Tag Archives: Northumberland

Turn of the century

After 20 months of posting this is the 100th episode of The Naturephile. The original plan was to post once a week wherever possible and I’ve averaged around five a month, so that stayed roughly on track. I thought I may struggle to find enough subject material and to acquire sufficient photographs of the necessary quality to post as often as I wanted too, but that hasn’t been a problem, so far.

When I started off writing The Naturephile, the idea I may reach a hundred posts never entered my mind, so to mark the moment I’ve trawled back through the archive to find my favourite posts to give them another airing. I’d anticipated it would be a straightforward venture but of course I’d rather underestimated the amount of subjects/species and photographs I’ve written about. But the number of posts was eventually whittled  down to 14.

1) At the end of September 2010 one of natures more brutal rituals was played out right outside my back door involving garden spider courtship. Like other spiders this can easily end up in the death of the male as it did in this case. ‘Araneus diadematus‘ posted on 2nd October 2010:


I really love you… . Male on the left, Shelob on the right

2) A little farther afield are dragon flies, the most common species I encounter are common darters and migrant hawkers. This Common darter appeared in a post on 19th October 2010. I like the symmetry of the fly and the seedhead and the red colour of this male darter against the brown grass.

3) A few years ago when my sister lived in a house (she lives in a kennel now. Only joking, she lives on a narrow boat ;-)) they were digging the garden and this piece of rock turned up. It’s an Acheulian hand axe made from flint and the marks on it are where it was worked with a deer antler. It dates from around 400,000 years ago which means it could have been made by a pre Homo sapiens hominid! It fits beautifully into the palm of my hand and after that many years the edges are still sharp. Even if I was blogging about topiary or book binding I’d have to find a way to slot this in.

4) The winter of 2010/11 was known as a ‘waxwing winter‘. Every winter a  few waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus, Dansk: silkehale) migrate to our shores from Scandinavia to overwinter. But occasionally the weather up there is fearsome so the waxwing migrate in large numbers and we then have a ‘waxwing winter’. And I hope you’ll agree the waxwing is a beatiful  bird:

A group of waxwing perched at the top of a rowan tree in north Cambridge

5) Another consequence of the bitterly cold winter of 2010/11 was that most stretches  of open water were frozen over and our herons (Ardea cinerea, Dansk: fiskehejre) were starving because they couldn’t access their normal food supplies. During this winter  a hungry heron appeared in my friends garden and taking pity on its plight he fed it some fish. And of course one fish supper turned into rather more than one so the heron came to expect it, and if dinner was late it came and tapped on the window to complain to the management.

6) Sea mammals of any description are always a delight to see and photograph and one of my favourite places on the planet for doing that is the Farne Isles situated just off the Northumberland coast.


Atlantic grey seal in the North Sea off the Northumberland coast

Our holiday last year was to Northumberland and I can’t go there without taking in a boat trip to the Farnes where hundreds of Atlantic grey seal were basking on the rocks and generally taking life easy in the water.

7) Closer to home, April last year was hot and sunny and a great time to see songbirds in the countryside. One of my favourite birds is the yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella, Dansk: gulspurv) and they’re regulars in the hedgerows around Cambridge.


Yellowhammer male  – what a gorgeous colour!

8) A creature I’d never encountered before last year was the great crested newt. My friend told me of a place where they could be found so we ensconced ourselves in the nearest pub in preparation for a nocturnal newt hunt after closing time.

It was a very successful trip, a few pints followed by finding  not only the great crested newt but the other two species of UK newt, palmate and smooth newts.

9) As the year rushes headlong into summer and the butterfly season really gets underway I can spend many an hour chasing our Lepidopterans round the fields trying to get that perfect picture. One of my favourites is the common blue and this is about the closest I got to that perfect picture:

Common blue male sipping nectar – one of the best photographs I’ve ever taken

10) As well as being a top location for marine mammals the Northumberland coast is also home to huge numbers of seabirds so it’s a very happy hunting ground for me!

Just poking your head over the seawall at Seahouses can reveal lots of seabirds including oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: strandskade), knot (Calidris canutus, Dansk: islandsk ryle), eider (Somateria mollissima, Dansk: ederfugl), turnstone (Arenaria interpres, Dansk: stenvender) and this  redshank (Tringa totanus, Dansk: rødben).

11) RSPB Fowlmere, to the west of Cambridge is famous for its water rail. On a trip there in December 2011 I was tipped off by a local that a particular hide was good for water rail (Rallus aquaticus, Dansk: vandrikse) and one had been seen there that morning, so off I went to try and see it.


My informant was correct. There was just the one bird there, but it scoured the mudflats in front of us for a whole hour before disappearing into the reeds, giving me plenty of good photo opportunities. I was very pleased with the primeval feel of this image with the bird face on infront of the horsetails.

12) In January this year the weather was absolutely freezing causing a small group of red-legged partridge at Tubney Fen, east of Cambridge, to seek the warmth generated by a mountain of dung:


13) My favourite bird of prey is the kestrel (Falco tinnunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk) and they are always to be seen hovering in the skies over the fields around Histon. I love watching the highly specialised hunting techniques all birds of prey in action, but the kestrel beats them all in my opinion:


A male kestrel showing off all his hunting hardware: talons, flight feathers, eyes and aquiline beak

14) And lastly, I couldn’t write a post like this without including my battling blackbirds. Of all the bird species that visit my garden these are the ones that provide the most entertainment:

My garden gladiators locked in aerial combat

These were a few of my favourite posts, favourite for various reasons: the stories attached, the rarity of the sighting or simply the exquisite natural beauty of the subjects. I hope you like them!

And lastly, I’ve been stunned by the numbers of people from all round the world who read The Naturephile and like it enough to follow it or click the ‘Like’ button. Thanks to everyone for stopping by and enjoying a read, I love sharing the nature from my corner of Cambridgeshire with you!

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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!

Cragside

Whilst exploring Northumberland in August we ventured into  Bamburgh Castle which is well worth a visit not least because it houses a museum dedicated to the Victorian engineering genius and arms manufacturer, William Armstrong. Armstrong used a portion of his colossal wealth to build a remarkable house at Cragside near Rothbury, which is also well worth a visit because it is set in some pretty amazing countryside which is teeming with wildlife. It’s also remarkable because it’s the first house on the planet to be lit by hydroelectricity. So the man who amassed wealth beyond belief by producing arms which were responsible for the deaths of an awful lot of people also set the stage for renewable energy. And that’s a dichotomy which, in my book, makes him a very interesting man.

So… on the way home from Northumberland we decided to avoid the A1 as far as we could which involved going close to Rothbury, and when, completely serendipitously,  we passed a road sign for Cragside (and having joined the National Trust whilst on the Farne Islands) we rapidly decided a visit there was on the days agenda.

And that was a good decision. The house itself would take a long time to explore so we stuck our heads in the front door and decided to explore the surroundings instead. It was a cold and windy day threatening rain, but despite that the gardens were full of flowers attracting bumble bees and butterflies, particularly red admirals. The wooded slopes were full of birds, particularly tits, and most particularly coal tits (Periparus ater, Dansk: sortmejse).

My son spotted a baby toad in the long grass but I didn’t want to disturb it too much so I didn’t get a photograph, but I was rewarded shortly after when I found this little chap walking along the woodwork of a bridge over a stream:


This nascent toad, Bufo bufo, was smaller than a 50p piece and slipped  into the water whilst crossing the bridge, but he sat still for just long enough

And as we were chasing toads a handsome cock pheasant appeared in the adjacent field,


Pheasant male, Phasianus colchicus (Dansk: fasan) showing off his magnificent plumage

The pheasant was introduced to the UK from Asia, where it’s native range extends from the Caucasus to China, around 1000 years ago. It is extensively hunted, which probably explains why it has been introduced to so many countries!

But the ornithological highlight of the visit to Cragside was the dipper (Cinclus cinclus, Dansk: vandstær). It flew past me at high speed low over the stream before landing on a rock which it used as a springboard to hunt insects underwater. I thought it is called a ‘dipper’ because of it’s diving prowess, but while it was perched on terra firma it flexed its legs resulting in a dipping motion of it’s head – so maybe it’s this action that gives it its name. I was wondering why it did the dipping and thought it may enable it to see small prey items underwater more easily.


Dipper perched on a rock contemplating a snack…


Hunting in the stream…


And with a catch – I think it has landed a damselfly

Dippers are unique in that they can swim underwater and even walk on the bottom as a result of having solid bones.

Photographically the dipper posed some interesting problems. It’s mostly a dark coloured bird and was in a dark coloured stream under tall trees on a cloudy morning so there was very little spare light, and it didn’t stay still for very long. Consequently I had to use ISO 800, f5.6 and 160th sec exposure and cross my fingers! Fortunately I was able to focus on the white breast and managed to get a few good shots. It’s a charming little bird and I was very pleased to be able to share some pictures with you.

The Farne Isles

An absolute must for me when I go to the northeast of England is a boat trip to the Farne Islands. The Farnes are a group of small low islands lying a couple of miles off the coast between Bamburgh and Seahouses.

The Farne Islands from the Northumberland coast

The islands were immortalised in 1838 by the heroic actions of Grace Darling, the 23 year old daughter of the Longstone lighthouse keeper. When a shipwreck was spotted during a North Sea storm on Big Harcar, a small rocky island nearby, Grace and her father crewed a 21 foot rowing boat to rescue the stranded passengers from the SS Forfarshire. Grace was 23 at the time of the rescue, which she survived only to be carried off by tuberculosis 3 years later. Which seems downright unfair to me.


The Longstone lighthouse from where the Darlings’ rescue mission was launched

The islands are currently owned by the National Trust and they are famous for enormous numbers of seabirds including guillemots (Uria aalge, Dansk: lomvie), razorbills (Alca torda, Dansk: alk), kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla, Dansk: ride), puffins (Fratercula arctica, Dansk: lunde), terns, cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo, Dansk: skarv), shags (Phalacrocorax aristotelis, Dansk: topskarv) and assorted gulls. During the breeding season there are many tens of thousands of numerous species nesting there.


The shags on the Farnes were very relaxed and this one let me approach within 15 feet or so and didn’t seem remotely perturbed. Its yellow mandible and green eye are very distinctive. A few metres along the cliff top were this pair of downy youngsters :

…busy preening out the down and nurturing the nascent flight feathers. It’s remarkable how in such a short space of time nature provides these young fishermen with a full set of plumage capable of withstanding the rigours of these semi-aquatic hunters underwater feeding technique.

There were one or two turnstone patrolling the rocky shorelines of the islands but the vast majority of the seabirds were completely absent. However, one which did make numerous welcome appearances throughout the course of our trip was the gannet (Morus bassanus, Dansk: sule). They are our largest seabird and can be spotted from afar due to the titanium whiteness of their plumage and their black wingtips. They seemed to be simply passing through that day, all heading north, and none of them paused to dive for fish, which was a pity because it’s spectacular to watch. They were predominantly in family groups of 3-6 birds with adults and patchy darker coloured youngsters.


An adult gannet resplendent in its brilliant white plumage and pale yellow head


…and a family group of three being led by a dark coloured juvenile

The other creature for which the Farne Islands is renowned is the seal. Specifically the  Atlantic grey seal. All the islands I saw had large groups of them consisting of territory conscious bulls and numerous smaller females and calves. The bulls were highly vocal, rearing up into threatening postures to intimidate any others that unwisely ventured too close. No more physical aggression was required but from the face of the male below they are quite capable of a proper fight resulting in scar tissue. Although I imagine that is most likely to happen during the more serious business of a competition for the attentions of the ladies.


A big bull Atlantic grey seal basking in calm waters
The seal on the right is a female minding her calf on the left
And another female launching herself into the sea from the rocks
Several members of a bigger group basking in the sunshine

The rocks and the water was full of seals, most were simply basking in the sunshine, the females were minding the youngsters and the males were being generally grumpy. They would hang in the water peering at our boat and some of them were asleep in that position, standing on their tails with their heads poking out of the water. The waters looked crystal clear and it gave me a hankering to explore the islands in kayak and do some snorkelling. But that will have to wait until the next trip.

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

Hook nosed sea pig

Radio silence has been a tad prolonged this time, so apologies for that. I wasn’t able to get out and about last weekend so I’ve delved into the archive to write about the grey seal. The Latin name for this one of our native seal species – the other being the common seal (Phoca vitulaina) – is Halichoerus grypa – or ‘hook nosed sea pig. Which is a wonderfully descriptive piece of taxonomic nomenclature! It is the only seal to be classified in the Halichoerus genus.

Grey seal relaxing in the Menai Strait between
Anglesey and
North Wales

The grey seal is almost twice the size of the common seal and is immediately distinguishable by the long ‘hooked nose’ compared to the stubby rounded snout of the common seal. Males are around 2.1m in length and females 1.8m, weighing approximately 230kg and 150kg respectively, the female is therefore much smaller than the male.

Distribution of the grey seal is across the northern Atlantic Ocean with breeding colonies in northern Europe and North America. They are fish eaters feeding predominantly on cod and sand eels but are opportunists and will take a range of fish caught at depths down to 70m including molluscs and crustaceans and they fast during the breeding season.


Grey seal watching me watching it off the Farne Islands, Northumberland

Around two thirds of their time is spent at sea, but they will haul themselves onto rocks, usually on uninhabited islands but also on some isolated mainland sites between tides and also come ashore to breed. This occurs at various times around the UK and while the females are nursing pups the males will also come ashore to mate. At this time the males may get into territorial battles with other males resulting in scarring to their necks. The pups which are white, suckle milk that is 60% fat for approximately 3 weeks during which time they will gain 2kg per day that is mostly sequestered as a subcutaneous layer of blubber providing essential insulation when the young go to sea.

Grey seals were the first mammals to be protected by legislation – the Grey Seal Protection Act of 1914 – and since 1960 the UK population has increased to 120,000 individuals, around half the world population. They are affected by ‘seal plague’ – phocine distemper virus – although of individuals known to have succumbed to the disease only 10% were grey seals.

These delightful animals can be seen all around the UK coastline from the south west, Wales, Scotland and the east coast of England and due to the increase in numbers they have attracted the inevitable hatred of fishermen who claim that they are responsible for declining fish stocks, and they have also been implicated in damaging the nets of offshore fish farms and passing on parasites. The link with parasites is a complex one and further studies are required to establish the link between seals and transmission of parasites, or not.