Monday, 16 March 2015

Up North for the Dregs of Winter

I was due to head up north again to fetch Daughter number 1 back down from University. It's amazing how quickly this has come around already- it seems like only a week or two ago that I was dropping her off. As regular readers will know by now, I like to combine my trips north with a spot of birding in the area and accordingly a couple of weeks before I am due to go I start keeping an eye of what's about up there. Of course, often what I'm keeping note of decides to leave before I head off and I could only watch in frustration as the Northumberland Black Scoter and Ross's Goose both chose to do a bunk in the days leading up to my departure. This left me rather scratching around for things to see and to make matters worse, I'd been feeling a bit under the weather the last few days, fighting off a rather persistent cold that was trying to take hold. I therefore decided to keep the birding light and as untiring as possible so I picked out a few birds of local interest that would involve the least amount of deviation from the basic route north to Durham and which would also involve a minimal amount of slogging around on site. With it being March, back down in Oxon my thoughts were very much turning to spring but it seemed that the only birds on offer in the north east were still winter birds.

With my itinerary cobbled together the night before my departure, on Friday morning I hastily put in a booking request on AirB&B and some time after 9 a.m. I set off on the now familiar route north. My first stop very much fulfilled my criteria of minimal deviation from the route being a mere two stops on the M62 off the M1. Thus it was that at around midday I pulled up in the rather unlikely site of an industrial estate near Normanton in West Yorkshire where a drake American Wigeon had been lingering in a pond opposite the police station for a while now. I parked up on a side road and walked for a couple of minutes to get to a vantage point by the side of the road which overlooked a distant small lake about 300 yards away. A quick scan with the scope soon found the bird, in with a couple of dozen Wigeon, a few Tufted Duck and a couple of Oystercatchers. I took a quick bit of video footage in order to get a record shot grab. Job done, one out of one so far and I headed back to the car.

Record shot of the American Wigeon
My next target was another hour up the motorway so I carried on north heading towards Darlington, not a place that I'd ever visited before but four Waxwings had been reported there each morning in the city centre for the last week or so. Now I was going to get there early afternoon and I had no idea whether they'd been there at that time of day. What's more, when I'd done some pre-trip research on Streetview I couldn't for the life of me see any suitable bushes where Waxwings might hang out so I was just hoping that it would all become clear when I got there. It was a bit of a punt and this was the en route target that I had least faith in but as it was a small deviation from my chosen route I thought that I'd give it a go. At the very least I'd be able to tick off Darlington which was a town that I'd not previously visited.

I arrived at the location to find that the local car park was completely full. I drove around for a bit and in the end decided to park briefly in a Disabled spot right next to the location. Keeping a wary eye on the car I wandered around to see if I could find the birds. The RBA instructions had been clear on it being at the junction between two roads which was where I was but there were no berries in sight. Perhaps they were just roosting in the two big trees there I wondered. I kept wandering around in frustration without success until a traffic warden stopped by my car. At that point I hurried back to the car, mumbled my apologies and decided to leave. All in all a bit of a waste of time. I'd hadn't really had much of a chance to look around Darlington but I hadn't got a particularly good vibe from the little that I'd seen. So with the score now at one from two I headed onwards.

Next it was on to an area that I visited last time I was up, namely the strange industrial wasteland that is Teeside. I thought that I'd continue my American duck theme and try for a Green-winged Teal that had been resident at one of the pools there not far from the RSPB Saltholme reserve where I'd seen the Long-eared Owls last time. The Sat Nav took me on some rather tricky navigation until I started to recognise the rather bleak industrial and almost post-apocalyptic landscape from last time. I turned off on a road that lead to a large chemical refinery and started to look for the track that lead off to Dorman's Pool, one of the many pools that dotted the landscape here. Eventually I found it and piloted the Gnome mobile along a bumpy track to what I presumed was the "north car park" mentioned in the RBA reports. There I found another car with a birder in it, sporting a large camera and listening to the cricket on his car radio. I asked about the Teal and he said that it was on the far pool (a good 500 yards away) and there was another car park back near the road. I was sure that the RBA report had said this car park so thanked him and set up my scope anyway. A quick scan in the distance soon found a few Pintail, Gadwall and three Teal, one of which was the Green-winged. Result! I took some record shot video and watched it for a few minutes. The other birder then told me that one could get along the bank of the other pool from the other car park so I thought that I'd go and take a look.

Back at the other car park I parked up and thought about whether I could really be bothered to slog my way over there in order to get better Teal views. Sure it had been nice to see the Teal but I was feeling tired now and I didn't really want to push myself given my delicate state of health. Instead I supped on a cup of tea from my thermos and thumbed my way through the RBA reports for the north east just in case there was anything of note. A report of a Snow Goose at Saltholme RSPB soon caught my eye. From my research I knew that that was fresh in today and was literally no more than 200 yards from where I was parked. What's more they had a café, definitely much better than traipsing around for a few more distant Teal views. I fired up the Gnome mobile and a couple of minutes later I was pulling in at the Saltholme car park. At the reception I was told that the goose was still about and that it could even be seen from the café upstairs. A quick look upstairs and yes indeed I could make out a white goose blob in amongst the brown Canada Goose blobs on the far side of the main pool. I decided to head over to get a better look and in under ten minutes I was looking out over a field where a very fine Snow Goose was feeding away with the Canadas.

The Snow Goose
Of course there was the usual question as to whether it was wild or not. It wasn't ringed and the feathers looked in perfect condition but who knows. If it leaves fairly soon then that will certainly help its case. Anyway, it was nice to see and made up for the Northumbrian Ross's Goose that had departed last week. I headed back to the visitor centre where I managed to score a cup of tea and a flapjack just before the café shut. I sat sipping my tea and looking out over the pool feeling content though rather tired. I'd scored two out of three targets with a bonus goose to make up for my Waxwing miss. 

I had one more bird lined up but it was getting late now and frankly I was too tired. What's more I wanted something to do tomorrow morning before the long drive home and my daughter wouldn't be ready until mid morning anyway so I decided instead to head over to the B&B. Some twenty minutes later I pulled up in a rather run-down small village in the middle of no where but only about twenty minutes from Durham city centre. These old colliery villages are symptomatic of a sad decline in the prosperity of many parts of the north east and have a decidedly impoverished air about them. There I got settled into my comfortable room and rested for a while reading on my Kindle. Then I gave my daughter a call and arranged to meet up for dinner in Durham. A quick twenty minute drive later and  we were enjoying a nice pizza and a catch-up on her news before she went off to pack and I headed back to the B&B feeling very tired by now. By 10:30 I was fast asleep, exhausted from a long day of driving and birding.

I slept well and the next morning over breakfast I had a chat with my hostess who turned out to be the number one world authority on the Polemonium plant group (common name "Jacob's Ladder" I think I'm right in saying). She'd done her thesis on it and had since travelled the world collecting samples which she now grew here in her cottage. It's a shame that at this time of year I couldn't have seen the flowers as with my new found flower interest I'd have been keen to take a look - another time perhaps. With a rendezvous with my daughter planned for mid morning I decided to head off for my last bird which was over in Hartlepool some half an hour away. The journey was uneventful and I found myself pulling up at the end of another weird post apocalyptic landscape that's seems so prevalent in this part of the country. I was at the Old Cemetery on the coast just north of Hartlepool Headland where a Shorelark had been reported though there'd been no news for the last couple of days so it was a bit of a punt. Still, it very much fitted in with my vague theme this winter of wanting to catch up with some winter coastal passerines that I wasn't going to see in Oxon. I'd managed Twite, Lapland Bunting and Snow Bunting (thought that had been on the other coast when I'd seen the Laughing Gull) so Shorelark would complete the set. 

The reports had said the wasteland just beyond the end of the cemetery so I duly started to take a look around but it seemed a very improbable location. It was truly a wasteland, looking like a spot where some old buildings had been demolished with piles of rubble and lots of pebbles as well as plenty of fly tipping. I wandered over to the edge of the sandy cliffs and looked down to some dunes and the sandy beach with the pier beyond that. If anything that looked a more likely area so I carefully headed down the cliff and started to look about. There'd been a fire recently so a large part of the grass area had been burnt and there was rubbish strew along here as well but it did seem a better location. I had a good tramp around but it seemed hopeless - there was no bird life at all apart from a couple of Redshank on the beach and the odd Cormorant flying by on the sea. 

The derelict pier - continuing the post apocalyptic theme

I headed back up the cliff defeated. At the top I spotted a car now on the wasteland area with a large lens poking out of it. That looked promising so I headed over to ask for news. It turned out that the lark was indeed about on the waste area after all and I was soon watching it as it worked its way along the top of the cliff just in view. Relieved I busied myself with some digiscoping.

Wasteland Shorelark
It was nice to see this species again which I'd only seen once before down in Norfolk (though I'd also seen them in America). Having got my fill and with time marching on I headed back to the car, pointing out the lark location to a couple of new arrivals who were looking for it. Then it was back on the road towards Durham.

The rest of the day passed smoothly: I rendezvous'd with my daughter and a friend who also lived in Oxford and who wanted a lift and we soon had the car packed, some lunch sandwiches bought and were on the road south. The traffic was light and the rest of the journey was uneventful though what with my semi-illness and the long day yesterday I did feel very tired indeed by the time we'd got back to Oxford. Still, it had been a successful if rather low key birding trip north and I'd managed to see some nice winter birds with a target score of three out of four and a bonus Goose to boot. To be honest though, I'm really looking forward to spring - I think that I'm done with winter birding for now.

No comments: