NATURE NOTES: Migrants on the move as autumn days approach

Nature notes: Little Egret
Nature notes: Little Egret

The local countryside scene in August is reviewed by John Almond with the help of members and friends of Alnwick and District Natural History Society.

As might be expected in this year with unusual weather patterns, a few summer visitors remained in the area longer than unusual.

Nature notes: Little Egret

Nature notes: Little Egret

The bulk of migrants were on the move by the end of the month while the resident birds were often to be found in large feeding flocks. There was an abundance of fruit on our trees and shrubs while the air was sometimes full of flying seeds.

Swifts are usually the last summer visitors to arrive but this year they also seem to have been reluctant to leave. The records suggest that most years a weather event such as a thunder storm has seen most swifts leave at the beginning of August but not so this year.

There were 60 swifts over Wagonway Road, Alnwick, on August 7, and then between four and 15 birds were spotted at various places in the town. Finally two were seen over Meadow Riggs on August 25 and 26.

It has been suggested that young, well-fed swifts depart as soon as they leave the nest site. It is the adult birds that remain to build up their strength for the journey south. They spend the rest of the year in tropical Africa, south of the Equator.

Swifts are long lived for their size with an average life expectancy of nine years with a maximum recorded age of 21 years.

House martins may have two or three broods a year so it is not surprising that adults were still feeding nestlings in the five mud cup nests on Alnwick Leisure Centre on August 12, and in the two nests on Park View, Alnwick, on August 26. Post breeding flocks included 10 birds at Thrunton on August 7, 30 at Riverside Park, Wooler, on August 16, and 15 over Simonside on August 20. A flock of 30 house martins were twisting and turning over Meadow Riggs, Alnwick, on August 30.

House martins roost in the nest when breeding but otherwise it is thought they may gather in groups in treetops at night. They winter in sub-Saharan Africa and may use ‘hotels,’ ie nests of more southerly colonies, as stopovers on route.

Swallows were still feeding nestlings at the Co-op on Wagonway Road, Alnwick, on August 5. There were four fledgelings roosting in their nest at Highfield Park, Alnwick, on August 25.

Feeding flocks of adult and young birds were noted throughout the area. There were 10 at Thrunton on August 7, 30 at Bolton on August 11, 20 at Yeavering and 10 at Roddam quarry pond on August 16, and 15 over Simonside on August 20.

There were eight swallows on the power line at Hadwin’s Close on August 13. When not sitting on wires, swallows preparing to migrate roost in reed beds at night.

The weather this year has been favourable for our breeding sea birds with increases on the Farne Islands ranging from four per cent in the case of guillemots to a massive 37 per cent in the case of shags. The availability of food was obviously also an important factor. The protection afforded to our two little tern colonies enabled 89 chicks to fledge.

Last month there was a report of an albino house sparrow at Rock and it is thought there is a one in 18,000 chance of this happening. Unfortunately albinos usually have weak eyesight, brittle wing and tail feathers which may reduce their ability to fly and they are also bullied by their own species.

Following the breeding season, many species form flocks to go foraging for food. On August 6, there were flocks of 25 starlings and 50 rooks at Otterburn. Thee were 10 chaffinches in Bellingham and 15 goldfinches at Blakelaw Farm.

In Thrunton Wood on August 7, 25 goldfinches and 10 pied wagtails were present while 250 herring gulls and 250 black-headed gulls were in the ploughed field at Thrunton. The latter species had already lost their black heads.

House sparrows took advantage of spilt grain and on August 11, 30 were at Bolton and 25 at Humbleton. On August 16, 25 were at Akeld and 30 at Brandon.

There were seven mistle thrushes at Hethpool on August 11, and nine were at Roddam on August 16. There were 10 meadow pipits near Reaveley on August 16.

A few birds were still caring for young such as the moor hen with three chicks on the pond in Alnwick Garden on August 5, and the blackbird with three fledgelings at Glovers Green, Alnwick, on August 13.

There was not much bird song in August but a willow warbler gave a brief burst in Howling Lane, Alnwick, on August 4. A robin was beginning its winter song from the bus stop post on Wagonway Road on August 31.

Little egrets have become a familiar sight in the area particularly on the river estuaries from Blyth to Berwick but also on the Druridge Bay Reserves. They actually bred in Druridge Bay for the first time this year.

They are usually seen in one and twos and are often very confiding. One which was feeding at the Howick Burn mouth allowed a photographer to approach very close.

Buzzards were seen at Belsay and Hadwin’s Close while kestrels were at Cuddystone Hall, Longhorsley and Kirknewton.

A red squirrel was a road casualty at Lesbury on August 1, as was a hedgehog at Felton on August 4.

An albino hedgehog was found in a storm drain at Tughall on August 30.

There were four harbour porpoises off Amble on August 6. A roe deer and a hare were in Thrunton Wood on August 7, and a roe deer was also at Bilton Mill on August 25.

Last month, 197 pipistrelle bats were seen leaving a roost under a flat roof in Queen Street, Alnwick, and one of this species was seen at Arkle Court, Alnwick, on August 24.

A reader has planted chives in her garden to deter field mice and the experiment seems to have worked.

The autumn colours began to appear on the trees, particularly the horse chestnuts along the A1 north of Morpeth and in Lisburn Court, Alnwick. Seeds appeared on the creeping thistles and rose bay willow herb. Ripe rose hips were on the sweetbriars at Hadwin’s Close on August 13, as were those on the dog rose and Japanese roses in Alnwick on August 16.

Red berries were on the hawthorn near Hadwin’s Close on August 13, while elder berries and sloe berries were in abundance around Alnwick on August 23 and 25 respectively.

Hedge bindweed was a prominent plant along the roadside in August. In shaded places, wood sage and the berried spikes of lords-and-ladies or cuckoo flower could be found. On August 20, tormential, heather, bell heather, cross leaved heath and harebell were in flower on Lordenshaw’s Moor.

On the same day a walk to the top of Simonside produced chickweed wintergreen, cloudberry, cowberry, crowberry and bilberry,. It was also unusual to find pirri-pirri bur, the seeds of which must have arrived on the boots or clothes of walkers who had also visited the coast.

The late flowers provided nectar for visiting insects such as the eight white-tailed bumble bees on the roadside at Hawdwin’s Close on August 13.

Green-veined white butterflies were particularly common in the Otterburn area on August 6. Peacock butterflies were regularly seen this month with nine at Hauxley on August 7, and 18 at Thrunton Wood on the same date.

On August 13, a buddleia bush in Chapel Lands, Alnwick, provided food for 26 red admirals, 18 peacocks six large whites and two commas.

On August 25, there were three speckled wood butterflies on the old railway at Alnwick. Meadow browns, common blues, small white and small tortoiseshells were also seen in small numbers.

On August 20, northern eggar and emperor moth caterpillars were found on Simonside.

A field meeting will be held on Thursday, October 2, commencing from the Harbottle Crags car park at 1.30pm. We hope to look at the flora and fauna of the woodland and the moorland edge. A visit will be made to the Drake Stone and the Lough.

On the same day, the first indoor meeting of the new session will be held in the Costello Centre, Bailiffgate, Alnwick, at 7.30pm. We hope to hear about the kittiwake colonies on the Tyne in an illustrated talk by Dan Turner. Visitors will be most welcome at both.