Wednesday, 2 January 2008

91 species and snowdrop anyone?

Lyme Regis on New Years Day, the sun was setting and as we walked back, a snowdrop in a garden, spring is here.

Well I have to say, this week of bird watching in an attempt to raise the champagne fuelled foaming NHU bird cup to my lips, has been really tough. I’m either getting old, or getting infirm, or getting soft. My guess though is all four. Did someone mention Alzheimer’s too?

What on earth possessed me to try and do this in Northumbria? Okay it’s my old stamping ground, but that was 15 years ago, birds have come and gone, and my knowledge of what is out there is now decrepit, so much like the author. I’d also forgotten a golden rule related to any wildlife watching north of the River Tyne in mid December; it only is light enough to see anything at 9am and dark again at 3pm. In-between this 6 hour period of unbridled excitement there’s a dull overcast feel to the skies which enters the mind and plays hallucinogenic tricks on bird ID. And there's always a gale.

Still I persevered, wandering lonely as a cloud, across sodden open countryside, wild and windblown coast, local nature reserves which seemed to be just weedy fields with a damp patch, frequented by dog walkers; and a very pleasurable (I use the term advisedly) 2 hours squelching the riparian habitat of my home river, the Coquet, as rain trickled down my neck. The Dipper I was looking for sensibly, stayed indoors with its feet up, but I did get stunning views of 3 separate Nuthatch and 7 Goosander.

The Coquet at Pauperhaugh in full flow..as I ate my sandwich a Goosander swam into view.

Maybe I could have saved myself a length of hardship, and just gone to Slimbridge as I drove home on New Years Eve; 50 species without even trying? But then a 2 hour stop near Leeds to see a mate, was a much better use of time. Doing it the hard way, however chaotic, brought the unexpected highlights, which were fabulous and worth every penny.

Eider now patrol the coast between the rivers Tyne and Wear, along with huge flocks of Dunlin, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Sanderling, Ring and Golden Plover are testament to decades of cleaning up the environment. 20 years ago, I remember being phoned up when a Redshank arrived and going specially to see it. A pintail, 5 yellowhammers and 100+ Greylag on Boldon Flats, scene of my very earliest birding memories and where as a child it was only ever just, spuggies, burnt out cars and fights with the local Council Estate boys. Now South Tyneside Council have turned it into a valuable flooded meadow in the middle of the Tyneside conurbation.
Greylags at Boldon Flats in South Tyneside, Christmas Day

Rock Doves which miraculously still cling onto a rock stack at Souter Point off the coast at South Shields. I watched those birds 20 years ago when working as a volunteer NT warden there. At that time estimates were that they would finally hybridise with feral pigeons on the mainland cliffs in 10 years. Both are there but maintain separate lives still, and I counted 40+ on that stack.

The 7 Tree Sparrows busy feeding, in a friend’s garden just outside Hartlepool, close enough to enjoy while indoors with a whisky chaser. “Oh I regularly get 10 on there” he said unconcerned in the fact that if one is found in Somerset, hoards of bobble hat twitchers descend to terrify the poor thing, possibly back to Hartlepool.

At the end of a depressing, fruitless and miserable hour gaining no new species in the hill region of Northumberland I decided to go home. As I drove off the hill I spotted a huge flock of birds rising from a farm silage clamp. Although rain was driving off the hills and nearly dark even though only 11 am, something told me to investigate. Turning the car around, I realised I was in a holy grail of habitats, a ramshacked farm in shooting country, tall hedges and muddy lanes. I stood there, and in front of me, 2 Red Leg Partridge under a trailer, a covey of Grey partridge in the field, 2 Yellowhammer, in grass not 20 feet away. A huge 200+ finch flock on spilt grain in the track yielded a bakers dozen or so of Brambling. The massive flock was 500+ Corvids and 200+ feral pigeons.
A wonderful lane, wet, muddy and teaming with finches at 11am

But above all it was the thrill of the chase and being back where my heart is. Even though the name I carved into the Thrum as a child was covered in floodwater, and the dipper wasn't to be seen, a day on the Coquet in whatever weather, takes me back to working at Cragside and surveying Otters in the 1980's, grand days, grand days indeed. But what have they done to Rothbury??

I like to find things on my own, it's good to have knowledge (like the kind couple at Chew on New Years Day who let me view a snipe in their scope for another tick) but there's nothing worse for me than arriving somewhere and someone points out all the species present in 30 seconds. Takes away the fun.

Oh well I've verified my species and it's 91, not good, but not bad. Stephen Moss, top birder and all round good bloke, had 81, and mate Rob 98. We'll see what else comes in over the week and who the eventual winner is. But until then...I'll leave you with bullfinches at Washington WWT

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