Sunday, 14 December 2014

More Northern Birding

Readers may recall that back in October I took our eldest daughter up to Durham for her first term at University and how on the way back I'd managed to see the Spurn Masked Shrike and a bonus Little Bunting and Richard's Pipit. Time has since flown by and now that term had come to an end it was time to go and fetch her back down again. Of course we could have told her to come back on the train but I had really enjoyed getting to know the north east and was hoping that I could repeat the successful birding of the first trip. In the weeks leading up to the end of her term I'd been keeping an eye on what was around and could only watch in frustration as first an Isabelline Wheatear and then a Kashmir (Eastern) Black Redstart (both very much en route) came and went. However, on the Monday of the week that I was due to head up a Blyth's Pipit was found in about as en route a spot as one could get: literally two minutes off the M1. It had been found in a highly unlikely spot, that being a boggy field in a business park. Quite how anyone managed to find it is a miracle but fortunately the bird seemed to like the spot and was sticking around. As each day passed and the bird was still there I was getting more optimistic and as it was still there the day before I was heading up and was being seen regularly I felt that I was in with a good chance and started to plan my itinerary accordingly. From reading up on Bird Forum it was apparent that as the field had too much cover, the local birders were staging "organised searches" (i.e. flushes) for the bird twice a day to try and minimise the impact of hundreds of twitchers independently searching for it and tramping about everywhere. From what I read this approach seemed to be working well and the bird didn't seem to mind as it kept faithful to the same field the whole time. With the flushes scheduled for 9:30 and 12:00 I decided to set off some time after 8am to make sure that I would be there with plenty of time before the second flush. Thus it was on the Friday morning I guided the Gnome mobile out into the morning rush hour traffic and headed up north.

It was a three hour journey to get to junction 39 of the M1 at Wakefield though fortunately even at this time of day the traffic wasn't too bad and I made steady progress. Having learnt from my previous trip I decided to minimise my time on the actual M1 itself because of the many extended speed restricted sections so chose to head up the M40/M42/A42 route past Birmingham, joining the motorway at junction 23. This all worked out fine and with nice sunny (though very cold) weather and news already out that the bird was still there (having been seen at the first flush) I enjoyed a very pleasant journey with Radio 4 to keep me company. It wasn't until I was nearly there that news came through on RBA that the second flush was now brought forward to 11am. Curses! My ETA was going to be 11:10 a.m. - what rotten luck! I spurred on the Gnome mobile a little faster and sped northwards to see if I could shave a few minutes off the remaining journey.

I arrived as predicted at about 10 minutes after 11 a.m. Having done some research the night before on Street View I knew that there was a small lay by right next to the field with enough room for two cars. By some miracle this was free and I was able to park right next to the field by the end of the line of twitchers who were standing on the raised bank at the side of the field. I jumped out of the car and asked the nearest birder whether I'd missed the second flush. I was extremely relieved to be told that as the bird had shown voluntarily a short while back there hadn't been a second flush yet. Thankfully I got myself ready in all my warm clothing and joined the other birders looking at the field.

The Blyth's Field - a rather unlikely spot for such a Mega bird
Apparently the bird had flown down in front of some Willow Trees on the far side of the field. The grass there varied greatly in size with clumps up to a metre tall so it was going to be impossible to see the bird when it was on the ground - I could well understand the need for occasional "organised searches" now. A few Meadow Pipits were in the trees but nothing else. Time went by, a few Cormorants would occasionally fly over and the Meadow Pipits moved about distantly but it was hard to make much out. There were a total of about fifty birders present on the site and by watching the other people I soon began to work out which ones were the local birders: they were generally hanging back and chatting rather than looking out over the field. There seemed to be some discussion going on and I guessed that they were discussing when to do the next flush. About an hour after I'd arrived they seemed to decide that the time was ripe for another go and a selected few lined up along the top end of the field. We were told to stand about half way down opposite the trees in case the bird flew up into them but that if the walkers got as far as the trees without any success then we should follow them as they walked down the field. Accordingly I positioned myself opposite the trees and awaited the start of the flush.

The Flush Line preparing for action
There was no luck in the first half so we followed the line as it worked its way down the field. About two thirds of the way along various Pipits flew up distantly and headed off to the bottom of the field. One or two of the flushers were pointing towards the far corner though I must admit I hadn't really seen anything that I could safely say was a larger pipit: they'd all been too far away really. The voyeurs and the flushers assembled at the bottom of the field where a couple of Meadow Pipits could be seen in the boundary ditch and one of the flushers said that the Blyth's was probably at the corner of this ditch. Whilst the watchers waited at the end, the flushers went around to the far corner and worked their way back towards us, duly putting up all the Pipits again. This time I was standing next to one of the locals who called out the bird as the flock flew back towards us and then back into the field and I got a brief view of it in flight. Many of the twitchers started to leave at this point - presumably they'd had several previous views before I'd arrived and were satisfied. I however had only had a view of a few seconds so I joined the now much smaller group back on the side of the field to watch where it had come down. A few of the locals were walking back along the far side of the field and they soon put it up again where again I got some more flight views, clearly a large Pipit this time and it went down right in the near corner of the field, comparatively close to us. The remaining group moved over to this corner to see if we could see it on the deck but the grass was just as thick and impenetrable. A few locals who were still on the field moved closer and once again the bird went up, this time flying several times back and forth right in front of us, giving superb close flight views. I could clearly see the larger size, the relatively unstreaked belly and the rather strong bill as it flew past not more than 20 or 30 yards in front of us. It eventually flew back to the middle of the field and landed once more, again out of sight. 

One of a number of great photos of the bird taken by Graham Catley (c). See his great blog for more shots
By now I'd felt that I'd had about as good a view as I was going to get and started to head back to the car. The other remaining birders must have felt the same as suddenly the whole place was empty of birders with just two people left standing on the bank. The locals were all drifting away, happy that they had satisfied the visiting twitchers and that the bird could now be left in peace to feed for the rest of the day. There has been some debate on Bird Forum about the welfare of the bird, given all this harassement: after all I'd seen it kicked up four times in the space of about 15 minutes. In my experience Pipits don't really seem that bothered by all this: if they're really getting fed up they'd just fly off somewhere else and this bird really seemed to like this field. What's more having just two periods of flushing per day was a good compromise leaving it with plenty of other time to feed away. A good common-sense solution all round.

Anyway, I'd seen my bird and it was now 1pm. There wasn't anything else that I wanted to stop off at so I texted my daughter saying that I should be up there with her in less than a couple of hours so we could go out and grab some tea. I had a quick bite to eat from my lunch box whilst I warmed up again in the car and then steered the Gnome mobile back out onto the M1 and headed up north towards Durham, arriving more or less as predicted at a bit before 3pm. Durham itself consists of a small peninsula on a hill surrounded by the River Wear on three sides with the castle and many of the colleges crammed in on narrow but very pretty cobbled streets. I parked in the underground parking lot just at the bottom of the hill and soon rendezvous'd with my daughter half way up the hill. We then passed a very pleasant couple of hours catching up over some very nice tea and cake at her favourite tea shop (there are loads in Durham, nearly every other shop is a tea shop there). Then we wandered back to her tiny student room and chatted some more and I borrowed her computer to work out how to get to my B&B for the night. As there'd not been anything else of interest in the area I'd decided to have a crack at one of the local specialities up in this area, namely Black Grouse, which could be found up on the Durham moors in the west of the county. I'd therefore booked a small B&B in a village just on the edge of the moors for the night. After saying good bye to my daughter and arranging to meet up again next morning I headed off on the three quarters of an hour journey westwards to my B&B. There I settled down for the evening, munching on some food, watching telly and just chilling out. It had been a successful journey upwards but now I was very tired and by 10 pm I was crashed out in my comfortable bed.

The next morning after a nice cooked breakfast I stepped out into the frosty and icy world that greeted me outside the B&B. As we were down in a valley the sun hadn't reached us yet and it was very cold and rather dark but I was assuming that up on the moors it would be much brighter. I headed up the narrow single-track road that lead out of the village and up onto the moorland, being very thankful for ABS and four wheel drive and taking it very slowly in the icy conditions. I was soon up on the moor top where everything was covered with snow. Whilst it was only a few inches deep it covered everything as far as the eye could see, it really was spectacular and I was thinking that my outing was worth it just for these views alone.

Snowy moorland
Up on the tops of the moorland I started to see the odd Grouse flying about. First a couple of Black Grouse and then a few smaller Red Grouse though none were very close to the car and mostly I only saw them in flight. At the far end the moorland road joined up with a larger road as it headed towards a small hamlet. Here I found a Hawthorn tree full of female Black Grouse all precariously balancing on the flimsy branches and gorging themselves on the berries.

A tree full of Black Grouse
They seemed quite unperturbed by my presence as I sat in the car on the opposite side of the road and watched them. The sun was just coming up over the hill and the topmost birds were starting to be bathed in a lovely golden glow as they clambered around clumsily in the tree. I found another bird on its own in a neighbouring tree which allowed for a better photographic opportunity.

A hen Black Grouse looking very nice with its cryptic plumage
After a while I realised that time was marching on and I started to head back the way that I'd come, though I had to stop almost immediately to look at a smart male in a tree by the road.

A nice fat Black Cock, perhaps a first winter bird
Then it was back over the moors, stopping briefly for a Grouse that was posing by the side of the road, and then onto the main road back towards Durham, arriving some three quarters of an hour later back at the city. The underground car park that I'd used yesterday had cars queuing for it all down the street so instead I followed my nose down a side street on the other side of the river where I soon found some metered parking. I parked up and walked the short distance back into town (everything is nearby in Durham - it's so small) where I met up with my daughter and a friend of hers who also lived in Oxford and who wanted a lift home. We packed their things into the car and then went back to buy some sandwiches for the journey before finally setting off at around midday.

I wish I could say that the journey was uneventful but there were a couple of minor incidents to report: firstly I managed to cock up my navigation a little, missing my turn-off onto the M18 and found myself on the A1 heading south towards Nottingham. Now whilst I could go this way I preferred my tried and tested M/A42 route so I worked my way back towards the M1. We'd no sooner re-joined the motorway when all the traffic ground to a halt because of an accident so we came off at the next junction and headed towards Derby hoping to work our way down to the A42 from there. Another bit of navigational incompetence and I found myself instead eventually on the A38 heading towards Wolverhampton. We eventually joined the M6 Toll Road and were back on course, arriving about an hour late in the end. After dropping off the friend (in exchange for a nice bottle of champagne from the grateful parent who'd been spared the trip up north) we headed back home where I collapsed into the bosom of my family for a reviving cup of tea and a chance finally to relax after a long couple of days. 

It had been another successful birding excursion up north. So far that's two Mega's out of two trips to Durham - can I keep it up? Only time will tell though as I'm due to take her back up there in about a month's time I have my finger's firmly crossed for some more quality birds. I can't wait.

A final Black Grouse in the snow

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