Sunday, January 31, 2010

Snow buntings at Sunderland

We had heavy snow showers on the coast on Friday, so today the snow was still covering the upper part of the beach at Seaburn, where we found this flock of about a dozen snow buntings in about as natural a setting - for a snow bunting - as you could wish for. By early afternoon we had a very high spring tide that pushed the birds into the narrow zone between the edge of the snow and the beach, where they fed on the tideline where snow-covered grass met the stranded seaweed, flotsam and jetsam.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Spring Show-offs

How can you tell when spring is on the way? Well, one reliable sign is when goldeneye Bucephala clangula perform their ridiculous courtship ritual. We came across this small flotilla strutting their stuff this afternoon, on the Tyne between Newburn and Wylam. They were on the far side of the river and the dalight had almost gone but you can still discern the key moves that a male goldeneye needs to make if he wants to pull...
The drake third from left above is attempting to perform the classic display - head stretched right back to rest on his tail, staring at the sky. He's clearly a beginner at this game, because the gaze of the two unimpressed girls on the right is  directed elsewhere... 

... so this drake is showing how it should be done. First, stretch your neck until your vertebrae feel like they are coming apart and stare at the sky then....

...puff your chest out and hurl your head back until it's almost up your bum. Note that he has the rapt attention of the two ducks, while his rivals are left trailing in his wake

.. and in a fit of pique one kicks water in his face.
I really like these ducks, not least because of the sound their wings make when they're in flight...they sing as they scythe through the air and you can hear them coming from a long way off.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Cormorants: made from girders

Keith, who blogs here, has just posted some fine photos of cormorants, which put me in mind of this interesting piece of ornithologically-inspired public art called 'Taking Flight' by Craig Knowles, that you can see at the North Dock Marina at Sunderland, near the mouth of the River Wear.

It takes the form of five girders embedded upright in the quayside, on a pier that juts out into the river, that gradually morph from solid steel to a cormorant about to lift-off from its perch.....

.... and pays tribute to Sunderland's shipbuilding industrial heritage and the cormorants that still perch near the end of the quay and fish in the river.

If you visit this website you can play with a 360 degree panorama which shows the whole series of scultures in context

Anybody know of any further pieces of ornithologically-inspired public art?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Rainbow Cirrus a.k.a. Fire Rainbow

We spotted this amazing cloud, which I believe is called rainbow cirrus, also known as a fire rainbow, very late in the afternoon over the lower end of Weardale in County Durham. Apparently the rainbow is cause by refraction of sunlight by tiny ice crystals in very high altitude cirrus. I've only ever seen it once before, also during an extremely cold period of weather. Quite magical. It only lasted for a couple of minutes.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Growing a decent crop of pears in County Durham is probably a lost cause, partly because of the climate and partly because of these birds..... but I'm perfectly happy for them to eat some of the pear blossom buds as long as they continue to visit our garden. A fabulous splash of colour on a freezing winter's day...

They say that tonight will be the coldest so far ... it certainly felt like that when we walked home this evening (double- click for a larger image)

Monday, January 4, 2010


Back in the days of colour slide film I wouldn't have bothered with a picture like this - it would have been too expensive, needing dozens of shots to catch a drip just leaving the end of an icicle, and even then I wouldn't know if I'd been successful until the film came back from the processors. But that's the wonder of digital: take as many as you need and ditch the duds (about 30, in this case). The falling drop hasn't quite become spherical yet and it's interesting to note the much tinier droplet following it down (double-click image for a clearer view).

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Alien Marine Life

We picked up these two mollusc shells, which have an interesting history, on the Norfolk coast last Tuesday. Both are alien species that were introduced with American oysters sometime around 1880 and have since colonised the south-eastern and southern coasts of England. The animal above is the slipper limpet Crepidula fornicata which, despite appearances is more closely related to periwinkles than to limpets and has a rather exotic sex life (which is why the specific name is fornicata). The inverted shell, which has a shelf inside that gives it a resemblance to a slipper, contains the mollusc that has a powerfully muscular foot that it uses to attach itself to the back of another slipper limpet. So they pile up, one on top of another, youngest at the top, oldest at the bottom. As the older animals die, younger ones attach to the top of the pile. The longest chain of living animals that I ever found had seven individuals. The most amazing aspect of their reproduction is that they change sex as they age – the females are at the bottom, the males (youngest animals) are at the top and the middle ones are in the process of transition. This seems to be a very successful reproductive arrangement because slipper limpets colonised the English coast very rapidly once they arrived here, aided by the production of vast numbers of planktonic larvae that you can see here.

The animal above is the American paddock Petricola pholadiformis, commonly called 'false angel wings', which was also an introduction that arrived at about the same time as the slipper limpet and has been equally successful. It bores into soft substrates like chalk, limestone, shale and compacted mud using its rough shell for a drill, broad end first. It seems extraordinary that a relatively delicate seashell can be used for boring in this way, but by using its muscular foot to endlessly fidget the shell from side-to-side the animal drills down into the rock, growing larger as it burrows deeper – so once it’s in, it can never leave. It’s armoured by being encased in rock, but the rock also becomes its tomb.

You can read more about both of these at

Saturday, January 2, 2010


No sign of a let-up in the weather but at least it's bringing some interesting birds into the garden, including this female brambling. This is the first I've seen this winter, but sometimes at this time of year there are enormous flocks in the beech woods at Stanhope Dene in Weardale, just  a few miles up the road from here.

We haven't had snow like this for some time so we've decided to make the most of it and venture out whatever the weather, as long as we can stagger through the drifts...

...where a bit of wind-driven snow has turned some very mundame trees into attractive pieces of graphic art....and  ...

... sharp, bare hawthorn twigs emphasise the harshness of the weather... until..

... the arrival of a sudden blizzard drove us back indoors.. (you'll need to double-click the blizzard picture to see the snowflakes)

Friday, January 1, 2010


Our local fields has been blanketed with snow for almost a fortnight now, with outlines of trees and hedgerows etched into a blank white canvas.... and most of the bird and mammal life is confined to the hedges. We came across this weasel Mustela nivalis yesterday, scampering amongst the snow-covered brambles and willowherb stems along a hedgerow bottom, and I lured it within camera range using a ‘weasel-charming’ trick that a gamekeeper showed me when I was a kid. Stoats and weasels don’t have particularly good eyesight but their hearing is acute and they’ll investigate any noise that sounds like a distressed small mammal. So if you bite your bottom lip and suck air into your mouth through your teeth, they’re overcome with curiosity and will come to see where the squeaky noise is coming from. It works every time and I’ve had stoats come within a yard of me before they realised that the sound was coming from something too big to tackle. This weasel was a little more circumspect, but was only about three yards away when I pressed the shutter button.

Our local frozen landscape