Thursday, 10 September 2020

Durham Run: Lammergeier & Red-backed Shrike

During the summer we've had our eldest daughter staying with us. As she's now doing a PhD in Durham she doesn't normally come home at the end of term any more but the repetitiveness of working from her student home every day because of the lockdown was starting to get to her so she decided to come home for a while. It's been great having her back for an extended period of time but come the start of September she was wanting to head back. She asked whether I would be able to give her a lift, otherwise she'd take the train back up. Now, I'd rather been missing my regular trips up to the North East so said that I would be happy to take her back. Of course as the time drew near I was keeping a keen eye on the birds in the area but as the winds had switched to westerlies all the hot birding action on the east coast had rather dried up. So it was that I settled on the long-staying Derbyshire Lammergeier as a suitable target and planned accordingly. I did my usual pre trip research, learning about where it was usually seen, which turned out to be the valley north of Crowden just north of Torside Reservoir with Black Tor rocks being its preferred location and the best way to observe it being from the Pennine Way.

The usual Lammergeier location was near Black Tor rocks north of Crowden,
observed from the Pennine Way...

We set off from Oxford at around 9 a.m. and with an uneventful run arrived in Durham at around 1pm. I took some time to have lunch, a cup of tea and to rest a little in my daughter's house before saying goodbye and starting to head back down the M1 towards Derbyshire. Rather worryingly, there had been no news on the bird at all so far that day but just as I was leaving news came through of its continued presence. However, rather than it being in it's usual valley it seemed to be somewhere else this time. A couple of hours later just as I was getting near to my destination another report giving more details came through: it seemed to be hanging out over Pikenaze Moor north east of Woodhead Reservoir. I duly adjusted my SatNav to head for Woodhead instead of Crowden. Just as I was about to arrive another update came through that the bird was now on Dowstone Rocks which were south of Woodhead on the other side of the reservoir (between the two Cloughs on the map below) and that it could be viewed from the continuation of the Pennine Way near Woodhead Reservoir

Today it seemed to be further east at Pikenaze Moor, east of Woodhead

I arrived at Woodhead to find no one else around at all and parked up out of the way somewhere. A quick scan across the reservoir of Dowstone rocks was fruitless though I had no idea of scale and could easily be missing it. With nothing else to do I got my gear together and started to walk up the Pennine Way a little, stopping periodically to rescan the rocks (in case I was getting a better angle) and to look around in general. There were a few Buzzards about the place and a pair of Mistle Thrush but little else of note. Due to my on-going illness (see my previous post) I had to take it rather slowly going up the hill but after about half an hour I came to the conclusion that I wasn't really getting anyway and turned around to head back to the car. Once there I started to head up the track towards Pikenaze Farm mainly just in order to get an idea of what was around the corner. There I was able to look across to the A6024 where I saw what were clearly three birders' cars all parked up in a layby. This struck a chord - I remembered in previous weeks RBA posting instructions to view the Lammergeier from a layby near the end of a road - this must be it! As the birders seemed to be viewing something I hurried back to the car to head around there before they all left - they did seem to be in the process of packing up from what I could tell. Just at that point news came through on RBA of the bird still being present on Dowstone Rocks (how had I missed it?) viewable from the layby I'd just seen. I sped around there as fast as I could but in the intervening three minutes two of the cars had left though fortunately one still remained as I screeched to a halt in the layby. The birder there was just packing up but he kindly set my scope up to view the bird - and relax! There it was, a distant brown blob on the rock face, job done! No wonder I had missed it: it was pretty small up against the huge rock slabs and the colouring made it very much blend in with the background. I took some video for the record.

My helpful companion soon left but I stayed behind. I'd booked an AirBnB nearby for that evening  and was in no hurry to go anywhere so I took my time savouring my success and admiring the Lammergeier, albeit rather distantly. A couple of other birders soon turned up. They'd been up by Black Tor all day where there is no phone signal and had only picked up on the news when they'd come down the valley. Thankfully for them I was able to put them on the bird - I wouldn't have fancied their chances of spottting it otherwise. A local farmer's daughter also arrived wanting to see the bird so I let her view it through my scope. I chatted a while with my fellow birders: one was orignally from Bristol but now lived fairly locally. The other recognised me from my blog: it turned out he knew fellow Oxon blogger the Black Audi Birder from past Shetland visits.

The dark and moody hills of the Peak District at dusk

Eventually they left and I too decided to leave. I headed up the road over the top of Heyden Moor (very picturesque) and down into Holmfirth where I was soon ensconced in my comfortable AirBnB room for the evening. Having already bagged the bird meant that I could relax for the evening without having to fret about trying to see it the next day and after a picnic supper in my room I was soon asleep.

The next morning I decided to start off by revisting the Lammergeier. If nothing else I wanted to see it in flight, which I imagined would be rather impressive so wanted to get there before it left the roost. Accordingly I was on the road shortly after 7:30 though in the gloomy conditions I didn't think the bird was going to go anywhere in a particular hurry. On the hill top I spotted a Red Grouse wandering across the road (a welcome year tick) and a short while later I was pulling into the layby again where there were already three cars. They were peering across the valley at the rock face trying to see the bird but conditions were so gloomy that they stood no chance of finding it. Thankfully, having carefully memorised where it was I was able to find it for them though it was so misty that even with that knowledge it was hard to see it at times.

They all managed to see it so with my good deed for the day already done I headed back to my layby by Woodhead which I reckoned was about half the distance of the A6024 layby from the bird. There I met one other birder who, rather optimistically, was set up with his camera. He's found the bird on the rock face himself and was waiting for it to fly. As it was rather windy and showery, I parked up so that I could view the rockface from within the comfort of my car. The bird didn't seem to be in any hurry and I settle down to wait for it to do something. After about half an hour of watching suddenly it took off. I jumped out of the car and yelled at the other birder who'd managed to miss this departure. I scanned the skyline and managed to pick it out over the ridge on the opposite side where it was soaring. With a couple of Buzzards nearby for size comparision it was an impressive sight! We watched it as it drifted across the reservoir and out of sight a little to the east of us over Pikenaze Moor. I was so pleased to have seen it flying and whilst I'd not had really close up views, I still felt like I'd now got a good sense of the bird. I duly reported its change of location on RBA and then decided to get on with the rest of my plans.

The most obvious target en route to home was the long-staying and confiding Red-backed Shrike at Sutton Park in Sutton Coldfield. Indeed several other county bloggers have already payed homage to this handsome bird. Thinking back, I couldn't recall having seen an adult male before and as Shrikes are generally the twitcher's friend, being usually very predictable and easy to connect with, it seems like an obvious target. I therefore set the Sat Nav accordingly and whiled away the two hours the journey took listening to Radio 4. 

I arrived and parked up in what turned out to be a very busy car park. Fortunately a returning  birder was able to point out which direction to go and indeed I could just see the distant group of twitchers. I duly set  off and arrived to find about ten fellow admirers all standing around a crab apple tree where the bird was immediately visible, low down in one of the bottom branches. It was feeding by spying out small prey items from this tree, swooping down for them and then back into the tree to devour them. Whenever it was in a position where it wasn't obscured everyone would pap away like crazy. It was indeed a very smart bird though in the overcast conditions the light made for less than ideal photographic conditions.

The Red-backed Shrike in its original tree

I too joined in the papping frenzy though I did notice that my fellow admirers were rather overzealous and would keep pushing forward to what I felt were ridiculously close distances. The bird seemes a bit put out by this and eventually moved location a short distance to a bunch of brambles in front of some gorse. When this happened one lady (a bit more of an RSPB'er rather than a photo birder) moved right up to the tree itself so as to be closer to its new location, so now it couldn't get back to its tree. So instead it flew higher up to a different tree and the phalanx of photographers duly gathered around. It was all getting rather distasteful to my mind and I decided that I wasn't really enjoying this bird harassment and headed back to the car.

The bird forced to its new location

Back at the car I spent some time drinking tea, eating some cake that I'd brought with me and contemplating life in general. Then it was time to fire up the Quattro and head off on the hour and a half last leg of the journey. I arrived back at Casa Gnome early afternoon for a late lunch and a chance to catch up with the rest of the family. It had been another successful Durham run.


Old Caley said...

Good read Adam. We also did the Lammergeier (luckier in that it was at Black Tor for us) and Shrike double a couple of weeks ago. In true form though, my blog won't be out for another couple of weeks yet!

Adam Hartley (Gnome) said...

Looking forward to reading it Nick!

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