Monday, 28 April 2014

Something Else to Moan About :-(

Needed some fresh air this morning after being cooped up all weekend so made my way down to Far Pasture in the murk and gloom (but at least it was dry).
On the way there I noticed the Swallows were back at the local farm, sitting quietly on the overhead wires.
At FP at least three Common Whitethroats seen and heard, good view of a Garden Warbler beside the car park and a couple of Blackcaps showed well. Two Gropper's reeling from different areas and a smattering of hirundines.

Just a short visit but very pleasant, and on the way back I noticed a small patch of Bluebells in the woodland area of the access road, very striking on a dull morning.

So what to moan about? This notice was pinned to the fence at the top of the access road :

Aaaargh !!

It means I won't be able to get down to photograph the first damsels in May, or look for Four-spotted  and Broad-Bodied Chasers in early June. What a bummer ! Just a shame they didn't do the work last month, it might have prevented disturbance by the 'happy snapper' brigade and the red kites might still be at last year's nest site :-(

So it looks like I'll have to find a new local patch for the first part of the season, or better still just vary it a bit. Gibside, Clockburn Lake Outlet Stream, Stargate, Milkwellburn Woods, even an early visit to Kibblesworth. Might not be so bad after all, keep me from getting lazy, though the beauty of Far Pasture is it's only ten minutes walk up the road for a quick visit. Other sites will take up most of the day :-(
So be it.

Later today I found this bee (buff-tailed bumbler) on the garage window ledge looking a bit worse for wear. So I gave her a glob of honey hoping to raise her energy levels.

Lo and behold, she drank the lot then immediately started to buzz and vibrate her wings, took off and buzzed off over the house without a word of thanks.

So bee it :-)      

Sunday, 27 April 2014

What time's Kick Off?

It's about this time of year I always feel cheated. Since the first sighting of a Large-Red Damselfly in Hampshire on 29th March signalled the Dragonfly season was underway, increasing numbers of reports and species have been pouring in during April from the Southern Counties and as far north as Lancashire and South Yorkshire.

By the time the first dragons are reported up here in Gateshead, (if recent years are anything to go by) a few stragglers from late April until the season starts in earnest the last week of May, our counterparts in the south will have had a full six to eight weeks of early species on the wing.

Add to that the probability that all the late season reports will also come from the south and it's a sad fact that 'oop north' it is indeed grim, as our dragonhunting season generally lasts only FOUR full months compared to SIX plus 'dahn sarf'.      

The forecast for this week is no better. I'll have my first tentative looks at a few sites when weather permits but I'm not expecting to find anything for another three weeks at least.

Thought I'd just have a whinge, as it's still pissing down and I've nowt better to do (I've actually sat through THREE games of football today :-O and I don't want to get hooked on that bloody game again) . . . . . . .

Monday, 21 April 2014

Mass Extinction of Gateshead Dragonflies !

I've just uncovered some interesting though quite disturbing news regarding Gateshead's Dragonflies.
I came across a report from a field study made by legendary entomologist Harry Eales, who (among other things) carries out surveys on behalf of Northumbria Water into the state of insect life (Particularly butterflies and dragonflies) at their Sewage Treatment Works throughout the northeast.

In 2011 he surveyed the Lamesley Reedbeds (part of Birtley STW) for the third time to chart progress after similar surveys in 2006 and 2008.
This is one site I have never visited in the summer for dragonflies as viewing the area is poor due to height of the reeds and there is no easy access (without permission) to the lagoons.

So it was interesting to read that monthly visits in 2006 and 2008 (April-October) gave the following list of species present :

Large Red damsel
Common Blue damsel
Blue-tailed damsel 
Emerald damsel
Azure damsel
Common Darter
Ruddy Darter  (These were all confirmed as breeding species and present in large numbers, increasing on the latter survey)

Southern Hawker
Migrant Hawker
Emperor Dragonfly (recorded in small numbers as non-breeding visitors)

Red-Veined darter
Yellow-Winged darter (rare migrants recorded during the influx of 2006 which is interesting as 'til now I'd only known about those recorded at Kibblesworth)

So things were looking good for the dragonfly population at this relatively new site, until the next survey year of  2011.
This time around, 2 visits per month were made during May to September and the following species were recorded:

No, I haven't forgotten to put in the list, there were actually no Odonata recorded at the site during the whole of 2011, as some kind of mass extinction event had wiped them out. :-O

How could it happen on such a vast site? Well the culprit, according to Harry's findings, is the Big Freeze winter of 2010/11, when three months of freezing temperatures killed off all aquatic larvae (not just dragonflies) here, as (due to the nature of the site) the water is little more than a foot deep throughout, which during a normal winter is fine for survival, but the prolonged winter of 2010/11 was more akin to a mini Ice-Age, and unfortunately the whole of dragonfly-kind was wiped out by the freezing cold.

Amazing but true, and goes to show the delicate balance of nature. Numbers will recover eventually, as dragonflies are great colonisers but no doubt many other sites throughout the country will have suffered similar extinctions.

In fact it just so happens that a site I visited just yesterday with the Birdman at Derwent Reservoir Nature Reserve suffered a similar fate.
Surveys in 2004 and 2007 had found Large Red, Common Blue and Emerald damsels, and Common and Black Darter to be breeding here in good numbers, but these ponds were mostly very shallow and were getting choked with vegetation, and once again it was found that the Big Freeze of 2010/11 wiped out all breeding species.
In 2011 the ponds were excavated again to deeper levels so hopefully they will soon once again hold good populations of those dragons found before, as it is not far from Hunter House Pond on the south shore, which holds good numbers of all the species seen in previous surveys and is apparently the only pond deep enough around the reservoir to avoid freezing during the harsh winter.

Ice Age on a small scale, if it ever occurred to you what effect it might have on dragonfly populations, well now you know :-(


Sunday, 20 April 2014

Change of Surroundings

It made a pleasant change today to see some birds I don't much get the chance to, with a morning outing to Derwent Reservoir with the Birdman.

Our first stop at the Dam on a cool and fairly dull early morning gave us distant views of the much reported long-tailed duck (our target here), a Great Crested Grebe, a dozing male Goosander and a new family of Mallards, with many hirundines hawking low over the water and a tawny owl calling from the copse behind us.

Next to Pow Hill (Upper car park) which was alive with birds. Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler in full song, displaying snipe which was a first for me and great to hear that strange noise they emit, Siskin also displaying, an unexpected Brambling, Meadow Pipits and a couple each of Crossbills and Redpolls.
A couple of Red Squirrels also showed briefly, and on the moors behind us, as well as the snipe there were many a Red Grouse heard and seen, Curlew calling, Buzzards, a couple of Ravens and a Ring Ouzel.

Outside the hide on the north shore a brilliantly coloured male Redstart showed superbly for a while, and from the hide itself  the highlights were close views of a fishing Great Crested Grebe, a displaying pair in the distance, and flypast Common Sandpiper.

Great Crested Grebe
Don't see enough of these cracking birds

Add to the mix all the commoner birds like Oystercatchers and Cormorants, Greylags and an assortment of gulls and ducks in good view, plus the passerines all around our route; had we been keeping a day list it would have been pretty sizeable, though sadly one omission would be the target Osprey which failed to materialise, and the photographs pinned to the noticeboards here showed the potential for the regular visitor.

Our final stop gave Tilly the chance to do a bit of swimming, before we headed for home, well pleased with the morning's sightings; and mammals too, with grey as well as the red squirrels, a roe deer, an unidentified small rodent and of course many Easter Bunnies.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Idiot's Guide to Pipit ID

Sunday morning on the way to Far Pasture I sneezed loudly as I walked along the road past the wood mill and flushed a pipit out of the field just yon side of the fence and into a tree just up ahead of me. I gave it a scan with the bins and saw a very clean and distinctively marked bird, with an overall golden tone.
Not being up on my pipit ID as we don't get a lot these parts, (especially as good a view as this, parked up in a tree on a glorious sunny day) I made mental notes of the distinguishing features before it flew up and over the field, into the row of trees beyond, where I watched it flit about for a minute or so and got the world's worst pipit photograph (to go with my collection of other world's worsts) until it flew up again, this time away out of sight upriver.
Apart from anything else it's unusual to get pipits here (apart from on the sewage pans in winter) so it was worth investigating I thought.

I consulted my fieldguide with the bird fresh in memory and looked at pictures of tree and meadow pipit.

Tree Pipit looked good, boldly streaked back, well-marked head, very bold black bar on the wing, strong- looking bill, minimal streaking on pale yellowish flanks. Liked it.
So I looked at the Meadow Pipit and saw this :

 I looked at the bird circled and it looked even more like the bird I had in the tree, especially the golden colour, wing bar even bolder in this example, the face just as strongly marked and the bill looking just as strong.
So I thought it must be just a meadow pipit and told a couple of folk I met in the car-park so.

I was still bugged by it though, and googled some photos when I got home and had to admit Tree Pipit was looking a better bet so asked Birdman to have a look if he got the chance on Monday. He did so but did not find anything resembling a pipit of any sort.

Yesterday I saw some photos of Meadow Pipit on Twitter, and found that in fresh spring plumage they have a grey or green look about them, the bird I saw was obviously fresh (so well marked was it) but was much brighter. So today I looked at the fieldguide again at the Meadow Pipit  picture and this time actually bothered to read the caption, and saw this :

Yip the picture I'd been looking at and thought looked most like 'my' pipit was actually a Tree Pipit put there for comparison, and like the idiot I am, I hadn't even bothered to read it at the time.

So there you have it; One Tree Pipit, Far Pasture, Sunday April 13th, no doubt. What a pillock! And a Gateshead lifer to boot.

I went down there this evening in the faint hope it might still be around, but no luck.
But what a cracking little session I had, the cool early evening bringing the hirundines down low so I spent a good long while watching 30+ swallows, 2 house martins and a sand martin hawking insects over the fields and occasionally coming down to the telephone wires, as I listened to a countless array of birds all around in full song, most theraputic. I was also hoping to repeat my Red-rumped find of 2009, but on this occasion lightning didn't strike twice.

Bonus bird though; as I watched the swallows by the gate a Grasshopper Warbler started reeling, three bursts of around 10 seconds was about all I got of it, but it seemed pretty close, emitting from around a fallen tree just left of the gate.
Two good things from that; first my old lugs aren't good at hearing groppers nowadays (I can't hear grasshoppers at all as their pitch is sadly too high) so it had to be close for me to even hear it.
And secondly if my memory serves me right, I don't think there were any groppers recorded at all in Gateshead last year, so this early one is a borough bonus.

Thus ends a funny old week.

Monday, 14 April 2014

For Your Eyes Only . . .

The new Dragonfly season is almost upon us, though I'm a bit worried that our cool spring so far will delay the first emergence of the early damselflies, but I suppose only time will tell.

Meantime, for the new season I've been busy writing up some information pages for your perusal, a summary account (with photos) of each of the 16 species resident in my home patch of the borough of Gateshead, some photographs of other dragons I've encountered, and a site summary (careful how you say that) of where best to see dragonflies in Gateshead. Just click on the tabs above.

I'll keep adding to them as time goes by, but please send any site record information you might have to give a more complete record of those sites I don't visit regularly (or any sites you know of which I haven't mentioned).

Hope you find them useful. Roll on the first damsel . . . . . 

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Back in the USS . . . A?

It took me back to my time in Florida this morning when I was entertained by a Red-tailed Hawk, which showed on no less than 11 occasions at various heights and distances, interacting with up to half a dozen kites and mobbed by crows.

It was early this morning when out the kitchen window I spied what looked like a buzzard going past being mobbed by a crow, but something about the way it flew (a few rapid wingbeats then short glide) made me take a second look through my bins. A very pale bird was all I could tell as it disappeared from view, but luckily it was back within a couple of minutes, this time without accompanying crow so at a more leisurely pace, and when I saw the very rufous uppertail as it turned, and faint crescent-like markings at the carpals, my thoughts turned to red-tailed hawk which were so common on  my visit to Florida a good few years back.
I kept an eye out as I was doing a bit of painting in the greenhouse this morning and after a few more brief and fairly distant views it came right overhead, and now in brilliant sunshine it looked almost translucent in the skies above.
Eventually by late morning it had been soaring with half a dozen kites, and even did a bit of hanging in the wind they are so famous for.

Red-tailed Hawk
A well-worn and badly photographed individual 

Didn't seem to have jesses attached but I doubt that
makes it a bird which has been blown
over the Atlantic.

A bit of social soaring

Young untagged red kite

Plenty of interaction between the kites this morning

A ragged-looking kite

Put a couple of buzzards, a sparrowhawk and a kestrel into the mix and not a bad morning's entertainment.
I know it's not a bona fide tick, but was great to watch all the same.

Strange thing is, someone posted a pic of two red kites making a food pass on twitter last night and a lady from the USA replied saying it looked like a kite and a red-tailed hawk, to which the reply was 'We don't get them in the UK'. So had to laugh when this happened this morning, an unbelievable coincidence. :-)

The raptivity (new word I've invented for raptor activity) continued this afternoon at Gibside, with 5 common buzzards, 4 red kites, female sparrowhawk and male kestrel all showing well over the fields by the playpark, one buzzard stooped into the field at one stage and grabbed something from the ground. Couldn't tell what it was but a red kite was certainly interested in it and chased the buzzard for a short while. Kite and buzzard pairs both displaying so a nice afternoon's raptor-watching as well.     

Also at Gibside, 4 sand martins, 1swallow, 2 singing chiffchaffs and drumming woodpecker. Good day all round.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Re-call the Jury !

New developments in the case of the dodgy redpoll today. First it was revealed that the experts at BirdGuides couldn't ID it with any certainty either, then, with perhaps more relevance to the case, two proper lesser redpolls appeared in the garden this morning. When you haven't seen any for a while you forget what compact little balls of fluff these can be, in complete contrast to the standard finch-type bird I photographed the other day.

Shite photos but standard lesser redpolls

With this new evidence I have to say my gut instinct of it being a mealy is as strong as ever, even after all I've read on ID, the bill size, general structure and overall size are just too good to ignore. But unless the perp returns to the scene of the crime and I can get him bang to rights I'm afraid that's as far as I can take it.

Re-trial ends with an Open Verdict

With all this going on I almost neglected to say I got the Blaydon Waxwing this morning, feeding on the rowan tree between the two garages .  A bit of a tick and run in the murky Blaydon high street but great to see all the same as I didn't see one at all in 2013 and thought my chance had gone for this season :-)

Dull and gloomy but viewing was better through the bins than the camera.
But a proper day-brightener of a bird. Only stuck around
for a few minutes after I arrived, then with a trill, leapt in the air and
flew over the road to the roundabout for silhouette only views.  

Lovely bird the waxwing, one of the few birds I'll go out of my way to see these days. And with plenty of berries still to be had, may stick around for the weekend.

Then back home this afternoon, within the space of a few minutes I had both a chiffchaff then a cracking male reed bunting in the garden, sadly neither of which stuck around for obligatory blurred mugshot through the double-glazing.

No chiffy or reed bunt but I did manage a shite shot
of the brambling again.

Not a bad day all in all :-) 

Thursday, 3 April 2014

The Verdict !!!

redpoll ssp.

No sign of the little blighter today though the brambling was back again, the bullfinches appeared as a pair and two tree sparrows was a nice bonus (don't think I've ever seen more than one in the garden before).

So back to matters in hand; the photo of the mystery redpoll was sent to Chris Batty at Rare Bird Alert who is one of the leading redpoll ID experts. His conclusion? I'm afraid he cannot identify it from the photograph. He thinks it is most likely a lesser redpoll but it's impossible to be certain, and apparently the only way to tell for sure is by netting it and taking some measurements.

I have to say after reading some extremely in-depth articles on the subject today I think it's the only possible conclusion to arrive at from that one photograph. Though the overall jizz still bugs me I read that the largest lesser redpolls are bigger than the smallest mealys, and there's such a variation in plumage at all times of year for both species that there's overlap in just about every feature. So I guess unless you're presented with a classic example that doesn't need debate, you can't be sure either way in cases like this. It's no wonder they were regarded as the same species until recently.

Verdict : Case Not Proven (Scotland)
                Not Guilty (England)

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Making a Mealy of it . . .

A garden visitor this morning had me reaching for the ID books, saw it first from the back and it had the pale streaked look of a female siskin but looked longer tailed and a bit bigger. Got the bins on it and saw it was a redpoll. The angle I had it at, it looked pale, streaked but certainly no buff down the flanks and a pale pink tinge to the breast. Looked hopeful for a mealy (!) so quickly reached for the camera and just managed a couple of shots before it flushed up with all the other birds, and as I was on my way out I couldn't hang about in the chance it would return.

Only one of my photos is remotely in focus but having looked at it then studied some ID papers I'm not totally convinced either way as there's so much variation and overlap of ID features between a Mealy and a washed out early spring Lesser and I've now baffled meself with science. Didn't get a look at the rump unfortunately but looking at the photo now you can see it looks to have a pale base between the primaries which could be a clincher. So anyone who would care to offer some expertise can kindly do so in the form of a comment.

Another test of my ID skills fails miserably

A nice male Bully was calling from the cherry tree also this morning, didn't see his missus but they usually turn up as a pair.

And the female Brambling is still visiting, more regularly over the last week or so. This pic was taken a couple of weeks ago actually but she was in again late afternoon today, feeding on the ground as per usual.

The regular Brambling, no doubt feeding up for the
long flight back to the continent as soon as these
easterly winds bugger off and make everybody a bit


Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Black Kite over the Derwent Valley !

Is it a black kite ?

Yes it is !

Happy April 1st everybody . . . . .