Sunday, 11 November 2012

Here today, Gone Tomorrow.

Looks like I got it right with the waxwings at Blaydon, a report of over 200 yesterday but today they were nowhere to be found, apart from one solitary individual darting out to catch flies from the top of a poplar, as there are now no berries to be found, trees and bushes stripped bare by the voracious visitors from Scandinavia as I feared they might be by now, so I'm well pleased I took the chance on Friday to seek them out.

A poor morning all round as we sat freezing in the far Pasture hide waiting for the otters to appear (they didn't), and a reported long-eared owl roost was a no show too, though we were slightly compensated by a good number of redwings and a single fieldfare at the site.

So the one remaining Blaydon waxwing was our only goodie of the morning, though further reports came from elsewhere in the borough so still time to catch up with a few more yet. Meantime here are some cracking close-ups of the Blaydon mob by Steven 'Ace' Fryer.


Saturday, 10 November 2012

The Blaydon Aces

Waxwing numbers have been growing at Blaydon by the day, our paltry 3 last Sunday had grown to a count of 112 by Friday morning, a number I found too irresistable to miss in case I wasn't going to get out at the weekend or they'd eaten all the berries and moved on by then, so out came the trusty chariot and off I pedalled up the Derwent Walk to seek them out, starting the journey well as 9 crossbills flew over my head as I waited to cross the busy road to the entrance of the park.

I don't like to do things the easy way so when I got to Swalwell instead of  taking my usual route past Shibdon Pond and straight through to the shopping centre and station (5 mins?) I decided to go along the cycle route and check out the Tyne which should bring me out behind the station. Somehow I got lost (twice) and managed to add half an hour onto my journey and as no waxwings were present when I did get there, cycled back and forth along a busy town centre looking very suspicious dressed all in black and sporting binoculars (especially to those peering at me out of MacDonalds).

Getting a bit pee'd off after another half hour had passed without results, looked at my clock and decided to give it another five minutes, and hey presto, the unmistakeable loose bounding formation of 100 + waxwings suddenly appeared in trees 200 yds away (where I had been just minutes earlier)

So I spent the next forty minutes following them around as they fed then rested, fed then rested, getting some glorious view-filling sights as they sped past me to their next roost, jingling sound filling the air, yellow tailbands like rear lights in the gloom. I couldn't get close enough for any decent photos in the poor light but got some group shots from various angles before just taking pleasure in watching them preen, squabble, and eat. Magnificent birds, just can't get enough of them.

I took my leave eventually, and spotted another group of 23 by the entrance to Blaydon cemetery, though the journey home was a bit of a nightmare after that. I haven't been on such a long ride for yonks and my fitness (or lack of it) started to tell on the way back as I was also up against a mostly uphill track and an increasingly strong wind. I took advantage of every stopping point I could think of, got good views of  a grey wagtail and dipper at the damhead, but stepped in some dogs**t (a really massive one as well) as I walked with my bike, then as I stopped to search a finch flock around Kite Hill got into an argument with some dogowners when their four mutts attacked me without even so much as an apology.

Six red kites and a buzzard were viewed from the viaduct, then the final slog home and a nice cup of earl grey as I downloaded my photos to discover 163 waxwings in one frame, and I didn't get all of them so the number must be approaching 200 by now!

About the closest I got, a tad gloomy to say the least

If you can be bothered to count, there are 163 waxwings
in this photo

A nice group shot showing a bit of their handsome plumage

And a bit closer shows crest, face mask, wings and tail colours,
superb birds.

So anyway my estimated two-hour trip eventually took a huge chunk out of my day, but was it worth it? you betcha!   

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Remember, Remember, the 4th of November.

A day that will stick long in the memory I'm sure, with three of my favourite birds seen in a matter of hours.

The most spectacular and most bizarre was a European Bee-eater which had found its way to my home town of Sunderland in early November! today its third in the Seaburn area (a regular drinking haunt of mine in years gone by, ah memories . . .) but I digress, the bird was quickly located and though highly mobile gave excellent views all along its new-found territory, a good 20 minutes at our site as it fended off the attention of local blackbirds, my record shot hardly does justice to its amazing rainbow plumage.

Next, back to Gateshead and with an influx of waxwings and 11 seen at Shibdon Pond yesterday we checked a few of the most regular spots for the species and turned up trumps at the second attempt with 3 in trees along the central reservation on the busy road outside Blaydon Station. Again my record shots don't do this spectacular winter visitor justice but fantastic to see at this early stage of the season.

We next decided to pop back to Shibdon Pond for a while for a celebratory cup of tea/coffee from our respective flasks, and our third highlight was excellent views of a water rail, another of my favourites, as it teased us in and out of the undergrowth along the channel to the left of the hide, eventually making a dash right past in front over the iced over water.

So three cracking birds in one day, best days birding in a long while. And if you want to see how those birds really look, take a gander at some proper photos by Steven 'Ace' Fryer :

      If in any doubt, from the top : Bee-eater in flight, Bee-eater at rest, Waxwing tucking in to berries, Water Rail playing hide and seek.   

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Season 2012 Review

Well that's October over and done with, and with the weather deteriorating day by day I think it's finally time to declare the 2012 Dragonhunting season over.
It's been a strange one but not without a good few highlights. After taking a while to get going (do I have to mention the spring rains again?) the early season highlight was getting some cracking shots of a male broad-bodied chaser, and on the same day I got male banded demoiselle as well, so two of my early season targets in one go.
I next caught up with black-tailed skimmer, the only Gateshead dragon to elude me last year, with the added bonus of a mating pair so getting both sexes at once.
On the downside, numbers were well down on 2011, though I was disappointed not to get back to Kibblesworth after the skimmers as it wasn't checked much by anyone later in the season, again mainly down to the weather not being agreeable when my limited opportunities arose.

In my home valley, Far Pasture was a tale of two halves, with not a single four-spotted chaser being seen all summer, small numbers of damsels were the only attraction early on, right up until mid August when the first darters appeared, but late season it was excellent for numbers of species seen with common, southern and migrant hawkers present, and plenty of photo opportunities for common and ruddy darter, and of course the late season black darter was a tremendous find, meaning I've now recorded 15 of the regular 16 Gateshead dragons here since 2006.
My other favourite site locally, Thornley woods Pond, was as usual excellent viewing for Southern Hawkers, with all sorts of behaviour witnessed, great entertainment and some canny photos to boot.
Another double up of highlights was mid-September at Burdon Moor, with several Black Darters present and some cracking photos of a male Southern Hawker, who posed beautifully for us on the trunk of a tree.     
Outside of Gateshead, more black darters at Cragside in Northumberland, and my first ever female here, and an unforgettable Golden-ringed Dragonfly at Pow Hill Country Park, Derwent reservoir.

So that's it then, once again mixed feelings, superb highlights but not enough of them, and proposed visits to sites out of the area to catch up with new species just never materialised thanks to the weather being poor when the opportunities were there. Frustrating, but there's always next year.

Over the winter I'll keep posting anything that might be of interest, either dragonfly specific or of wildlife in general, and here's hoping the coming months bring a few Waxwings, my favourite avian winter visitor.


Friday, 19 October 2012

Otter surprise!!!

Mid-October, a mix of rain and shine and decent afternoon temperatures means the dragons are still showing well. The only site visited locally remains Far Pasture and am having some excellent sorties there.
Last Sunday took a couple of the little 'uns down. Initially caught in a downpour we sheltered under a tree along the Derwent Walk which we quickly found to be a minefield of dogturds, never seen so many in a small space, when the rain subsided managed to negotiate the sprogs safely out of it but came a cropper myself, now I've nowt against dogs per se but bloody ignorant dogowners are the scourge of the countryside (rant over).
By the time we got to Far Pasture the sun was out nice and the bird ringers were in the car park, kind enough to show us some birds as they released them back into the wild, a lovely little goldcrest (male as shown by his orange crest) a fiesty blue tit (as shown by the peck marks in the ringers fingers,) and a crackin' little treecreeper, you just don't appreciate how tiny and delicate these birds are 'til you see them up close like this, cheers to the ringing crew, much appreciated.
Anyway to the pond and nice to see a few pairs of common darter ovipositing and a male migrant hawker on patrol, then on the way home sprog2 pointed out a grey squirrel on the road ahead and I just glimpsed a fox as it turned tail and disappeared into the woods. A canny mornings entertainment.

Next visit wasn't until Thursday and what a treat this turned out to be. Whizzing through the dragon sightings, several pairs of common darter ovipositing still, a male migrant hawker on patrol and a female southern hawker briefly.
But the session was taken up by the increasingly regular otters, a mother and cub, my third sighting in as many weeks and this one by far the best as they stayed on site for well over an hour, enthralling me and a few others lucky enough to be present with their playing and fishing antics.
A great thrill to see these superb creatures at close quarters, seemingly without a care in the world as they go about their business, top predator on the pond and scaring the life out of the assembled wildfowl without actually bothering any of them. What they were feeding on remains a mystery but they fed regularly on small prey, and for once I was able to photograph them as they came much closer than on my previous sightings.

Otter eating unknown prey
And then there were two
I showed Sprog1 these photos and asked him if he knew what they were. . .
. . . . he said . . ."dolphins"

. . . .and then he said . . "hippopotamus"

. . . . "shark"

and finally . . . "monkey"
He has a lot to learn about british Wildlife.

And at one point, when the sun was at its brightest, a Noctule bat came hunting over the pond, another first for me and a cracking view as it took out the early afternoon insects ,hunting for a good few minutes and for a while even the otters took a back seat at this surreal little cameo.

The noctule at Far Pasture
(pic. by Roly Ingram)

 Unfortunately for me I was on school pick-up duty so had to tear myself away with the otters still on site. A quick visit to the secret pond and a male southern hawker was the only dragon on view today, but what a superb session, sometimes just checking on the dragons brings brilliant good fortune !  

Update : One of the other lucky wildlife-watchers present informed me later that the otters were still showing well at 4.30pm when he had to leave, some two hours after I'd departed, what a show !        

Tuesday, 9 October 2012


The decent weather has kept up, though overnight frosts may have been detrimental to the late season dragonflies. At the weekend a family trip to Gibside gave sighting of 3 ovipositing pairs of common darter at the Orangery pond, and another pair formed a mating wheel down by the river, but sadly the usually busy Lily Pond was devoid of all dragons as the season nears its end.

Itching to pay another visit to the 'secret' pond, I got my chance today. And in the crisp sunshine there was again a frenzy of mating and ovipositing with at least 18 tandem pairs counted and many individual males.
I also think I discovered the reason for the 'explosion' of dragonflies which brought it to my attention in the first place (see previous post), as when an unattached female came on the scene she was immediately mobbed by the large gathering of single males which came at her from all directions, forcing her skywards with a trail of would-be suitors not far behind, like iron filings attracted to a magnet.
As the mating frenzy continued another female was grabbed by three males on the ground pond-side, one clasped her around the neck to form a tandem as the melee continued. The female didn't seem too pleased, she clung on to a large piece of wood chipping for dear life but her mate dragged both her and the wood into the air, low across the pond before she eventually ditched it, never seen that before!
No hawkers present today unfortunately (maybe the frost has taken its toll after all), the only one seen being a female migrant briefly at far pasture, where otherwise just 3 pairs of darters completed the dragon count.
Other creatures of note today were a couple of bank voles, a common toad and a weasel, which proved too flighty to photograph but I enjoyed watching its antics all the same.

Some photos of the day's events:

Common toad at Far Pasture
warty skin and slit-like pupils as opposed to the
smooth skin and circular pupils of the frog.

Bank Vole at Far Pasture
one of two present, and boy did they fight!

Common Darter at Far Pasture
sitting atop the car park barrier, one of my best shots of the year

Tandem Common Darters
One of 18 active pairs at one site, and another decent flight shot! 

A Love Triangle ?

And maybe time to reflect over the summer

Looks like it's going to turn cooler after tomorrow, disappointed with the lack of hawkers today I fear the dragonhunting season is all but over for 2012, but will keep taking any opportunities I might get to seek out the stragglers.

Return to Summer, and a new Discovery . . .

Last week was a wet, chilly, typically autumnal week with little prospect of dragonhunting....until Thursday when it was a pleasant surprise to find the sun shining. I really couldn't be bothered to venture out very far however thanks to the littlest'un keeping us awake half the night, but with dragonhunting sessions now at a premium I had to get out somewhere, so Far Pasture beckoned again.
I'd been down there earlier in the week during a heavy shower and was rewarded with another sighting of the regular otters there, again distant but at least they hung around for a while this time, playing and fishing, but needless to say no dragons on view thanks to the inclement weather.

The two playful otters at Far Pasture, a magical experience for
anyone to observe.
Pic taken earlier that day by Roly Ingram
Today the hide was freezing, even the intermittent bouts of sunshine couldn't warm the place up, and I spent almost two hours there with just a few pairs of common darter as entertainment, as sadly the otters decided not to turn up on this occasion. But still time to try and seek out some dragons before making my way back home to real life.
My leaving the hide co-incided with a good sunny spell and a fantastic discovery! Midway inside a field beyond a gate which I often pass, a sudden explosion of dragonflies caught my attention, quite a lot in a small area, maybe a basking area I thought, but whatever, curiosity got the better of me so I jumped the gate and followed a track for no more than 50 metres, then couldn't believe my eyes as it suddenly opened up to a secret pond, nay an oasis, and I was immediately transported back to summer, the place was absolutely teeming with dragonflies in a frenzy of ovipositing! At least 16, perhaps 20 pairs of common darters in tandem, more singles busily scouring for mates, and males of migrant hawker and southern hawker patrolling too, what a discovery!
Pair of Common Darters in the mating wheel
One of maybe 24 pairs observed in the area that day
Above me soared three buzzards, a red kite, a sparrowhawk and a kestrel in quick succession, and over 20 swallows heading south. A singing chiffchaff complemented the summer scene before a female southern hawker zipped in and started ovipositing on the nearside bank of the pond.
The male southern hawker also returned and gave some exquisite views as he hovered in short bursts in the bright sunshine.
Female Southern hawker ovipositing next to the secret pond
What a bonus!

So really worth turning out today. A quick return to summer, and a new site to keep an eye on next year, though I will have to seek permission to record here in the future for the BDS.       

Thursday, 27 September 2012

A little otter than yesterday

Late September and there's been some rotten weather to contend with lately, we got off lightly hereabouts considering the flooding nationwide. But the latest two days of constant rain did flood the river for a time, as these photos from yesterday show.

The river Derwent in flood

Torrent at the damhead
usually no more than a trickle of water down the slope
A Grey Heron tries a spot of fishing away from the rapids 

A quick visit to Far Pasture also showed an abrupt rise in water level on the ponds, but the break in the rain had brought out maybe 15 pairs of common darters in a frenzy of ovipositing, and a single ruddy darter was also seen at the usual roadside spot.

Today I chanced another visit to Far Pasture, encouraged by a much brighter late morning. On arrival I found the water had subsided back to normal levels overnight and there were even more common darters out than yesterday, at least 20 pairs, a good count for this late in the season. A southern hawker (male) was seen too before the showers crept in and sent them all into cover.

But the atmosphere on the pond changed as the fifteen or so loafing mallards on a mudflat island towards the back of the pond suddenly became alert to something over in  the far corner, obviously some sort of threat as two little grebes flung themselves away from the direction of their gaze and scampered up onto the island with them, unusual to see these little fluffballs out of the water.
Then slight panic as the object of their waryness came into view, but fantastic for me! Two otters (presume mother and cub) swimming from right to left at the back of the pond. The ducks ushered themselves to the furthest point away on the island, muttering quietly to themselves but not taking their eyes off the otters as the two animals glided past the island and into the reeds, sending a couple of moorhen scattering as they did.

The mallards look on nervously just before the otters swim past
behind the island (note the little grebe front right)

Great to see, my first sighting since back in 2007, though they have been logged here quite often recently. And unfortunately, as otter sightings go it wasn't the best, as that was the last I saw of them, but still a thrill.
I did think my luck was in though, when around ten minutes later I noticed thick vegetation moving as something large trailed through it, and was surprised when a young red fox peered out of the reeds at me. Disappointed it wasn't the otters but I still enjoyed the fox as it was only the second I've seen this year I think, and at least I had better views as it was quite close to the hide and moved slowly around to the left where I lost it in the thicker reedbed, but was difficult to photograph as it was constantly on the move.

And this was the best pic I could get of the fox,
but a treat to see all the same.

Not much else happened after that as the showers got heavier, I eventually left during a break in the rain and had a brief sighting of another hawker along the road. Can't be positive of the ID but did get the impression of a turquoise hue as it sped past me, a trait indicative of a common hawker in such situations, and unlucky for me as it zipped over the bushes and onto the pond which I'd just left!

So the dragonhunting season is all but over now. I can only hope for an Indian summer like last year but truthfully can't see the weather improving much, though if chance arises the only targets I will be looking for are females of black darter and migrant hawker, I haven't got decent photographs of either yet so fingers crossed !!   

Wednesday, 19 September 2012


A site first for me today when I spied a male Black Darter at Far Pasture. Unfortunately too distant to photograph (believe me I tried) but had great views of him through my bins as he patrolled the front edge of the island to the right of the hide, coming to rest on the shoreline, occasionally darting up to skirmish with passing common darters.

As far as I know there's only been one record at the site previously, back in September 2006 and I've been keeping an eye out in late season there ever since so a very pleasing find.

Of course it doesn't mean they are breeding here, they are a nomadic species prone to wandering from pond to pond, the males will spend a couple of days at a new site but if no females appear they will then move on elsewhere. I would hope to go down again tomorrow to see if he's still there but the forecast is for an all day downpour so the prospects not good.

Nevertheless I'm well happy with that, late season just gets better and better!

Other dragons on site :
A good count of over 30 common darters, at least 6 pairs ovipositing.
Single Southern Hawker (male) seen briefly
Single Migrant hawker (male) hawking roadside trees
Two emerald damsels on the pond.


Monday, 17 September 2012

A bit of this and that . . . .

After the excitement of last Sunday and Tuesday the rest of the week and this weekend failed to reach any great heights.
A spur of the moment visit to Far Pasture on Friday (14th) gave me an interesting sighting of a common hawker male on the pond (first I've noted here for about four years) also a male southern hawker was circumnavigating the pond, along with 6-7 common darters (1 pair ovipositing) and 3 emerald damsels.
Probably a dozen or more common darters on and around the access road (at least 10m 2f) but no ruddy darters seen today. I reeled off about 30 photos but nothing particularly exciting, the only curiosity being this specimen with a missing wing, though it didn't seem to do affect him much as I never noticed 'til I looked at the photo.

Common darter at Far Pasture
Note the left forewing is no more than a stump. Lucky escape from
one of the local swallows perhaps?

On Saturday a scooter ride with the kids around the Derwent Walk Country Park gave me an opportunistic 10 hawker sightings consisting of 1 female southern, 2 female migrants, 4 male migrants, 2 probable male migrants and a large flypast hawker which remains unidentified.
Again I tried my hand at capturing flight photos, my only near success was this one of two male migrants at Clockburn Lake outlet stream, which is also my first migrant photo of the year!

Migrant Hawker (male) at clockburn lake
The antehumeral 'pip' rather than stripe probably the easiest
ID feature to separate from common hawker.  

To show how it's done properly here are a couple of shots taken by 'Indiana' Steve early in the week at Shibdon Pond.

Migrant Hawker (male) at Shibdon Pond
Antehumeral pips much more apparent on these photos taken
by a 'proper' photographer
(S. Fryer) 

One sad fact about Saturday at the outlet stream was that there were no damsels present, the season is ended for all but a few emeralds now. Interestingly the snaps of the late Azure and Large Red damsels at Thornley Woods Pond I took on the 5th were both later than recorded in the whole of Britain last year when (according to BDS stats) the last azure was seen in Bucks.on the 1st, and the last large red was sighted in Kent on the 3rd. Remembering that last September was a complete washout though i'm not surprised.

The only other dragon to report this week was a male ruddy darter today at the walled garden pond in Gibside during a brief visit in overcast and blustery conditions.
I'll finish this round-up with another photo from Steve, this one of the male southern hawker which posed for us so well at Burdon Moor last week.

Southern Hawker (male) at Burdon Moor




Tuesday, 11 September 2012

If you go down to the woods today . . . .

A bit of business at Thornley Woodlands Centre gave me the opportunity to check out the dragonfly pond in the woods there for perhaps the last time this year. I love this intimate little site as I've said before, there's none better for getting up close and personal with Southern Hawker, and today was no exception. It was surprisingly sunny when I arrived and being completely sheltered from the blustery wind I was quite hopeful of some late season action.

Thornley Woods Pond
Superb for observing Southern hawkers
No sooner had I arrived when a patrolling male connected with a female hiding in the right-hand margins, the mating wheel was formed and after a couple of undulating laps of the pond, up they went, rather haphazardly into the treetops for the mating ritual.
A couple of minutes later another female came to the pond to oviposit (obviously a different individual as unlike humans, coupling in this species takes over an hour).
She settled on a half-submerged branch and probed with her abdomen to find suitable nooks and crannies in which to lay her eggs. She remained there for the next hour at least (she was still there when I left) giving me ample opportunity to take photos, though later I found a lot were spoiled by the incredibly strong sunlight ( I just can't win).


I spotted two common darters before the next hawker arrived, this time a male southern, who began a thorough search of the pond margins. I hoped he wouldn't spot the ovipositing female as they're not unknown to disturb the egg-laying process and force the female into mating again. But before long another male came on the scene, cue the inevitable scuffle, a fight which unusually went on for some time, I think because the first male had only just arrived on the scene himself so he wasn't going to give up his session at the pond lightly, had he been there a while he most likely would have submitted and zipped off without too much fuss.
One of the males eventually gave up the fight but like on my previous visit, the scene was set for an afternoon of territorial scrapping, with at least four different males on site.
Despite my less than successful previous attempts I still decided to try for some flight shots of the males who as usual flew tirelessly during their stint at the pond without settling, but amazingly one in particular seemed more curious of me than the others and repeatedly hovered right in front of my camera, often too close for me even to focus on him, with the result I at last got some half decent flight shots. (Yes I even shocked myself!)

I couldn't believe how sharp this one turned out as I still
had the camera on macro setting! 

If I didn't know better I'd say this feller was posing for the camera,
for a time he just wouldn't leave me alone!

Another female arrived, possibly the one seen earlier come back to the pond after mating to lay her eggs, as rather than taking refuge in the vegetation to await a suitor, she looked like she was looking for suitable egg-laying sites. Unfortunately for her there were now three randy males on the scene, two of which were busy fighting each other, but the third spotted the newcomer and chased her around until he was able to clasp on to her and carry her off up into the trees for another bout of mating, poor lass!

Still time for a grand finale though, as the remaining male on site actually landed at the back of the pond, hanging vertically (as they do) from a clump of dead leaves dangling among the brambles, and stayed there long enough for me to take a few snaps of his colourful armour in all its glory.

Unbelievable, you wait all year for one then two come along in three days, still I'm not complaining, I'm pleased to say late season is serving up some cracking dragonhunting!