Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Perks of Unemployment;

Now then; I'm not keen on this unemployment business but it does appear to have some perks. Namely a lot of free time just waiting to be filled by local birding forays. Having put in for some 41 conservation positions in the last fortnight I am hopeful this will not be the case much longer but until then I am content to wander the local area making the most of Northumberland's fantastic wealth of winter wildlife. This was the case this week with a few visits to the regular coastal haunts and a monumental length of time spent roaming around the homefront. The latter seems to have paid off with this weeks new additions of Siskin, Merlin and Goosander taking me to 75 species and 78 points on this years Patchwork Challenge. Substantially more than my points total this time last year! 

Anyways; Druridge Pools has as usual seen a fair bit of action this week though the reserve itself was rather quiet. Wildfowl numbers appear well down since my last visit though the usual suspects were all present. Among these maybe 50 Teal, 20 Mallard, 25 Wigeon, 6 Tufted Duck and 1 drake Shoveler. More surprising was the addition of 3 Scaup found loafing around on the large pool. These provided a somewhat overdue year tick having missed them on the county bird race and dipped them at the country park. Elsewhere around the pools 350 Lapwing dropped in to roost alongside 25 Golden Plover and a similar number of Curlew whilst the odd Redshank lurked about in the sedge. Away from the soggy spots and the shelter belt held a good number of passerines with a single male Greenfinch perhaps the highlight; looking somewhat glamorous amongst the duller shades of the sites resident Chaffinches, Dunnocks and Blackbirds. Also of note here was a Great Spotted Woodpecker behind the budge screen whilst both Yellowhammer and Reed Bunting were picked up in the fields surrounding the nearby cottages. I did briefly note the East Chevington Ross's Goose in flight alongside some 2000 Pink-Footed Geese but given the distance and the poor light chose not to pursue it further. I'll make an effort the twitch it properly when the species is added to the British List.. Or when pigs sprout wings and begin to fly.

Little Owl - Druridge Bay
Cresswell Pond was my next port of call and immediately after arriving I was greeted by an astronomical number of ducks lazing about on the water. Most of these turned out to be Wigeon with some 950 birds present alongside another 75 Mallard, 3 Shoveler, 2 Gadwall, 4 Tufties and a good two dozen Teal. This concluded everything of note on the lagoon itself however with not even a Little Grebe or Whooper Swan on which to fixate my attentions. A few species of wader put on a good show during my stay with c25 Oystercatcher dropping in alongside 10 Redshank, 25 Curlew and a single Sanderling. Not exactly rich pickings but there you go. Departing the hide a quick scan of the track and adjacent hedgerows turned up 2 Stonechat, 10 Tree Sparrows, a Great Spot and another lonesome male Greenfinch. Truth be told the walk back from the coast proved more entertaining than my two hour stint in the various hides. Kestrels were very much in evidence whilst a mixed flock of Yellowhammers and Reed Buntings at Bells Farm made for endearing viewing. Better still was a Grey Wagtail in the fields leading up to Widdrington Village whilst  8 Grey Partridge and a charming ermine Stoat also put in an appearance. Indeed all was going rather well when a quick scan of the Ash trees lining the road revealed a pair of wide yellow eyes glaring back at me. Little Owl! Doubtless one of the mythical birds that has eluded me constantly over past years. I was in fact beginning doubt the existence of said owls having religiously scanned the same trees over and over again for very little reward, prior to today that is. Little Owls are surely one of my favourite British birds and it was wonderful to have one stick around and actually give good views; contrary to their elusive nature. 
Thought I heard something squeaking.. Another Stobswood Speciality.
Back on the home front things appear to be continuing at a steady pace. Marsh Tits again seem to be flavor of the week with birds (or maybe the same bird) encountered on three occasions. One of which was more than happy to pose for a few record shots as it tucked into a Larch cone in the trees behind my house. Elsewhere the "Widdrington Woodland" has came up trumps with at time crippling views of 3 Jays alongside Treecreeper, Nuthatch, Long-Tailed Tit, Bullfinch and Lesser Redpoll. As I mentioned above I managed to finally pick out a lone Siskin from amongst the 200 or so Goldfinch residing in the area; no easy feat when said finches insist in sitting as high as possible in the canopy. 'My' Great Spotted Woodpeckers have likewise been putting on a splendid show; drumming on a daily basis and chasing each other around relentlessly whereas only a few weeks ago they appeared to be coexisting peacefully. Parents removing last years young perhaps? Anyways; woodland birds aside the patch also came up trumps with 7 Buzzard, 3 Kestrel and 1 Merlin seen on Widdrington Moor, 11 Pochard and 300 Pink-Footed Geese on Stobswood Pools and all five common Thrush species noted in the vicinity of the Stobswood playing field. Not a bad haul by anyones standards. As I said upon starting this post; my days of endless birding and low income are hopefully numbered having applied for huge array of weird and wonderful jobs. A few of which I actually believe I have the skills to do! Fingers crossed for a few interviews and the chance to wow potential employers with my glittering personality and endless witt.. I am of course joking.

Marsh Tit; not a common bird in the region.
Nuthatch stashing seeds in our garden fence..

Monday, 26 January 2015

Exploring the Shotton Surface Mine..

Last week threw up the opportunity to indulge in a new and somewhat exciting experience. Instead of seeking wildlife around nature reserves and country parks I found myself invited to explore two working surface mines in order to assess for myself what creatures exist around these as “lifeless” and “dirty” sites. Contrary to the opinions of many, I am not actually opposed to opencast mining. Sure surface mining is not everyone’s cup of tea and some of the arguments against the process may well be rooted in fact. This in mind however having lived next to a working opencast for almost a decade I have come to realise just how important these sites are in terms of local biodiversity; providing a veritable oasis among vast expanses of over-managed, overgrazed farmland. An outlook only strengthened by last week’s foray into the no man’s land surrounding the Shotton and Blagdon mines. Truly, the wealth of fantastic wildlife on show around these bustling and very much active sites surprised even me..

Part of the Blagdon Hall restoration.. the grassland is actually a hay meadow.
Arriving at the site mid-morning the myths surrounding these “empty craters” were immediately dispelled upon catching sight of no less than eight Roe Deer contently grazing the perimeter mounts not 50m from an active haulage road. Utterly unfazed by our presence these usually timid creatures showed immaculately for some fifteen minutes, far from disturbed by the industrial activities taking place only a short distance away. Next came stunning views of six Brown Hares, a nationally declining species which appears to be thriving in the rough grassland associated with the opencast soil mounds. A promising start if ever there was one but for me it is birds that truly capture my heart and thankfully the site appeared crammed to bursting with a smorgasbord of avian delights. Here Stock Dove and Linnet; both red listed by the RSPB were present in impressive numbers. Amber list species such as Skylark and Meadow Pipit roamed around in droves and charismatic raptors such as Kestrel and Buzzard drifted lazily in the thermals above us. Far from an ecological wasteland it seems. Further exploration of the site revealed yet more treasures; dazzling Wigeon and Teal grazing around the newt migration ponds. Migratory winter Thrushes foraging in their hundreds around newly created wildflower meadows. Mute Swans, Jays, Stonechats, Pied Wagtails and even a charismatic Green Sandpiper found pottering around in one of the sites many vegetated drainage ditches. Truly, I saw more species in a two hour stint in this active industrial site than I would in a day scouring the “green and pleasant” fields that had once adorned the site. Wildlife clearly does thrive in an opencast setting, aided by careful planning and mitigation measures implemented by the sites custodians, whoever they may be.

Not that I needed any more convincing as to the significance of the site but passing words with a few regular human visitors revealed yet more interesting information about the site. Red Squirrels and Otters, both iconic British species with both of which sighted in the vicinity of the mine. The latter making use of carefully constructed tunnels to bypass the sites roads and exploit the various pools strewn around the area. Both Short-Eared and Barn Owls had been observed hunting the aforementioned perimeter mounts. Little surprise given the numerous vole holes observed during the course of my visit. Indeed the grassland covering said mounts bore some resemblance to a wheel of Swiss cheese; crisscrossed with tunnels left by the small rodents as they traveled to and throw in search of food. Wonderful tales comprising many threatened animal species though what truly captivated me was tales of Peregrine Falcons hunting and roosting amid the sites plentiful machinery.

Well that was an experience..
As you have probably gathered by now; my whole “opencast” experience was a rather pleasant affair. Despite the gaping void, haulage roads and high visibility jackets the site struck me as a wondrous nature reserve of sorts; with wildlife a ’plenty coexisting alongside a very controversial process. Given my experience both here and elsewhere I can confidently say that opencast mines are far from the ecological deserts they are portrayed and before assigning stereotypes people should get out and explore just what these sites have to offer in terms of biodiversity and conservation. Of course many my dispute this claim and each and every person is of course entitled to their own opinion. Indeed the issue surrounding coal mining and fossil fuels in general is a complicated affair though with the UK still set on using such power sources I take will some solace in enjoying the natural spectacles associated with surface mines should sights such as Highthorn be granted the go ahead in the future.