Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Durham June 2016

It was time to fetch Daughter no. 1 back down from Durham for the summer already. Of course June is not traditionally a good time of year for birding and this was the reason that last year instead I had decided to try and see some northern butterflies and indeed had managed successfully that time to catch up with the Northern Brown Argus. Now my trip earlier in the year to Cumbria to twitch the Demoiselle Crane en route to Durham had meant that Cumbria was more on my radar than before and this suggested to me the possibility of trying for one of the hardest UK butterflies to see, namely the elusive and enigmatic Mountain Ringlet. The reason why this butterfly is so hard to catch up with is that, as its name suggests, it's only found high up in mountainous regions. What's more it has a rather short flight season of a couple of weeks and it generally only flies in strong sunshine. These three factors means that it's not at all straight-forward. The only place to see this butterfly in England is in the Lake District but as this university run did happen to coincide with the flight season I decided to see if I could put together a plan that might involve having a crack at it.

As I mentioned, the weather is an important factor and we've had a decidedly poor season so far with very variable weather conditions which has made seeing target insects quite difficult. I was due to fetch my daughter down at the weekend but miraculously Thursday's weather looked particularly good with strong uninterrupted sunshine forecast in the Lakes for the entire afternoon so I decided to head up on that day to see if I could see this enigmatic butterfly. I would then need to amuse myself for one day up in the region before doing the homeward run on Saturday morning with my daughter. Fortunately there were actually quite a few good birds presently about in south east Scotland and north east England so for Friday I decided to work my way back down the east coast to Durham, stopping off at four locations on the way.

As far at the Mountain Ringlet was concerned, having done my research, I'd homed in on Irton Fell as a good location to try for it as it was the lowest of the colonies and involved relatively little walking. In fact the lower colony was only a short walk from the car park though when I did some on-line research I discovered that this one was probably more or less finished by now. However, there was a second colony higher up the fell near Greathall Gill ravine and the general rule of thumb is that the higher up the colony, the later they emerge. I did some more trawling of the internet and found that just two days ago ten Mountain Ringlet had been seen at the upper colony so I decided that they would be my target. So, that was the plan but how would it all pan out?

Day 1 - Irton Fell
I got up at around 7 a.m. and firstly made my way to the polling station to cast my vote in the EU referendum that was taking place today. After that it was getting myself ready, taking our son to school and making a packed lunch. I finally set off from Oxford at a little after 9 a.m., budgeting on a bit over four hours to get to Irton Fell though in the event it was getting on for five hours by the time that I finally pulled in at the car park: those Cumbrian roads were just tortuously slow. The car park was in fact full and I had to squeeze my large car in at the edge near the road. As predicted the weather was wonderfully sunny and warm as I got my gear together and set off up the path towards the Fell. In the heat and after such a long drive I was feeling rather weary as I slowly made the ascent up through some woodland, being serenaded by a Blackcap as I went. Along the path I soon spotted a lovely Golden-ringed Dragonfly that was earnestly patrolling the path area and it came over and checked me out at close quarters before flying off in search of smaller prey.

Golden-ringed Dragonfly
I soon caught up with a couple of walkers who it turned out were also in pursuit of the Mountain Ringlet and we chatted for a bit though they were walking rather slowly so I left them to it and headed on up the fell. The woodland soon opened out into heathland with Bilberry, Heath Bedstraw and some Heather in amongst the rushes and grasses. In the boggier bits there was plenty of Bog Asphodel brightening up the scene.

Bog Asphodel
After just a short distance I came to the lower colony area. This was a boggier stretch of the heathland - apparently the Mountain Ringlet quite likes a bit of bog. There were a couple of people here methodically scouring the area though on enquiry they'd apparently just seen two Mountain Ringlet in two hours. This to me seemed to confirm that the lower colony was more or less over and that I should press on to the upper one. I told them of my plan and headed on up. I passed another man a bit higher up who'd reported a single fly-past but that was it.

It was quite a slog heading up the hillside and in the sunshine I took it slowly and steadily, keeping my eyes out for any butterflies but also looking at the various plants as I went. There were plenty of Small Heath fluttering around though their pale browny-red colouring immediately marked them out for what they were. A Keeled Skimmer flew away from a small pool as I neared and Meadow Pipits and Skylarks were about in modest numbers as I climbed.

The lower fell area is bordered by a stone wall and near the top there was a gate that lead through to the upper fell area. By the gate I spotted a Wheatear which behaved like it was breeding nearby, calling loudly to a hidden youngster. Passing through the gate and climbing up to a local peak (395m apparently) I spotted a small dark insect, almost bee-like in it's size and shape, which landed on a Tormentil flower. Bingo! I immediately knew that I'd found my quarry and quickly took a few snaps before it flew off rather fast and was lost to view.

My first ever Mountain Ringlet!
Elated at having achieved my goal I walked the last few yards to where the colony hot-spot was supposed to be at the head of Greathall Gill - a large ravine that lead off down the side of the mountain and which in the winter housed a stream though at this time of year it was dry.

The top of the Greathall Gill ravine
I was kind of expecting there to be quite a few Mountain Ringlets here but there were none immediately on view. I heard voices behind me and turned to find that a couple of the butterfliers from lower down had decided to come up with me as well. The three of us spread out and one of the others soon found another Mountain Ringlet which we followed as best we could, papping away like mad whenever it settled though it was sadly looking rather the worst for wear already.

A rather tattered Mountain Ringlet
That was it for a while and the other two soon got bored and left again leaving me alone and at peace on my mountain top which to be honest I much preferred.

Looking out over Wast Water
I sat down to eat my packed lunch, watching the grassy area vigilantly as I did so. After a few minutes I spotted the distinctive small dark chocolate shape of another Mountain Ringlet which I followed as best I could and managed to get a photo of, though it too was past its best.

Another tatty Mountain Ringlet

After a while I started to explore further afield and I eventually discovered that the best spot was about forty or so yards south of the head of the ravine where there were some rather boggy pools. Here after a bit of watching I eventually managed to see four more fly by, making a total of seven sightings though none of these later ones settled for a photo opp.

I spent a good hour up on the summit but now time was marching on and I decided to head back down the hill, snapping away at any interesting plants and flowers that I saw for later identification. The other butterfliers had all departed from the lower fell region now and I had the place to myself as I trudged down the hill. I came across a normal Ringlet in amongst the Small Heaths and distant immature Raven was calling loudly from the recently-felled plantation area. Back in the dragonfly spot the Golden-ringed was still buzzing about and down near the car park there was now a singing Garden Warbler as well as the Blackcap.

The poetically-named Yorkshire Fog

Back in the car I set the sat nav for the next destination which was Cockermouth to the north of Cumbria. There I'd arranged to pop in to see some relatives of mine who lived there and who'd kindly offered to give me some dinner. The journey up there should have taken about three quarters of an hour but in what was now the rush hour traffic it ended up taking about an hour. Still I arrived shortly after 6 p.m. to a lovely chicken salad dinner and the chance to catch up with my Cumbrian relatives. I couldn't stay too long with them as I'd booked an Air B'nB room up in Scotland up in Cumbernauld -  the Milton Keynes of Scotland apparently which I only knew of through my dealings with the tax office. This was still some two hours away so at around 7 p.m. I set off once more onto the pleasantly quiet evening roads and headed across the border and onto the network of motorways that surround the Glasgow area. Fortunately with the sat nav to guide me it was all fairly straight-forward and so it was a little after 9 p.m I arrived at my well-appointed host's house for the night. The thing that I like about Air B'nB is that one gets a chance to meet with and chat to the people there and my hosts turned out to very genial: we were soon chatting away about the EU referendum as we watched the BBC coverage now that the polling stations had closed. There were no results due for a good few hours but this didn't stop all the pundits and experts from talking non-stop about the subject and speculating avidly. Personally I was absolutely convinced that Remain would win the day and this is what Betfair (an exchange bookmaker that usually gets it right as it's people putting their money where their mouth is) and the financial markets were all convinced of this too. I checked up on the pound which was up sharply at around 1.50 dollars. At around 11 p.m  I went to bed expecting to wake up the next morning to it all being "business as usual".

Day 2
I awoke to the astonishing news that the UK had voted "Leave" - I just couldn't believe it! I came down to breakfast and my host and I watched the news in a state of shock. As I ate my breakfast, David Cameron came out in front of number 10 and announced that he was going to stand down. The referendum fall-out was to form the backdrop to my whole day and I had the radio on whenever I was driving between locations, listening to the news and opinion and mulling over just what it means for the country.

Anyway, never mind all these seismic political changes, there were still some birds to see. The four birds that I'd lined up were as follows: a Gull-billed Tern at Kinneil Lagoon near Grangemouth; the female King Eider at Musselburgh at the mouth of the river Esk; a Woodchat Shrike at St. Abbs head and a Bonaparte's Gull at the mouth of the river Wansbeck at Ashington in Northumberland. All these birds had been around for several weeks and by going for each in turn I could follow the coast eastwards all the way down to Durham - at least that was the plan. Actually, I'd checked the bird news on RBA yesterday evening and the Gull-billed Tern had not been seen yesterday in the surprisingly large time range of 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.- someone had clearly wanted to see that bird! Anyway, it looked like the bird may have gone but as I was fairly close anyway and the report yesterday had mentioned a consolation Roseate Tern I thought that I'd still start off there with a quick look around though I was fully expecting to dip.

Kinneil Lagoon
It was a reasonable short 30 minute drive from my overnight accommodation to Kinneil Lagoon. During my pre-trip research it hadn't been completely obvious how to access the lagoon itself but thanks to Streetview I'd found an access road that lead to some water treatment works and it looked like one could walk from there along the shore of the Forth river to the lagoon itself and fortunately this did indeed turn out to be the case. The landscape was one of those weird juxtapositions of the industrial with the wild: a distant skyline of the Grangemouth works and the nearby water treatment works contrasting with the banks of the Firth of Forth with its exposed mud flats and calling waders.

The Grangemouth Industrial works in the distance
A stroll of about ten minutes brought me to the Kinneil Lagoon which apparently is supposed to be a great site for roosting waders at high tide in the winter. Of course at this time of year there wasn't that much going on but I had a thorough scan of all the birds on the lagoon to see if I could turn up the Tern. There were loads of Shelduck and a single Goosander but that was actually it. It was low tide on the river itself but in the hazy distance I could make out a few waders and gulls and there did appear to be some Terns fishing out in the middle though it was far too distant to see if they were anything rarer than just Commons. It would have probably been better to take a look at high tide but unfortunately that didn't really fit in with my itinerary and anyway, by all accounts the Gull-billed Tern had already departed. As I wandered back I turned my attention to the myriad of wild flowers that lined the path and I snapped away at some of the more interesting ones as I worked my way back to the car.

Common Spotted Orchid

Dotted Loosestrife
Perennial Cornflower

White Mignonette
Back by the car, just as I was getting ready to go another birder turned up. We got talking and I told him about the lack of the Tern. It's one of the aspects of this hobby that I really like - the fact that you can start talking to total strangers and you've got this shared interest in common. He too was into insects and plants as well as birds and we discussed the pro's and con's of living in Scotland in this respect. He gave me some tips on my next target, the Kind Eider and then we parted company. I climbed back into the car and set off on the hour long journey to Musselburgh.

The journey should have taken about an hour but there was quite a bit of traffic along the Edinburgh northern ring road and so it was late morning by the time I arrived and parked up in a housing estate on the west side of the river Esk and got my bearings. I'd heard that all the Eider, with the female King Eider included, would hang out by the mouth of the river and they were often very easy to find. The trouble, as I soon discovered, was that the tide was presently right out. After a bit of scanning I located all the birds right out at the tip of the extensive exposed sand a considerable distance away.

The River Esk estuary - all the birds were right by the water's edge in the distance
I walked along the coastal footpath to the point where the path was closest to the distant birds and set up my scope. The birds were still a good four or five hundred yards away but by peering closely I could more or less make out what everything was. There was a large flock of red-head Goosander, a modest collection of Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls with a few Commons mixed in. Plenty of Oystercatchers and a few Curlew were along the shoreline and I could also see the Eider ducks. There were quite a lot of them, perhaps fifty or so though with a lot of first summer drakes and not so many females. I did my best to scan through them all and to try and pick out the subtle differences that would be the female King Eider but, despite spending a reasonable amount of time on it, in the end I concluded that actually the distance was too far for what were quite subtle ID pointers and I gave up. As I disconsolately walked back to the car I stopped as usual to look for any interesting plants but there wasn't such a great variety as there had been at the first location. 

I actually found this Viper's Bugloss when I stopped briefly in a lay-by on the way to Musselburgh
Another of those tricky Umbellifers - this one is Rough Chervil

Back at the car I spotted a few female Eider upstream from where I'd parked - a direction which to be honest I hadn't bothered looking in. Could the Kind Eider actually be in amongst them? "No" was the short answer. The group turned out to be half a dozen females with some cute ducklings in amongst them but there was no sign of their rarer cousin. By now it had started to rain quite hard so I sought shelter in the Gnome mobile and set the sat nav for the next location at St Abbs head, some three quarters of an hour away. Nought out of two so far!

Eider ducks in the rain

St. Abb's Head
The third bird on the list was a Woodchat Shrike at St. Abbs Head which was a bit less than an hour away from Musselburgh. As I drove south the heavens opened and absolutely torrential rain poured down, making it hard to see the road ahead of me. I ploughed on slowly whilst listening to more talk on the radio about the referendum fall-out. Fortunately the rain was easing by the time I pulled in at the National Trust car park by the cafĂ© and gift shop so I donned all my waterproof gear and headed off a short distance along the path to where the Shrike was supposed to be located. I wasn't sure of the exact location but I soon found a large pile of tree remains on which I'd seen in a photo of the Shrike on-line so I knew that I must be in the right sort of area. There were no other birders there but eventually I found an area which had clearly been trampled flat so I knew that this was a reasonable vantage point. After about twenty minutes or so there was still no sign of the bird which is usually quite worrying for a Woodchat which, unlike Great Grey, tends to be pretty faithful to a small location in my experience. 

I spotted this little chap whilst waiting for the Shrike
Another birder and his girlfriend turned up. They'd seen the bird on Monday and confirmed that it was usually seen along the stone wall that separated the grass field from the Oil Seed Rape field next door. With no sign of the bird they soon got bored and now that the rain had stopped I was feeling far too hot in all my clobber so I went back to the car to dump some clothes and to take a lunch break. There was still no sign of it on my return so after a short while I wandered down the path where I could look across to see St. Abb's Head itself in the distance. 

St Abb's Head
I scoped the cliff sides to take a look at the sea birds: there were lots of Guillemots, a few Razorbills and Fulmars and a single Peregrine at the top of the cliff. Yellowhammers were calling in the distance and a Reed Bunting sang its feeble song and in the sun. All in all, it was rather pleasant. A German couple came to chat and we commiserated about the referendum result.

Digiscoped Guillemots on the cliff face

After a while I went back to the Shrike area but there was still no luck so disappointedly I headed back to the car with a third dip in a row to my name.

Some Tall Ramping-fumitory that I found in the field next to the Shrike spot
As a footnote, when later that evening I checked RBA, I realised that in fact the Woodchat Shrike had been reported as "not present" all morning so it too had done a bunk in the night.

The final stop on my tour of the north east coastline was for the long-staying Bonaparte's Gull which was summering under a flyover at the mouth of the river Wansbeck near Ashington. This last location was a good hour and a half away and by now I was feeling tired from my long day as well as rather disconsolate from all the heavy dippage. Still, with the radio on I slipped into contemplative state of mind as the miles sped by and eventually the sat nav had me turn off and head into the countryside towards the coast. 

Now, in doing my pre-trip research the exact way of accessing the river bank here had not been at all clear so in the end I'd opted to drive right to the coast and then walk the few hundred yards along the south bank of the river to the flyover area. In the event this wasn't actually so easy: there was a sailing club at the end of the road that I'd chosen but it was all locked up so I parked up nearby and found a way to get down to the shoreline. Here I found that there was no proper path at all but fortunately the tide was out enough for me to walk gingerly along the rather slippery shoreline. In the distance I could see ten or so Black-headed Gull types but they seemed rather wary of my presence on the shore so as soon as I was close enough to see the entire area I stopped at set up my scope. The first bird that I looked at turned out to be the Bonaparte's Gull, still perversely in winter plumage but it's small size and slim bill gave it away for the rarity that it was. No sooner had I ID'd it however, then all the birds took to the air, unhappy with my presence, though this gave me an opportunity to view its strikingly pale underwings as it flew off. No photos then but at least I'd managed to see one of my target birds today!

Wansbeck boat

In the sunshine I wandered back along the shoreline, looking at all the plants and taking it all in. There's something very pleasing about the Northumbrian coast: its simple short dune cliffs and sandy beaches are somehow very beautiful. I spent some time rummaging about and managed to turn up a few interesting plants for my troubles.

Common Scurvygrass
Sea Aster
Sea Milkwort

As I headed back to the car I realised that I felt much better for this last stop. Whether it was just the fact that I'd actually seen one of my targets or whether it was the uplifting scenery and sunshine, somehow my tiredness seemed to have gone and it was with a metaphorical spring in my step as I drove for the last half an hour or so down to Durham and my daughter's student house. There we treated ourselves to a takeaway which we ate whilst watching some of Glastonbury on the TV and talked about the referendum result. To unwind from my long day of driving my daughter took me on one of her favourite walks down to the river where we spotted a Kingfisher and some Sand Martins. I also met an angler there who told me that they get Sea Trout in the river there which rather surprised me as the industrial North East is not traditionally somewhere that I'd associate with this species but at least it shows that the water is clean there. Then it was back to the house to start the long packing process before I crashed out by 11 p.m. exhausted from what had been a long day.

Day 3 - Homeward Bound
I had no intention of doing any bonus birding in the morning so we got up, had left-over curry for breakfast in true student style and then finished off the packing. By a little after 9 a.m. we were finished and my daughter said her goodbye's to her friends and her house and we were on the road. The journey was uneventful and we were accompanied by bright sunshine as we set off though further south this turned to regular and very heavy showers so I had to be careful with the driving but we made it back safely in time for lunch with the whole family re-united once more at Casa Gnome.

Reflecting on the trip, the important part went well, namely seeing Mountain Ringlet at last. Whilst the second day was frankly disappointing in terms of the dippage, the truth was that I'd seen all those species before anyway so it was more the disappointment of some carefully made plans not coming off. I'd seen plenty of interesting plants by way of consolation and all things considered I was happy enough with my trip.

One more Mountain Ringlet

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