Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Damsels in Distress

A couple of days after my butterfly hunting trips, I was planning a quiet day in getting caught up on housework, but the sun was shining so I forgot all about that and went to Gateshead looking for dragons instead!

I started with a bus to Derwenthaugh to look for Banded Demoiselles, one of our most beautiful insects.  I had a great day here last year, when I saw them at three different points along the river with the help of local guide and expert, Alan Mould.  Alan's blog, found here, is essential reading for anyone interested in seeing dragonflies in the Gateshead area.  This year was a very different story though.  I started near the bridge where I'd seen several Demoiselles last year, but the winter floods had washed away most of the vegetation that had been here and what had replaced it didn't look at all promising. Giving up here I walked along to the outlet at Clockburn Lake, which had been turned into a muddy mess, apparently by the Council.  I checked out the river before the outlet, which held nice numbers of Blue Damselflies, but no Demoiselles could be seen.  I headed back downstream to a small outlet where I'd seen my first Demoiselle last year but that too was bare and unpromising.  I finally gave up, disappointed at not seeing this lovely species and disheartened at what had happened to their habitat.

Three buses later, I was at Kibblesworth Village, a short walk from the excellent Bowes Valley Nature Reserve.  I'd been here in June, when there were plenty of 4-Spotted Chasers around and a single Broad-bodied Chaser, but today I was hoping for Emperors and Black-tailed Skimmers, a dragon I'd never seen.

The large pond looked quite quiet at first.  The first indication of anything bigger than a blue damsel was a large silhouette over the surface.  I was able to pick out a couple of Emperors, a year first for me, and there was something else smaller flitting around that I couldn't quite catch.  Someone else appeared out of the vegetation on the far bank then, someone who was able to guess who I was.  It turned out to be Rob Stonehouse, a keen birder who I'd spoken to a lot on Twitter but not actually met.  I showed him the Emperors I'd seen and we talked about how odd it was that 4-Spot numbers seemed so low when there had been plenty around earlier.  As we were doing another circuit of the pond I spotted a powder blue dragon that I called as a Broad-bodied Chaser but which Rob correctly identified as a Black-tailed Skimmer, and I had my lifer!

I'd told Rob about my lack of success with the Demoiselles, and he suggested a different site, at nearby Lamesley Pastures, and then proceeded to drive me down there and point out a couple of female Demoiselles to me, sitting just below the bridge.  One was doing flying runs off the vegetation a little further up, and kept settling on the water and floating down with the current before flying up again.  The beauty and charm of these lovely insects won me over all over again!

Butterfly fly away

Two days, 
two counties, 
three sites,
and a whole lot of butterflies!

I had actually been planning this trip for about a year now.  Last summer I was just getting into butterflies, and I discovered that Wingate Quarry in Durham had a colony of Marbled Whites, a butterfly I'd never seen but which looked quite special.  Then I discovered that Bishop Middleham Quarry, nearby, had a colony of Northern Brown Argus, another one I'd never seen.  It was late in the summer when I finally got down there last year, and not a particularly good day.  I made it as far as Wingate and found a single Marbled White before the rain started.  So it went onto the list for this year.  I got down there in mid-July for a day out with my mum.

The weather didn't look quite perfect, but certainly good enough; dry with sunny spells.  It turned out to be a lot better than that.  It was lovely and sunny at Wingate Quarry.

It clouded over and even threatened rain when we stopped at Castle Lake to look for Corn Buntings and I was starting to feel a bit doubtful about Bishop Middleham Quarry at that point but when we got there the sun came out again for a brief, glorious ten minutes, only to start raining when we got back to the car.

The butterflies were wonderful.  Wingate Quarry was alive with Common Blues (my first of the year), Meadow Browns and Ringlets, and on the small hill near the entrance I found a good half dozen or so Marbled Whites showing beautifully.  After seeing one last year, I'd declared this to be my favourite butterfly and seeing so many more only strengthened its position!

Blue butterflies come very close though.  They are so photogenic and bright.  Before this month I'd only ever seen a handful, so it's been lovely seeing them in much greater numbers.

Castle Lake was harder work.  The whole area seemed overrun with thistles and I couldn't get a clear view of what was on the lake itself with my binoculars, maybe because I didn't know the area.  There was only one significant target here though: Corn Bunting.  I'd actually had Corn Bunting on my life list for a while, as I'd identified a bird along Druridge Bay as one back in April 2014, right when I was starting to get back into birding.  I later took it off when I learnt a bit more and decided that it probably hadn't been what I'd thought.  I'd known about the Castle Lake birds since the start of the year but even though it was a potential lifer I'd been putting off a trip there until I could combine it with the butterfly hunting at the nearby quarry.  A good walk around the western half of the lake revealed nothing though, and I met up with my mum again on a hilltop and declared myself defeated.  We started back for the village when I spotted something sitting on a wall nearby.  A quick check with the binoculars and I was ticking my first Corn Bunting.  It's not the most spectacular of birds, but is rather nice in its own way and I was happy to finally see one and put that earlier error to rest.

On to Bishop Middleham Quarry, where the gathering gloom gave way to a brief spell of sunshine.  We didn't stop long here, because we were getting hungry and the weather didn't look promising, but it looks like a really lovely place to come back to for a longer walk.  Luckily there were plenty of butterflies near the entrance and I put my mother to work trying to spot one that looked like a Northern Brown Argus.  Several dozen Ringlets later, I realised that wasn't really working as a tactic.  Meanwhile I was carefully checking female Blues, though more than a little uncertain what I was actually looking for.  Then I realised that there were a lot of small butterflies flitting around that I hadn't really noticed at first.  They were brown, but significantly smaller than the Ringlets and had been overlooked by the both of us as probably moths.  I was pretty sure these were my Argonauts and when one stopped long enough for me to get a decent photo the white spots seemed to clinch it!  My third butterfly lifer of the year!

The next day was another nice, sunny day.  After a morning appointment with my work advisor I headed up for a new site for me at Cambois.  Someone on Twitter had told me about this when I was asking about his Grayling sightings, and it was just as well he'd given fairly detailed directions or I never would have found the place.  I walked through from Bedlington Station, a couple of miles towards the North Blyth coast.  Then in the middle of the Cambois Industrial Zone, where the power station once stood I left the road, pushed through some shrubs and weeds and climbed up a small bank.  At the top I was genuinely amazed.  The landscape just opened up in front of me with a long grassy path stretching north.  On my left were enough trees to hide the post-industrial landscape.  On my right was another bank leading up to a similar path on a higher level.

I've seen Grayling once before.  I was at St Bee's last summer on the Cumbrian coast, looking for Black Guillemots without my binoculars, a truly fruitless task!  Unable to see many of the sea birds, I instead borrowed my dad's camera and took photos of the many butterflies on the coastal path.  Most of them were Meadow Browns and Ringlets and it was only later that night in my tent that I realised that one of my shots was actually a really bad photo of a Grayling.  So it wasn't a lifer, strictly speaking, but it was definitely one I really wanted to see again properly.  And Cambois didn't disappoint.  After a few common species and some nice Damselflies, a Grayling settled on the path in front of me and started tilting its wings into the sun, behaviour I'd only read about.  It kept flitting away and then settling in more or less the same spot, though it proved very difficult to photograph.  I had a walk further along the path, where I saw plenty more Common Blues and my first ever Green Tiger Beetle.  Then before I left I climbed up to the top path and immediately in front of me I found a pair of Grayling settled together.

Funnily enough, the best views I had of this difficult butterfly were on my way home, when one kept flying just ahead of me and landing on the steel fence of the industrial zone and then on the kerb!

Tuesday, 5 July 2016


I'm going to sneak in one last blog post for 30DaysWild because I never got around to writing this one up and I rather enjoyed doing it.

This was from the Saturday after the referendum, when I was feeling a little low in mood and not particularly well either.  Various plans I'd had to go out had fallen through and to be honest I was feeling a little sorry for myself.

As beneficial as a day's birding would have been, I wanted nothing more than a day on the sofa catching up with Netflix.  But I also had to get in something for my 30 Days Wild, so I decided that I'd see what I could see out of my window.

Now, I really don't have much of a view out of my living room window.  Its an upstairs flat in central Newcastle and looks out onto a back alley and the roofs of the terraced houses in the next street along.  There's not a trace of any greenery.  It really doesn't look very good for birding.  It's certainly not like my last garden; a large, wild space backing onto a train line and then a golf course, birding gold!

So I wasn't too hopeful.  This started out as something of a throw-away gesture.  But I surprised myself.  Once I'd set myself this challenge I started paying a lot more attention to what was out there.  It started out strongly with some Swifts soaring high.  Herring Gulls were also passing over and wheeling around pretty regularly.  There were also occasional feral Pigeons flying straight over.

Then a Jackdaw came and sat on the chimney pots opposite.  A Carrion Crow found something to eat at the top of the neighbours' roof, dropped it and chased it all the way down the tiles.  Starlings gathered on the wires and descended en masse into the alley to scavenge among the bins.  A couple of fat Woodpigeons found a chimney to shelter on for a little while.  Magpies soared overhead.  As I got my eye in I was able to pick out the occasional Lesser Black-backed Gull among the Herring Gulls.

One of the biggest challenges was that I could only see a relatively small patch of sky, and often a bird would be past as soon as I saw it.  I learnt how to pick them out quickly, or I missed them when I waited to see them from the second window and they never appeared.

Pelagic cruise

Come sail with me
Come sail with me
Come sail away with me
You guys

Last Friday I went on my third boat trip of the year, and my first pelagic.  The trip was run by Martin Kitching of Northern Experience Wildlife Tours, and I'd booked through the Northumberland Wildlife Trust.  Martin turned out to be an excellent, friendly and knowledgeable tour and for four hours he took us out to sea and up the coast as far as Cresswell.

Unfortunately we didn't see any dolphins on my trip, and there was no sign of the Sperm Whale that had been seen on the Wednesday, though we did get a tantalising single large splash at or around where it had been seen, though nothing else was spotted there.  There weren't many skuas or shearwaters around yet either, still too early in the season.  These are what I'm really hoping to see, because I've only ever seen them as dark splodges far out at sea, but I've already got two more boat trips booked in September that hold more promise and I'm very tempted to book again with Martin.  We did get a handful of Manxies though, including excellent views of one shearing around not far from the boat.

We did get plenty of auks and gulls.  As is usual with these trips, we got excited at the first Puffin or Guillemot, and then pretty soon they were everywhere, though never in the numbers you get around the islands further north.  This was more than made up for by some of the best views of Gannets I've ever had, including several swimming on the sea.

We were also followed continuously by Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, who would hang in the air just behind the boat.  One of the other passengers, David, noted a particular Lesser Black-backed Gull was constantly flying alongside us, landing, waiting for us to move on and then catching us up to repeat the whole exercise.

One of the absolute highlights of this trip was this scenery.  I'm a big fan of the Northumberland coastline, and it was quite special to see it from a whole new angle.  The weather added to the whole effect.  When we set off, the shoreline was black with storm clouds.  These slowly cleared and a narrow band of rain went over the boat.  On the way back south the sun was setting behind the cloud, giving some truly spectacular skies.  And it's not often you can see The Cheviot, Simonside, Spanish City and Souter Lighthouse at the same time!

Despite the lack of target species sightings, this was an excellent trip, and one I'd love to repeat later in the season.  I'm also rather tempted by the ten-hour version!

Thursday, 30 June 2016

30 Days Microadventure

Last night I slept in the woods.

This wasn't something I'd been planning, but it made sense for two reasons, two challenges. The first is Alastair Humphreys' microadventure challenge, or rather his Great British Summer Microadventure Challenge (linky) where he's trying to get an overnight microadventure happening in every county of the UK in June.  A microadventure can be as simple as spending a night sleeping on a hill, a beach or in a wood, preferably without a tent. Now, I've already done one of these, with my overnight stay in North Yorkshire, but last week I discovered that Tyne and Wear hadn't been done yet.  I could hardly leave my home county as a blank space on his map, could I?  Plus, Alistair has prizes to give away, and I could really do with the kit!  (Did I mention his excellent blog? Just follow the link above, and if you like the idea of microadventuring, he's also written a book on it).

The second challenge is the Wildlife Trust's 30 Days Wild challenge, which is coming to an end today.  I've loved doing this but have been struggling a bit for the last week, so I really wanted to finish it off with something special.

Now this was the fourth night this year I've spent sleeping in the wild, but it was very different to the others.  This is because there was no other purpose to it.  I wasn't backpacking and spreading my trip over multiple days.  I wasn't there to see any nocturnal wildlife or to get an early start on a day's birding.  I was purely there for the fun of a night in the woods.  I didn't even take my binoculars or camera! I was also pleasantly surprised how much lighter my pack was without my cooking kit, so maybe it's time to shop for a lightweight stove!  I arrived at the woodland centre at about ten o'clock at night, walked up to a nice, remote spot where I'd actually practiced with my hammock one afternoon in March, spent the night and came home on the first bus at half past five.

Just like in Yorkshire I took my hammock but didn't bother with a tarp cover.  It really makes a huge difference to the feel of it, you feel so much more open and not at all like you would in a tent.  Obviously there's also a big difference in how sheltered you are and I certainly wouldn't fancy a wet or windy night without it, but one of the beauties of microadventuring is that you can easily base it around the weather.  This time though I did throw my new bivvy bag in on top of my sleeping bag for some protection in case of showers.  I discovered it kept me a lot warmer, even if I didn't need the waterproofing.  My hammock has a built-in mosquito net that I hadn't used before last night but that got used too as the midges started biting as I was setting up.

One thing I love about hammock camping is that it totally changes how you look at camping sites.  This is particularly useful in woods, where it's hard to find an open spot that's level and clear of roots and stumps.  With the hammock I don't even need to clear the pine cones away!

I was far from alone in the woods.  There were at least two Tawny Owls calling earlier on, a deer barking off in the distance, and then I was woken shortly after three by a roding Woodcock flying, grunting and whistling over my head.  Shortly after this, the Song Thrushes got the dawn chorus started, with the Woodcock joining in as best he could, before everyone else joined in.  It was a really special treat to be able to just lie there, snug and warm, drifting in and out of sleep to that orchestra and a wonderful way to start the last day of my 30 days wild.  It was made even better when a gorgeous young Fox wandered along the path just a few metres away, totally oblivious to me.

Sleeping up there, I felt like I was somewhere remote, somewhere wild.  It was actually quite startling to see that just five minutes walk had me back at the bus stop on a fairly busy road, and to be back in Newcastle in twenty minutes.

It felt like quite a big leap doing this, in some ways a bigger leap than backpacking across the Highlands or the North York moors, because I was still so close to urban centres, but it's definitely something I'll be doing again!

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Healing Touch of the Wild

Last Wednesday morning I left a work programme workshop feeling rather anxious. There was no real reason for it, just that frustrating and faintly ridiculous feeling that something is wrong based solely on someone's innocent comment.  There was only one thing for it: spending the afternoon walking in one of my favourite parts of Northumberland, Druridge Bay.

I started at the excellent Drift Cafe just outside Cresswell, and then after a delicious scone it was on to Cresswell Pond where a couple of pairs of Avocets were still trying hard to breed and looking as elegant as ever.  A pair of Knots were also present, though it took me a little while to convince myself that they weren't the Curlew Sandpipers that were listed on the board for a few days earlier.  They steadfastly refused to fly and show me their tail patterning and I finally gave up when they fell asleep.

Druridge Pools was fairly quiet, the main highlight being some colourful Black-tailed Godwits, a Brown Hare on the far side of the Budge field and large numbers of Blue-tailed Damselflies all along the path.  The ponies were also looking rather lovely from the Budge Screen.  I do love seeing these ponies grazing on the Budge field, something so natural and right about that kind of land management technique.

Last time I was at Druridge Pools I was lucky enough to have a pair of Swallows perch right in front of the hide for some simply stunning views.  This time all of the hirundines kept perching on the fence to the right of the hide.  They were mostly Sand Martins with a few Swallows and looked lovely enough for me to wish I'd had a better view of them.

I had a quick look at the fields leading over to Chibburn Preceptory, hoping to maybe catch a Yellow Wagtail among the cattle there, but the grass in the fields was really long and didn't look too promising, so I headed straight up to East Chevington.

The wild flowers between Druridge Pools and East Chevington were one of the real highlights of my day.  I really don't know much about flowers, but I've learnt enough to identify the Bird's-foot Trefoil (an excellent butterfly resource) and Northumberland's county flower, the Bloody Cranesbill, some of which was starting to show the red leaves that give this purple flower its fantastically gory name.
I didn't stop for long at East Chev because I was started to get concerned about bus times home, but while I was in the middle hide I picked up a Marsh Harrier on the far side that circled around and then flew the whole length of the North Pool before dropping into the reeds.  Seeing these fantastic raptors in Northumberland still thrills me, even after seeing them in much greater numbers already this year at Blacktoft Sands and Leighton Moss.

Hurrying back to Cresswell for the bus I nevertheless had to stop when, passing Druridge Pools again, something flew straight across the road in front of me.  I raised my binoculars thinking "Sparrowhawk or Merlin?" only to find that it was a Cuckoo, one of my key target species left for this summer.  It was being harrassed by Meadow Pipits, and perched on a fence post on the edge of the dunes where I got the best views of this lovely bird I've ever had, and then flew north to another post further away.
I managed to make it back to Cresswell just in time for my bus home.  Heading back to Newcastle, I felt so much better within myself than I had when I first set out.  The natural healing touch of the wild had worked its magic again.

Cuckoo takes my year list to 217.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Bee Safari

Two bee days or not two bee days?  That is the question.  Because technically this act of wildness took place over two days and an additional evening.

with apologies to Bill Shakespeare.

This one started totally by accident.
Last Tuesday I was at my mum's with my youngest child, (preschool age) while his brother and sister were at school.  For some reason my mum's conservatory is totally entrancing to bumblebees so I ended up rescuing several of them with a shot glass and a bit of paper.  Then I discovered that you could feel their buzzing through the paper, which we both really liked.  That led into seeing what different types of bees we could find in the garden.

This is where my lack of preparation revealed itself.  Last year I learnt to identify some of the commoner bee species and I've got a lovely FSC chart showing two dozen of them.  Unfortunately as with so many of the summer species I'd forgotten most of what I'd learned about identifying bumblebees and my fancy chart was sitting on a shelf at home.  So we didn't get much further than recognising that there were a lot of different types of bees in the garden and that they were pretty cool.

We carried on this activity with the other two when they got back from school, once they'd eaten and while they were playing with bubble mixture in the garden.  My daughter also had a bee chart back at home and we both promised to check it later (neither of us ever did though).

As the afternoon turned into evening, the sun came out and it was glorious.  Rather than staying in the garden or risking them turning towards the TV or iPad for further entertainment, we went around to the Iris Brickfield, a few streets away, for some outdoor play and a bit of wild time.  We'd been here earlier in the day with my youngest and they've added loads of pretty cool play equipment to the place, including an obstacle course that I really wanted to see how my older two would handle.  It's also a lovely little spot for wildlife with lots of long grass, flowers, a pond that looks like it really should have dragonflies and a mix of trees and shrubs.  There were hirundines swooping all around us while we played, and then, while I was sitting chatting to my older son on the platform of a slide I spotted something small and yellow land.  We jumped down to check it out and it was an Orange Ladybird.  I've only ever seen this species once before, two years ago, funnily enough also in a park with the kids, and then it totally blew my mind.  I knew you got different species of Ladybird and they weren't all red but I really wasn't expecting this lovely little orange-yellow thing with white spots.  It was great to find one again and this time to get photos!

On the evening of day 20 I was walking home from my mum's late in the evening (10-ish) thinking about how I hadn't really done anything wild all day.  Then I passed a large bush by the side of the path with globular orange flowers, and despite the time this bush was covered in bees!  None of them seemed to be doing very much at all, most just sat there, upside down or right way up, with one of two moving around a little bit.

I spent ages watching them, fascinated to see behaviour on a city street from such a common insect that I've never witnessed before.  When I got home and shared this on Twitter I learnt that it is a fairly common thing.  I'd just always assumed bumblebees slept in some kind of hive somewhere, not just hanging upside down on a flower!  Nature always finds new ways to surprise us, it really does.

That led nicely into day 21's planned activity, a re-run of our bee safari but this time with the right tools to actually identify the bees.  Well, some of the tools.  I had the chart but I forgot my sample pots and I still need to order the nets.  Together we managed to identify four different bee species in my mum's back garden, with White-tailed, Buff-tailed, Common Carder and Early Bumblebees busily buzzing around her flowers.  We also found an unfortunate Tree Bumblebee that had become squished in the window frame.  After tea we headed back around to the Iris Brickfield, where we were going to be foraging for elder flowers, and I set my daugher a challenge:  to find a Red-tailed Bumblebee.  She was absolutely delighted when she found not one but two right outside my mum's front door.  We also found a much more alive Tree Bumblebee in the front garden and then a Forest Cuckoo Bumblebee, one I don't recall ever seeing before.

What was really nice about this was that when I first proposed it, my daughter really couldn't be bothered with it.  She's also doing 30 Days Wild, but was quite happy having the foraging as her wild thing for the day.  On the way home she said that it'd been her favourite part of the whole evening.  I think this is largely because I set her a challenging but achievable task that she managed to accomplish.  Red-tailed Bumblebees are probably the easiest bumblebee species to identify but finding one herself made her feel really good.

Foraging for elder flowers was really good fun, and then, while the kids went off and had a play I followed a moth around that I'd spotted.  It finally landed and I got a decent shot of its nicely marked wings.  It was only later that night when I was looking at the photo that I suddenly realised what it was.  Its wing markings distinctly resembled the face of a wizened crone, which meant that it could only be a Mother Shipton Moth.  A quick Google search confirmed it and I had a nice new moth to add to my list.  Another one I found in a hedge as we were walking home has been identified by more experienced eyes than mine as a Lesser Treble Bar Moth, which is also a new one for me.

The elder flowers are being turned into elder flower champagne, but that's a story for another day!

Its...Its a Bio Blitz

And the man in the back said everyone attack
And it turned into a bio blitz
And the girl in the corner said Boy I want to warn you
It'll turn into a bio blitz

(with apologies to The Sweet)

Saturday night was my very first bio blitz, at the National Trust's Souter Lighthouse.  It was actually over a considerably larger area since the National Trust team there manage Whitburn Coastal Park and the Leas up as far as Trow.  It was a 22 hour bio blitz, starting at 8 pm on Saturday night and therefore obviously finishing at 6 pm on Sunday.  Unfortunately I had other (Fathers' Day) plans starting at about 10 am on Sunday morning, which would mean that I'd miss out on a lot of the fun, but with moth trapping, bat walks and Storm Petrel ringing happening overnight I was definitely up for a rare all-nighter. 

This was a really big commitment for me.  These days I'm very much early to bed, early to rise, something that's only really come about over the last few years, and I start struggling at about 10 pm.  Also, as I was travelling there by Metro, I really was stuck there until about 6 or 7 am on Sunday!  But I've never seen a Storm Petrel so that was a major draw.  I'm also finding myself increasingly drawn to moths and bat walks are always cool.

I started with a walk down the Leas before I got to Souter.  This section of coastline is one I've only discovered in the last year or two and I love it.  The twisty cliffs are so different to the long sandy beaches I'm used to in Northumberland.  It's also great for migrants and one of the best places I've found to watch Fulmers as they keep soaring up over the edge of the cliff right in front of you.  The birds were singing, the seabird colonies smelt magnificent and I found a rather faded looking Painted Lady.

I arrived at Souter Lighthouse at about 7ish, and met some of the team there.  Jason, Doug, Trevor and John were all really nice lads and great fun to knock about with for a while down there.  They were also really informative and supportive.  I got to have a wander around some of the areas of the coastal park that are normally off-limits to the public, and set small mammal traps with them through the shrubbery on one of the mounds and then around one of the ponds where I found one of my best sightings of the night, a Ghost Moth in the grass.  It was before 8 pm though, so didn't count towards the bio blitz.

When 8 pm came we started counting the bird species we could see, and then got the ringing nets for the Storm Petrels set up with another really nice, friendly couple of people, Andrew and Georgia, a regular ringer and ringing-viewer.

Things seemed to go pretty quiet for a while after this.  Andrew, Georgia and I stayed by the nets at the cliff top, while everyone else seemed to vanish off somewhere.  I occasionally got the feeling that maybe something exciting was happening elsewhere, but didn't have a clue where.  Maybe this is one of the problems of it being such a big site.  It turned out I wasn't really missing out on anything other than getting the moth traps set up.  

It was finally turning dark and Souter Lighthouse at sunset was looking rather lovely. The sky to the north was cloudy, though the nearly full moon to the south was shining brightly in a fairly clear sky.  We also managed to spot and identify three different planets, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter, though we couldn't make out any moons as it was still fairly light.

We managed to get the tape lure working for the Storm Petrels, and then fancying a bit of a change I had a drive around with Doug and Trevor, looking for Hedgehogs and Foxes, without any success.  They dropped me off with Jason, who was doing some newt surveying in the pond near where John was keeping an eye on one of the moth traps.  He'd caught what he called another Ghost Moth but which could well have been the one I'd found.

The newt survey picked up well over a dozen Palmate Newts, as well as leaches and lots of little fish that would be identified the next day when pond dipping.

This leads neatly on to one of the problems with my night-time adventure.  Because I wasn't there on the Sunday I felt like I was missing out on an awful lot.  I was there to set the mammal traps up, but not there to check them.  Likewise with the moth traps, which would be checked next day.  I was also missing out on bees, butterflies and dragonflies.  Next year I'm going to make a determined effort to be there for the full thing!

We all headed back to the bird nets at the cliffs where we found that nothing had been caught at all.  This wasn't really a surprise at this point, because all night people had been giving me reasons why we wouldn't catch any Petrels: it was still early in the season; the moon was too bright; the sea was too rough and loud; it was too clear.  There'll be other opportunities though, this year, and as I said at the time, even with all those factored in, my chances were a lot better than if I'd stayed in bed.

It was getting on for 1 am by this point, and it was looking like things would be relatively quiet until 6.30 by which time I'd have to be thinking of leaving, so I cut my losses and managed to blag a lift home with Andrew who, as luck would have it, was dropping Georgia off a few streets away from my flat.

Just as we were leaving, Andrew got a call from Jason at the nets, and we ran back, thinking he'd maybe got lucky as soon as we left him alone.  It turned out that he hadn't caught a Petrel, (they were at it until 3.30 and never got one) but a Pipistrelle Bat had flown into the net, so we got a good close look at that as he released it. 

Despite the relative lack of sightings, it was a fantastic night.  I met some lovely people and made some great contacts, and I'll definitely be back down there to try for Petrels again.  I'll also know who they are next time I see them out and about on the Leas, which is always nice.  Also, how many people can say they spent a night at Souter Lighthouse and saw a genuine ghost?

Monday, 20 June 2016

The Stars Aren't Coming Out Tonight

I was pretty busy most of day 16 finishing off a play-house project for my kids in my wife's garden in Blyth, and then settled in for a film night with my mum, when we watched Stardust.
Afterwards, while Take That were belting out the end credits theme, I decided that since I was still quite awake and as it was a lovely summer's evening, I'd sit out in her garden for a while with a wee dram.

Disappointment followed on almost every count.  Firstly, there was but half a dram left in her whisky bottle.  Secondly, there was not a star to be seen.  I really shouldn't be surprised by this.  After all I grew up in Newcastle, and have lived there most of my life apart from a few years in central Liverpool and a time in Blyth.  I've often said in this very blog that there is a surprising amount of nature to be found in our cities and other urban environments, but one of the main drawbacks of urban living is found whenever you look up at night.

Light pollution is such a problem that even at midnight on a fairly clear night you get nothing but a dull, colourless haze.  Now that I've got my hammock, and my bivvy bag has just arrived too, I'm definitely going to get out and spend the night at a few of Northumberland's dark sky sights.  I want to see the stars.  I want to see other planets and other moons.  I really, really want to see the Northern Lights.  What I don't want to see on those rare occasions when I stay up late is reflected lights on the clouds and precious little else.

Some more whisky would be nice too!  Luckily my lovely mother brought me a one litre bottle of Jameson's back from her recent Ireland trip and I still have my whisky flask tucked away somewhere.

Oh, and in case you were wondering... Here is the play house, now finished.  I still think it would be better if you removed the swings, hung some bird feeders up on those hooks and used it as a bird hide, but my wife and three kids aren't having any of it!

Fields of Gold

I had quite a busy day for day 15, with a Work Programme appointment in the morning, followed by a far from pleasant trip to the dentist in the afternoon.  You know your dental appointment isn't going well when the dentist's assistant steps back and looks away and your dentist says to her "You're not keen on gore, are you?"  It makes you wonder just what is going on in your mouth.

But enough about that...

I had to sneak in what wildness I could between appointments.  Luckily, despite living in the middle of a busy city, that isn't really a problem.  The route from my house to my dentist takes me right across Newcastle Town Moor, a vast open space of grassland just north of the city centre, which has Skylarks ascending and hirundines swooping across it.  On this particular wet and murky Wednesday it was pure gold.  There were buttercups everywhere.  It felt like the only sunshine to be found was growing straight up out of the grass.

With cows grazing in the background it was hard at times to believe that I was still in the city, and the flowers really brightened up my day.  I also noticed that the few Swallows that were out were flying very low to the ground, which made me wonder if this is related to the weather at all?  Maybe the insects don't fly as high in the damp?

After the carnage at the dentist, I walked through Jesmond Dene to my dad's house.  Hidden away at the top of the dene is one of my favourite places in the whole city, St Mary's Chapel.  Believe it or not, at one time this small chapel was one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the whole country and brought religious people flocking to Newcastle.  Now it's been left to go wild and this little corner of the dene always seems very quiet and seldom visited, unlike some of the main paths.

There were plenty of birds singing, though I didn't manage to see or identify many of them.  Just walking through there though, I could feel my soul being restored.  Maybe it's finding that connection with nature, or maybe there is something of power lingering in these old sacred stones?