Monday, 16 January 2017

Durham Run January 2017

It was time to do another University run up to Durham to take Daughter 1 back. Now astute readers may have noticed that I didn't do a Uni run in December. This was partly that both daughters wanted to come back on the same day and partly that they didn't actually have too much to bring back so in the end they both took the train. This time though, our eldest said that she had too much to take on the train and could I take her in the car? I was rather ambivalent about the prospect until I realised that there was still a Black Scoter up in Northumberland that needed seeing so I agreed to the trip. However in the days leading up to our departure the weather turned pretty horrible with an icy blast and really strong northerly winds and in those conditions I'd pretty much resigned myself to not bothering about the Scoter. Fortunately though this spell of winter passed through the country fairly quickly and the prospect for the weekend was for much more moderate conditions.

As usual we headed off shortly after 8 a.m. into relatively light traffic. There was a jack-knifed lorry on the M1 which added half an hour to our journey but somehow we made up for lost time and so it was that at around 12:15 p.m. we arrived in the small and picturesque city of Durham. This year my daughter had a nice room in castle itself that overlooks the cathedral which was all very characterful. We struggled up the hill and up the multitude of stairs to her room with her heavy bags full of text books before saying our goodbyes and I headed off. With another hour and a half of driving ahead of me up to north Northumberland and will only limited daylight I didn't really have time to linger.

The rest of the journey was uneventful and with the Scoter already having come through on RBA that morning whilst we were driving I was cautiously optimistic though my ETA there wasn't until after 2:30 so I wouldn't have much time left before it got dark. The bird had been reported regularly over the last couple of weeks right at the end of a long single track road at Beachcomer House so this is where I headed. I arrived on schedule and found somewhere to park. Then I put on all the clothing I could wear in order to keep out the cold and yomped off towards the sea. It was a lovely sunny afternoon though very cold indeed.

You can see how far away the surf is as well as how it blocks off all the sea behind it.

The problem I encountered was that the surf was a good several hundred yards away. What's more it was really huge surf and looking from my vantage point on top of the dunes, the waves were so large that it was almost impossible to see any of the sea behind the waves. What's more, there was lots of spray coming up to make the visibility rather poor so all in all it seemed an almost impossible task to find a single slightly different Scoter in amongst a large flock of Common Scoters. The subtleties of identification weren't actually the issue for me though - I couldn't see any Scoters at all! I wandered along the shore westwards spotting a large distant flock of Sanderling and Dunlin and finally seeing a couple of Scoter in flight though when they came down on the sea they disappeared completely.

In the end I gave it up as a hopeless task and headed back to the car, stopping to admire a flock of a couple of dozen Curlew in a field. I got back into the warmth of the car and headed off to my B&B for the evening which was fortunately no more than five minutes away. At the time of planning my trip I'd figured that I might well need extra time on Sunday morning to find the Scoter so had looked for a B&B as close as possible to the location. This turned out to be a huge, beautifully furnished house overlooking the Northumbrian countryside. It was full of period features and could easily have fitted into a Jane Austen novel of some sorts - it really was rather special! I spend a couple of hours relaxing in my room and catching up with news during which time I discovered that the RBA message on the Black Scoter today had actually reported the bird further north more or less opposite the golf club house. This could explain the problems that I'd been experiencing - perhaps the sea conditions were such that the flock had had to move location to somewhere calmer. So there might be hope for me tomorrow after all! Cheered by that thought, though rather kicking myself that I'd not checked the messages when I'd first arrived, I went out to get some food at a nearby pub and watched a bit of telly in the pub bar whilst I ate my Red Thai curry with chips on the side. All the dishes on the menu seemed to come with chips whether you wanted them or not but I found that I was more hungry than I thought and managed to eat most of them. Then it was back to my room for the night where I watched a bit more telly and then was asleep by 10:30.

I slept as well as can be expected when staying somewhere away from home for the first night and was awake before seven though it was still dark. I heard a flock of Pink-footed Geese calling in the darkness as I waited for it to get light. At eight I went down for my cooked breakfast and chatted with my hostess. It turned out that she was a hypnotherapist like myself and we talked shop for a while. Finally at a little after 8:45 I'd said my goodbyes, packed my things in the car and was heading once more back to Goswick.

In the light of the report of the bird by the golf club house, this morning I decided to park there first and then to work my way back along the beach towards it's former location, depending on what I found. As I was getting tooled up in the car park, three Pink-foots flew over, calling loudly. The first golfers were already out on the course despite drizzly (though the much milder) weather conditions this morning.

Three Pink-footed Geese flying overhead
I walked briskly along the path across the course and after five minutes I was on the sandy beach. I could immediately see that conditions were much calmer on the sea here and at least I could see the sea behind the waves. What's more, with the tide out the beach sloped much more steeply and by standing on top of the dunes one had a good vantage point. Looking to the south east I could see that the waves were much larger and more violent back where I'd been yesterday so clearly the prevailing conditions meant that for some reason it was too rough there.

You can actually see the sea here
A quick scan soon found me my first Scoters on the water so I could start my search for the elusive Black Scoter. More Scoter came in until I had a flock of about 500 right in front of me, a smaller flock of about 100 a bit further south east and another flock of about 100 several hundred yards further north west from where I was. I experimented with different vantage points: up on the dunes you have the best height but you were further away whereas on the beach you could get much closer but then the birds were hidden in the troughs for longer. I was just scoping away when a lady with a dog came up and asked me if I'd found the Black Scoter yet. It turned that she was there with her husband and their son and that they were looking from the top of the dunes a couple of hundred yards away. I went over to chat with them to see how they were getting on. It turned out that they'd been here yesterday too but hadn't had a confirmed view of it. We scoped the two nearest flocks for a while but as I'd already grilled these reasonably well I soon decided to go and try out the flock that was further north from where we were and so I set off. As I walked some news came in on the pager of a Black-throated Thrush near Old Moor RSPB in Yorkshire. That was most interesting! It would be pretty much on the way back home and given that it was five and a half hours to get back to Oxford I'd been thinking that I would need to stop off somewhere for a break. This could be the perfect opportunity. 

Back to matters in hand and I eventually reached the other flock and climbed up the dunes to get a good look. I started working my way through the flock but in the rather gloomy light it was very hard to make out the yellow on the drake birds' bills. A Red-breasted Merganser next to the flock made a welcome distraction as I was grilling the flock. One drake caught my eye, partially as it was a little way away from the flock but also partially that there was something a bit different about it. I eventually realised that the reason why it stood out was that it had a much stockier neck than the other birds and then I remembered that this was indeed an identifying feature of the Black Scoter. Could this be it? I scoped the bill carefully, it turned its head and the light caught it just enough to make out a big round orange ball on its beak. This wasn't the narrow orange strip that you see on a head-on Common, this was the real deal. Bingo - I'd done it! I was so relieved to have found it! However, given that time was marching on I decided not to linger any longer but at once started to head back down the beach: at the very least I had to tell the others where to look. When I got back to where they'd been I discovered that they were now hundreds of yards along the beach in the opposite direction and walking further away. So I submitted the news to RBA which I presumed they'd eventually get and was just about to turn off along the path when in the distance they turned around. So I waved my arms and pointed north along the beach. They seemed to get the message because they started to come back and five minutes later I was able to tell them what I'd found. They were suitably grateful and headed off to see it whilst I headed back to the car.

Back in the comfort of my car I started to get to grips with the Black-throated Thrush situation. This would make a spectacular bonus bird if this were to come off but I'd never been to Old Moor RSPB before so wouldn't know where to go. The bird turned out to be at somewhere called Adwick upon Dearne near Doncaster and there was a postcode on RBA so with nothing more to go on I put it in the Sat Nav just in case. I decided that I would wait to see how much more news there was of the bird as I drove southwards though as I needed to stop somewhere anyway it would have to be pretty negative for me not to try for it. With the plan made, I made a mental note of which junction I needed to turn off the A1(M). Then I fired up the Gnome mobile and headed back on the long slog southwards.

The journey back down the country was uneventful. The Black Scoter came up on RBA as still present at the same location that I'd seen it so my companions on the beach had clearly managed to find it. This was also an added confirmation of my ID though I was confident about what I'd seen this morning. As I drove news came through regularly about the Thrush so it looked like it was game-on on that front. As I got closer to my turn-off the news started to dry up though with about twenty minutes to go until the exit it came through again and so I headed off the motorway at junction 37 and fired up the Sat Nav at the first traffic light. It seemed a rather tortuous trip through various housing estates and then back out into open fields. I was just starting to doubt the Sat Nav's abilities when, fifteen minutes after turning off the motorway, suddenly I was turning off into Harlington Road where apparently I needed to look out for a car park by the River Dearne. However, I'd gone no more than 250 yards along the road when, with no river in sight I came upon the exciting sight of a line of twitchers all peering over a hedge and looking intently through their scopes.

This must be the spot!
I screeched to a halt, and joined the line which was surprisingly small, consisting of only a dozen or so birders. It turned out that the bird was in a field of Rape that sloped down for about 250 yards to a line of trees.

I was trying to work out whether anyone was actually on the bird when someone called out directions to a flock of thrushes in a tree at the far end of the field. I found the tree and there was the bird, half way up the left-hand side, distant but clearly distinguishable from the accompanying Redwings. I was just reaching for my digiscoping gear when it flew down into the far end of the field whereupon it proceeded to work its way across the ground, feeding away on hidden invertebrates. Although it was a good 200 yards away I managed some digiscoped record shots.

Being a female, it was a remarkably non-descript bird. Whilst the heavy streaking of its front together with the pale markings around its throat reminded me of the Beeley Dusky Thrush, it lacked the prominent supercilium of that species and its back was a dull grey brown colour. I watched it work its way back and forth for about ten minutes, thanking my stars that it had all been so easy. Later back home and going through the RBA message I realised that the last preceding message had actually said that it's had flown off so I guess that this relatively small party had been looking for it and had just managed to find it in this new location when I'd rocked up. My timing couldn't have been better!

With the Thrush in the bag and more twitchers coming up the hill all the time to try and see the bird I decided not to linger. As an added incentive my VLW had texted me asking me to pick up a few provisions so I headed back to the Gnome mobile and on the way back to the motorway I stopped at a supermarket for the shopping. Then it was back onto the motorway for the final two and a half hours slog back to Oxford. The traffic got progressively heavier as the day progressed and was quite busy on the M40 so I took it easy and eventually at around 5:30 I was pulling into the drive of Casa Gnome, a tired but very happy bunny. I had my usual celebratory cup of tea and as I caught up on the news from the family I reflected that it had been a very successful day. I'd managed to find my difficult Scoter and had lucked-in on a wonderful bonus thrush. Especially given the run-around that the North Wales bird had apparently been giving people I considered myself really lucky to have rocked up at the perfect time for an instant tick - it's great when birding works out like that! So that was 2017 off to a great start - I wonder what will be next.

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