sounded like it was no more than thirty yards away. Now, as I think about it now I really kick myself that I didn't do the following:
1) record the call on my phone (I'd stupidly left my super-zoom back at the car which is the best for this sort of thing)
2) wade in there to see if I could flush it.
3) stick it out a bit longer
Had I done all those things then I may well have got a shiny self-found Tawny Pipit tick to my name but as it was, I was preoccupied by the dangling carrot of the Kentish Plover so when the bird stopped calling I gave up after about five minutes and headed off. Doh! The next day a Tawny Pipit was seen briefly a few miles away at Farlington Marhes - perhaps "my" bird!

At the sea wall, there was no obvious twitch line scoping anything so I wandered along until I came to a few people looking quietly over the mud flats to the west of the Butts Lagoon.

Butts Lagoon
Here I met LGRE who'd also arrived too late to see the bird but was still keen to get it on his year list. All the small waders seemed to be feeding out on these mud flats so we scoped together but there was no sign of it. Apparently the Kentish had been keeping to itself this morning anyway so it may well have been off on its own but it certainly wasn't with these other birds. There was a nice collection of waders though with Grey Plover, Turnstone, Knot, Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Curlew and Whimbrel all to be seen. Another birder reported that a Curlew Sandpiper and a Spotted Redshank were to be had further west along the sea wall so after a while LGRE, another birder and myself all headed off to take a look. The Curlew Sandpiper was in the middle of Fishtail Lagoon though rather distant. As you don't get to see this species every day (especially in Oxfordshire) I took a few digiscoped photos for the record.
Curlew Sandpiper
Further over on the same pool we found the Spotted Redshank, which was closer so I took a few more shots.

Spotted Redshank
We wandered as far as Keyhaven Lagoon where there was another Spotted Redshank in full summer plumage though it was very distant. Here there were a few Godwits and a single sleeping Greenshank, again rather distant.

Keyhaven Lagoon
All the while we kept looking out for the Kentish Plover on the mud flats but we could see precious few waders from this side. A distant calling Cuckoo was my first of the year though we couldn't see it. After a while we decided to head back to where we'd originally been looking. Whilst the other two hurried back, I took my time, taking in the spring sights and enjoying seeing all the waders on these wonderful pools that they had at this reserve. I also kept an eye out for any interesting flora though there wasn't actually that much on show. A few things caught my eye though.

Changing Forget-me-not - I love the coiled flower stems of this species

Germander Speedwell

Sheep's Sorrel

Sun Spurge
Back at the original watch point we all had another scan through though without turning up anything new. LGRE and his companion decided to head off to look for a Hoopoe that had turned up in Sussex whilst I decided to stay on a bit longer. I ducked down on the leeward side of the sea wall to eat my packed lunch out of the increasingly chilly wind. I met a lady who said that she'd seen some Bearded Tits though I couldn't see or hear any myself during my lunch break. I went back to scoping the mud flats in the company of just a single remaining birder.

After a while I decided to explore the other end of the reserve whilst I was here. I wandered along the sea wall, past the shingle spit where the bird had roosted at high tide. A Little Tern went by on the sea and there was the usual mix of waders on the various pools that were dotted about the place. I got good views of a Marsh Harrier as it quartered the scrub inland of the pools. Eventually, with time marching on I headed back along the path to car. All in all I was very much taken with what had turned out to be a lovely reserve and despite dipping my target bird I was pleased that I had come. If nothing else this day out had been the perfect antidote to my work stresses and I very much look forward to a return visit at some point in the near future.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Farmoor & Hartslock

On the day before we were all due to head off to Cornwall TW, Oxon's legendary walking birder, found a Bonaparte's Gull on Farmoor Reservoir. Now, whilst this wasn't a county tick for me, given the dearth of decent birds recently in the county I was pretty keen to see it. However, with the family in full preparing-for-holiday mode there wasn't really going to be time for me to nip out for a visit. Whilst we got on with our holiday preps gripping news kept coming out of it "showing well from the causeway" etc. and finally, with most of my packing done though still much to my VLW's disapproval, I caved in and went for it. I'd got no more than 5 minutes up the road when I got a phone call from Ian Lewington saying that it had just flown off high and could no longer be seen. I therefore aborted my attempt and headed back home to try to make amends for having left in mid pack. I've already blogged about my week in Cornwall where I followed the news distantly as the bird was reported for a day or two more before seemingly departing.

Back home the next week I was pootling about in my office on the bank holiday Monday when I got a call from DD saying that the bird was back at Farmoor and showing cripplingly well on the pontoon at the start of the causeway. Needing no further invitation I hurried off to take a look for myself. In the car park I met DD who said that it had flown off the pontoon when some fishermen had arrived there but that it hadn't gone far. On the causeway I soon found the bird, sitting fifty yards off shore feeding on flies. In fact there were only a handful of Black-headed Gulls left on the entire reservoir so it was pretty easy to find. I took a few digiscoped photos but at that distance they weren't great. After a while it came in really close right in front of the sailing huts and I was able to get some nice comparison shots with a Black-headed Gull as well as some video footage.

The Bonaparte's Gull with a Black-headed Gull for comparison

...and some video footage

The bird has been widely described as first summer though as Lee Evans mentioned to me when I met him subsequently, it doesn't have any sign of a hood so is perhaps more accurately still a first winter bird. Either way, it was great to see it so close up - easily the best views that I've had of this species to date.

Having had my fill of this Nearctic beauty I headed up the causeway to see what else I could find. There were three male Red-crested Pochards close in near the hide - they're always such striking birds. A White Wagtail also dropped in and posed nicely for me. I pootled around chatting to the various local birders who were popping in to pay homage to the Gull. After a while I headed back home to do a few chores for the rest of the morning.

Red-crested Pochard
This White Wagtail posed nicely on the causeway

As it was a bank holiday I didn't really want to do any work so that afternoon I decided to head off for a walk and to go and see one of the local floral specialities that is out at this time of year which I'd not seen before: the Pasque Flowers at Hartslock. I'd visited Hartslock last year in May with some of the family to see the Monkey Orchids as well as the Lady x Monkey hybrids but the Pasque Flowers had gone over by then so I'd made a mental note then to try and see them this year. So after lunch I headed off to Goring, parking up at the end of Manor Road as usual before walking on the familiar route along the Thames towards the hills I could see in the distance where Hartslock was sited. As very much a beginner botanist I kept stopping to look at things that I didn't recognise so my progress was often slow though fortunately there's not too much out yet at this time of year to distract me. 

Eygptian Goose, one of a pair feeding in one of the fields
Along the river I came across a clump of lovely white flowers which turned out to be Lodden Lily, also known as Summer Snowflake.

Loddon Lily
After a while the path turns inwards and away from the river and as I wandered along the track I listened to the spring warblers singing away from within the depths of the hedgerows. Eventually I got to the turn-off for Harslock and began the steep ascent up to the reserve itself.

At the Orchid area, a few were just starting to come up but it wasn't really possible to tell what they were. I'd been told that the Pasque flowers were further on beyond this area on the south-facing slopes and the helpful notice board there also showed where they were to be seen. So I headed off in that direction. By now the cloudy conditions had given way to bright sunshine and this had brought out several picnickers who were camped out at the top of the hillside. Indeed the warm spring sunshine seemed to have made the sap rise for one couple who were canoodling away on a blanket - I didn't know where to look!

I wandered about trying to find the Pasque flowers which should have been relatively easy as given the time of year there weren't many other flowers about at all with just a few of the Milkworts to be seen. I'd more or less assumed that they would be covering a large area but in the end when I finally stumbled across them they turned out to be located in a relatively small patch about two thirds of the way up the hill. Finally seeing them in the flesh, they were indeed very striking flowers and I seem to have caught them in full bloom. I took my time savouring their beauty and taking some photos.

Eventually I'd had my fill and was starting to think about heading back. Over by the Orchid area I thought that I'd have a more thorough look to see if I could find any that were out at all and eventually I came across a single one which was in flower. Luckily it turned out to be a Lady Orchid - the earliest to come out (late April) according to the notice board. I was particularly pleased about this because apparently last year there'd only been two of them on the whole site and they'd been either picked or eaten so hadn't been around when I'd visited.

You can see why they're called Lady Orchid - the flowers very much look like a lady in a dress with a bonnet or a big hair do!
Very pleased to have found these I started to head back to the car, deciding to go the more inland route through the fields, snapping flowers and watching the Swallows hawking over the crops as I went. As I drove home I reflected on what a pleasant day out it had been with a top county bird and some good flowers - what more could you want?

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Cornwall April 2017

Once again a compilation of my posts on a recent trip to Cornwall from my Pendeen Birding blog

Sunday 9th April
I'm back down in my beloved Cornwall for a family Easter holiday. We don't often get a chance to come down at this time of year because it's often booked up by holiday makers. However, this year as the cottage needs a fair bit of renovation we've decided not to let it out to the public but just to let friends and family have use of it instead. So this new regime meant that we were able to come down for the Easter period for the first time in years and with both girls back from University we were going to have the full complement of family members for this trip.

Our departure from Oxford was somewhat delayed by a last minute work crisis but finally at around midday we were on the road. Apart from heavy traffic at the start of the M5 the journey was uneventful and we arrived in Penzance mid afternoon for our customary tea and shop at Sainsbury's before heading over towards the cottage. Whilst we'd left Oxford in glorious sunshine and scorching temperatures (for spring at least) the forecast for the far South West was some ten degrees less than Oxford so we were pleasantly surprised to find that it was actually quite warm and sunny though with a bit of a breeze that was keeping the edge off the temperatures.

As we turned into the cottage drive a large moth flew across the road - I'm guessing that it was a Hummingbird Hawkmoth though I couldn't be certain. We unpacked the car and booted up the cottage before heading out for a walk down to the lighthouse to stretch our legs. A small Chat was sitting on the wall as we walked down towards the lighthouse gate which flicked over the wall as we approached revealing the striking red tail of a Black Redstart. Whilst the others soon headed back to the cottage I lingered a bit and managed some better views (and a photo) for my troubles.

The Black Redstart eventually obliged me with a post-top photo
I also scored a bonus singing Stonechat
We had a quiet evening in at the cottage with just a quick bonus excursion down to the lighthouse again at dusk though it had got rather cold by then so we didn't linger.

10th April - Tregeseal, Cot & Marazion
The weather forecast for today was for cooler breezier conditions and this was indeed what we awoke to with a rather stiff northerly wind making conditions distinctly chilly despite the lovely sunshine that prevailed for much of the day. It was a bit of a shame as yesterday there'd been a few new birds in the county with a second Penwith Woodchat Shrike turning up as well as a Nanjizal Wryneck. However, sadly a northerly wind was rather going to put the kaibosh on any further drift migrant action.

Today we were going to get cracking with some of our DIY tasks but before I kunckled down to it I decided to start the day by looking for Woodchat Shrikes nearby in the St Just area. One has been gracing the hedgerows south of the Cot valley for several days now but as I mentioned above, a second bird was discovered yesterday in Tregeseal and as that was slightly easier to get to I decided to start off with this one first. This location was actually one that I wasn't familiar with so I did a bit of asking around yesterday evening before eventually learning that the bird had been seen off the long track that leads to the vicarage that lies on New Road to the south of Tregeseal itself. I didn't bother starting too early so it wasn't until around 9:30 that I arrived and parked up in a convenient layby near the start of the drive. As I was getting ready a nearby dog walker told me where the Shrike had been located yesterday which reassured me that I was at least at the right spot. I spent some twenty minutes working my way back and forth along the drive though there weren't that many hiding places for a Shrike there and there was no sign of it at all. I therefore soon gave up on this bird and decided to try for the long-staying Cot bird instead. I nipped over to the Cot valley and parked by the power sub-station before yomping across the stream, up past the Youth Hostel and up the steps that lead up to the footpath across the bulb fields. The bird was supposedly located near the junction between the first and second fields and as I approached I could see another birder working his way across the field though he was at the far end of the field by the time I arrived and he did't seem to be watching anything so I decided to try and find it for myself. A quick scan and I spotted the bird briefly in the hedges bordering the fields to the seaward side of the field that I was on. I set up my scope and fortunately it soon posed nicely on some bare branches enabling me to take some digiscoped photos of it.

The Woodchat Shrike

This was just my third ever Woodchat Shrike, though with all three of them having been seen in Cornwall it wasn't any kind of tick other than a year one - still they're always nice birds to see. I didn't have the luxury of spending too long watching it though as I was all too aware that my VLW would already be cracking on with the DIY and it wasn't fair to have her shoulder all the burden of the work. Therefore with some photos in the can I hurried back to the car and back to the cottage where I spent the rest of the morning sanding down a wooden bench ready for painting.

By the end of the morning the bench had been sanded but I had a bit of a headache from using the power sander for such a long time so I wandered down to the  lighthouse to clear my head and to see if I could find the Black Redstart from yesterday. In the stiff breeze there wasn't much to be seen apart from a female Stonechat and a couple of Dunnocks and there was no sign of the Redstart. The two Ravens were about as usual but there were no Chough about at all -  I presume that they're off breeding somewhere else at this time of year.

Back at base, we had lunch and then planned what to do for the afternoon. As we needed to do some shopping we decided in the end to head over to Marazion and to do our usual wander along the beach for tea somewhere. There was remarkably little bird life on the beach as we walked - I'm more used to the winter months where there are good numbers of waders and gulls but the shoreline was nearly deserted. We had some tea in the Godolphin Arms overlooking the Mount and I managed to spot a passing Sandwich Tern out of the window as we sat there. Then it was back to the car and a short hop to Sainsbury's for some shopping before we headed back to the cottage for the evening.

Fortunately the forecast is for much calmer conditions tomorrow though it will still not be that warm. Let's hope that the drop in wind will be enough to encourage more drift migrant action.

11th April: Pendeen, Kenidjack to Pendeen

Today we awoke to glorious weather. Yesterday's insidious northerly wind had subsided and there was just a gentle breeze and wonderful hazy sunshine. Indeed so inspired was I by the weather that I decided to have a wander around the Patch to see what I could find. Down by The Old Count House I found a Willow Warbler in the garden, looking rather dazed from it's recent migration efforts. Despite careful looking I could find no sign of the Black Redstart by the lighthouse though there was the usual Stonechat and lots of Linnets. Indeed Linnets were everywhere this morning and their twittering song could be heard nearly constantly. I found another Willow Warbler back in the cottage garden and down the coastal path there were more Stonechats and Linnets but nothing else of note.

Linnet - very much the bird of the moment down by the Watch
I returned to find that in my absence my VLW had been getting on with sorting out the damp in a window whilst I'd been out and about. Therefore, I dutifully got on with various tasks about the cottage and we got the garden furniture out for the summer and checked that it was OK. Whilst working I noticed that there was a steady movement of Swallows and Sand Martins overhead. They were either coming in off the sea directly or working their way up the coast but the passage was nearly constant all morning. I scanned the flocks carefully, looking out for a Red-rumped interloper in amongst them but sadly couldn't find one. Still it was heart-warming to think that these little birds had been the other side of the channel only this morning and had taken advantage of the abatement of yesterday's north wind to cross the sea to be with us once more.

The weather was so nice that we had lunch out in the garden before decided to take advantage of what was probably going to be the best day of the week to enjoy a coastal walk in the afternoon. So after lunch we headed up the hill and caught the bus to St Just. There, we nipped into the Co-op to buy some ice creams and snacks before heading off towards Kenidjack along the Boscean road. The lne was lined with Alexanders with Greater Stitchwort and Common Dog Violets hidden away like jewels in amongst the prevailing green. The sun was warm and there were Rabbits in the fields - it was all very spring-like.

Greater Stitchwort
Down in Kenidjack there were loads of Chiffchaff all singing away. There was also a soaring Buzzard overhead but little else of note. With the Gorse in full flower at the moment it all looked gorgeous. We went to say hello to the two donkeys there who were both looking very healthy, Then it was up the hill to the old rifle range where we stopped for a snack. We ambled along the coastal path back towards Pendeen, chatting and admiring the scenery and flowers. There was't the same passage of Hirundines here as there had been at Pendeen though I did see a couple of House Martins come in with a pair of Swallows. There were loads of Stonechats to be seen as we walked: I must have counted at least 6 males along the route.

One of many Stonechats
At Geevor, I scoured the unworldly landscape carefully as one can almost guarantee a Wheatear here and sure enough I found one sitting quietly on a rock and looking frankly exhausted. It allowed close approach so I took some quick photos and then left it to recuperate. I also spotted a Rock Pipit in the same area but that was about it. 

Geevor Wheatear
We were on the home stretch now and arrived back at Pendeen late afternoon for a very welcome cup of tea. 

I found this Spring Squill by the path between Geevor and Pendeen
Whilst the others put their feet up I went for a final ramble down to the lighthouse. On the way I spotted a couple of Jackdaws sitting on the back of one of the cows, plucking hair off it back and then flying over towards the cliffs, presumably to line their nests; the cow didn't seem to mind. Down at the lighthouse it was all quiet and there was once again no sign of the Black Redstart so I'm assuming that it's now gone. Back at the cottage after a meal, we were all rather tired after our walk so we settled in for a quiet evening and then an early night.

This Pheasant has been around all week though usually I only hear it rather than see it

12th April: Drift Reservoir
After yesterday's glorious weather it was back to chilly northerly winds again. There were periods of sunshine which meant that in the sheltered spots it actually felt quite warm but, when exposed, the wind really took the edge off things. There was no real plan for today so we pottered about doing more DIY tasks at the cottage. I carried on sanding and painting the bench that I was working on and my VLW worked on her windows whilst our two daughters did their Uni work inside. On a break I did have a wander around Pendeen but there was nothing of note.

Come the afternoon we were ready to head out somewhere. With some of the others wanting to head over to Penzance to look at the shops I offered to drive them over and then do something myself before picking them up again. With little on offer anywhere on the Penwith peninsula in the end I opted for a walk down to the hide at Drift reservoir to see if I could find the long-staying Pink-footed Goose that was there. I arrived to find the wind barrelling down the length of the reservoir though in the sheltered spots it was rather pleasant. There were a few Willow Warblers, Chiffchaff and a single Blackcap all singing away along the shoreline and I did a bit of botanising as I wandered along.

Wood Sorrel
In the sanctuary of the hide it was rather pleasant though looking out through the slots there was precious little to see with just four Gadwall, a smattering of Mallard and a few loafing gulls in the middle. A few Sand Martins started to come in and numbers gradually increased until there were about 30 hawking over the water. I'd read reports of 10 times that number having been seen the previous day so they're obvious stopping off to feed before working their way up the county.

Opposite-leaved (Golden) Saxifrage
I could have stayed in the hide for some time though with time marching on it wasn't a practical option and I started to head back to the car, disturbing a Common Sandpiper as I walked back along the shore. Then it was back over to PZ to pick up the others and then to head back over the hill to Pendeen.

Even the resident Muskovy Duck wasn't impressed with things today

Common Vetch

13th April: Pendeen
We had a very quiet day in Pendeen today. The weather was still dry with sunny intervals but with the chilly northerly wind that meant that I sought out the sheltered side of the cottage for painting my bench outside. I did have a quick wander around the Patch in the morning and met up with JL who was scanning the area from the top of the the cliffs as is her wont. She reported a few Manxies going through and a couple of Stock Doves but little else of note. For my own part I couldn't find anything of particular interest. 

There's always a Stonechat to photograph down in Cornwall

After lunch we couldn't agree on what to do. I'd received a text from P&H that morning saying that there were several Ring Ouzels at Buttermilk Hill so I tried to persuade the rest of the family that they wanted to head over towards St Ives but I couldn't get anyone else interested. So in the end we decided to walk over to Geevor to have tea at the café there (now that Heathers has gone). By way of some variety we walked across country along the footpath towards Lower Boscaswell rather than along the coastal path. The tea and cake there was reasonably good. I even had some carrot cake, which used to be a weakness of mine before I went gluten free. I paid the price afterwards with about half an hour of indigestion but it was good cake so on balance it was worth it. We walked back via the village and popped up to the church where the churchyard was looking lovely with a sea of primroses surrounding the church. Then it was back down the road and back to the cottage where we settled in for the evening.

I found this Slender Speedwell in the playground at Pendeen. It's not a species that I've come across back in Oxon but I subsequently found it in a few other places in Cornwall
14th April: Trengwainton
The next day was similarly low key. As it was our last full day here we pottered around the cottage, finishing off our respective DIY tasks. In a quick wander about the Patch I did manage to spot a Peregrine flying away down the valley briefly but that was about it. In the afternoon we headed over to Trengwainton gardens for their Easter Egg Hunt day which the children were keen to do. We'd not visited there before but the gardens were lovely with a wonderful overgrown and unkempt feel. I managed to hear a couple of Nuthatches piping away in the woods - quite a rare bird for the Penwith area and which I've only seen before in the county at Golitha Falls. The Trengwainton café turned out to be superb with a great range of gluten free cakes and scones so we spent quite some time there before eventually heading back to the cottage to start packing up.

I didn't bring my moth trap down with me but this Early Thorn came to the porch light this evening

15th April: Back Home
On Saturday it was time the usual laborious packing up process. As usual it took far longer than we expected and things were further delayed when we were just about to leave Penzance only to realise that we'd left something behind so it was back to Pendeen once more. Finally at around midday we were properly on the way. Our journey back was uneventful and the roads were mercifully free from traffic so we made good time, arriving back in time for afternoon tea.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Durham Run, March 2017

It was time to fetch Daughter #1 back down from Durham again. I thought that I'd more or less weaned my two daughters off relying on me for a Uni taxi service but it seems that there's been a bit of a relapse. Anyway, in the weeks leading up to the trip I was keeping a keen eye on birdy goings-on up in the North East. Naturally, the number one target on which I was fixating up there had been the long-staying Pine Bunting just outside York. This would be a lifer for me and seemed to be being seen fairly regularly each day so I was keeping my fingers firmly crossed that it would linger long enough for me to see it. However, it was not to be: exactly a week before my departure it was reported first thing on Saturday morning but not ever again. What's more, on Bird Forum someone said that they saw a Sparrowhawk fly into the hedge where the Bunting was sitting and then fly out again with a bird in its talons so it's possible that it was taken in this way. Anyway, whatever happened to it, it wasn't going to be an option for me so I had to re-set my targets for the trip. In the end I decided on the very long-staying Easter Black Redstart at Skinningrove in Cleveland. Whilst this is officially only a sub-species of our own Black Redstart, it is generally considered that this is a rather poor classification and it should really be split. Moreover, even if it didn't represent a tick for me (I'd seen the one at Mousehole right on the last day of last year anyway), they were always such lovely looking birds to see. What's more, due to on-going problems sleeping I didn't have a great deal of energy to go running after some half chance bird sightings so something nailed down and certain and fairly close to Durham would very much suit my purposes. So with that in mind, on Saturday morning at around 9 a.m. I set off on the long slog up north. The traffic wasn't too bad and with the radio for company gradually the miles slipped away on the familiar route northwards until at junction 49 I turned off the M1 towards Thirsk and fired up the Sat Nav. This took me along increasingly small roads into the rather featureless countryside of the area. I recognised some bits from previous trips to the area as I drove along. Eventually the Sat Nav took me off the main road onto a minor road leading towards the parking area at the mouth of the Skinningrove Beck as it spilled out onto the beach. As I tooled up I surveyed the rather bleak coastal scenery there: in the overcast conditions it was all rather austere and grim though mercifully underneath the lowering cliffs we were nicely sheltered from the prevailing biting westerly winds.

The rather austere and grim northern coastline at Skinningrove
Pleased finally to be out of the car I walked the hundred yards or so along the coastal path towards the jetty which was home for the winter to the Eastern Blck Redstart, looking at the scenery and coastal flora as I went.

Reflexed Stonecrop - a naturalised garden escape, growing in the car park

There was quite a lot of Coltsfoot growing next to the path 
There were some loafing gulls and Oystercatchers down on the beach to my right and I gave them a quick scan but there was nothing of note.  A perky Stonechat posed nicely on some rocks just before I reached the jetty, enough to tempt me to get out my camera though the lighting was terrible.

Perky Stonechat
I soon reached the jetty, rather familiar to me thanks to the blog posts of previous visitors. There were a couple of other birders wandering about and clearly not looking at anything in particular so I went over to chat. It turned out that they'd not seen the bird so far though they'd not been around that long. As it had been reported "still present" on RBA morning I wasn't particularly worried about it, feeling confident that it would turn up in due course. 

The Skinningrove jetty, home to the Eastern Black Redstart
I wandered along the base of the jetty keeping a careful look-out for movement. A few Rock Pipits were kicking about and my first Wheatear of the year turned up, posing on top of the jetty for a while before heading up into the imposing cliffs behind us where nest-building Fulmars were circling, their cries a constant backdrop to the scene.

My first Wheatear of the year
After I while I noticed that one of the birders had wandered along the beach a bit and was looking at something intently on the sand by the strand-line, quite close to him. I looked over with my bins: "was that a Shorelark he was looking at?" I mused. I hurried over to find that a lovely first winter Snow Bunting was hopping about close by, in the confiding manner that is so typical of this species. I spent some time taking photos of this charming bird.

First winter Snow Bunting
Suddenly a bit of movement in the Sallows behind the Bunting caught the eye of the other birder who exclaimed "I've got the Redstart" and sure enough there it was skulking around in the middle of the Sallows and sitting on top of a sand dune. Relieved, we watched and waited for it to come out into the open a bit more.

After a while it duly obliged and posed quite nicely though the light was still terrible. It even sang for us and I manged to capture a bit of video with it singing.

Then suddenly, it flew off back towards the jetty area where I'd originally been expecting it. I wandered back over there and with a bit of patience it soon came nice and close where I was able to get some better photos.

...posing nicely by the jetty
When it flew off again back towards the Sallows I decided that I'd had enough and wandered back towards the car. I'd not got any definite plans after having seen this bird other than making my way over to my daughter's place in time for the kick-off of the rugby between England and Ireland at 5 p.m. For England there was quite a bit at stake: not only would it make back-to-back Six Nations grand slams but it would also be the record for the number of consecutive wins for any rugby nation, a title which England currently jointly held with New Zealand. Ireland on the other hand would relish the opportunity to piss on England's parade so I was expecting a tense match. On the birding front I had done some research and had unearthed some Lapland Buntings nearby though as they'd not been reported all week they were a long shot. So in the end I decided to head over towards Durham and just to nip into a nearby local reserve at Rainton Meadows just to see what it was like. I'd only got to hear about the reserve when a Snow Bunting was reported there the previous day but looking on their web site I'd seen a nice photo of a Yellow Star-of-Bethlehem flower posted there so I thought that I'd go to see if I could find it. The Sat Nav took me there easily enough though I'd seen on their web page that the site closed some time after 4 p.m. so I didn't have a great deal of time. In the event I arrived at a little after half past three. I quickly went to find out where I might find this flower only to discover that the Wildlife Trust reception was shut at the weekend and there was no one to ask. In the end I decided just to have a quick wander about and went over to look at the nearby bird hide which overlooked some pools, There were just a few bits and pieces on the pools, nothing of note and no sign of any Buntings so I headed back to the car. 

Back at the car park I heard some chirping in the bushes that was just sufficiently different from House Sparrow to have me wondering about Tree Sparrow instead and sure enough I soon found quite a few of them lurking in the bushes. As this is sadly quite a rarity in Oxfordshire these days I spent a little while trying to take some snaps of them though in the gloomy and fading light it wasn't easy.

Tree Sparrows are relatively common up in the North East
Then it was over to Durham to veg out with my daughter. We watched the rugby whilst eating take-out pizza. It was a tense match as predicted and Ireland managed to shut England out of the game to take a well-deserved win. Shame about the record but you couldn't but admire Ireland's passion. Actually my daughter, who has Irish citizenship thanks to my VLW's father, was supporting Ireland anyway so at least one of us came away happy. As she and her boyfriend were going out to the cinema that evening I soon left and headed back to the car and up the motorway again to my lodgings for the night. This was an Air B'nB place in Washington, part of the vast urban sprawl that surrounds the Tyne area. The Sat Nav took me straight there and I was soon chatting away to my hostess for the night, a very talkative and friendly lady who was soon filling me in on all the details of her life. At around 10 p.m. I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer and headed up to bed for the night.

The next morning, after as good a night as one can expect when sleeping away from home I grabbed a quick breakfast and headed out the door. My daughter wanted to get back home relatively quickly to catch up with Daughter #2 who was down chez nous for the weekend before heading back to Swansea University for a few more weeks. I just had one bird target lined up for this morning which was a few Waxwings that had yesterday been reported quite close by to where I was staying so I thought that I'd go and take a look. After stopping off for petrol I was soon doing the Waxwing curb crawl down a quiet residential cul-de-sac in Oxclose. I couldn't obviously seen any of them so I parked up half way down and searched the area again on foot. Eventually I found a total of three of these beauties, hiding in a small tree and feeding unusually surreptitiously for Waxwings. Instead of sitting on a lofty perch before making a sortie into the berries, these three were just sitting quietly in their tree and feeding away. It was quite hard to get a decent photo as they were well bedded down in the centre of the tree but eventually I got a good line of sight to one of them and was able to get off some shots though the bird was in deep shade so I had to crank up the exposure.

The last of the winter Waxwings
With the Waxwings in the bag I headed back onto the motorway on the short hop down to Durham. There I met up with my daughter (and the boy friend whom I finally got to meet - he seemed very nice) and we loaded the car up with her bags. Then it was back onto the motorway for the long slog home. I caught up on her news as we drove down, stopped off to pick up some lunch and then listened to the radio as the miles slipped by. Eventually at around 1:30 p.m. we arrived back, in time for our two daughters to catch up with each other before #2 had to head off again. 

Reflecting on the trip, it had been a fairly low key trip up north but at this time of year it was only to be expected. Still it had been nice to see my second Eastern Black Redstart (which is still a massive rarity in this country) and with a modest supporting cast it had been a pleasant enough trip.