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Preview: Gannin' fer a Gawk

Gannin' fer a Gawk

A nature diary from Geordieland

Updated: 2017-06-22T03:41:48.521+01:00


SHAAARRRK!!!! Everyone out of the water!!!!


SHAAARRRK!!!! Everyone out of the water!!!!Saturdays weather was a bit odd. Easterly winds whipped up the sea at Druridge into a proper old lather, to the point where foam was skidding across the beach like icebergs calving.The retreating tide left piles of debris including big blocks of seaweed with the large stones they sit on still attached via the holdfast.The visit was my inaugural training session with Dan Turner on the Northeast England Beached Bird Survey. We walked the beach searching for evidence of beached birds, in particular fulmar, which are recorded, measured and in some cases collected for further work. It was enlightening to see how this was undertaken and the data will be added to a growing international effort collating information on the impact of human plastic waste on seabirds, in particular fulmar.These fabulous pelagic birds sweep the waves plucking food from the crests. Watching them, they effortlessly ride the wind, masters of the air. Small items of plastic, foil and even balloons are mistakenly swallowed in place of their normal diet of shrimp, fish, plankton or jellyfish. No surprise then that the guts of fulmars are becoming packed with plastics, including nurdles, sweet wrappers and latex. This is one of the outputs from the work for which this survey is being completed monthly, and by volunteers. It may seem macabre but the science is needed. Amongst the flotsam, the first find was a fresh guillemot, an immature bird and underweight, possibly unable to feed adequately due to the weather? Wing length, weight, bill measurements and other biometrics were taken and finally the wing tips were trimmed to prevent double counting.  Dan examines the RazorbillNearby the remains of a small passerine were also recorded and bagged for later identification before the discovery of a razorbill, stripped off flesh but again quite fresh. This time an adult and aged three (counting the marks on the bill). The force of the waves had deposited a huge amount of debris on the beach including logs, rope, buckets and lots of plastic. In particular, the strandline was littered with nurdles, they were everywhere! Multi-coloured lentils of plastic bobbing around the oceans at the whim of currents and tides to be cast upon our northern shore, hiding themselves within the sand to be freed when the waves come back to claim them. Will some of these find their way into any of our fulmars I wondered. Even worse, a bakers dozen of MacDonalds Happy Meal balloons lurked in the flotsam, the residue of an innocent child's treat that escapes to become another hazard to our embattled seabirds.It makes me feel like dressing as a clown and lurking outside burger bars to frighten the punters. That seems to be a twist on a current theme and it would be great if a few of them came down to work off the cholesterol with a beach clean workout, picking up where they left off. Then it happened; I found the best thing I have ever found on a beach to date - a SHARK! Small and grey, it was in very good condition and very unexpected. It was collected and taken from the beach for a clean up and identification. I was so excited I bought a shark book today from Tynemouth market.Leaving Dan after a very interesting morning, I returned to another part of the beach near Cresswell Pond, determined to make an effort to address the crap dragged in by the sea. By this time the sea had started to come in and it was fast, fast, fast. Small waves zoomed in over the preceding ones where the foamy residue lubricated the sand and their reach got greater as I wandered along the top of the beach, picking up polystyrene and cellophane. I was almost caught out by the silent approach of foamy water on more than one occasion, surging up the shore as if Neptune was unhappy that I was there, stealing the offerings provided so regularly by those less aware then myself.I haven't seen the waves so slick here before and the incoming tide was well ahead of me, forcing me into the dunes to wend my way back slowly. My reward[...]

The remains of the day


I don't like Mondays - normally.However, today I managed to escape the early morning management meeting for a meeting with Dr. Clive Waddington to look at the Low Hauxley excavation site we completed two years ago. Despite the forecast, Hauxley reserve was bathed in sunlight for most of the day and the bushes were full of robins, goldfinch and lots of redwing, song thrush and blackbirds, obviously newly arrived. I was surprised when a chiffchaff started to call from the rosa rugosa thicket, creating the feel of spring rather than autumn. The new path through the reserve gives the visitor a much greater range of habitats including reeds and scrub woodland and new screens provide opportunities for views into bits that were previously out of sight. This rewarded me with a great view of a group of 20+ oystercatchers lurking at the edge of new scrape. The light was excellent and the birds were quite close. This group were all perched on one leg and it was hilarious watching them jostle for position without putting the second leg to the floor. It was as if they were iron filings on paper with a magnet beneath! When the music stopped, the bird without a chair proved to be a Grey Plover which had been hidden by the throng. Nice!On reaching the beach, it was apparent that the erosion of the dunes (and the dig site) was severe and the peat's that had been revealed was stripping back faster than expected. However, the visit proved useful as Clive found some in situ stones within the peat layer which suggest the presence of a man-made structure, probably a fire hearth. Having excavated a similar feature with Clive and a few volunteers, it was exciting to think another relic from the neolithic ages was tantalisingly close but could be gone with a single high tide or storm. Whilst chatting I asked Clive about what looked like a piece of metal in the peat. On examination this transpired to be a nodule of ironstone within the peat, ochreous enough to be visible. Clive was excited with the find as this material has shown up in excavations as a residue on flints and it is a component of the material mixed with tree resin that waterproofed animal skins used in the construction of boats. Wow!!!The peat is a perfect record of the local environment after the last ice age and the erosion is stripping back the pages to reveal some of its secrets, in this case a perfectly preserved silver birch trunk with the paperlike bark as good as the day it formed. Every little bit recorded makes the picture clearer and its brilliant to be able to use this to add structure to tell the story. It was also amazing to look at the new visitor centre, build by volunteers from straw, clay, wood and stone only to think these techniques would have been utilised by the residents who arrived in this area after the glaciers had retreated. The only difference is probably health and safety. And chocolate biscuits.Just to add more sugar, I found a well preserved vertebrae from a cetacean, possibly a small neonatal porpoise, to add to my growing collection. I think Mondays should be optional if they are not like this.[...]

Murton Meandering


A sunny start to the day greeted me as I wandered up to the top of Caudwell Lane to lead a walk around Murton with local residents who are collectively campaigning against proposed housing in the area.

North Tyneside Councils local plan suggests 3000 houses will be required in this area, removing the greenbelt which has kept the individuality of small settlements. Having lived in the area since my teenage years, this has been part of the countryside that nurtured my own interest in natural history. I have walked, cycled and ran through these fields and hedgerows, drawn by the variety of things I would see whilst sweating, grunting or hobbling. 
I will freely admit the prospect of gardens, roads and suburbia here are not exactly welcome, albeit recognising that the location of my own home would have been just the same once upon a time.

Whilst waiting for the group to gather, robins sang from the bushes whilst redwings flew over, probably recently arrived on migration. Up to 500 greylag geese flew south as the group formed. Our cohort  wandered westwards along public rights of way noting more robins, small groups of linnet and groups of winter thrushes (blackbirds and redwing) feeding on elderberries. A low flying kestrel caused concern as it drifted through one of the two aged apple trees in the sparse hedgerow, their ripening fruit hanging heavy.

It looks to be a good berry year and the birds are starting to make use of it and there were blackbirds, redwing and a single song thrush amongst the hedges. Goldfinch and house sparrow lurked silently deep in the depths, but the wren didn’t like being so close to us. Just as well the cover was there when a beautiful male sparrowhawk appeared, only to be mobbed by linnet and jackdaws, making his way towards New York. Close examination revealed the history of the hedge where hand layed branches showed the intimate care taken, sadly replaced by flails and the loss of winter food.

Peppered with discussion about the fear this lovely mosaic of habitats will be lost, the walk proved the value that is placed upon urban fringe countryside far outweighs the immediate or visible elements. It is personal wellbeing at the core, a connection with the environment that is easily overlooked.

The walk back to the start point (without the tractor that had broken the silence earlier) threw up a small tortoiseshell butterfly, late for the year. Even better were the skylarks ascending, the carousel of sound greeting us and highlighting the quintessential nature of countryside that will be lost should this productive ground be lost under concrete and brick. Worth a fight I think.

Where has all the bloody sand gone?


Where has all the bloody sand gone?After a great evening (watching Django unchained) and a late finish, it was hard to drag myself from the pit on a rare flexi-day. Of course, that's what flexi days are for - snuggling up under a warm duvet but traditionally I always organise something that means these pleasures will have to wait until I have reached pension age (86 at current estimates).So the early morning sun greets me a Cresswell, togged up in foul weather gear for the Big Sea Survey Bioblitz at Cresswell.  A beautiful and warm morning, we gather (all three of us, Anne, myself and ably led by Dr. H) - prospects look intriguing.However, we arrive at the shore and ....OMG..... where has Cresswell beach gone?The steps are fully revealed, and a long section of WWII tank traps sit proudly on the high tide line, still uttering defiance at those Jerry schemers. There is virtually no sand and the bed rock shows through, so much so that we thought the outfall pipe had been renewed, so fresh was the concrete on the usually encrusted structure. (Sorry Northumbrian Water, by the way, you haven't done this covertly as we feared).Add to this that the tide is slow to fall because of a "fresh" northerly wind and this is turning into a morning of surprises.Our first quadrat is thrown down on the limpet and wrack covered rocks, beyond the end of the outfall and into the middle of the outgoing (?) tide. Amid the calls of curlew, turnstone and redshanks, groups of knot huddle behind any potential cover, look at us wearily, too cold to feed. Once out there we know exactly why - its is bitterly cold, blowing a hoolie and, as a result, damn scary.So, one quadrat is enough - we wend our way back across, the first abandonment of a survey. Not because of the cold but because the wind looks like it may maroon us out there and the lack of sand means this area is deep and unknown. A waste of a day? No so in my opinion - I have learnt a great deal about the dynamics of the coast and the total unpredictability of the North Sea. I remain in absolute awe of this wonderful, ever-changing  landscape and of the creatures that find a home there.Rommel treats the lads to a cornet from Cresswell Ices[...]

After the event


After the event

A warm glow having completed the RSPB's Garden Birdwatch this morning. An overnight thaw and a bit of rain means the garden is revealed in its full glory after a few days of snow (UK ground to a halt - wildlife carried on).

I submitted my records and glanced out of the window.

To my complete and utter surprise, there were birds there! Goldfinches, woodies, spuggies, dunnock and doves, squabbling with starlings - all going mental over the my fat balls and seed (!)

Yet during the survey, a lonely dunnock was wandering about, with the occasional fly through from the odd bird, too remote to really count. So the results of my garden will be immensely "valuable" to RSPB.

Mind you last week I heard an RSPB radio spokeman who stimulated me to participate (not) with his helpful descriptions of birds including -

"what does a wood pigeon look like"
"well, its a pigeon sized bird........"

"what is the difference between a crow and a raven"
"A crow is smaller"

Stunning ways of assisting the great unwashed with their ID and thence improving the veracity of the work as well as the enjoyment. Good to know our fields have been taken over by ravens - will help with the next episodes of Game of Thrones!

Harrier up 'arry


This time yesterday, I was trapped in my house as Royal Wedding fever gripped the neighbours, leading to my drive being fenced off as the street party commenced. Sitting grumpily in the garden, unwilling to join in and unable to turn on any form of media in case - just like the Likely Lads - I found out the result, I promised myself a better day today.So on another glorious day, a trip to Druridge Bay beckons. It truly is a beautiful day, clear blue skies, quite warm and the only thing of surprise is a stiff onshore wind forming some real noisy breakers offshore. East Chevington is the destination, where we decide on a wander around Chibburn. Its a great day with a few notable highlights, the first of which was watching a male smooth newt courting a shy female in the small lagoons. Nearby the water is black with a tadpole tide, inky black fluttering - literally thousands of frog tadpoles. Nearby, linnets and sky lark greet the sky with playful song, while sedge warblers vocalise stridently from cover, occasionally revealing themselves with a brief leap into the sky, before parachuting into hiding. At least 8 territories in a small area, with a couple of grasshopper warblers also calling from even deeper cover. Pausing to watch a couple of heavily laden sandwich terns flying overhead, we get the first view of marsh harrier, cruising along the dune edge and heading north. A few minutes later we note a second bird, this time over the lake, this one harrasing a persistant crow that is obviously getting too close for comfort.We spend a pleasant half hour watching the sedge warblers, also picking up grey partridge and a lush pair of shoveller before deciding to wander off. Climbing a stile, I note a large white bird dropping onto the water just out of view. Tom picks it up again and we are able to tick Great White Egret, very flighty but clearly visble for a few minutes before it relocates into the reeds.The Bay is busy today, such a lovely day seems to have brought out a variety of people. None are more curious than the  "meerkats" on the dunes, a group of eight men, in various states of undress bobbing up and down at intervals throughout our visit. What a lot of "cocks".Having watched Sandwich Terns regularly drifting overhead, we were really pleased to note 33 on the main lake at East Chev, mostly bathing but occasionally fishing in the shallows. For me, these birds were the best of the day as their presence shows just how much more integral the site is becoming in respects of a working ecosystem, connecting with the breeding sites offshore. Despite the many criticisms I hear about the site (justified in terms of hides maybe), the wildlife here seems unconcerned, going about its business without worry.To top off the visit, we have another good view of the GW Egret on Chibburn, feeding majestically along the pond edge. As it flew from view, three birders show up. Greeting them with a cheerful "hello", we must have been made of glass as they looked straight through us. It was therefore strangely rewarding to inform them of their near miss. Say hello next time - just because you have swarovski's doesn't excuse politeness.[...]

It's back...............


Forgive me - I never seem to have the time - but's its back by popular demand!
Cracking day out spent on the fisheries patrol vessel, chugging around between the Tyne and Craster today, in search of cetaceans. With a sea like a millpond, it was perfect conditions for spotting anything and sure enough we did - but far less than we hoped. 4 Harbour Porpoise heading south were the only cetaceans but the birds made up for it with a nice manx shearwater and later a pomerine skua, the highlights. There were loads of puffins, guillemots, razor bills and gannets, with a small number of fulmar skimming the waves so effortlessly (how do they DO that!). Oddly, two rock pipits turned up chasing each other around the boat about 1.5 miles offshore! One or two common terns about and two terns sitting on a bit of flotsam off Coquet Island fooled me in thinking they were Roseates (but its way too early) so not sure what they actually were.

A grand day, in good company and many thanks to the crew for being so hospitable. 


Rain Rain everywhere!!


What a day! Thrashing about SE Northumberland on a range of work errands this morning, I was wishing I had a boat rather than a car! Cresswell, Ashington, Arcot - all areas with much more than their fair share of water! Both the Blyth and Wansbeck look extremely swollen and we also had to stop work on a bridge at Prestwick Carr as the water level came dangerously high. 

No Waxwings in sight during my journey through Ashington but I understand they are still around Asda. a number of Mistle Thrushes seen amongst small parties of redwings around Acklington, Amble and Hauxley - perhaps suggesting a mini influx? A quick stop off for some scran at Cresswell Pond, where mud is still showing, produced a couple of Goldeneye, a dozen golden plover, good numbers of curlew, lapwing and dunlin with a few redshanks. 5 whooper swans flew over the hide as I left, heading inland. Someone in the hide reported a med gull amongst a group of Black Headed but my bins just didn't allow me to confirm them! Two sparrowhawks, both male, one at Hauxley reserve and one in Ellington reminded me of the excellent talk last week from Ian Newton.

All in all, not a bad return for so many short journeys and brief stop offs but that rain is going to have an impact and it will be interesting to see how much over the next few days.


Say Aye Tae a Pie


Sometimes work can be a pain, sometimes its alreet!A few weekends ago was definately one of the latter as we headed north into bonny Scotland on a water vole fact finding mission. Our intrepid crew consisted of Tom Dearnley (Driver), Kevin O'Hara (navigator) and me (back seat counterweight). Its a long journey, especially around Perth where we have three goes at finding the right road, during which time Newcastle go from winning 1-0 to losing 2-1 to Stoke City (I ask you!).The journey is filled with lively banter, most memorable of which is Kev goading us with tales of mouth watering pies from the butchers at Ballater. By the time we reach, Carter Bar, we are all drooling and craving pies something rotten. Needless to say, the butchers is closed when we get there and we have to settle for a tasty italians.It's cold in Ballater, minus 1 degree celsius, we understand. That was evident from the young ladies frequenting the doorstep of the village pub. No need for extra hatstands here.Next morning, I'm gazing out of the window at beautiful mountain terrain, with lots of pines and layer of low clouds, tucked around like a scarf. There's a small flock of blue and great tits on the feeders, scrapping with Jackdaws as I make my way down to breakfast. If only my room had been at the front where some crested tits had been flitting around the tree tops!What a great breakfast mind - all the trimmings and a big bowl of porridge to start the day. We meet Prof Xavier Lambin (Aberdeen University), who has been researching water voles for some time and can therefore be considered to be expert in these matters. An hour later, I am convinced this has been a trip worth every second as Xavier outlines the fantastic success of the work that has been going ahead in Scotland, guided principally by his research work.Once in the field on the nearby Balmoral estate, its a "red day" with first red squirrel, followed by red grouse and then two tremendous red deer stags sitting majestically in front of Queen Victoria's hunting lodge! Signs of water voles were everywhere in this very untypical area for the species and we even found burrows in the rocks around a bridge, showing how resiliant they are and how easy it is to miss signs. We also disturbed snipe and mountain hare during the short walk before coming across a large herd of red deer lurking on the low ground (obviously aware that stalkers would be on high ground!). On the return journey, prolonged by a massive detour because of a fatal road accident, we reflected on the project which has seen a focus on mink control and involving lots of volunteers. Any gaps in water vole populations can be plugged by a "hard" translocation, ie: animals are moved into the suitable area immediately rather than from a captive bred release on a vole sex farm. In this way, hardy and aclimitised animals have a greater chance of success as the hardiness has not been bred out of them. Its essential that there is good quality monitoring and effective mink control but this method seems to be far preferable to the alternative. Its certainly made us go for a total rethink about this knotty problem and with FC potentially on board, it may have a greater chance of success.Overall, a good weekend, spoiled only by the collision with a barn owl in the mist on the way back near Ridsdale. But some marvellous and legendary pies![...]

Halcyon Hauxley


Saturday dawns as a fantastic autumnal morning, crisp and clear, with an inviting forecast. Perfect for a bit of birding.Leaving the choice of site to others can sometimes be a dangerous thing but this time Toms choice of Hauxley feels right - not too far and we always feel guaranteed to see something worthwhile. We haven't been up there as a family since the fire so I am also curious to see the reactions to the new facilities as well.Checking out the sightings board in the new and temporary visitor centre, now open, there is a decent list but nothing outstanding. This board has been enhanced by some great sketches by John Steele, worth a look if you're up there. We decided to head down to Erics Hide because of the position of the sun and the wind (its pretty cold today but also very sunny).Despite the lateness of the year, there are still plenty of wildflowers in bloom, including devil's bit scabious looking majestic. The haws and hips are weighing down the branches, yet to be discovered by winter thrushes, whilst sloes, black just a few days ago are now turning dusky purple following the first of the frosts. Sunning itself on a hawthorn bush, a drowsy speckled wood butterfly languidly took to the air once brushed by the shadow of my camera, joined by another further on along the pathway. Recently common in the area, this was still a surprise view given the relative lateness in the year.Equally late, the reserve was alive with swallows, urgently stocking up for their impending overseas sojourn, their in-flight menu presumably mainly tipulids, which appear to be commonplace today. Swooping and darting across the sky, these birds appeared to consist mainly of juvenile birds, their urgent feasting suggesting imminent departure. Although young, their mastery of the air was wonderful to watch. Alongside the few perched precariously on the fence-line, a solitary wheatear sits tucked in the sun, its buffs and browns in sharp contrast to the dark scrub. Obvious to me, it took an age to alert my companions to its location.Amongst the wind blown spume and stranded seaweed, redshank and dunlin feast while mallards and teal sit out the wind, unsure to stick or twist. The nearby fields are full of curlew, hidden from view until disturbed but settling again, just out of sight apart from one individual which continues to probe the mist soil. Alongside is a single godwit, probably bar-tailed, probing the depths, showing clearly the differences in size, shape and colour as well as bill shape.A dark blob dips and weaves across the water, low to the surface, a sudden shift catches the full light, a turquoise streak as the kingfisher reveals its true colours before passing from view. Poor Tom, dipping on the wheatear as he positioned the scope, double dips, his disappointment palpable. Perhaps this explains his unusual haste as we move hides, the cathedral space of the new hide fittingly reverential as we sit in hushed tones, searching the sky for a renewed view of the jewelled vision. Three little grebe bob and weave close by, their feeble airborne sojourns creating laughter and some amusement as I try and recall words from the Mikado: “three little grebes are we.....”More curlew, dunlin and a group of lapwing are sheltering from the growing breeze, curlew numbers rising during our stay until a good size flock approaching 200 is formed. Three snipe hide at one end of the spit, nervously watching wigeon as they graze the waterline. The gang of geese, constantly fidgety, provide a constant background noise but stick to one side of the site, leaving space for a group of 15 cormorants, one of which is diving so frequently he appears otter-like for a brief moment.Deciding to head down the coast for a while, we wander down the tree lined path, small flocks of tits and finches occasionally breakin[...]

School Gull Fantasy


As I approach/pass my 50th birthday (delete as appropriate), I find myself confessing to lingering around the margins of Monkseaton High School, armed with my binoculars hoping to catch a long lingering look, and perhaps a bit of action?Because the school fields at Monky appear to quickly becoming one of THE places to see gulls, which are gathering in increasingly impressive numbers. I have yet to spot anything hugely significant but personally that doesn't worry me. It's the growing numbers and variety of birds of all ages, almost like a living larus manual in one place, as well as the opportunity to watch these birds interact.  I thought it had gone quiet at home, where the Herring Gull nest has seen the last of its fledglings and its now safe to walk the streets of Monkseaton free from a gratis guano helmet. Because the birds have found somewhere better, hidden amongst the legoland spaceship that dominates the landscape of this part of North Tynesides coast. Sitting behind a large metal fence, just in front of the "carbuncle", one presumes the birds feel especially safe in this seat of learning. It's often a case of a few birds acting to pull in more and more until the site becomes significant. There has always been a decent gull roost here in past but it appears as if this may be getting bigger. To my shame, I haven't been undertaking any counts and I also find gull plumage to be tricky at times but this site is close to home so worth dropping in for a look whenever I can. It will be interesting to see if the numbers grow, if they respond to tides, etc. This might also allow me to check the nearby fields more regularly for curlew as they sometimes pop up here at high tides, especially in rough weather. Bearing in mind that the whole lot will probably get built on in the future where the hell will these birds go then (I will make space for curlews om my roof if possible). I now have to brush off the guidebooks (Grants Gulls has rarely been used previously to be honest) and make use of whatever else I can find such as; was totally safe to do this at anytime a few weeks ago but now the schools are back its best to avoid the hordes of scantily clad nubiles and visit in the evenings![...]

Breakfast Epiphany


Blearly eyed, unshaven and groggy, I wandered into the kitchen and threw back the curtains (rolled back the blind really), revealing a murky morning, mirroring my demeanour.

But all was quickly shaken off by the image that confronted me.

Not a naughty neighbour, caught in flagrante delicto, or an alien mothership waiting to take over North Tyneside ......... but a breath catching moment nevertheless!

Because right in the middle of the glass was a perfect image of a bird, caught in perfect freeze frame and looking just like a fossil.

The image was immaculate, every little detail of the feathers crystal sharp, the graceful arc of the wing - ironically the opposite of the clumsiness of a moment of collision caught like a photograph on the glass.

But I was immediately struck by that prehistoric similarity, a fleeting and chance record of millennia of evolution, resulting in the collared doves that occupy my garden. Sadly, one less now and not long before the rain or a window cleaners shammy removes this final memory.

Haggerston Hawkmoth


During a visit to Haggerston Castle's Italian Walled Garden, a hidden garden which is currently being restored, I spotted a Hummingbird Hawkmoth, feeding itself on lavender and scabious. It was quite flighty and did not stay long before zooming away over the wall. But it made a visit to Haggerston worth while. A bit of calm amongst the frantic holidaymakers!

Not sure who to credit the pic for but GREAT job!

Majestic Tree gets a Trim


I am pleased to report that the Black Poplar (yet to be confirmed) at Acklington has recently had some gentle pruning of the main problem branch. This may have removed the major threat at present and it is worth noting that the tree fully retains its majesty.

Meanwhile another cut means that the DNA testing may not be undertaken this year as the funding to do this has become a victim of the current public spending restrictions. Other avenues are being pursued - after all we have used DNA to track down Pine Marten this year, and to confirm that all NE water voles are from Scotland, so its proven its value and with a bit of luck we can squeeze a little it more out for this importnat tree.

As a footnote - all my cuttings have failed. They were doing great but appear t have succumbed to fungal disease.

Many thanks to John Davison for the update and photo.

Chemical Sites Hosts Poor Mans Perfume?


During a recent visit to the Shasun Wetland site, we noted an impressive plant which was nearly 6 foot tall. Not quite in flower, it posed a bit of problem until I was able to key it out as Ploughman’s Spikenard (Inula conyza).This herb is usually found on dry banks and in copses, principally on limestone or chalky soil, although its distribution –s principally southern England. In Northumberland it is very restricted and it is listed in Swan’s Flora as a “limited colonist” but the only records listed are over 100 years old from Ballast Hills in Willington (Flora of Northumberland).It has upright stems, rising from a biennial root, generally only a foot or two in height, often purplish in colour and downy, are branched and terminated by numerous small flower-heads of a dingy yellow or dusky purple, only about two-thirds of an inch across, the ray florets inconspicuous and the leaf-like scales of the involucre rolled back. The leaves of the plant are narrow, of a dull green, egg-shaped and downy. Their margins are either entire, or toothed, the teeth ending in horny points. The plant has a slight, but not unpleasant, aromatic odour, hence, perhaps, one of its local names of Cinnamon Root. True Nard is an expensive , spicy perume, prized amongst the ancient world and originating in the Himalayan region. Richard Mabey suggests that this is a more rustic version (!), sometimes used as a room freshener by hangin from ceilings (Flora Britannica). The older herbalists considered Ploughman's Spikenard a good wound herb, and it was frequently taken in decoction for bruises, ruptures, inward wounds, pains in the side and difficulty of breathing. It also had a reputation as an emmenagogue (, and the juice of the plant was applied externally to cure the itch. It is not listed in Culpepper’s famous Herbal, although Spikenard is included – Spignel in this case, a plant with a close association to the whin grasslands of Northumberland, but not the same plant at all.The very smell of the plant was said to destroy fleas, and the leaves have been recorded as being burnt as an insecticide. Great Fleabane is one of its popular names. Indeed, its specific name, Conyza, is derived from the Greek word for dust or powder, and refers to its power of killing noxious insects. The leaves have sometimes been substituted for Digitalis, but may be readily distinguished by their entire margins to the leaves or, when toothed, by the horny points terminating the teeth. The plant is also known as Cloron's Hard, Horse Heal (used along with Elecampane), Cinnamon Root & Great Fleabane. [...]

Wild Goat Chase????


Whitelee National Nature Reserve has its own flock of "Wild" Goats (Capra aegagrus), which roam at will across the moorland, well almost! In fact, they are constrained to Kielderhead and Whitelee by a fence (although I think they have learned to walk around it now.Very occasionally there is a need to intervene with these animals, usually if their numbers get too large (which may result in damage to the population as well as the site. Thus an annual census is taken to make an informed decision on whether a cull may be required (which is very rare).Thus a beautiful sunny day in June 2010 saw us deposited at Whitelee, armed with binoculars, sun cream and Mars Bars. Joined by rangers from the Forestry Commission, we divided the ground up. My colleague for the day, Anthony, and myself elected to climb to the White Crags, circle across the top of the watershed and then descend down the Batinghope Burn.At 1510ha, a NNR, SAC and SSSI, this is Northumberland Wildlife Trust’s largest reserve and is notable for its active blanket bog and heather heaths. Some of it is even in Scotland! The ground that we covered was principally moorland, with a little bit of recently planted woodland.  At first view an open vista but once entered its full of small gulley's and peat hags, many of which could easily hide a Billy Goat and his hareem.Within five minutes, I remembered my age as my first wind went and the second never really got there! Its pretty steep and being out of condition, it was very hard going across the tussocky heather. Despite my stertorous gasping, the trip was enlivened by the soaring of Skylarks and numerous Meadow Pipits, darting from under my labouring feet in places. Breeding appears to have been reasonably good for these species, although for nearly an hour these were the only birds we saw (the exception being the odd wood pigeon flapping around the nearby conifer blocks).Reaching the top was a relief to my aching lungs and the ground flattened off. Most notably, the entire blanket bog was a dry as I have ever seen it, crusted in places. Water lurks beneath the surface still, but the availability of insects for feeding young is bound to take its toll this year, adding to an over harsh winter. A couple of small-leaved sundew were noted.Crossing the watershed, still with naught but "mipits" and skylarks, we entered the rough ground around the top of the Coomsden Burn and dropped in to the Batinghope Burn, where the ground is fairly steep and broken in comparison to other areas. Within minutes we had  picked up additional species, the most obvious being a pair of Common Buzzard with two young, both of which were able to fly and join their parents for short periods, being coaxed by the female. Willow warbler, stonechat and pied wagtail were later joined by a single juvenile wheatear, just close to a large sheep stell, where it probably had recently emerged from a nest. On the burn, we startled a dipper and a couple more pied wagtails. In the shelter of the valley, there were a few butterflies, small white, small copper (3) and a single brown job that we couldn't quite see for long enough.The valley bottom has a few small flushes and standing pools, one of which was alive with the biggest common toad tadpoles I have seen for years! A few small frogs were also noted and by taking the time to look we also found the pool to be full of Palmate Newts, one of which was extremely pale, almost white.Shortly after this we flushed another dipper, presumably a mate to the previous one. It was at this point that I decided to entertain Anthony by plunging off the bank side into the burn, soaking myself in the process as we[...]

Blue Flag - Load of Bull?

2010-05-14T13:48:40.996+01:00 me a cynic (many have, many will) but is there much value, in biodiversity terms, to this "prestigeous award"? Listening to the local councillor describing how they had to "battle against whatever nature throws up at them" to achieve the coverted Blue Flag just got my blood boiling!!The previous day, I watched as the council tractor drove its way around Cullercoats beach removing all the untidy seaweed that the twice daily inundation had thrown up onto the golden sands (soon to be frequented by teenagers intent on tombstoning or supping alcopops until totally legless). Ironically, this preceeded ourvisit which was aimed at surveying the beach as part of the Big Seaweed Search ( We went ahead regardless of this and the fact that it was High Tide (oops!!)and we were able to locate a good range of marine algae which had escaped, principally by virtue of being underwater at the time.Meanwhile, on the next door "Blue Flag"beach at Tynemouth Longsands, home to surfers brave enough to take on the North Sea, North Tyneside Council have spent lots of time and effort on restoring the dunes only to find that the winter weather make a heavy dent on their efforts (, is it any wonder!!!Dunes are built from windblown sand that is trapped around obstructions such as grass or SEAWEED, starting of the process of dune construction. Removing this material through mechanical beachcleaning not only removes this building block but it also takes away some of the sand that is vital to ensure replenishment occurs. ITS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE!In a more enlightened statement than his unnamed colleague above, Cllr Ed Hodson, cabinet member for the Environment, has been quoted as saying: "These sand dunes are an important coastal habitat and sea defence. I believe it's vital that the area continues to be closely monitored so we can take action to protect the dunes whenever necessary."Absolutely right! But lets make sure the balance is correct between biodiversity AND beach cleaning. Perhaps moving rather than removing the seaweed would be better? For instance, it could be positioned next to the embryo dunes to provide sand trapping material and it would also leave behind some of the vital material which, as it decays, provides food sources for the shorebirds for which this stretch of coast is designated as an SSSI (although not in the best position)!!! After all there are worse things under all that sand (asbestos from the Plaza for one thing - I recall seeing Souxsie and the Banshees there - sigh!!). It might also save some money? Now, as a Cooncil Tax payer, I am all for that!Winslow Homer - Tynemouth Beach[...]

Plant Heritage Meetings


The following may be of interest to some of you.


Meetings 2pm for 2.30pm start at the Durant Hall, Unitarian Church, Ellison Place, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 8XG - unless specified


  • Dr Ann Borland, Director Moorbank Botanic Garden

  • Kirkley Hall
  • Blagdon Hall
Saturday Oct 16  - THE WORLD GARDEN
  • Tom Hart Dyke — from Columbian kidnapping to the calm of Kent!
Saturday Nov 13 -  Very Special GARDEN PLANTS

  • Kenneth COX of Glendoick Gardens

Visitors most welcome at meetings for which there is a £2 charge for non-members. Details of membership & other Group activities at meeting or tel: 01661 853247

Great White Eejit


Well worth traipsing to Druridge Bay through the hail and rain to get some cracking views of the Great White Eejit (as Tom continues to call this magnificent bird). Seen close up to grey heron the bird was fishing well in the flooded grasslands. Obviously the excess of rain has added to the amount of standing water but the new sluices also appear to have helped by raising the water table. The downside of this is the poor state of the paths, especially around the entrances but those of us keen to see the bird were well prepared.

To make the visit even better, we were rewarded when a peregrine took a teal and sat in full view consuming the meal - thanks to all the birders present for lending their scopes for even closer views. Plenty of shoveller, teal and wigeon around and a growing black-headed gull flock adding some much needed noise - we'd noticed that the bay was pretty quiet but had been blaming the weather.

Prior to this a trip to Cresswell had given us two magnificent drake goldeneye, together with a range of wildfowl - noticeably more gadwall than in previous visits. Water levels were high but obviously dropping as there was a lot of flotsam surrounding the hide left behind as the water dropped (outfall was clear).

A good day all round despite the dreadful weather and another bird added to the new lexicon of species descriptions!

Poplar Show to be Axed?


Is it possible that the local authority may be due to commit a hienous act of vandalism by removing one of the counties oldest trees? Acklington PoplarFollowing a call from a "concerned resident" about plans to fell a tree in the grounds of a local school, a series of curious events unravelled.Situated  in the grounds of a small school, the tree is causing a problems because of the fears it will drop some of its timber onto unwitting children going about their bean bag races and other lawful activities (provided competative sports have not been banned).Tree surgeons have visited and pronounced this to be a terminal case as the tree has honey fungus (the arboricultural equivalent of athletes foot?). The verdict is that it must go, thereby removing the danger but coincidentally robbing the pupils of a fantastic part of their local heritage.The school is the oldest in Northumberland, built around 1865 and the tree was in its old age at that time. At approx. 80ft tall, it is a fine specimen and probably 250-300 years old. As a veteran tree, its is therefore entirely worthy of protection in its own right. Add to this the biodiversity value of a tree of this nature, with rot holes, gnarled bark and lots of nooks and crannies to be filled by a range of wildlife and we are faced with a dilemma.But the crying shame is that this is probably a BLACK POPLAR, one of the UK's rarest trees and something virtually unrecorded in Northumberland. Only one other is listed in the county Flora and the veracity of that may be doubtful. The problem with Black Poplar is that they are VERY VERY hard to identify. As with many of this genus, hybrids occur and true individuals are hard to pin down. But I have a secret weapon in this way - DNA profiling! Getting some leaf material will allow us to look at its genetic fingerprint in a way that will be definitive.Thus I eventually found myself in the beautiful village of Acklington on a mission to visit the tree and to see what could be done to conserve the species, but if possible the specimen itself.Firstly - what a tree - huge, gnarly and imposing. Secondly, the school don't want to see it go really and are actively looking into more land to replace that lost in preserving such a worthy specimen (I now have somewhere to send all my Sainsbury's School Vouchers as a gesture of appreciation). Thirdly, it looks really well to me!!Gnarly old bugger!!  (30cm rule in centre)Accepting one large and unruly branch, snaking over the playing field, the tree does what it should in that it will occasionally lose twigs, particularly in windy weather. But there is no obvious and major rot or damage other than this "superbranch" which suggests that some prudent amputation may save the patient rather than the proposed terminantion.Superbranch - for the chop?Honey fungus is a fact of life for most trees, they live with it all of the time and it often only becomes a major issue when they are stressed for other reasons. The tree outside my house, for instance, which hides my nakedness from neighbours (phew!), has it. But unless Virgin Media chew up the roots when trenching for cable TV in the area or some other damage occurs, the tree will live with honey fungus, even though it may be the final nemesis. So plans to cut it down may be premature although some pruning and even pollarding may be worth considering, even if the school succeed in securing alternative sporting facilities on a nearby field.As a safety net though, I returned home armed with a bagful of hardwood cuttings, many of which are insta[...]

In the Gutter


What a cracking morning when I rolled out of bed to the sound of blackbird, goldfinch and the ever-present spuggies, cheeping away fit to bust. Although there remains a slight chill in the air, the early morning sky suggested a day better than the forecast (much like normal - do they ever get it right?). Keen to test out his new bins, Tom even suggested a bit of birding but this was trumped by the suggestion for us to check for newts at New Hartley.Newting is something that Tom and I both enjoy but this is a site with a distinct difference. Not your normal beautiful lily fringed pond but a series of road gulleys in a new road surrounding the SSSI. Since the nearby housing estate was built and this curiously twisty road was put in, we have spent many hours fishing unfortunate amphibians from the road drains and returning them to their preferred habitat.Think of yourself as a newt.You wake up after a bloody hard winter, and the sap is rising! Struggling through the undergrowth in search of a nice warm pond, you come across a large concrete cliff. Once down this you either turn left/right or progress forward. Right or Left leads to a large hole full of water (hard to see in the dark) and OOPS - in you go! Great - water! But ********! There's no way out. Progress forward - another cliff, too hard to climb so turn right or left.Right or Left leads to a large hole full of water (hard to see in the dark) and OOPS - in you go. Great - water! But ********! There's no way out. Effectively these road drains (gulley pots) act as pitfall traps for the amphibians. Bad enough for common species such as toads or smooth newts, but New Hartley Pond is an SSSI because it has regionally important populations of Great Crested Newt.Over the last two years we have rescued hundreds of newts from these drains, including some cracking cresties. Sadly, many have also perished in them, along with some pheasant chicks, water shrew and numerous small mammals. Taking Trish with us (promising not to be all girly) and armed with a bucket and net (plus my LICENCE - for I am a fully authorised and vetted Great Crested Newt fondler) we set off full of enthusiasm. And while most of Tyneside was probably at the shops (nae footie today-except for the Bay away in the Vase - 3-3 draw!) we conducted our very own rescue.The water in these drains is full of all sorts of crap, but mostly leaves, all of which are really dark. Newts are a bit hard to spot in them so a careful check of the catch is  required. There are 28 gulley pots in total and it took us nearly three hours as many were stuck shut, requiring a bit of a whack with a lump hammer to shift them.What a team! There were 151 amphibians recovered - of which 11 were Great Crested (I was surprised by this as I still think its a little early in the season). Sadly, there were also 6 dead cresties and this really p***** me off. God knows what effect this has on the overall population.The bucket was totally alive when we went to repatriate the catch in the nearby ponds and every single newt took to the water with great enthusiasm. We tried to photograph the vivid colours of the bellies before release but couldn't do this justice and as we didn't want to stress the newts anymore than needed, we left it.Despite the stink, we all felt this was a good afternoons work. We also recorded great spotted woodpecker, yellowhammer, goldfinch, rook, blackbird, great tit and blue tit (was that also a chiffchaff calling?)On the way back home, Trish mentioned a hoopoe on[...]

Mud wrestling


The emergence of a glorious sun this morning had the spuggies cheeping fit to bust - Buggers.Despite the aching limbs arising from a day of toil (after yesterdays wet but rewarding session spent forcing trees into less than hospitable soils at Shasun - planting a canny blackthorn hedgerow mind), the prospects of a bit more fresh air proved enough to ensure we would escape the shackles of a warm duvet for a bit of a "trip oot". The tea and toast helped as well, and I am sure Trish appreciated me making it for her (again).Whilst waiting for the "slap" to dry, I noticed that they were going to have a 19 gun salute at the Collingwood Memorial to mark the 200th anniversary of the real hero of Trafalgar (born in Morpeth and lived in Chirdon). As it sounded fun to see South Shields blasted to pieces (hopefully not the chippies or the great Indian restuarants), we decided to curtail the birding and visit somewhere local.Gosforth Park Reserve then - somewhere Trish hasn't seen and just a few minutes away - brilliant! And sure enough it did not let us down as we were rewarded with a good range of birds within seconds of arrival, including great, blue, coal and long-tailed tits, great spotted woodpecker, chaffinch, robin and blackbird. Loads of badger sign and some very active latrines, suggesting these animals have been on the Dulcolax recently!The new "flash" has grown enormously since my last visit and held wigeon, a couple of teal, assorted gulls and a few coot, accompanied by two mute swans. As we peered through the unmanaged hedge to this well hidden gem, 13 goosander flew it with a quite spectacular splash and started lording it!Squidging through the muddy paths onto the boardwalk, we slipped our way to first one hide (obviously recently used by the army to practice urban assault) then onto the  second one. Here we were rewarded with a single female goldeneye, and a good number of wigeon, mallard and 13 coot (that's where they are then!).Heading back for a quick dash to the feeding station hide, we heard first one then and an answering water rail. Sidling up for a better look, they took fright of my bright red jacket and simply shut up (a lesson for me there I reckon). However, we were happy enough with that record and moving on were pleased to note four roe deer nearby (also flushed by the jacket - thank god there's no bulls around), quickly followed by a pair of treecreeper and then another pair, a jay and two more great spotted woodpecker.Arriving at the hide (about four hours later because of the need to act out scenes from the Somme in transiting the pathways), we flushed another deer and then a nuthatch and mistle thrush. Swimming over to the hide proved to be less than rewarding as it only added reed bunting to the list.Needless to say, by the time we had trekked back through the mud (we had forgotten the 4x4, sherpas and canoes - stupid idiots!), the 19 gun salute was only a few minutes away, but more minutes than we had to spare. We did make it back home, just in time for a lovely fried egg butty and chose to sit in the garden with those spuggies, straining our ears for the sound of systematic "birthday" explosions and reflecting on (i) the mud (ii) the poor state of the reserve and (iii) the usual "warm" welcome from other visitors demanding proof of NHS membership and legitimate access to THEIR private reserve. We never did hear those bangs, unless we mistook them for the remarkably regular slamming of car doors in Monkseaton at precisely 3pm?[...]

Dove is in the air


Wake to "cooing" close by.Nope Trish is still asleep - its a bloody collared dove sitting in the tree outside the window!Can't really complain, can I? After all, it is St. Valentines Day and no doubt they are feeling amorous as well? The sap may be rising (in the trees) and things begin to pop up unexpectedly, so it will soon be time for these stupid birds to continually lay eggs on the roundest branch of the (council owned) Whitebeam outside my house and watch them roll onto the pates of unsuspecting passers by. Why don't these birds build a proper nest? Just imagine if we all built houses like that!They'd be marketed by Barretts!Do you birders know that single girls who want to find out who they will fall in love with should go birdwatching on Valentine's Day, according to an ancient art called ornithomancy? The practise of  reading signs from birds dictates that the first bird an unmarried woman sees is an omen of her future husbands character. Are you worried?My Shamen tells me that anyone lucky enough to see a dove can be sure their future marriage is happy.Good job the curtains were closed then! Or was it..........?After this rude awakening, what better way to mark this VERY special day than huddling up in the Holywell hide, twiddling with my new scope and taking in the wonders of nature? Well, I am sure I can think of something better! Especially with the reserve being so quiet! The weather was very still, with barely a wisp of wind and the sun at a low angle making the pond obsidian and gloomy. Meagre fare as well, with two drake goldeneye being the pick of the bunch. A few pochard, couple of tufted duck and a shy grey heron lurked around the far end of the pond, while a handful of greylags spend some time being bossed by a canada goose before settling down by the public hide. There were not many gulls either, a few black headed, herring and greater black-backed. Lots of robins singing and the feeding station was busy, with a good gathering of greenfinch, goldfinch and the ubiquitous tits darting from feeders to treetops and filling the air with excited calls. The male Great Spotted Woodpecker made a transitory appearance before disappearing east, almost as if he had heard that most birders would be busy ensuring their other halves would be in receipt of love and affection, scant reward for months of absence in pursuit of ticks.Luckily for me, my lovely lady is also a fantastic companion on trips out and even encouraged the purchase of the Nikon scope after we found my Spacemaster had more mould than a Stilton (following a drenching and inadequate storage)! Tom has therefore inherited the old scope, which appears to be encouraging him to take a greater interest.As we left, we were treated to an influx of fieldfare into the far edge of the village, feeding amongst stubble. A total of 96 was counted but there must have been more out of sight.Not the best of days perhaps, but my favourite bird was, as always, the one on my arm.[...]

Planes, Sprains and Automobiles


I take my hat off to Heather Mills. It must have been hard enough to have to put up with that whinny over-rated soppy scouse fop when she married him, apparently for her "share of his fortune" (which condemned her to more public vilification than Saddam Hussein), but she then took a massive risk by becoming the Long John Silver of  Dancing on Ice, only to fall in mid Choctaw Turn.  Following a smattering of the white stuff and a brief appearance from a solar flare, the glass like pavements of Whitley Bay brought me down to earth with more than just a bump as I cartwheeled into the air and landed heavily on my back. In futre years, I will remember with some fondness all those good samaritans who walked past me as I lay gasping for air outside the Salvation Army Charity Shop. Perhaps the absence of empty bottles of "dog" could have provided a clue that I wasn't waiting for a place in the hostel but was actually injured?Anyhow, the resulting neck, back, rib and shoulder strains played some part in restricting this weekends outings. The need to jump in the Volvo and chug up to Town to open up the work space, so lots of Batty folk could meet and discuss all things myotis, meant that we had to be in Newcastle, so a trip to Big Waters looked the best bet.Arriving at the reserve, prospects for birding looked poor as the cloud layer had descended so far that it was like walking under a suspended duvet! Piercing this gloom at frequent intervals, the shriek of aero engines sounded as if EasyJet had determined to reduce costs by landing in Dinnington and asking passengers to walk the last few metres to the airfield.Pressing on regardless, there was little of note along the paths to the main hide (except meeting an old friend I hadn't seen for years!). It was bitting cold and quite depressing but this soon changed once we reached the hide (increasingly reminiscent of a gentlemans club) and changed from wellies to carpet slippers. First views into the feeding station showed it to be chocka with birds, almost wall to wall with blackbirds and great tits vying with moorhens (25) for the prize of "how many can we squeeze into a mini". But not for long as a superb male Sparrowhawk made the first of many forays to ground zero that afternoon, scattering the small birds from their gastronomic distractions like seed sown across a field. This was obviously an american accipiter though, as it never hit its target that day! Despite the threat, the feeding station was busy, with all the usual suspects present, together with a few yellowhammer, reed bunting, 25 tree sparrow, a single long-tailed tit and a superb male great-spotted woodpecker.The main lake was still (!!!!) frozen, and this provided a platform for over 70 lapwing, hustling a decent number of mallard, teal and wigeon for space. A couple of coot, three cormorant and two female tufted duck made up the number with a single drake goldeneye being the pick of the crop. Now this guy must have something about him as he was slowly joined by a hareem until 11 females were drifting to and fro with him darting between them and throwing his head backwards in a wonderful display of optimism. Perhaps this was well placed, as I later learned that other goldeneye recorded elsewhere that day were all males!Throughout this display and the periodic honking of overflying grey geese (greylag I think), the blanket of cloud remained firmly fixed above us. Every ten minute[...]

Brilliant Bittern


What a great picture from my mate in Worcs. Would love this as a garden tick!