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!