Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Durham Run, Summer 2017

It was time for the second university run of the summer, this time up to Durham to fetch Daughter Number One back down. This year both daughters had lingered for a week or more at their respective universities and whilst this has meant that I was too late for the Fen Orchids at Kenfig, it did also means that I was going to be a bit later up to the North East. Now, a couple of years ago at this time I'd visited Bishop Middleham quarry to look for Northern Brown Argus (see write-up here) and in passing had found some yet to flower Dark Red Helleborines. Now with my new found interest in orchids I was keen to pay another visit and this extra couple of weeks meant that this time it was more likely that they would actually be in flower. So that was my main target for the trip but there was also the small matter of the flock of up to 7 European Bee-eaters that had turned up in the Midlands near Loughborough. This was very much en route by anyone's standards so it seemed rude not to pop in and pay my respects on the way. I'd also made note of another stop-off, namely a first summer Sabine's Gull that was lingering up in Yorkshire at Nosterfield reservoir which was also just off the main route north. So with my itinerary planned, on Thursday last week I sallied forth on my way up north. 

Things didn't start too well, I left at some time after 9 a.m. only to find a huge set of roadworks out of Oxford which took a good twenty minutes to get through. I then nipped into the petrol station to buy a sandwich for lunch only to discover that I'd left my wallet behind so it was back home through the roadworks once more and then back again so it was getting on for an hour later by the time that I finally left Oxford behind me. I'd made a mental note of the turn-off for the Bee-easter and it wasn't until I'd reached Junction 24 that I switched on the Sat Nav. It was only about 15 minutes or so from there to the large RSPB-manned field that had been set aside for parking and I was soon turning in, parking and tooling up. I paid my £5 fee and walked along the busy road to the start of the bridleway where in the distance I could soon see the lone Ash tree that the birds favoured as well as the twitch line.

The Quarry. You can see the lone Ash tree on the left, and just make out the twitchers on the right
Five minutes walk found me at the end of the path where a modest throng of upwards of fifty people were assembled.

The crowd
Not long after I arrived the birds were seen low down in a hedgerow in front of us. It was very difficult to see the birds due to their low elevation and various people's heads kept getting in the way but I managed some record shots of them in the gloomy conditions before they flew off.

First views were rather distant

The birds were first discovered a few days ago and what's more had been seen mating so, given their location, there was some speculation that they may well stay and breed. Historically quarries have been the preferred breeding location for this species in the UK and in fact in 2002 they had bred successfully at Bishop Middleham Quarry where I was heading later on in the day. I'd first seen this species in this country on the Isle of Wight in 2014 (see here) though the views then had been frankly piss poor and lack lustre so I was keen to get better views of this colourful species.

In the crowd I soon bumped into Peter Law and Jim Hutchins from Oxon and we nattered away whilst waiting for the return of the birds. After perhaps half an hour or so a single bird was spotted, this time to their favoured tree, a lone Ash tree. From this vantage point the bird would fly up and pluck some hapless bee out of the air before returning to its perch to eat the insect at its leisure. Despite the gloomy conditions it seemed to have no difficulty finding prey.

Digiscoped Bee Eater
After a while a second bird appeared and it too caught insects regularly and easily.

Two Bee-eaters

The birds were still on show when I decided that I should head off. I had a long way to go still and after my delayed start I wanted to crack on. So I headed back to the Gnome mobile and retraced my way to the M1 and continued on north.

Time passed and the miles slipped slowly by. As I got to Yorkshire I started to think about whether I wanted to stop off at Nosterfield for the Sabine's Gull. Due to my late start time was marching on so in the end I decided not to bother and instead headed on to Junction 60 where my turn-off for my second quarry of the day was. It was only ten minutes or so off the motorway and I was pulling in at the familiar layby next to the small gem of a reserve that is Bishop Middleham Quarry.

It had clearly just finished raining quite heavily as everything was coated in rain drops and quite a few of the flowers, especially the numerous Common Rock Rose, appeared to have taken a battering. The reserve was as beautiful as I remember it and I wandered about taking it all in. When I'd first visited a couple of years ago I was only just starting to get into Botany whereas now I was more familiar with what I was looking at though I still very much consider myself a beginner. There were loads of Common Spotted Orchids dotted about the place and Wild Thyme was everywhere you looked. I soon found my first Dark Red Helleborine though it was still tightly in bud and I began to wonder if I was still a week or so too early. Over in the butterfly hotspot that I remembered from last time, I did chance upon a roosting butterfly that appeared from it's underwing pattern to be a Northern Brown Argus.

roosting Northern Brown Argus
After a while I wandered down to the quarry floor itself where I soon found a lot more Helleborines. In fact this seemed to be the main area for them and fortunately some of them were just about fully out in flower.

The quarry floor
Common Spotted Orchid


Common Twayblades

Dark Red Helleborine

Dark Red Helleborine

Dark Red Helleborine

Fragrant Orchid species, perhaps Marsh?
Northern Marsh Orchid
Pyramidal Orchid
After I felt that I'd covered the whole of the quarry floor area I nipped over to where I'd seen the Moonwort last time though despite reasonably extensive searching I couldn't find any this time. 

With time marching on now and having pretty much seen all I wanted to, I headed back to the car. Whilst I'd made some provisional plans to visit some of the other nearby DWT reserves as well, it was getting rather late so I gave my daughter a call and then headed back towards the motorway, arriving in Durham itself some half an hour later. Then it was a chance to catch up on my daughter's news as well as to catch up on cups of tea that I'd missed during the drive up north. She had a friend's graduation dinner to attend so I ordered a take-away and caught up on some of this year's Glastonbury acts on the iPlayer. She was back reasonably early and with a spare bed in her room we soon settled down for the evening.

The next day was just a case of packing the car and heading off home. As we were both Gluten-free now, we found a new café which did GF sandwiches (and rather nice GF cup-cakes as well!) to take with us for the journey home. The journey itself was uneventful and we arrived back at Casa Gnome mid-afternoon with the whole Gnome family back together again for the first time in a while. It had been a productive trip up north with some nice things to see to make the long slog worthwhile.

Bedraggled Meadow Crane's-Bill

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