Category Archives: Beach walks

All those flocking waders…

A couple of posts ago I wrote about the vast flocks of geese which overwinter on The Wash; and there were also big numbers of other birds including small groups of dunlin close in by the shore:

Dunlin (Calidris alpina, Dansk: almindelig ryle)

But a little further out, and almost invisible until they took to the air, were enormous flocks of thousands of dunlin. I couldn’t see what flushed them, but every few minutes they rose en masse and put on a stunning display of aerobatic prowess:

Thousands of dunlin moving in very close proximity at high speed and never colliding

Occasionally they turned into the sun creating a shimmering ribbon of grey and white across the sky:

And as with the geese in the previous post the other thing which I hadn’t thought about until they were swirling overhead was the noise. It was a very different sound to the geese which gave a slow muted beating sound, the dunlin sounded more like a fast moving cloud of enormous insects. It was a really exciting spectacle. And as well as the dunlin flocks of oystercatcher wheeled over from behind and landed in a line on the mud flats:

Several hundred oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: Strandskade) seeking safety in numbers

… and it’s always good, but increasingly seldom, to see flocks of lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe):

When I was a kid in the 70’s vast flocks of lapwing were a relatively frequent phenomenon in the fields out in the countryside around home, but their numbers have plummeted twixt now and then, so it’s good to see there are still places where thay can still be found doing what lapwing should be doing!

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Morecambe Bay

Since my posting rate plummeted a couple of years ago, due mainly to the increased pressure of work, I’ve still been out and about accumulating a lot of photographs so now I’m going to try to get some of them into posts.

In early spring 2014 I found myself at Morecambe bay in Lancashire which is famous for its vast tidal mudflats that constitute a well stocked larder for a multitude of seabirds, and maximum danger for the unwary beach walker. The Irish Sea tides race in and swirl about at incredible speed and there are areas of treacherous quicksand too.

A pair of shelduck (Tadorna tadorna, Dansk: gravand)

The bay is so enormous that when the tide’s out it’s not always easy to see much wildlife, but by the pier in front of the Midland Hotel there were shelduck, curlew and oystercatchers and I also caught a tantalising glimpse of a distant red breasted merganser.

A curlew on full power for take off (Numenius arquata, Dansk: storpsove)

As I didn’t have my camera with me and I’d never succeeded in getting a picture of a merganser, I returned to the same spot very early the following morning with the relevant optics. It was the end of February and the weather was filthier than a Springbok in a ruck (which as any rugby fan will know is as dirty as it gets!) –  it was freezing cold and blowing a gale, so I sat on the ground with my back to the wind, and waited.

Despite what I said earlier, there were a good number of birds in the vicinity including curlew, shelduck, redshank and this oystercatcher who landed right in front of me and every so often he popped up into view as he mined the crevices in the rock for his breakfast.

An oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: strandskade) landed close by on the rocky shoreline

And I didn’t have to wait too long before not one, but a pair, of red breasted merganser appeared in the water just 20 or so metres away, which justified getting out early and braving the elements:

Male (dark headed) and female (brown headed) red breasted merganser (Mergus serrator, Dansk: toppet skallesluger)

I think these are spectacular birds. They are generally resident breeders on the west coast of England and winter visitors on the east, so these were probably residents. They are one of two species of saw-toothed ducks, the other one being the goosander, which are resident in the UK. They have serrated beaks which they need to grasp their fishy prey which they can catch by chasing them under water. According to the BTO there are 2200 pairs in the UK in the summer and their conservation status in the UK is green suggesting the population is stable at least in this part of the world. The only other time I’ve seen a merganser was a month ago down on the south coast at Keyhaven, so they’re an uncommon but splendid sight!

Isle of Wight Part 2

The IoW avians:

We took our annual holiday two years running at Shanklin on the Isle of Wight, and one thing I noticed during the first visit was that there were ravens on the cliff face behind the beach at Shanklin. As I didn’t manage to take any close-up photographs of them on the first visit I resolved to try a bit harder the second time around.

Then one afternoon I found myself on the seafront with the kids and the usual gulls were wheeling and squawking in the air:

Herring gull – Larus argentatus (Dansk: Sølvmåge)

I like herring gulls, their shrieking call is reminiscent of fun-filled childhood trips to the seaside. And it makes me laugh how easily they overcome their natural fear of humans and come right up close to try to scrounge a chip.

And another gull which frequents the coasts of the UK, but which I see more of on the fields inland is the black headed gull:

Black headed gull, Chroicocephalus ridibundus (Dansk: hættemåge) – undercarriage down for a landing on the beach

Having touched down a quick pause for a pre-prandial scratch before poking around in the silt for something to eat

And while the gulls were doing their thing I noticed a big black shape on the cliffs a few hundred metres away which I thought could be a raven. So I chivvied the kids along the beach to get closer and sure enough it was indeed a raven. It flew down from the cliffs onto the beach and landed around 30-40m away but as I was of the opinion that ravens would be like the other crows, not terribly comfortable being in close proximity to humans, I gathered the children close and told them to be calm. But as we stood and watched it strolled down the beach towards us and didn’t appear to be remotely fazed by our presence, or for that matter, anyone elses:

Close encounter with a raven (Corvus corax, Dansk: ravn)

He strolled on past with a purposeful gait and what struck me was the size of him. Ravens are huge! I’d read before that they are the size of buzzards and seeing one this close it’s easy to see they really are.

So for comparison, an obliging rook posed in the background, and even though the rook is 5-10m further away the size difference is stark. There’s no confusing this chap for any other type of corvid!

And the reason the raven was behaving as bold as brass was that it was on a mission to examine the contants of a litter bin for a late afternoon snack:

First it made a small incision with its powerful beak – one of natures tools that’s magnificently fit for purpose. Once access was gained, it proceeded to extract the contents through this hole and snaffle up all the pieces of food jettisoned by that afternoons beach goers:

When I left it was still emptying the bin and was only distracted once when a large group of noisy folk walked right past, but he just hopped away a few metres and waited for them to pass before burying his head inside the bin once more to continue the meal.

I really like this series of shots because it shows a spectacular and enigmatic bird being incredibly resourceful, and it’s the first time I manage to get really close to a raven.

Some years ago I went kayaking in the Johnson Strait between British Columbia and the Canadian mainland to see orcas, and while I was there I learnt a bit about the indigenous people of that region, the Haida indians. As with many indigenous folk, they had a conservation minded and mystical relationship with their environment because their very survival depended entirely on the forests and oceans and the inhabitants thereof.

And one of the creatures they held in particular reverence was the raven. A modern day Haida called Bill Reid has written a book consisting of a series of short stories based around the orca, the eagle, the bear and of course, the raven, all from Haida legend going back centuries to a time before Europeans intervened and ruined everything. If you ever stumble across a copy buy it and enjoy it, it’s called ‘The Raven Steals the Light’ (ISBN 1-55054-481-0).

Bridlington beach

After spending the morning up at Flamborough Head I spent the afternoon on the beach in Bridlington harbour.

Flamborough Lighthouse from the beach at Bridlington

Groups of knot were scouring the tideline

I like knot, they are very busy birds hunting invertebrates on the tidal mud and their taxonomic name is ‘Calidris canutus‘ (Dansk: islandsk ryle) named after the Viking king famed for being able to hold back the tides. I think that’s probably where the English name comes from too, because the Danish spelling of ‘Canute‘ is ‘Knud‘ – which isn’t a million miles from ‘Knot‘. They can sometimes be seen in enormous flocks of to 100,000 birds, which is a sight I’d love to see.

A knot and a redshank with an oddly distended neck

The knot has the most gorgeous rufous breeding plumage where the breast turns to a coppery red colour and the light parts of the feathers on the back turn brown, but as I only ever see them in winter I’ve never seen the full breeding regalia.

Another redshank (Tringa totanus, Dansk: rødben) cooling its feet in the ‘surf’

I wrote about the turnstone (Arenaria interpres, Dansk: stenvender) in my last post about Bridlington, but this one was a real character. It scuttled along the parapet of the sea wall as people were walking to and fro just a few feet away and was quite happy for me to point a camera at it. And I got some nice portraits of it standing on the stone sea wall with the blue sea in the background:

And the whole time we were in Bridlington a lone barnacle goose (Branta leucopsis, Dansk: bramgås) was in residence. Barnacle geese nest way up in the Arctic, in Greenland and Spitsbergen. Because they are never seen on a nest in the UK it was thought that they didn’t originate from eggs but that they started life as goose barnacles which live in deep water but can sometimes be found washed up on debris dislodged from the sea bed.

Barnacle goose fattening up in England before a long flight north to the Arctic

The day after the day before

It’s been far too long since my last post, life has been frenetic resulting in little or no time for WP’ing. But I’m back now and after I’ve completed this post I shall be taking a grand tour of all your blogs that I’ve been  neglecting recently!

In my last post I mentioned the frigid weather conditions prevailing on top of the cliffs at Bempton back at the end of February. But the day after that clifftop adventure was bright, sunny and warm, and we were up on top of Flamborough Head, just a few miles south of Bempton, running around in shirt sleeves. What a difference a day makes.

Looking north along the cliffs from Flamborough lighthouse in lovely warm sunshine!

On a sunny day the coast in that part of the world is a wonderful place to be, and there’s wildlife in abundance:

North Atlantic grey seal enjoying breakfast in relaxed fashion

And while the seals were taking life easy in the sea the shoreline was patrolled by various seabirds including this oystercatcher who was picking over the recently exposed seaweed looking for crustaceans.

Not the best picture of an oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: strandskade) I’ve ever taken but I like the rock and the surf! After the clifftop we headed down to the harbour at Bridlington where the tide was out and lots of seabirds were picking over the detritus you might expect to find around a working harbour.

Purple sandpiper (Calidris maritima, Dansk: sortgrå ryle)

The purple sandpiper breeds in the Arctic, very rarely in the UK, but overwinters on the coast here where it can be found in large flocks, often alongside turnstone.

A lone purple sandpiper accompanied by a pair of turnstone

Even though the tons of litter that lined the beaches offended me, the birds didn’t seem to mind, they were racing along the tide lines picking over all the debris, human and natural.

The turnstone (Arenaria interpres, Dansk: stenvender) is also a winter visitor to the UK, very rarely breeding here. It feeds mainly on insects during the summer but according to the British Trust for Ornithology they also feed on birds eggs, chips and even corpses. It suggests the corpses are human but I wonder where they would find one of those, I’ve never encountered one on my seaside meanderings!

The Isle of Wight, Part 1

This summers holiday took myself and the family to the Isle of Wight. I’ve often sat on the mainland and gazed at the island wondering what it was like, but apart from a sailing weekend from Cowes some years ago I’d never been there. Prior to the trip, several folk I spoke to who had been there said, ‘It’s very nice, but very 1950’s’, implying that were a bad thing. I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant, so I set off expecting bakelite telephones, knobbly knee competitions and casual racism. But the reality was nothing like that, in fact the Isle of Wight turned out to be a lovely place, very green and full of cool wildlife.

Shanklin Bay looking over the garden of out holiday abode

Within a day of arriving at our destination at Shanklin, on the southeast corner of the island, we’d encountered a pair of ravens who were keen to share our fish and chips on the seafront, and several red squirrels running around the trees in the garden below our apartment. Red squirrels are delightful creatures and the island is one of the few places in the UK where they haven’t been ousted by the bigger and more aggressive North American grey squirrel. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get photographs of these but there was plenty of other flora and fauna to keep me occupied.

The weather on the island during the first week in August was remarkable, it was hot and sunny virtually the whole time we were there, but that coincided with continuous heavy rain and big floods a short distance to the west in Devon and Cornwall. As well as the trees in the garden, there were flowers and butterflies basking in the glorious sunshine:

Wild pansy (Viola tricolor)

The wild pansy is a lovely little flower and has been used as a herbal remedy for eczema and asthma and it was believed it was good for the heart, hence its other name of ‘heartsease’. It’s laden with potentially beneficial chemicals including salicylates (aspirin), antibacterials and antiinflammatories and has many amusing common names such as ‘love lies bleeding’ (!), bullweed, ‘tickle my fancy’ and ‘love in idleness’.

Gatekeeper

Also frequenting the garden was the equally beautifully coloured, but less poetically named, gatekeeper butterfly (Pyronia tithonus). I was pleased to see lots of butterflies here because the dreadful spring weather meant I’d seen very few around Cambridge, a horrid situation which, alas, prevailed for the rest of the summer.

Below the garden at the bottom of the cliff was lots and lots of beach with lots and lots of birds, including the ravens I mentioned earlier. And amongst them was this gull youngster. It wasn’t at all fazed by me and my son running around and seemed more curious than nervous.

A young gull – either a herring gull or a lesser black backed

Alas, I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable about gulls to be able to differentiate the first year herring gull (Larus argentatus, Dansk: Sølvmåge) from the lesser black backed gull (Larus fuscus, Dansk: sildemåge), even with my Collins bird guide to assist. And while the gull was peering at us a sandwich tern patrolled the shallows occasionally diving into the water:

Sometimes returning to the surface with a fish… and other times not:

Sandwich tern (Sterna sandvicensis, Dansk: splitterne) fishing off Shanklin beach

From our limited explorations around the island it seemed to be quite distinctly in two halves. The eastern end, where we were based was green and agricultural with wide sandy beaches, and the western end, at least on the south side, was more chalk down rising to imposing cliffs toward the Needles at the far western tip. All the photographs in this post were from in and around Shanklin in the east and I’ve divided the IoW into two posts, so ‘Part 2’ will be from the western end.

2011 – That was the year that was

Every month of the year has different conditions which create environmental niches that favour different flora, fauna and stages of life cycles. So as 2011 rushes headlong to its wintry conclusion, for my last post of the year I was going to select a single photograph to represent the month to month changes in our wildlife throughout the year. And that was of course impossible for a number of reasons, mainly because it was impossible to represent any one month with a single image, and also because I have lots of images that I like and I want to share. I eventually managed to whittle the number down to an average of two per month which include a wide range of our native creatures in the UK including birds (migrants and natives), butterflies, moths, flowers, amphibians and fungi. I hope you like them!

January

Every autumn  lots of bird species vacate our shores to head to warmer parts of the world while we endure the cold of winter, and they’re replaced by other species which come from the north to the relative warmth of the UK in winter. Last year the autumn and winter weather in Scandinavia was ferocious and consequently many birds arrived here in larger numbers than usual, including the gorgeous waxwing. Along with the waxwing, redwing and fieldfare came too, as they do every year, and remained until the spring, providing some welcome colour.

On a bright cold January day a lone fieldfare perched in a tree

February

February was cold and the middle of the month saw us taking the children to the coast for our annual spring half term excursion, and this year we headed to the Suffolk coast at Dunwich. Dunwich is a really interesting place for lots of reasons, not least because the wildlife there is rich and varied. One of the harbingers of springtime which I look forward to every year is the flowering of snowdrops, and the woods on the edge of Dunwich were covered in them:


A carpet of snowdrops in the woods at Dunwich Greyfriars

March

By March many flowers were blooming and the fauna was turning it’s thoughts to matters procreational. And this dunnock was no exception:


A dunnock serenading the ladies from a bramble stem on Cambridge Science Park

Dunnocks have a rather to-the-point approach to the art of regeneration. They don’t get together in pairs as most birds do, they form small groups and mate with multiple partners and the males go as far as to remove packets of sperm from the cloaca of females who have been inseminated by rivals prior to passing on their own DNA. No nonsense!


A robin singing for a mate in an alder tree, also on Cambridge Science Park

And of course the birds aren’t the only creatures to get the urge in March. For the past 2-3 years a guided busway has been built between St Ives and Cambridge and as it approaches Cambridge Science Park it passes alongside a lake that is a spawning ground for thousands of toads which live in the adjacent woods and fields. The busway has therefore cut off the toads from the lake and, driven by the unstoppable instinct to reproduce, this pair were trying unsuccessfully to negotiate the sheer walls of the track. For a week in March I would get off my bike every morning on the way to work to help as many of them across as I could find.


The male toad is hitching a lift on the back of the much larger female on the way to the water to spawn

The male toad locks onto the back of the female with his front claws around her chest and he’s not at all keen to relinquish his grip until they’ve reached the water and he’s fertilised her eggs. After which armies of lone toads can be seen heading back the other way.

Fortunately for the toads Cambridge City Council funded the installation of toad tunnels under the busway so next year they should be able to negotitate the track and avoid the carnage which would otherwise have ensued. Hats off to the Council!

April

This month was a real wildlife fest and many types of creature allowed me to take some great photographs. The trees now have shooting leaves so everywhere has that lovely green colour from all the fresh growth.


Windswept male yellowhammer in the top of a hawthorn tree

The yellowhammer is a species which has become less and less common in recent decades as a result of hedgerow destruction and other modern farming methods, but we’re lucky to have plenty of hedgerows still in situ on the outskirts of Histon, and consequently, good numbers of these lovely yellow buntings. The hedgerow this one is on is mature and has old oak and ash trees in so it plays host to alot of bird species including blackcap, chiffchaff, dunnock, common whitethroat and green woodpecker, to name but a few.

Whilst sitting watching TV late one evening in March, what I initially thought was a bat emerged from behind the sofa I was sitting on with my wife. There had been no prior warning of its presence and myself and my wife both levitated off the sofa uttering something along the lines of “What the heck was that!?”. It fluttered into a lampshade where it staid long enough to get a photograph, and it turned out to be an emperor moth:


Our emperor moth inside a lamp. I though creatures like that only lived in tropical rainforests!

Unfortunately, a couple of days later I found her dead (she was the female of the species) still inside the lampshade. I extricated her and measured her and she was 7cm wingtip to wingtip. A magnificent beast.


A willow warbler beautifully framed by new leaves and blossom of the blackthorn tree

These little warblers which weigh on average around 9g have just arrived from southern Africa. I think bird migration is one of the most amazing natural phemonena – how does such a tiny creature navigate and survive a flight across the Sahara and then the Mediterranean? It’s absolutely incredible.


A pair of great crested newts getting ready to mate in a shallow pond – male on the left, more slender female to the right

The great crested newt was probably the highlight of my year. I’d never seen a newt before and in this pond there were great crested, palmate and smooth newts. I turned the flash power down and used an 18-55mm lens and got some reasonably good photographs of the newts underwater. And that at 1am after a few hours in the pub!

May

I’ve spent many a fruitless hour chasing orange spot butterflies up and down the hedgerows of Cambridgeshire, but they never seemed to settle for long enough to get a photograph. But one morning in May I must have timed it just right, they were in the mating mood.


Female orange spot announcing her availability in somewhat unambiguous fashion to a passing male who was just out of shot


Common whitethroat – these warblers also migrate to the UK from sub-Saharan Africa

The common whitethroat breeds in my local fields in good numbers. It’s easy to identify by its song and the way it perches on brambles and low scrub and then flits almost vertically up into the air to alight a few seconds later close to where it took off from and continue singing. This one is a male, he has a blue/grey head whereas the female has a brown head. As well as avian migrants from warmer climes, at this time of year many species of dragonfly are emerging:


Scarce chaser dragonfly at Milton Country Park

I like dragonflies. In the days of the dinosaurs there were dragonflies with a 75cm wingspan! They are fun to photograph (and often, not too difficult) they look awesome, and they have very interesting life cycles. My scarce chaser sat on a seed head for several minutes whilst I stood a few feet away photographing other dragons and damsels, occassionally he took off to circle the pond before returning to the same spot where he let me get to within around 50cm to capture his portrait.

June

In a normal year the weather will be warming up  nicely by June and flowers and insects and birds should be in abundance. But 2011 wasn’t a normal year, April was unseasonally warm which kick started everything, but the rest of spring and summer were cold and this had dire consequences for many butterflies and other species. One of the few that I did see in reasonable  numbers this year, although not as many as last year, was the large skipper.


Large skipper feasting on the nectar of a thistle

The marsh woundwort is so called because it has been applied to wounds to assist the healing process. I don’t know what the medical basis for that is, maybe it has antispetic properties. It  has a beautiful flowerhead and is one a good number of wild flowers growing in the drainage dikes on the local farmland around Cambridge.

Marsh woundwort poking it’s lovely head out of a drainage ditch which is full of various wild flowers every year

July

I found this splendid looking cricket lurking in the grass in a field on the edge of Histon. I first thought it was a very green grasshopper until I looked more closely at the photograph, and it turned out to be a Roesels bush cricket. It is an introduced species from mainland Europe which until recently was only found in the most southerly parts of England. There are two varieties and this is the long winged one which can colonise further afield faster than its short winged cousin, and is now as far north as Cambridgeshire and beyond.


Long winged Roesels bush cricket

This was the first of its kind that I’d seen and a few days later another one appeared on a blind in my house, so I guess thay can’t be that uncommon in this region now.

A pair of juvenile linnets

Before I got out walking in my local countryside around Histon I can’t remember the last time I saw a linnet, but they breed here in good numbers and in the winter flocks of many tens to hundreds can be seen on farmland around and about Histon. Linnet are finches which feed on seeds and the adult males are splendid with a cerise breast and a crimson spot on their foreheads.

August

When I was at school, many years ago, my Dad would feed the birds in the garden and it wasn’t particularly unusual to see the occasional bullfinch.  But mainly as a result of persecution their numbers declined dramatically through the 1970’s and 80’s and I didn’t see one for years. The males are beautiful birds and I’ve been after a good photograph of one for a long time. And finally…


A male bullfinch crunching seeds at RSPB Fen Drayton

I love this picture – so far it’s the first and only half decent one I’ve managed. Hopefully I’ll get a few more to share with you in 2012.

Later in August, we were on holiday in Northumberland, and amongst the many gulls and other seabirds on the beach at Seahouses was this redshank. I think it’s nature at it’s aesthetic best!


A lone redshank looking for nourishment in the rockpools at Seahouses

September

The biggest garden spider I’ve ever seen – she was around 4cm across

Another of natures harbingers, this time of autumn. My garden fills up with these polyocular purveyors of terror in September, and this lady was huge. She was 4cm across and was big enough to distract my son from a telling off. ‘Dad, there’s a big spider in my window‘ was an imaginative and very effective way to divert my attention from the misdemeanour of the moment. I ran to get my camera and I had to lay horizontally out of the bedroom window to take this photograph, as a result of which I couldn’t stay still for more than a few seconds!

October

After the coldest summer for 18 years we then had a mild autumn which meant that many creatures could be found out and about long after they have normally  migrated or hibernated, or died off. Swallows and swifts were still being seen into October and a bumblebee flew past my lab window one day last week. During a visit to Milton Country Park, on the northern edge of Cambridge, on 28th October, to see what winter wildfowl had arrived, there were some winter visitors including tufted duck, gadwall and widgeon. But the pontoon I was stood on had around half a dozen common darter dragonflies on it along with several species of damselfly in the surrounding reedbed and a lone migrant hawker patrolling the air which took a common darter and butchered it on the wing right over my head. Dragonflies can be seen late in the year when the weather permits, but even so I was surprised to see so many at the end of October.

A pair of common darters mating in the late autumn sunshine

November

One of my November excursions took me to RSPB Fowlmere, between Cambridge and Royston, which is renowned for its water rails. I don’t think I’d ever seen one before but I was tipped off by a fellow naturalist that there was one in front of a particular hide, so I headed off there and there it was, busy foraging in the pond for the whole hour I sat there. It was very murky so the photographic conditions were difficult, but I managed to get a couple of decent pictures and I particularly like this one:

A water rail in the primeval swamps of Cambridgeshire!

And another of my trips in November was to Norsey Wood in Essex which is a very different ecosystem to Fowlmere, consisting of ancient oak, beech and birch wood. So in autumn the forest floor is a really good location for fungi and this fly agaric was one of a large group growing out of the leaf litter.


Fly agaric mushroom amongst the fallen beech leaves of Norsey Wood

December

And finally, a wildlife success story is the long tailed tit. Until the last 10-15 years I only saw these occasionally but they now seem to be common, in direct contrast to so many other species of bird whose numbers are declining. I regularly see flocks of long tailed tits on the feeders in my garden and in the hedgerows and woods around Histon. They’re gorgeous little birds and I love watching a flock of them follow each other one after the other along a hedgerow before bunching together when they have found a food  source and then heading off again in line astern.

A long tailed tit in the hedges along Guns Lane in Histon

I stood quietly for several minutes watching the flock of around 15 birds that this one belonged to and they didn’t seem at all bothered by me as they picked insects from the trees.

So there you have it. 2011 in pictures. If you had the stamina to get this far, thankyou and I hope you enjoyed it.

Best wishes for a very happy Christmas and a peaceful and successful New Year from The Naturephile!

Seahouses Seabirds

Seahouses, on the Northumberland coast, has proved a fertile hunting ground for birdlife in the past and my most recent visit in August was no exception. It has a  sheltered harbour which plays host to numerous gulls, ducks and other seabirds and to the north are miles of beaches interspersed with rocky outcrops and some great rockpools which keep the kids (and me, of course) entertained for hours. I accidentally slipped into a bed of seaweed whilst leaping around between rockpools, my foot disappeared up to the knee making a glutinous squelching sound as it went, and when I pulled it out it was a rather fetching greenish brown and the stench was worse than the inside of a packet of dry roasted peanuts! But that aside, the wildlife was spectacular.

I’d never seen goosander before (Mergus merganser) then I spotted this trio of females standing at the edge of the water in the harbour. I think they are handsome birds, they nest in holes in trees and have a hooked and serrated beak which is designed to catch and hold onto their main prey item which is fish, thus they are also referred to as ‘sawtooths’.


Three female goosander (Dansk: stor skallesluger) relaxing on the shoreline in Seahouses harbour

Shags frequently patrol the harbour diving for fish, they were plentiful both in the sea and perched on rocks and seawalls. They were the only seabird other than gulls that I saw on the Farne Islands, but more of that in a subsequent post.

The shag (Dansk: topskarv) could only really be confused with a cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), but the shag is alot smaller with a wingspan of 95-110cm compared to the  120-150cm wingspan of the cormorant, and it doesn’t have the white patch behind the lower mandible. The prominent yellow patch on the shag above indicates this is a  juvenile. On the water cormorants swim with a straight neck and their beak pointing up in the air and will leap up into a dive, and in flight they have a longer neck with a pronounced kink in it.

Cormorants are now regularly resident inland. About 20 years ago I was walking along the Woodford Valley to the north of Salisbury and was somewhat taken aback by the sight of a cormorant in a tree. I’d never seen that before and I think it was around this time they were starting to encroach inland. They’re now a fairly common site around our inland waterways, there are several which overwinter on a lake here in Histon – the first one arrived here about a week ago – and there is a flock of a few tens of bachelor males resident at Wicken Fen nature reserve a few miles from here. I think anglers take a rather jaundiced view of their fondness for fish, but I regard them as a welcome addition to our local fauna.

Another common site in the waters around the Northumberland coast was the eider (Somateria mollissima, Dansk: ederfugl):


Juvenile eider trying to dislodge a foreign body from its wing.

This youngster could be confused with an adult female but it lacks the white beak tip and white edges to the covert feathers. The pale stripe over the eye suggests it’s a male. I first saw a male eider in full breeding rig when I was at Skagen on the northern tip of Denmark and they are magnificent birds:


Male eider on the right, distinctive in his white breeding plumage with black cap, flanks and tail, and malachite green nape. Alas he didn’t come any closer!

At the end of the summer male eiders malt, during which time they can’t fly. Because they can’t fly the malting plumage needs to provide camouflage and is known as ‘eclipse‘ plumage. They can become almost black during this period.


From the distribution of the white patches I think this one is a second year male undergoing his malt

And this is him emerging from the water with another juvenile in the foreground

Eider nest close to the water where the female sits tight. They feed on crustaceans and molluscs, predominantly mussels, which they open with their powerful beaks. They overwinter all around the UK coast but are only resident in the north and Scotland.


One of my favourite birds – the oystercatcher

Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: strandskade) can be found all around the coast of the UK, at least all the parts that I’ve visited, and I think they’re splendid. That awesome flame-red beak is vertically flattened and blunt and is adeptly used for opening cockles and other shellfish, digging for worms and probing between rocks for insects.


The redshank – I think this bird is exquisite, the colours are beautiful and the shape is perfect, nature at its aesthetic best!

The redshank (Tringa totanus) is a resident breeder and migrant visitor which feeds on worms, crustaceans and molluscs. It’s Danish name is ‘rødben‘ which translates literally as ‘redshank’ and it is also known as ‘the sentinel of the marshes’ from being the first species to take to the air when flushed whilst making an awful lot of noise.

All the photographs here in this post were taken in Seahouses, so hopefully it’s easy to see what a great place it is for wildlife, and birds in particular.

Bamburgh birdlife

I spent the last week of August on holiday in Northumberland. I like it up there for a number of reasons, the main one being the great variety of wildlife. I was based in Bamburgh, which apart from having a spectacular castle, is right on the coast with miles of huge beaches which are thronged with birdlife.

A young knot, one of a mixed flock of knot (Dansk: Islandsk ryle) and turnstone on the beach at Bamburgh. The peachy brown colour on its breast gives it away as a youngster.


…and a turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

These two species were numerous on all the beaches and flew low over our heads in small flocks as we were bodysurfing the waves. The Danish name for a turnstone is a ‘stenvender‘ which translates directly as ‘turnstone‘, so it’s tempting to think that our Nordic ancestors brought the name with them when they arrived here over a millenium ago!

The turnstone is exclusively coastal and is very aptly named as it flips stones of all sizes in its search for insects and other invertebrates lurking beneath. It is also a scavenger and its entry in the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Birdfacts reveals it has been known to feed on corpses! It breeds in the high Arctic and is a passage and winter visitor to UK shores and is one the worlds longest migrators, turning up as far south as South Africa. Consequently it can be seen in many parts of the world as it overwinters in Africa, South America, southern Asia and Australia.

Knot, Calidris canutus, are also coastal passage or winter visitors in the UK. They breed in Greenland and Siberia where there habitat is wide open tundra. They feed on insects and plants in the summer and in wintertime on molluscs from the intertidal area of beaches, from which it’s specific taxonomic name ‘canutus‘ is derived from the name of the Norse king Canute, so this species has a definite Viking link (Danish ‘Islandsk ryle‘). Outside the breeding season they can flock together in enormous numbers, 100,000+ (I’m not quite sure how they’re counted though!)


This pair of knot are living up to their name, running through the surf

The beaches were home to lots of waders in Bamburgh but the rest of the village was also home to non-marine species, most notably swallow, house martin, pied wagtail and linnet.


A swallow stretching its wings on the garden fence. A couple of weeks later it will be heading south and then on to South Africa

Our garden played host to flocks of swallow and house martin who were busy hunting insects over the adjacent meadow, and pied wagtail (Dansk: hvid vipstjert) which are resident in the UK and are ubiquitous in parks and gardens picking invertebrates from the grass.


A pied wagtail youngster, above, and an adult…
The adult has a white face and black cap and breast which the youngster hasn’t yet acquired

A walk around Bamburgh Castle and the playing field at the foot of the castle was accompanied by lots of linnet. Linnet are resident in the UK but their conservation status is red due to decline in the breeding population so it was good to see them in such numbers:


Linnet male looking for grass seeds on the cricket pitch under Bamburgh Castle

There was a family of linnet on top of the castle walls with the adults feeding the fledglings and on the playing field beneath this imposing superstructure was a mixture of numerous wagtails and linnet.

I think the chap in the photograph has some unusual colouration. He has the fading pink breast and red forehead spot of a cock linnet approaching Autumn, but the greater covert feathers on the wings (the ones at the top of the black primary flight feathers) are dark brown. I’d expect them to be the same lighter brown colour as higher up the wing and back. Maybe that happens at this time of year too.

Other highlights around Bamburgh were a flock of approximately 100 lapwing over the fields between bamburgh and Seahouses and on another day a flock of around 50 curlew (Danish ‘storspove‘). And to the north of Bamburgh lies Budle Bay which when the tide is out plays host to large nubers of waders, gulls and other seabirds.


A curlew (Numenius arquata) on the tidal mudflats of Budle Bay

As well as curlew there were oystercatcher, black headed gull, redshank, knot, turnstone and mute swan all visible from the side of the road. I was guilty of one of my more scatterbrained moments on this trip as I forgot to pack my binoculars. I’m fairly sure that with some ocular assistance I’d have found alot more species out there.


A pair of mute swans on Budle Bay after the tide has come in

A bit of a tern

In my last post I talked about the highlights of my trip south to  Hampshire, but I didn’t mention our excursion to the beach at Lee on Solent. On a warm but very cloudy day but we took a punt on the weather so the children could go for a swim in the sea. The tide was out and revealed an extremely colourful shoreline festooned with different seaweeds, snails, limpets and sundry other shore dwellers.


The diverse array of life forms revealed by the receding tide

Pecking around the rocks was a lone oystercatcher who seemed to be largely unconcerned by the whooping and hollering of the kids splashing around in the shallows:

The statuesque oystercatcher.
People rave about the avocet , but I think oytercatchers are just as impressive!

But the real stars of the show were  the arctic terns which were fishing in a small lagoon left in a dip in the beach when the tide went out. The precision aerial acrobatics of these amazing birds makes the Red Arrows look like amateurs! They are also expert at long haul, spending their summers in Europe and overwintering in southern Africa or even further afield. According to the BTO one individual was ringed in the Farne Islands in June 1982 and was next recorded in Melbourne, Australia, in October of the same year. Arctic terns return to their place of birth to breed so by the time this one saw the UK again it would have covered approximately 27500 miles over the sea!


Looking for a fish,

Manouevering into position for the dive,


Making fine adjustments…


And into the dive,


Mission accomplished.


Bandits at 6 o’clock

The terns were diving down through numerous other seabirds including black headed gulls, great black backed gulls and herring gulls, so they didn’t have it all their own way. Every time a tern made off with a fish a black headed gull would be in hot pursuit, both birds squawking and shrieking. The terns seemed to invariably escape with their spoils, but the gulls never seemed to tire of harrassing them.

All that, and the children got to go for a swim, so we all went home satisfied with our afternoons achievements.