Sunday, 26 January 2014

Big Garden Cock-up . . .

Meant to do the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch yesterday but it all went tits up. My own fault really, didn't bother to count first thing (peak period) as I intended to put some cheese and raisins down later as a bit of encouragement, but went to the shops and forgot two essential ingredients (Cheese and Raisins) and by then it started to rain quite heavy so didn't bother as nothing was coming in to feed anyway.
Weather this morning was even worse, but as I spent most of it in Shibdon Hide watching basically a Ruff and some Lapwings it didn't really matter anyway.
Home again and it eased up a bit so took advantage of the break in the weather to do the count, with the following results :

Goldfinch 14
Chaffinch 5
Blackbird 3
Wood Pigeon 3
Dunnock 2
Magpie 2
Siskin 1
Robin 1

Not a great total, tits notably absent, and the local house sparrow troop could be seen in the trees over the way but never ventured into our side hedge where they normally congregate.
Also not long after I finished I noticed the female Brambling on the ground under the feeder, polishing off crumbs. Sod's Law.

There's always next year.

Friday, 24 January 2014

More Garden Goodies . . .

After txting the Birdman the other day when I had a blackcap and tree sparrow in quick succession in the garden, he replied "Brambling next?"
So no real surprise then when a small band of chaffinches visiting early on this morning had this smart female brambling with them. I first spotted her in the cherry tree with about half a dozen chaffies then they all came down and fed on the ground. Ten minutes later they were gone and haven't been back since.

Brambling (female) from earlier today

Another visitor I was pleased to see was a greenfinch yesterday. Hardly a significant sighting you might think but it was to me, as over the last few years the finch disease avian trichomonosis has really taken its toll on this species locally. Just four years ago it was commonplace to get flocks of around a dozen greenfinches, chaffinches and goldfinches daily in the garden during the winter. Goldfinch numbers are still the same, chaffinches are reduced by about half as they are another species greatly affected by the disease, but greenfinches have been all but wiped out locally, yesterday's female only the third I can remember over the last twelve months! Reading statistics from 2010 we'd lost about half a million birds out of an estimated four million population, a significant proportion, may well be worse figures now.

The chaffinch with the gammy legs is still holding on, though for how much longer I don't know. Still fluttering from place to place he now rests on his belly on landing, legs must be very weak. Has a good appetite still though and flies off easily enough when the need arises.

Only other new bird on the feeding station today was a Jackdaw (my favourite corvid), touching down briefly to pinch a piece of apple, though I almost had a red kite on my garden list as one swooped in low past the kitchen window, no more than 8ft off the ground as it almost touched the point of the greenhouse roof with its flailing talons as it passed by. Gave me a bit of a start actually but a great 'wow' moment.

It's the RSPB garden bird count this weekend, had it been last weekend I probably would have had 4 goldies, 2 chaffies, 2 blackbirds, a robin and a dunnock. Now the birds have found the feeding station I'm hoping for a lot better, but its traditional for them to go missing on this weekend so it might still be about the same. Wait and see.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Winter Warblers and Garden Goodies

It was back on 16th December I noted a rather drab-looking chiffchaff in Far Pasture car-park and without seeing it particularly well I assumed it was of the Scandinavian abietinus race and left it at that.
I saw it again last Tuesday (first time I'd been back since) when I noted two birds of the species, one certainly greenish and the other the drab grey/brown specimen again. The Birdman decided to take a look for his year-list and hinted it might be worth getting a better look to check if it's a Siberian race (tristis), so on rain-sodden Sunday we went and had another look (after the rain had stopped, obv.) and got better views as the skies brightened after mid-day, and having already swotted up on a few 'sibe' features we thought it an intriguing little bird, devoid of any green or yellow tones, which warranted further investigation.

So yesterday morning the Birdman used his photographic skills to get it on camera, and excellently so, capturing the diagnostic features to confirm it is indeed a Siberian race chiffchaff, which should really be wintering in India right now.

Siberian Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita tristis
Steven Fryer
It ticks all the boxes for plumage ID as laid down by those who know these things; ie :

1. Absence of olive in the crown and mantle
2. Presence of a grey-brown or pale brown hue in the upperparts
3. Absence of yellow away from the underwing
4. Presence of warm buff in the supercilium and ear-coverts
5. Presence of buff at the breast-sides/flanks
6. Very black-looking bill and legs (at least in the field)

and it also has a very nice wing-bar (though not always present in this race) which isn't however particularly noticeable in the field on this bird. Plumage is variable in the tristis race and apparently the further east you go, the less yellow tones appear in the plumage, which would make this one very much an eastern bird.

Martin Garner (on Birding Frontiers) also has some in-depth research which suggests that my original assessment of it being an abietinus bird would be way off the mark, as study shows this to be an ultra-rare occurrence in Britain, (in fact winter birds of this race show much yellow on the underparts, it's the duller summer plumage which could get mistaken for tristis) and so basically any winter chiffchaff seen which isn't of the nominate race is likely to be a 'sibe' (though of course all this may change as more study is made into the extent of tristis/abietinus hybridisation ).
All this means the greyish bird which wintered at Far Pasture last year was most likely a 'sibe' as well, indeed maybe even the same bird.

Well if one winter warbler wasn't enough, I had a surprise visitor to the garden today in the form of a fine male Blackcap. Two fleeting visits was all, but I managed to get a typically shite photograph second time around as I now had my camera at the ready.

Blackcap (m) Sylvia atricapilla
Nice year tick . . . if I was keeping a list
He may have been attracted to the windfall apples still lying at the back of the garden, and I chopped up a fresh 'un and put it in the tray of my feeding station in hope of enticing him back, but to date no further sightings.
A second surprise came when I spied a Tree Sparrow on one of the shrubs, haven't seen one of these in the garden since the harsh winter of 2011, though I've noted a small group on occasions nearby.

Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
Second welcome surprise visitor of the morning
Also visiting the feeding station today 19xgoldfinch, 7xchaffinch, 4xsiskin, 2xblue tit, 3xblackbird, woodpigeon robin and dunnock.
One of the chaffinches however is looking a bit sorry for itself. He seems to have a fungal disease on his feet, getting progressively worse the last four days and now he isn't able to hop at all, just flutters around the ground. I was a bit worried it may be of risk to the other birds, but having looked it up it appears he is suffering from viral papilloma, a disease of the feet specific to chaffinches, and is only mildly contagious to them.

Looks like he's wearing white leg-warmers but is in fact
a fungal disease and not as nasty as it looks by all accounts.

It seemingly isn't fatal but he has great difficulty in gripping branches when he flies into the trees and I would think makes him particularly vulnerable to predators. He seems to always arrive with a female so I hope she can look after him, he has a healthy appetite anyway.

Can't wait to see what tomorrow brings . . .

Friday, 17 January 2014

Close Encounters of the Clawed Kind . . .

The LadySteps Damhead by Blaydon Tennis Club has made great viewing over the years in the autumn when the salmon and sea-trout are jumping, or as a stop-off any time of year there's always either a dipper, grey wag or kingfisher to keep you entertained (or even an otter on a couple of occasions).
I also once saw a lamprey climbing up the slope in the nearside shallows, I say climbing rather than swimming as it was using its sucker like a tool to inch its way up the slope against the strong current like a mountaineer would use an axe to make footholds up a mountain (well possibly not but you get my drift).
Anyhow it was fascinating to watch but unfortunately it was one of those days when I didn't have my camera, unlike the following occasion when I had my one and only encounter (to date) with a signal crayfish.

The water level was quite low this day (in October 2010) when I leaned over the fence and spotted what I at first thought was an escaped(?) lobster (honest it was massive) but of course it soon clicked that a lobster wouldn't survive in fresh water (ask Jimmy Somerville of Communards fame, d'oh!) and it must be a crayfish, though I really didn't expect to see one this size.   

Anyway it entertained me for some time and I caught the whole event on camera, so here are the brief photographic highlights. :

I first spotted it in the shallows in shadow of the wall
below the fence 

It must've taken offence at me taking photos as it started gesticulating
in my direction with its claws at the base of the wall . . .

. . . and started to climb out of the water towards me
up the sheer vertical wall !?!

Luckily for me its anger only got it so far up then it
fell backwards into the weir . . .

. . .where it picked itself up, dusted itself down, but had more
sense than to start all over again.

And after taking a few steps it stopped and snacked on a dead leaf,
where it remained up 'til the point I had to leave. 

So there it was, an interesting little scene, and for all the nastiness associated with this invasive predatory species it was still a memorable sighting, though as a dragonhunter I sometimes wonder what effect they have on numbers of banded demoiselle larvae in the river (though not much judging by the numbers seen last summer :)

So all that remains to ask is, was it Ronnie or Reggie?

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Hauntings . . .

Haunting I

Yesterday evening I volunteered to walk into the village for some essential provisions (bread and milk), and as is usual I went by way of the back lane running parallel to the dene over the road. I hadn't got far when an unholy din started up from the direction of the dene, extremely loud repeated screaming, like seagulls being tortured is how I would describe it (?). I thought something was in pain, whether being attacked by a cat, stoat or whatever, so I bravely (well it was dark down there y'know) went to investigate.
I obviously disturbed whatever was happening as I warily approached the brow of the dene, a few quieter whimpers, some rustling, and I glimpsed something darting past in front of me and away down the slope, size and colour as it slipped away through the half-light it must have been a fox though my mind was still in a state of confusion.

So later at home I googled fox sounds and after sifting through various calls and barks I found the torturous screams I'd been looking for, two vixens having a ritual fight, blood-curdling sounds; quite scary, in fact put it this way, had I been alone in the woods rather than skirting the edge of a dene just over the road from civilization, I would have ran in the opposite direction, probably only stopping to look for some paper ;)

If you want to hear the noise similar to what I experienced, follow this link and scroll down to the final video titled Red Fox Sounds. It plays a few calls then comes to a Ritual Fight between Two Vixens and is more or less spot on, only last night it was louder . . . MUCH louder, and darker . . . MUCH darker, and scarier . . . MUCH scarier  :O

Haunting II

This morning I went out to fill the feeder, and heard a distant pitiful fluting sound up above, instantly reminding me of the haunting sound of late-summer golden plover gathering on the white steels at Whitburn, evoking memories of when I frequented the coast in those days, the sound drifting up to the clifftops from below, yet the birds in question would be hardly visible with the naked eye, blending in perfectly with the exposed rocky shore as the tide began to creep in.
In fact if it wasn't for that haunting sound drifting up past your ears on the wind it would be easy to miss the birds altogether, but if something were to put them up you would suddenly be surrounded by a swirling mass of maybe 6000 birds filling your vision in every direction, one of those experiences which stick in the memory, great stuff.

But I digress; this morning that thought flashed through my head in an instant, I looked to the skies but could only see a few tiny pin-pricks of light twinkling in the bright sunshine really high-up. Binoculars needed, and I could hardly believe my eyes as way up in the sky there were hundreds and hundreds of golden plovers, some in small V formations, but mostly just scattered randomly. Wave after wave all heading in the same direction (roughly SW) their fluty calls barely audible. One group of maybe 500 birds passed over, then a few stragglers and yet another massive loose-flock stretching seemingly for miles, must've been easily over 2000 birds altogether, and the last few hundred broke off for some reason and headed east.
The height of them they must have been on migration though I would have thought a bit early, but what a sight, warmed the old cockles up no end! And a garden life-tick to boot: I was buzzing:)   

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Good Day at Flat Rock . . .

Needed some fresh air so biked down to Far Pasture late morning. The flat rock feeding station in the car park was well stocked and brought down a variety of tits (including a couple of willow), finches and nuthatch, all the better as at a range of only 4 feet I didn't need my binoculars, even the bank vole was gnawing on peanuts out in the open, (take my camera next time). Great to see wildlife unperturbed by my presence (as long as I kept still) and no wonder the photographers love it so much, though sadly I was told of one in particular who tries to lever up the rock with broken branches and rips out the rough brambles and ferns (cover for the feeding birds) to get a better picture. There's always one selfish get who gives the hobby a bad name (to the detriment of the wildlife).

A slightly larger rodent was using a run back and forth from a hole in the bank, kept on getting tantalising glimpses but enough to believe it was a field vole, so another one for the mammal list (if I was keeping one) 
And the ringers must be slipping, I saw at least two birds without rings on ;)

A quick look on the pond revealed the drake Pochard back in residence. A water rail heard but not seen and a scattering of mallards, teal and moorhens were the others on show.

A look along the trail was unproductive until suddenly I was surrounded by a noisy mixed flock of long-tailed tits and goldcrests, but closer inspection revealed a couple of chiffchaffs among them as well.

Good view of a low-flying buzzard and a couple of red kites completed a decent hour or so before I packed off home.

The Highlight of the trip though was seeing my old mate Roly walking about without aid of crutches or sticks after the successful operation on his spine back in December. Excellent News!

The Lowlight; another sodding puncture so I had to push the bike all the way home. Sod it!


Monday, 13 January 2014

Charming . . .

Been a slow start to the year watching-wise.
First day out since New Year's Day yesterday, a morning tour of the local sites with the Birdman et al. Everywhere was fairly quiet really, pick of the bunch were three Pink-feet in a flock of 100+ Greylags in fields near Lamesley, and a Common Seal seen swimming up-Tyne from Timber Beach.

The cold weather does nothing to encourage me to go out in the winter, and as I don't year-list or keep lists in general (life and garden are the only two) there's no motivation. Last year I did the Centurion list to keep me interested (100 species in 100 days) but something like that takes over your life so I'm not bothering this year.

Even the garden has been poor this winter probably due to the relatively mild season and abundance of natural food still. I had a single seed-feeder hanging from a shrub in the back garden for nine weeks before it was emptied, in the most part by a single Robin, which claimed it as his own and beat off anything which tried to use it (which wasn't much).
In fact the only birds I saw on the feeder during that period were four goldfinches (twice) a blue tit and a coal tit. All of which received a battering from the robin, in fact even a couple of blackbirds also received the same treatment and they were only pecking the ground near the feeder.

So in the new year I treated myself to a feeding station, and stocked it with sunflower hearts, peanuts, raisins, a coconut fat-ball thing and some water.

sunflower hearts,peanuts, fat-mix, water and raisins.
What more could a hungry bird want?

A whole week went by with just the bolshy Robin as a customer, but all change this morning as just after first light the feeder was awash with colour and activity as a charm of twelve Goldfinches came in for breakfast. The robin turned up in aggressive mood as usual but after a couple of melees gave in as each time he chased a couple off, more took their place.
A pair of chaffinches came in also, a dunnock, the two regular blackbirds, a single male house sparrow and finally a wood-pigeon, polishing off the fallen scraps.

Some of the colourful 'charm' of goldies
tuck in to some sunflower hearts . . .

. . . while others wait their turn from atop the cherry tree.
So at last a bit of activity in the garden, hope for more of the same tomorrow as it's a bit of entertainment while I make the kids lunch-boxes up.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

New Year's Day

Welcome 2014, and started it off with a tour of the west of the borough with the Birdman and associated cronies. Funny old morning, dipped on most of the target species, couldn't flush a Jacky or a Woodcock, and we all missed a female blackcap by a matter of seconds according to a couple we encountered. The 'guaranteed' willow tit at Far Pasture decided to have the day off and neither could we find the recent chiffchaff there.

My personal total of 59 included the undoubted highlight of 30+ brambling (over twice as many as I'd seen previously), followed by the resident ruff at Shibdon pond, a chiffchaff with a tit flock there (which no-one else saw:), and a small flock of tree sparrows (a species doing very well in Gateshead now).

The entertainment came in the usual form of persistent micky-taking, false calls, suppression, the ones that got away, and the competitive nature of the New Year list despite the fact that no-one was keeping a list (apparently they were just writing down what they'd seen (?)

So mostly common stuff, and the day ended early for most just after mid-day so didn't get time to go for crossbills, little owl, green woodpecker, pochard, which would have involved too much travelling, nor indeed could we spend too long at the sites for a thorough search. The Birdman intended to keep going but as he finished with the day's best total of 63 I think the early afternoon rain stopped play.

Cheers all, here's to a cracking wildlife year in 2014.