Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Murmurings . . .

One (but certainly not the only) thing which has evaded me over my years as a birder has been viewing a murmuration of starlings before they come to roost.
From my childhood I remember seeing large gatherings over Wearmouth Bridge, but it's so long ago I have no real memories, so when Shibdon George sent me a couple of vids from Shibdon Pond of a swirling mass of starlings showing there over the last few evenings I couldn't wait to get along and see for myself.

Not really knowing what to expect I got there early yesterday, the pond itself was quite busy but not too many species on show. A single shoveler was pick of the ducks, and a couple of Bl-T Godwits pick of a scant showing of waders.
Plenty of Gulls but a few common gulls were the most . . well  . . uncommon.

Easily most numerous were the Lapwings, numbers growing all the time I estimated about 350 before the starlings took my attention, and likewise a good cormorant roost had grown to 61 birds in the central trees before I called it a day.

I'd been in the hide about an hour, light was beginning to fade at 3.25pm by the time the first 2 starlings flew in, soon followed by another 2, then 6, then 4, and another 4, and then two groups of around 20. The trickle soon became a deluge as more and more appeared, 'til a ball of around 500 was zipping from side to side as I viewed, gathering more members with each circuit.

Up to this point there was nothing really spectacular about proceedings though by now a ball upwards of 2000 birds was going back and forth. Then all of a sudden this ball was joined by another similar sized ball and the action really started as the shape-shifting began and by heck was it spectacular. :-O

Formation aerobatics in breath-taking numbers put the Red Arrows to shame, a slithering snake, a giant floating T, a map of the Americas, an exclamation mark, 2 giant black balloons floating across the sky, the shapes were forever morphing into something else. Though I was by myself in the hide I was like a kid at a fireworks display, oooohs and aaaaahs out loud, many a Wow! and even asking myself "did you see that" at the top of my voice a couple of times.
It lasted no more than 10 minutes at full pelt before the (maybe 6000 birds) spectacularly poured into the trees and reed beds, and I was left open-mouthed as the scene in the semi-darkness was suddenly calmness itself.

Here's a photographic record, I didn't spend too much time on the camera as I just wanted to enjoy the experience so these were about all the shots I took, but you can get the gist :

The mass of starlings grew to about 600 before it would register on the camera in fading light
By the time it reached a couple of thousand a long snakelike trail formed . . .  

 . . . covering practically the whole of the horizon over the pond.
A fist appeared at the front of the trail

Now an inky thumbprint reflected in the water. 

The most spectacular patterns formed as they split, an almost perfect South America there,
though has been likened to smoke signals by a few :-)

Can't describe how wonderful these shapes looked as they morphed across the skies.

Just bizarre ! 

This had been an exclamation mark a split second earlier

More random shapes in an excellent show

The two large groups working in tandem was a joy to watch

Like two giant hot air balloons drifting across the sky

This was just a swirling mass gyrating side to side, amazing.

Eventually the starlings poured out of the sky in a spectacular end to proceedings.

I looked at my watch, exactly half an hour had passed since the first two starlings came on the scene, and just like a West End show the entertainment slowly gathered momentum to a spectacular climax leaving me wanting more. I'd seen many films of the phenomenon before but seeing for yourself in 3 dimensions is unbeatable, and to be honest quite emotional at times at the sheer artistry of the spectacle.
There are obviously lot bigger gatherings to be seen elsewhere but to get one on my own patch and as a first time viewer this one did it for me, one of my favourite wildlife watching experiences ever and on my own local patch, it doesn't get much better and I can't wait to get back for another look, hope it continues a while longer before they move on :-)

Once again I'm indebted to George for the heads up, cheers matey :-)

Monday, 23 November 2015

Reflections of Art in Nature . . .

Wasn't sure whether to put this on my art blog or on here so apologies if you find this item a bit off-track but I feel the urge to indulge my arty-farty side for a couple of minutes.

Back in July I came across this unfortunate Southern Hawker in Thornley Woods Pond.

There was something about this tragic half-submerged beauty which triggered a comparison in my mind with a favourite painting of mine, the pre-Raphaelite rendering of the drowning Ophelia by John Everett Millais, which I have always found to be a very haunting image.
Though I hadn't seen the picture in a while I kept meaning to check it out, and I've finally dug an image out for comparison.

The similarities (if you ignore the fact that one features a young woman and the other a dragonfly) are intensified by the overall setting which initially sparked the comparison. Thornley Woods Pond does look quite similar to the stretch of water in the painting, with the dark shadowy trees to the right, the thick vegetation on the far bank and the blanket of green in the foreground, though this doesn't come across fully in a single cropped photo.

Thornley Woods pond - could easily have been used as the setting for Ophelia (below)

The drowning Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1851/2)

Ophelia refers to the Shakespearian character from Hamlet, who fell in the water while collecting flowers, and lay peacefully on the surface until she was eventually dragged under by the weight of her clothes.

How the dragonfly got in the water I don't know, but it was a blustery day and his wings (he was an immature male) were warped in a way which suggested an obstruction during emergence. My guess is that because of this he couldn't control his flight and a gust carried him into the pond.

The drowning Odonata by The Dragonhunter (2015)

Ophelia lies arms outstretched, resembling the outstretched wings of the dragonfly, and her dress is already half-submerged due to the weight, like the abdomen of the dragonfly.

Floating on the water are colourful flowers, in the painting they are a representation of Ophelia's garland made from the flowers she had collected, and containing red poppies which are symbols of sleep or death. The dragonfly is surrounded by colourful thallus of the duckweed.

Both are beautiful creatures in their own right, and are similarly victims of tragic accidents.

But, unlike Ophelia, I was on hand to fish out the dragonfly when I realised it was still alive, and hung him out to dry on the nearby bracken. His wings were a worry, but he was preening and vibrating them occasionally to warm up the muscles when I had to leave him.

Drying out after his ordeal - but look at the state of those wings

Lived to fight another day? one can but hope. 

If I'd had a suitable container I would have taken him home, but as it was I had to leave him hanging there, and can only hope he managed to survive, though of course even if he did, so short is the lifespan he'll have perished one way or the other by now.

There you go then, either one for the deep thinking cultured souls out there, or just a pile of self-indulgent twaddle, both opinions are valid ;-)

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Not Gone Yet . . .

Warm and sunny (if a little windy) this morning, I read on Twitter that dragonflies are still showing in Northumberland, so finish my morning tasks and head down to Far Pasture to see if I can locate my latest ever dragonfly, today (the 10th) being a whole 6 days further into autumn than my previous record of the 4th set in 2010.

Nothing along the roadside fences opposite the woodyard, but just past the bend an inspection of the corral gate gave me the new record, with two male darters on the sunny side (though the sun was no longer showing) :

One very dark male darter

One very pale male darter

These were the only shots I managed, I thought they may be a bit docile with the sun tucked in but tried to get too close too quickly and they both flitted away. Never mind.
I next had a look at the Forbidden Pond, as I alluded to last time, it's been dug out and a lining put down, and the recent rains have started to fill it up already :

The new Forbidden Pond; be interesting to watch it develop

I would hope that's not the completed job, but it's a case of wait and see as to whether it's going to be landscaped properly and planted out. The bad news is that it appears to have had the bottom scraped out of it (to deepen) which means the dredged mud taken away will contain all the wee beasties (including dragonfly) eggs and larvae laid over the summer, a wasted season :-(
It doesn't look like there's going to be much of a scrape either, with deep-sloping edges extending up the banks.

On the plus-side it shouldn't dry out easily again, they've put the perching rock back in (front left) and while I was taking the photos a tandem pair of darters looked ready to oviposit until a sudden gust took them away before they started :-/

On the main pond they've been cutting back the vegetation so you can see the left hand pond again, water levels are very high again after the rains so only assorted wildfowl were showing, and a tandem pair of darters with two singles were noted.

The sun wasn't showing much in the early afternoon and the only other dragonfly sighting was another tandem pair zipping across the field, so unfortunately no further photo opportunities apart from this big black fly of which there were a few on the wing :

Another one to look up, very distinctive but not in me book 

Nice to see around a dozen darters still out then, and with no overnight frosts forecast in the near future they may hang around for a while yet, but whether I get another chance to see them even later in the season is another matter, can't see me getting out before the weekend at least.



Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Still Hanging on . . . .

Though I called time on the dragonhunting season a couple of weeks back and we're well into autumn now, there are still many reports of late dragonflies coming in, even in the northeast where a few southern hawkers have been reported right up to the end of October.
Darters are more often seen late on, my personal latest being November 4th a few years back.

So with a couple of days sunshine after a gloomy week I chanced a visit to Far Pasture on the 2nd, where sure enough, a few common darters were still posing about in the warmth of the mid-day sun.

This male darter still looked in good nick, though how they survive long periods of bad weather still puzzles me

Good light for photos when I could get the sun behind me, casting very strong shadows 

This female seemed to be enjoying the view

And what a lovely view it is with Gibside's column of Liberty in the backdrop
Or from another angle "oo-er, it's a long way down"

The female also posed well for close-ups
Four males and that single female were noted, all sunning themselves along the roadside fences. Some flighty but others posing for a few snaps (as you can see) on what was quite a beautiful day, though with that autumnal feel about the light, and only the harsh cries of the many jays and the nasal calls of the willow tits breaking the eerie silence from time to time. But the colourful scenery of the changing season is quite something, and to enjoy it on a warm day was very pleasant indeed.

This moth made a lovely seasonal photo but I haven't pinned down the species yet.

A view across the valley from the Derwent Walk,
the light was hitting the camera direct so the colours don't look as strong as they actually were.

The forecast for later in the week is for more of the same, so I may well try my luck again in hope of breaking my 'latest ever sighting' record. Or at least I'll remember to get a photo of the goings-on at the Forbidden Pond as they've been busy digging it up :-O

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Last Rites . . .

Time to declare time on what has been a mainly disappointing dragonfly season for 2015 (though not without some memorable highlights), still a few stragglers kicking about but I've got too much on now to get out looking for the last of them.
A couple of visits to Far Pasture is all I've managed in the last fortnight and only a few common darters to show for it. I didn't even bother getting my camera out first time, and here are (most likely) the last photos of the year, just snapshots really, even the dragonflies themselves seem to have lost interest :

This old female has seen better days (I know the feeling)

Another fence-perching male to finish

Same dragon, different angle, probably the last photo of 2015
Migrant Hawkers were still being seen at Shibdon well into October, George Simpson sent me this very colourful autumnal picture on the 13th :

Cracking photo capturing the autumn sunshine, nice one George :-) 

And a close-up of the actual dragon, again a very colourful and seasonal composition

Otherwise very few late reports from Gateshead though other parts of the northeast have seen decent activity in the October sunshine. A nice report with pictures from Sedgedunum Warbler from his local pond a case in point :

That's it them, thanks for looking in and for the contributions again this year, it's nice to know there are like-minded people out there. I'll do my annual review when I get time otherwise a period of hibernation might be in order as my usual dose of SAD syndrome will no doubt kick in once the clocks go back.

Adios for now, its been emotional . . .  

Friday, 9 October 2015

Darting About in the Sunshine . . .

A return of the sunshine meant a return to Far Pasture after an almost two-week absence. It always amazes me (especially at this time of year) how after a period of bad weather and cold overnights lasting a few days, the minute the sun shines again the late-season dragonflies are back out in force. No specific target today as at this time of year you never know what you'll get so more of a dragon-safari than a dragon-hunt.

Though the forecast had been good, the reality today was a mix of sunshine and cloud, and a lot cooler than promised, but the darters were still out in good numbers. The heavy rain from the early part of the week meant the flash pool in the pony field had filled up again and several pairs of common darter were busy ovipositing when I arrived on site.
On the main pond a few pairs were doing likewise, and the Forbidden Pond was also busy while the sun shone.

Not many hawkers around though; a mig on the Forbidden Pond, a southern in the pony field, and a further 3 migs in the top field including a female.

Today was just a matter of enjoying whatever was on show, the late season mating frenzy of the common darters always brings opportunities for photos, so I just tried to get as close as I could to any darters along the fences, and with the cooler atmospheric conditions a few decided to put up with the intrusion of having the x-s1 shoved in their faces far longer than usual.
Results, some nice close-ups and a few where I could manipulate the actual shot, rather than shooting best I could from the angle of approach before the subject tires of me, which is what usually happens when the dragons are less docile in higher temperatures.
So here you are, possibly the last batch of the season, only time (and weather) will tell :

One of many mating wheels - not a great technical photo, just liked the colours and the composition 

This courting couple stayed put longer than usual, allowing me to vary the shots . . .  

. . . like focussing on the female . . .

. . . or focussing on the male . . .

. . . and moving in close . . .

. . . and closer . . .

. . . and even extremely close :-O

Lovely blue skies above this male on the fence

This feller seemed a tad shy

Looking happy to be out in the sunshine

just a beautiful day for basking

Older males showing a bit of wear and tear on the wings

Even this late still the odd immature male

Some pleasing results there, it always helps when I can actually balance the camera lens on the fence itself, and the good October light (not too strong like in high summer) aids in sharpness and exposure.
Another productive little session, hope it's not the last I see of the dragonflies this year, I'll keep trying 'til the end. :-)