Monday, 12 January 2015

Up North in the Winter

It was only a few weeks ago that I was fetching our eldest daughter K back down from Durham and yet already it's time to head back up north to deposit her at the university for the start of her second term. Whilst of course she could go up by train I've been very much enjoying getting to know the north east and so I'm always on hand to offer her a lift. Now, whereas on both previous trips there were obvious good birds to stop off en route (Masked Shrike & Blythe's Pipit to be precise), this time there was nothing obvious. Of course it was January but I had been hoping that there might have been something good - after all there'd been a Little Bustard just over a week ago though that hadn't lingered. I had even contemplated the Harlequin Duck up in Aberdeen - after all at Durham I'd be half way there . However it would have made for a very long weekend of driving to make such a trip and that coupled with the adverse weather conditions meant that it felt just too far to go. I did even think about taking the train up to Aberdeen from Durham at least to give me a break from the driving but so strong were the winds that many of the rail services were suspended anyway and in the end common sense prevailed. Instead I decided to stay local to the north east and to see if I could see some birds that I wasn't likely to come across back down in Oxfordshire. I did my research and cobbled together an itinerary, booked a room for Saturday nigh on Air B&B (which I've just discovered) and so it was that at around 8:30 a.m. on Saturday morning K & I set off north in the Gnome mobile.

I opted for my usual route of M40/M42/M1 to avoid some of the 50 mph speed restriction areas and thankfully the roads were fairly deserted so we made good progress. Occasional gusts of wind would shake the car as we sped north and I noticed how the external temperature, sitting at around 7 degrees in Oxfordshire, suddenly plummeted down to a nippy 3 degrees as we hit County Durham. By now we had a routine for loading and unloading the car and went to our usual parking spot. In a little over three quarters of an hour K was safely ensconced in her tiny but warm student room and I was back in the car checking to see if there was any bird news that might alter my plans. There wasn't so I set off for my first target of the weekend: a trip to the Fish Quay at North Shields just on the northern shore of the Tyne river mouth where some white-winged gulls had been hanging out for the last week including a few Iceland & Glaucous Gulls and a smart Viking Gull (Glauc x Herring hybrid). Thanks to my trusty Sat Nav app in about half an hour I pulled up at the Fish Quay and put on multiple layers of clothing to insulate me from the cold wind.

North Shields Fish Quay

This was clearly a great spot for any Laridophile - there were loads of gulls just loafing around on the quayside, in the water, on the roofs and in the air. To start with I decided to get a sense of the geography and wandered along the quayside checking to see where all the likely spots were. To the east of the quay there was a small sandy beach area where a Sanderling was doing what they do best along the shoreline.


On the river were a flock of a dozen or so Eider duck and there next to them was a bleached-looking Iceland Gull though it drifted around the corner and out of sight before I could get a photo. Having now worked out where everything was I went back to make a more thorough search. Standing by the entrance to the docks themselves after a while I spotted an Iceland Gull in the air though this was a darker individual than the bleached one that I'd seen earlier. It soared back and forth for a few minutes by the boats before disappearing out of sight. After a while I re-found the bleached bird which seemed to like to sit on the water behind some moored boats. At one point it came quite close and I managed a snap of it with my superzoom though unfortunately it's a bit blown out (I should have turned down the exposure)

Iceland Gull
Aging the Iceland Gull
The Iceland Gulls here have been reported as second winters though it's not completely obvious to me. A close up of the head shows that the eye is bi-coloured though very dark. The bill has quite a lot of dark on it though does appear to have a pale tip and the bird is obviously bleached at a time which is still quite early on in the season so on balance it probably is a second winter though I welcome more expert opinions.

I was just starting to contemplate heading off (to get out of the biting wind if nothing else) when I spotted a Glauc-like bird flying around near the boats. The head was obviously that of a Glauc though the primaries were too dark - clearly it was the Viking Gull. Fortunately it eventually settled on the roof where I was able to take some digiscoped shots of it in all its glory.
1w Viking Gull
Soon after the light started to fade and I was all gulled out anyway. I'd made plans to have dinner with K that evening but I still had some time to kill - what to do?  Part of my pre-trip research had unearthed a report of a Tundra Bean Goose in with Greylags in the parkland of Lambton Castle not too far away. The location was already stored in my Sat Nav so with the light now fading fast but nothing else to do I headed off there, arriving a quick twenty minutes later at last light. Fortunately the report had given an exact grid reference of where to view from which was in a small copse by a fence overlooking a pond/flood area. This was certainly teeming with birds: there were several hundred roosting Curlew and Lapwing, a smattering of Gulls and several hundred distant corvids. All good stuff but no geese of any description were to be seen. I wasn't that disappointed - after all this would very much have been a bonus bird. I sat in the car and munched on a packet of crisps whilst I warmed up again from having had to stand in the wind once more. At that moment a Tawny Owl flew out of the copse and across the road, silently and ghost-like - a lovely sight. I happily took that as compensation for a no-show on the goose. Incidentally, later that evening the Goose was reported again about half a mile away in another spot so the flock had obviously re-located. 

I set the Sat Nav for Durham again and sped back in the darkness towards the city for a nice warm cup of tea with my daughter. Whilst we supped on our drinks we were both in the mood for vegging out for a bit and watched a "Have I Got News for You" 2014 compilation on iPlayer. Then it was time for some food: there are loads of restaurants and tea rooms on the peninsula at Durham and we were soon tucking into some excellent (and very cheap) Italian food at La Spaghettata. This was a very small restaurant jam packed with tables every one of which was full of people. As we came out there were several dozen people queuing down the stairs to get in so it was clearly very popular and deservedly so. After that we parted company and I sped off down the A1(M) for a couple of junctions to my B&B for the night at Stockton-on-Tees which was close to my chosen birding spots for the next day. As I said earlier, I've started using Air B&B which I like as it's much more of a personal experience and I was soon chatting away with my hosts for the evening and sharing a glass of wine. Then I retired to my bed tired out after a long day of driving and standing around in a freezing wind. I slept deeply, dreaming of Arctic Gulls in windswept landscapes.

The next morning I showered and then had breakfast whilst chatting with my hostess again. Amongst other things she was a freelance voice-over artist which was very interesting and I wanted to know more about it all. She also gave me a taste of a rather strange juice mixture that she'd concocted that morning. It was green and quite frankly a bit weird! It looked cold outside and I was a bit reluctant to sally forth once more but eventually I got my stuff together and headed back out into the cold morning though mercifully at least the wind had dropped. My first stop of the day was to Seaton Sands (strictly actually North Gare Sands) which had hosted an Isabelline Wheatear in the autumn. That of course was long gone but I was rather hoping that I might be able to see some Snow Buntings there which had been reported recently. I sent a text out to my birding chum Ian Kendall saying where I was going to be: we'd been exchanging texts the previous week as he lived locally and he said that he might join me today so I wanted to let him know where I was. I'd got to know Ian and his partner Jackie from my trips down to Cornwall but he's more well known nationally as the chap who found Britain's third ever Eastern Crowned Warbler and is (as RBA likes to say) the only person in the country ever to find and identify an ECW in the field.

I drove along the deserted roads through the very strange landscape that made up the area: it was a windswept and barren mixture of wild marshland, moorland and sand dunes. Dotted around in the distance in all directions were weird industrial complexes looking very out of place in such a remote area. The whole effect was rather post-apocalyptic and interesting. I arrived at the end of the old Zinc Works Road and put on my arctic clothing and got tooled up. The first thing I noticed was the smell from the nearby chemical works - it was very unpleasant and permeated the air everywhere. I wandered down the sandy track between the sand dunes and was soon on the beach that I felt I already knew well from countless Izzy Wheatear photos on the internet. The sun was just breaking out out above the clouds and it lit up the scene.

Looking south from North Gare Sands
I was rather hoping that I'd soon stumble upon a flock of feeding Snow Buntings but in keeping with the post-apocalypse theme there was no wildlife at all and I was rather reminded of "The Road" by Cormac Mccarthy, a very powerful but very dark read for those who aren't familiar with it. I wandered along the strand-line towards the North Gare breakwater looking for signs of life. Near the end I saw a Stonechat, a Redshank, one Black-headed Gull and an Oystercatcher but that was about it. I headed back the way I'd come and was almost back at the starting point when I heard a bird calling repeatedly. What's more it was a call that I recognised and it was something good! I picked it up as it flew reasonably low right over my head and off up the beach in the direction I'd just come from, banking as it did so and allowing me to get a good look at it in the morning sunlight. As suspected: a Lapland Bunting! It's chunky size and rather long looking body and wings were quite distinctive in flight. I hurried back along the shore to see if it had landed anywhere but there was no sign of it. I trudged back up the beach and headed back to the car, very pleased to swap a Lap Bunt for the expected flock of Snow Buntings.

Back at the car I sent a text to Ian that I was now heading on to Saltholme to look for the Long-eared Owls that had been roosting there. Happily I soon got a reply from him that he was intending to arrive there at 10 a.m. I put the location into the Sat Nav and within 10 minutes I pulled up in the car park only to discover that the place didn't open until 10 a.m. - I now understood why Ian wasn't getting there until then! There was some twenty minutes to go still so I just sat in the car and thought my own thoughts until he and Jackie arrived. We headed into the reserve to be told that the roosting owls hadn't been located by anyone yet and that they'd not been seen at all yesterday though that was probably because of the high winds. Somewhat disheartened we nevertheless set off on the fifteen minute walk over to the corner of the reserve where they were roosting. As we went we chatted and birded though there was precious little of note apart from a few Fieldfares and Finches in a line of Hawthorns.

We arrived at a large area of  scrub and low lying trees where apparently the owls were roosting. Ian thought that they were probably over at the back by a paddock but at that moment another birder who'd been walking along with us piped up that he'd found an owl! Incredibly he was right and there right out in the open was a roosting Long-eared Owl. What a stroke of luck - we all been expecting a long (and probably fruitless) search but this had been almost instant. Thanking the other birder profusely we set up our scopes and I busied myself with some rather record-shottish snaps.

Roosting Long-eared Owl
Pleased with our speedy results we then headed back towards the visitor centre where we briefly debated looking for the Green-winged Teal which had been around previously though the fact that it hadn't been seen in the last week and that time was marching on for me swayed the decision in the end and we headed back to the car park. 

My final target for the day was to try and see some Twite and Ian had managed to find some for me at a place called Cowbar (near Staithe) on the coast between Redcar and Whitby. Ian and Jackie were happy to take me there so I followed their car on the half hour journey. We eventually found ourselves along a single-track road that bordered a large stubble field some fifty yards or so from the cliff top. Ian had seen about 30 Twite here with about 70 Linnet two days ago though the farmer had since done some muck spreading and there was now less stubble on show. The tactics here seemed to be to crawl along in the car with the window open (fortunately the wind was coming from the seaward side) and look out for the flock of birds in flight where one would then try to get a glimpse of them on the ground. This proved to be rather difficult as the birds would often fly so far that you couldn't see where they landed and there was a lot of driving back and forth without much success. Eventually Jackie had to leave so Ian came in the car with my and fortunately soon after we managed to find a flock of half a dozen or so Twite on the deck picking their way over the furrows. I watched these delightful buffy-faced finches for a while before sadly having to tear myself away. Time was marching on and I had a long drive home ahead of me. 

First I had to drive Ian back and he pointed out his various local patches as we went including the famous Eastern Crowned Warbler spot - a remarkably unassuming piece of woodland. Back at his place they invited me in for a quick cup of tea and a most welcome sandwich before my journey back. Whilst we chatted I watched their feeders where Ian told me they regularly had up to 30 Tree Sparrows visiting. In fact they didn't really get any House Sparrows, just the Trees! I couldn't quite believe it but there they were constantly on the feeders looking very much at home. He also told me that they regularly get Willow Tits on the feeders there though sadly I didn't see one whilst I was there.

Tree Sparrows galore!
Finally it was time to set off for home. The journey back was long, tiring but uneventful and I arrived back in the bosom of my family just before 6pm, very tired but very pleased with the weekend's birding. I had been wondering just how much I would enjoy the weekend without any headline birds to tempt me but in the event I'd found the whole trip most enjoyable indeed. It's amazing what a difference it can make to have a change of scenery and a change from one's regular county birds. I'm still very much enjoying getting to know the north east - long may it continue!