Monday, 20 March 2017

Durham Run, March 2017

It was time to fetch Daughter #1 back down from Durham again. I thought that I'd more or less weaned my two daughters off relying on me for a Uni taxi service but it seems that there's been a bit of a relapse. Anyway, in the weeks leading up to the trip I was keeping a keen eye on birdy goings-on up in the North East. Naturally, the number one target on which I was fixating up there had been the long-staying Pine Bunting just outside York. This would be a lifer for me and seemed to be being seen fairly regularly each day so I was keeping my fingers firmly crossed that it would linger long enough for me to see it. However, it was not to be: exactly a week before my departure it was reported first thing on Saturday morning but not ever again. What's more, on Bird Forum someone said that they saw a Sparrowhawk fly into the hedge where the Bunting was sitting and then fly out again with a bird in its talons so it's possible that it was taken in this way. Anyway, whatever happened to it, it wasn't going to be an option for me so I had to re-set my targets for the trip. In the end I decided on the very long-staying Easter Black Redstart at Skinningrove in Cleveland. Whilst this is officially only a sub-species of our own Black Redstart, it is generally considered that this is a rather poor classification and it should really be split. Moreover, even if it didn't represent a tick for me (I'd seen the one at Mousehole right on the last day of last year anyway), they were always such lovely looking birds to see. What's more, due to on-going problems sleeping I didn't have a great deal of energy to go running after some half chance bird sightings so something nailed down and certain and fairly close to Durham would very much suit my purposes. So with that in mind, on Saturday morning at around 9 a.m. I set off on the long slog up north. The traffic wasn't too bad and with the radio for company gradually the miles slipped away on the familiar route northwards until at junction 49 I turned off the M1 towards Thirsk and fired up the Sat Nav. This took me along increasingly small roads into the rather featureless countryside of the area. I recognised some bits from previous trips to the area as I drove along. Eventually the Sat Nav took me off the main road onto a minor road leading towards the parking area at the mouth of the Skinningrove Beck as it spilled out onto the beach. As I tooled up I surveyed the rather bleak coastal scenery there: in the overcast conditions it was all rather austere and grim though mercifully underneath the lowering cliffs we were nicely sheltered from the prevailing biting westerly winds.

The rather austere and grim northern coastline at Skinningrove
Pleased finally to be out of the car I walked the hundred yards or so along the coastal path towards the jetty which was home for the winter to the Eastern Blck Redstart, looking at the scenery and coastal flora as I went.

Reflexed Stonecrop - a naturalised garden escape, growing in the car park

There was quite a lot of Coltsfoot growing next to the path 
There were some loafing gulls and Oystercatchers down on the beach to my right and I gave them a quick scan but there was nothing of note.  A perky Stonechat posed nicely on some rocks just before I reached the jetty, enough to tempt me to get out my camera though the lighting was terrible.

Perky Stonechat
I soon reached the jetty, rather familiar to me thanks to the blog posts of previous visitors. There were a couple of other birders wandering about and clearly not looking at anything in particular so I went over to chat. It turned out that they'd not seen the bird so far though they'd not been around that long. As it had been reported "still present" on RBA morning I wasn't particularly worried about it, feeling confident that it would turn up in due course. 

The Skinningrove jetty, home to the Eastern Black Redstart
I wandered along the base of the jetty keeping a careful look-out for movement. A few Rock Pipits were kicking about and my first Wheatear of the year turned up, posing on top of the jetty for a while before heading up into the imposing cliffs behind us where nest-building Fulmars were circling, their cries a constant backdrop to the scene.

My first Wheatear of the year
After I while I noticed that one of the birders had wandered along the beach a bit and was looking at something intently on the sand by the strand-line, quite close to him. I looked over with my bins: "was that a Shorelark he was looking at?" I mused. I hurried over to find that a lovely first winter Snow Bunting was hopping about close by, in the confiding manner that is so typical of this species. I spent some time taking photos of this charming bird.

First winter Snow Bunting
Suddenly a bit of movement in the Sallows behind the Bunting caught the eye of the other birder who exclaimed "I've got the Redstart" and sure enough there it was skulking around in the middle of the Sallows and sitting on top of a sand dune. Relieved, we watched and waited for it to come out into the open a bit more.

After a while it duly obliged and posed quite nicely though the light was still terrible. It even sang for us and I manged to capture a bit of video with it singing.

Then suddenly, it flew off back towards the jetty area where I'd originally been expecting it. I wandered back over there and with a bit of patience it soon came nice and close where I was able to get some better photos.

...posing nicely by the jetty
When it flew off again back towards the Sallows I decided that I'd had enough and wandered back towards the car. I'd not got any definite plans after having seen this bird other than making my way over to my daughter's place in time for the kick-off of the rugby between England and Ireland at 5 p.m. For England there was quite a bit at stake: not only would it make back-to-back Six Nations grand slams but it would also be the record for the number of consecutive wins for any rugby nation, a title which England currently jointly held with New Zealand. Ireland on the other hand would relish the opportunity to piss on England's parade so I was expecting a tense match. On the birding front I had done some research and had unearthed some Lapland Buntings nearby though as they'd not been reported all week they were a long shot. So in the end I decided to head over towards Durham and just to nip into a nearby local reserve at Rainton Meadows just to see what it was like. I'd only got to hear about the reserve when a Snow Bunting was reported there the previous day but looking on their web site I'd seen a nice photo of a Yellow Star-of-Bethlehem flower posted there so I thought that I'd go to see if I could find it. The Sat Nav took me there easily enough though I'd seen on their web page that the site closed some time after 4 p.m. so I didn't have a great deal of time. In the event I arrived at a little after half past three. I quickly went to find out where I might find this flower only to discover that the Wildlife Trust reception was shut at the weekend and there was no one to ask. In the end I decided just to have a quick wander about and went over to look at the nearby bird hide which overlooked some pools, There were just a few bits and pieces on the pools, nothing of note and no sign of any Buntings so I headed back to the car. 

Back at the car park I heard some chirping in the bushes that was just sufficiently different from House Sparrow to have me wondering about Tree Sparrow instead and sure enough I soon found quite a few of them lurking in the bushes. As this is sadly quite a rarity in Oxfordshire these days I spent a little while trying to take some snaps of them though in the gloomy and fading light it wasn't easy.

Tree Sparrows are relatively common up in the North East
Then it was over to Durham to veg out with my daughter. We watched the rugby whilst eating take-out pizza. It was a tense match as predicted and Ireland managed to shut England out of the game to take a well-deserved win. Shame about the record but you couldn't but admire Ireland's passion. Actually my daughter, who has Irish citizenship thanks to my VLW's father, was supporting Ireland anyway so at least one of us came away happy. As she and her boyfriend were going out to the cinema that evening I soon left and headed back to the car and up the motorway again to my lodgings for the night. This was an Air B'nB place in Washington, part of the vast urban sprawl that surrounds the Tyne area. The Sat Nav took me straight there and I was soon chatting away to my hostess for the night, a very talkative and friendly lady who was soon filling me in on all the details of her life. At around 10 p.m. I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer and headed up to bed for the night.

The next morning, after as good a night as one can expect when sleeping away from home I grabbed a quick breakfast and headed out the door. My daughter wanted to get back home relatively quickly to catch up with Daughter #2 who was down chez nous for the weekend before heading back to Swansea University for a few more weeks. I just had one bird target lined up for this morning which was a few Waxwings that had yesterday been reported quite close by to where I was staying so I thought that I'd go and take a look. After stopping off for petrol I was soon doing the Waxwing curb crawl down a quiet residential cul-de-sac in Oxclose. I couldn't obviously seen any of them so I parked up half way down and searched the area again on foot. Eventually I found a total of three of these beauties, hiding in a small tree and feeding unusually surreptitiously for Waxwings. Instead of sitting on a lofty perch before making a sortie into the berries, these three were just sitting quietly in their tree and feeding away. It was quite hard to get a decent photo as they were well bedded down in the centre of the tree but eventually I got a good line of sight to one of them and was able to get off some shots though the bird was in deep shade so I had to crank up the exposure.

The last of the winter Waxwings
With the Waxwings in the bag I headed back onto the motorway on the short hop down to Durham. There I met up with my daughter (and the boy friend whom I finally got to meet - he seemed very nice) and we loaded the car up with her bags. Then it was back onto the motorway for the long slog home. I caught up on her news as we drove down, stopped off to pick up some lunch and then listened to the radio as the miles slipped by. Eventually at around 1:30 p.m. we arrived back, in time for our two daughters to catch up with each other before #2 had to head off again. 

Reflecting on the trip, it had been a fairly low key trip up north but at this time of year it was only to be expected. Still it had been nice to see my second Eastern Black Redstart (which is still a massive rarity in this country) and with a modest supporting cast it had been a pleasant enough trip.