Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Last Week

Despite the warm summer weather there is still plenty of wildlife to see, especially – but not exclusively – of the insect kind.  In reverse chronological order…

This morning as I drove into work in Gosforth, I happened to look upwards and caught sight of a solitary Sparrowhawk circling amongst nervous-looking Swifts.  Fantastic!

Yesterday lunchtime as I strolled out near work, I happened to look upwards and caught sight of a pair of Sparrowhawks circling amongst nervous-looking Swifts.  They were much higher than the bird I spotted this morning so it was a wonder I saw them at all.  I am not sure why I looked up at that moment but it was a spectacular surprise.  I wonder if one of the pair was the bird I saw today?

On Monday on my way into work, cutting through the superb wildflower meadow that has been created in the office grounds, I spotted a wonderful Six-Spot Burnet moth hovering daintily between the Vetch, Yellow Rattle and Ox Eye Daisies.  Its black and red colouring made it easy to see, even amongst all that meadow – wonderful.

There’s also a tree at the end of that same wildflower meadow which is home to a colony of honey bees.  I wonder if it is a feral colony of escaped bees or a nest of wild honey bees?  Either way it’s great to watch them as they approach the entrance to the nest, which is in a cavity on one side of the tree.

On Sunday I attended a guided walk around Gosforth Park Nature Reserve, led by the Director of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, which manages the site.  It was a superb couple of hours and although I have already been here and know the locality ever so well (I grew up across the fields!), the reserve really is a jewel in Newcastle’s crown.

On each visit there it feels more and more special. One of the things I like the most is that the reserve really does feel like a wild place, not just a tame country park.  Early in the morning, with no other folk around it’s easy to imagine that this must have been how the countryside once was.  This is ironic as the reserve has been created out of part of what was once a large country estate!  Either way, nature has well and truly reclaimed the place.

A highlight of the morning was a visit to the ringing station where we were shown a couple of juvenile Blue Tits and an adult female Sedge Warbler, all of which had been caught, weighed and had their wing length and body fat measured by the team of dedicated volunteers.  The site is a Constant Effort Site (or “CES”) for bird ringing, which means it contributes to an incredibly valuable, long-term national data set.

The Sedge Warbler had recently finished breeding, as evidenced by the re-growth of its breast feathers over its brood patch.  To be honest I am in awe of these tiny migratory birds that achieve such incredible feats in their short lifetimes.  How is it possible they can travel to and from Africa several times in their lives, returning to the same place to breed year after year?  It really is one of nature’s miracles.

Another highlight was a fleeting glimpse of a Little Bittern flying across the lake area into the reed bed.  This incredible rarity for the area was really unusual and once again highlights what a special and important place the reserve is for wildlife.

Even though the Little Bittern was amazing, perhaps my favourite part of the walk coincided with our arrival at a small area of heath land still present on the reserve.  Here there were numerous Ringlet, Meadow Brown and Large Skipper butterflies flitting gracefully around the sunny, open clearing.

And finally, last Saturday evening I took a stroll with my boys around Holywell Pond, where we watched a juvenile Grey Heron try to snatch one of the Common Tern chicks from the island in the middle of the water.  The Heron was successfully mobbed by the adult birds but it seemed to me that there were fewer than the five pairs of Terns that had originally nested on the island – perhaps now only three pairs.  That’s nature in action I guess.

Wildlife really is all around us – and I am glad it is.  The more you look, the more there is to see.

Hen Harriers

I think few people would be able to name this country’s rarest bird of prey – at one time or another many of our birds of prey have suffered terrible declines which have lead them to the brink of extinction (or even extinction).  But today our rarest bird of prey – the Hen Harrier – faces exactly that threat.  In 2013 there was just a single known breeding attempt by these birds, which took place in Northumberland.  Unfortunately that nest failed, rendering Hen Harriers technically extinct in England.

Birds of prey face a multitude of threats but usually these boil down to loss of habitat, food and suitable nesting sites; and persecution.  The RSPB estimates that there is enough suitable habitat in England to support around 300 breeding pairs of Hen Harriers, yet last year there was just a solitary known breeding pair.  It seems reasonable to surmise then, that 60 years after Hen Harriers first became a protected species, the reason for their catastrophic decline in this country is persecution.

Why would a protected species of raptor face such devastating persecution? The answer appears to be that due to its preference for upland moorland habitats, where land is managed intensively to create high densities of Red Grouse for shooting, the Hen Harrier is coming into conflict (be it real or perceived) with the landowners of these habitats.

Despite the Hen Harrier being a protected species for six whole decades, and despite there being adequate habitat for around 300 breeding pairs, their breeding numbers in England have continued to dwindle, seemingly due to the illegal activities of a minority of people.

I have no problem with people who enjoy shooting as a pastime, and despite a love and respect for wildlife, I could tolerate the shooting of some gamebirds if it were practised legally and without harming other species.  But unfortunately, where Hen Harriers are concerned, this is quite clearly not happening.

This is why I have signed the e-petition below, created by Mark Avery (former Conservation Director of the RSPB), to ban driven grouse shooting*.

Anybody who feels the same as I do; that a sport enjoyed by relatively few people should not directly or inadvertantly result in the loss of one of our finest species of birds (protected by law), might like to consider signing the petition too.

Mark Avery’s blog contains a much more in depth analysis of what is happening to our Hen Harriers and why; and (very reasonably) even goes so far as to present the other side of the argument so people can make an informed decision on whether to sign the petition.

* Note that the petition does not propose a ban on all grouse shooting, just driven grouse shooting as habitats where this is practised appear to be where Hen Harriers are most notably absent.

Kittiwakes on Tyne

Just a quick update on the Kittiwakes breeding down on the Newcastle Quayside…

Last Sunday I had some errands to run in the centre of Newcastle so when I was finished I headed down to the Quayside to see how our inland breeding colony of Kittiwakes was doing.  I am pleased to say there were plenty of birds now fully in place on nests under the Tyne bridge and high up on buildings either side of the river.  For the best views of the birds and their nests I headed along to the Baltic art gallery (the viewing platform on the fourth floor offers exceptional views of these wonderful, wild sea birds!) and was pleased to see the ledges full of rebuilt nests, with brooding birds atop them.  There were no signs of any chicks (I had wondered…) but the views I got of a few of the nests revealed clutches of two or possibly three eggs in each.

With any luck, the eggs should begin to hatch soon so I will be back on the Newcastle Quayside in the next couple of weeks, hopefully with a camera that works.  The birds really are the most delicate, beautiful looking creatures. I am really looking forward to seeing how they manage to keep their chicks from falling out of their nests and off the side of the buildings!


Patch Perfect

After more than a week away on holiday I was keen to get back on patch at Holywell Pond and Holywell Dene last weekend to see what was new.  In birding terms, not a great deal had changed with no new species for the year spotted but that’s not really the point – what was there was entertaining enough!

At the pond the number of Common Terns has now reached five pairs, with the females brooding on the island whilst the male birds swoop and soar over the water.  Pairs of Greylag and Canada Goose already have goslings in tow but are hunkered down in the meadow for the most part.  There are also a number of pairs of Mallard which seem to be nesting in the meadow beside the pond, as well as four Lapwings which seem to have been around for a number of weeks.

Last Saturday the Swifts were putting on a fantastic aerobatic display, swooping down low between the willow carr along the eastern margins of the pond, flying really close to my head at some points.  I also spotted Swallows and a solitary Sand Martin hawking over the water.  Following the footpath past the pond and through the fields the Skylarks are still in song but now they don’t seem so loud with all the other bird song in my ears.  In the distance I spotted a Kestrel hovering over the boundary between hedgerow and field and wondered if it was the same bird I have seen around Earsdon (which isn’t all that far away after all).

The sounds of a Yellowhammer’s reeling song met my ears as I pottered along the hedgerow and I soon disturbed the bird which flew across the corner of the field to safety. Not long after I first heard and then spotted a family of Whitethroats skulking in the hawthorn.  Then nearby I heard the cryptic warbling of a Sedge Warbler which briefly emerged from the gorse along the bridle way, before disappearing into the undergrowth.

Down in Holywell Dene the beautiful warbling of numerous Blackcaps filled the woods and it wasn’t too difficult to spot some of the birds in the trees and shrubbery.  The reeling of Europe’s smallest bird, the Wren also filled the woods as well as the flutey notes of the Robin.  This wasn’t the last I’d hear or see of the Robin as on my way back through the dene I was lucky enough to spot a juvenile, less conspicuous due to the lack of red on its breast, but equally attractive with its dappled brown plumage.

As the sun broke through into a clearing I saw my first Red Admiral butterflies of the year – a splendid pair which fluttered and basked amongst the nettles. It was early in the morning but beginning to get warm nonetheless.  On my way back past the pond I managed another first for the year, a single Wall Brown butterfly and I also spotted Orange Tip, Small White, Large White and Speckled Wood butterflies on the short walk round the side of the water.

By the end of the walk I was thoroughly pleased with myself and perhaps it’s true what they say – absence does make the heart grow fonder.  The more I come down to Holywell, the more I love it.