Archive for March, 2012
Delivering a birding package for the first time with a new partner is always a mixture of excitement and worry; will the experience we deliver to our clients blend well with the standards of service, accommodation and food that are provided? Our exclusive Doxford Hall birding break on Thursday and Friday didn’t hold too many worries though – I’ve attended conferences and other events there before and, having known David Hunter since he was at Matfen Hall, I knew that the entire Doxford experience would be a memorable one for all the right reasons.
I arrived first thing Thursday morning to collect Paul and Sue, who had won their exclusive birding break in a competition that ourselves and Doxford Hall ran recently in Birdwatch magazine. Our original plan of Druridge Bay on Thursday, Lindisfarne on Friday, had been altered following a ‘phone call during the week from Sue – there was one species they particularly wanted to see, and our recent blog posts had revealed that now might be a good time…so, after a day of hectic communication with the Forestry Commission to arrange access through Kielder, and check where along our route there would be any forestry activity, our first trip headed inland. We started at Harwood in near-perfect weather conditions; warm, sunny and with a good breeze. Common Buzzards, Common Crossbills, Siskins and a very vocal Raven were all seen but no Goshawk so we continued west. Once we were in Kielder another Raven entertained us, tumbling and cronking over a remote farmhouse in the warm afternoon sunshine before soaring heavenwards and then dropping back out of the sky alongside its mate. We stopped to scan over another plantation, where I’ve watched Goshawks previously, and I soon spotted a bird just above the trees. He quickly got into a thermal and rose until we lost sight of him. I suggested that we just needed to wait for a Common Buzzard to drift over the Gos’ territory, and we began a patient vigil. Eventually a Common Buzzard did appear, we all lifted our binoculars to focus on it…and a distant speck in the binoculars above the buzzard grew rapidly larger as the Goshawk dropped out of the sky. The intruder thought better of hanging around and quickly folded it’s wings back and crossed the valley like an arrow. Having shepherded the buzzard away, the Phantom of the Forest rose quickly again to resume his sentinel watch. More Common Crossbills and Common Buzzards followed as we travelled down the valley back towards civilisation, and 2 pairs of Mandarin brought a touch of stunning colour to the afternoon.
Dinner at Doxford Hall on Thursday evening was exceptional (outstanding food and outstanding levels of service throughout the 2 days), and having clients with such an enthusiasm for birding, and fantastic sense of humour, made it even better. After dinner conversation did reveal that there was an obvious gap in their life-lists though…
Friday’s plan was simple; head to the coast and then bird our way down it to finish in Druridge Bay late afternoon. We started at Harkess Rocks, in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, with a very nice flock of 79 Purple Sandpipers. In the heavy swell a flock of Common Scoters proved elusive, Common Eiders dived through the surf, small rafts of Common Guillemot and Razorbill bobbed about, Gannets soared effortlessly, Sandwich Terns were feeding just offshore and Long-tailed Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers in breeding finery were a reminder that our winter visitors are about to pack their bags and head north. Red-throated Divers, including one bird with a very red tinge to it’s throat, were typically elusive, diving just as we got onto them. I’d got another species in mind though and, when I found one, it was sitting obligingly next to a Red-throated Diver. Soon, Paul and Sue were admiring the elegant structure, neat contrasty plumage and white flank patch of their first Black-throated Diver. 2 days, 2 lifers
We headed south and, after watching an adult Mediterranean Gull, and two 2nd calendar year birds, winter and spring came together with flocks of Greylag and Pink-footed Geese, and a Short-eared Owl, being characteristic of the last 5 months of our coastal trips, Green Sandpiper and Whimbrel on passage and a male Marsh Harrier drifting over a coastal reedbed.
In beautiful afternoon light, with the sound of the roaring surf of the North Sea crashing into the east coast, the Short-eared Owl quartering a nearby reedbed and a pair of Great Crested Grebes displaying on the pool in front of us, a couple of comments by Sue - two of many memorable ones during the trip – summed things up nicely “chilled-out birding” and “we like the view from Martin’s office”
On a beautiful spring day, with raptors soaring against an azure sky, and birdsong carrying on the breeze, just being in the landscape is an experience.
As I collected Peter and Margaret from Barnard Castle for a day of birdwatching around the North Pennines AONB, the temperature gauge on the car hit 18C, and we set off in search of one species in particular. Our lunch stop, overlooking a Black Grouse lek site, was accompanied by Curlew, Common Snipe, Meadow Pipit and Golden Plover all singing. As we went deeper into the hills, a Black Grouse stared at us imperiously from a rushy field. As we enjoyed very close views of the handsome bird, two cyclists came along the road and he flushed…along with another 3 Blackcock. As Margaret kept a close eye on the birds as they landed and began making their way uphill, Curlew and Golden Plover landed nearby and began calling. Then Margaret found another 3 Blackcock, flying by and landing much closer, and watched them before asking “you saw where they landed, can you see them now?”. I couldn’t but, having watched exactly what they did, Margaret described where they were, and what they were doing. Incredibly, they were only a few metres from where they’d landed, but had managed to position themselves amongst the rushes and stopped moving so that, unless you happened to be watching them when they did that, you couldn’t see where they were.
As the day continued and we headed across into Upper Teesdale, we found some very close Black Grouse, Common Snipe drumming overhead, Wheatears flitting along dry stone walls, Red Grouse cackling in the heather, a Short-eared Owl quartering grassland in stunning late-afternoon light and 2 Hen Harriers. That last sighting was exciting, and yet sobering at the same time; it’s been a long time since they bred successfully in that vast area of prime habitat.
Fittingly, our last sighting of the day was of 2 more Black Grouse, picking their way through sun-dappled woodland in the early evening.
After our first ever Harwood Safari on Saturday, our second came quickly 0n it’s heels. I’d driven through some patchy, but dense, fog on the way to collect Judith and Kevin but as headed towards Harwood we found ourselves in some extraordinarily good weather. The view from the Gibbet was better than on Saturday, and a male Goshawk was seen briefly as he passed along the top of the plantation in the distance.
Crossbills and Siskins were again in evidence as we drove the forest tracks and a Grey Wagtail was catching flies on the surface of a ditch as we watched a Common Buzzard soaring overhead, and a pair of Common Toads, the male clasped tightly to the female’s back, crossed the track ahead of us. We stopped to watch over the plantation where we’d had 2 Goshawks on Saturday, and soon a Common Buzzard soared into view. Almost immediately the male Goshawk rose out of the trees and began displaying high overhead, before finding a thermal that was obviously to his liking and ascending rapidly out of sight, presumably to keep a close eye on his territory.
The second half our our day was spent around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland. As we checked rivers and pools, the assembled birdlife wasn’t disturbed by anything other than more birds; Black-headed Gulls were harassing a Grey Heron, Goldeneye, Mallards, and Teal were following other Goldeneye, Mallards and Teal, full of the joys of spring, and Canada Geese were busy showing that even Canada Geese don’t like Canada Geese :-) As we left Druridge Bay behind and headed towards Blaydon, the countryside was bathed in an almost sublime light. 10 hour working days have never seemed so attractive
Since we started NEWT we’ve always tried to innovate and keep our tours refreshed. Saturday gave me the opportunity to do something that really was innovative – our first Harwood Safari. We’ve walked the route 5 times during the last 3 winters, but driving it was something of an unknown quantity.
As a business we’re happy to support the Northumberland Wildlife Trust. As well as being a corporate member of the trust, we sponsor the under 13 and 13-18 age categories of the NWT Annual Photography competition. Saturday’s Harwood trip was the prize for last year’s 13-18 winner and his dad. When I collected them from Newbiggin it was worryingly misty, but as we headed inland the mist began to lift.
We started at the viewpoint near Winter’s Gibbet, where Skylark, Meadow Pipit, Crossbill, Siskin, Goldcrest, Lesser Redpoll and Chiffchaff were all calling or singing. As the mist over the forest lifted, it was time to break new ground as we headed off along tracks with no vehicle access to the public. More Crossbills and Siskins were in the trackside trees and Common Buzzards were soaring high overhead giving their mewing calls. Soon after lunch we stopped to check out a distant raptor over the plantation on the opposite side of a clearfell area. Within a minute we were watching 3 Common Buzzards…and a pair of Goshawks that had risen out of the trees to shepherd the buzzards away! As the buzzards moved on the Goshawks quickly melted back into the obscurity of the trees.
A stop to search for Adders didn’t produce any of these fearsome reptiles, but we did find a dozen Common Lizards, lazing in the sunshine and then scuttling out of sight.
Our first Harwood Safari, the air filled with raptors, trees filled with Crossbills…looks like a winner
After a day on the coast, heading inland to Kielder seems other-worldly, but it always produces something memorable.
In rather misty conditions I drove across to Otterburn Hall to collect Anne and Peter for a day of birdwatching around Kielder and the Border forests. As we travelled through the forest the temperature gauge on the car hit the heady heights of 7C! Common Buzzards were uncharacteristically obliging, remaining perched in the open, and Crossbills and Siskins were once again shining like jewels in the cloudy, gloomy edges of the forest. After Thursday’s Skylark/Merlin encounter, Kielder provided another predator-prey experience. We’d been watching displaying Common Snipe, and listened to one singing from it’s perch on a tree stump in the middle of a clear-fell area. A Sparrowhawk soared into view, circling high over a nearby plantation, before switching to a much more direct flight mode…and chasing one of the displaying Snipe. As they vanished out of sight over a plantation the hawk was still in hot pursuit…and the eventual outcome wasn’t for our eyes. Anne spotted the only Red Squirrel of the day as we continued along our route out onto the ‘main’ road
As we continued across the border and into a remote valley, we enjoyed our picnic lunch with Ravens and Common Buzzards soaring along the ridges high above us. A Dipper sat motionless on a mid-stream rock and a pair of Goosanders flew upstream into the head of the valley. I may be a cold-weather person, and I’m certainly an evening person…but Springtime in the hills has a magic all of it’s own, and I feel privileged sharing it with our clients.
My own highlight of many trips involves those ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ moments, and they come in many guises…
A Chiffchaff was singing as I collected Alec and Margaret from Waren Mill and we headed south down the coast toward Druridge Bay with a day of birdwatching ahead of us. In quite stunning weather we enjoyed fields of Curlew, rafts of Puffins on the sea, and clouds of them swirling over Coquet Island, Fulmars shearing along the cliff-tops, plenty of wildfowl, including a red-head Smew – thanks Gill – and Bean, Canada, White-fronted, Greylag and Pink-footed Geese and 2 Short-eared Owls. It’s always a pleasure to take out clients who really appreciate Northumberland, and even more so when it’s their first visit to our beautiful county and they’ve already vowed to return regularly.
One of those special moments was provided by a bird once described by a good birding friend as “Annoying. They never stop singing, they’re really, really annoying”. The object of his ire? None other than the humble Skylark. I have to say that I don’t find them annoying at all. I’ve hidden in rocky crags, monitoring Hen Harrier nest sites, with Skylarks singing directly overhead, I’ve walked around Holy Island in the summer with several birds singing from so high that they were just dots in the sky and I’ve marvelled at their song as it carries on the breeze. One thing we saw on Thursday was the thing that Chris found particularly annoying; as we drove from Cresswell towards Druridge Pools, we stopped to check the roadside fields and several Skylarks were singing nearby. Suddenly, one of the birds was zig-zagging as it tried to avoid the unwelcome attention of a Merlin. As the falcon chased close on it’s tail, the Skylark continued singing. It might seem a strange thing to do, but it has been shown that Merlins chase non-singing, or poorly singing, Skylarks for longer periods than they chase Skylarks that sing well and they’re more likely to catch non-singing Skylarks. As the birds rose higher and out of sight, we didn’t see the outcome of the chase, but the experience of watching a small bird filled with bravado as a predator closes in on it was one of those moments…
The most memorable wildlife on a tour with clients can come in many forms; it may be the common, the uncommon, the localised, or just the way that it fits in its habitat, and the landscape and weather blend it in to the experience.
I arrived at Hexham railway station to find Steve and Jill already there, and a few minutes later Catherine arrived on the train from Windermere (via a few changes!). We headed northwest along the North Tyne valley for a day birdwatching around Kielder and the borders and, just before Bellingham we left the road and headed along the forest tracks. A fine drizzle was falling as we found our first Crossbills of the day. By the time we returned to the C200 (and civilisation!) 2 hours later, we’d had lots of sightings of small groups and family parties. Perching on the tops of small spruce trees, flying over and giving that distinctive ‘chip, chip’ call, Crossbills are always a delight to watch. The stunning luminosity of the males carmine red rump is incredibly striking, particularly in the gloom and drizzle of the border forests when everything else seems to be monochrome. Kestrels and Common Buzzards were soaring around, Curlews and Lapwings were sitting in fields between the sheep, Skylarks and Meadow Pipits flushed from the track sides and Siskins almost rivalled the Crossbills with some stunning adult males demonstrating how a quite common bird can still take your breath away when you look closely at it.
By early afternoon the cloud level had dropped to somewhere below the altitude we were at and, as we crossed a remote moorland road with the icy cold wind whistling eerily around us, driving waves of rain horizontally across the fells, Steve spotted a grouse at the roadside. From our position I couldn’t see the bird, but Catherine, sitting in the back of the car, was able to photograph what I assumed would be a Red Grouse. Then it flew…revealing the white wing-bars of an adult Blackcock! That’s a species we’ve watched and photographed with clients in the North Pennines, but not one that we’ve ever recorded on a Kielder Safari. Important lesson, that one; expect the unexpected
One of our commonest species provided one of the highlights of the day; hundreds of male Chaffinches were swarming around feeding stations and, at one point, we had 3 sitting on the roof of the car, 2 on the wing mirrors and 2 in the boot! With Blue, Great and Coal Tits, Greenfinches, more Siskins, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Nuthatches the feeders were a blur of activity.
As we headed back down the valley at the end of the day, a flock of Redwings and Fieldfares flew from a nearby field and filled the air above us, a pair of Mandarins flew upriver, calling, and we left Kielder behind to return to the bustling metropolis of Hexham
After another day on Holy Island on Sunday (carrying out some contract survey work), I collected Jakob and Nancy from Royal Quays early on Monday for a day of birdwatching around the NEWT ‘local patch’; southeast Northumberland and Druridge Bay.
We started with Mediterranean Gulls at Newbiggin. Gulls may not be everyone’s bird of choice, but I defy anyone to tell me that adult Med Gulls aren’t stunningly beautiful Sanderling, Redshank, Oystercatcher, Turnstone and Pied Wagtail were picking along the tideline as we watched the meds and we left them behind to continue our journey up the coast. Seawatching produced Guillemots, Razorbills, several Red-throated Divers, Fulmars using the breeze to soar incredibly close to the cliffsides and a possible ‘Northern’ Eider drifting south among the Common Eiders. A Peregrine made its way south with those powerful, menacing wingbeats, Rock Pipits in small flocks danced about on the wind, and we left the sea (although not too far away!) and continued our journey. Geese, which have characterised so much of our birding this winter are still around and we managed Greylag, Pink-footed, Canada, Barnacle, Taiga Bean and Eurasian White-fronted. Goldeneyes are still around in good numbers, Teal, Shoveler, Gadwall, Wigeon, Red-breasted Merganser and Mallard were all resplendent (as most ducks tend to be in the late winter) and 2 Common Snipe circled several times before deciding that the pond wasn’t to their liking and heading off again.
I returned Jakob and Nancy to the ferry terminal for their return journey to the Netherlands, and made the slightly shorter journey back to Scotland Gate myself.
Living in southeast Northumberland, we’re spoiled by having easy access to some outstanding birdwatching areas. Holy Island, which we still think is at its best during the winter, is just an hour north up the A1…
I collected Keith and Mary on Saturday morning and we crossed the causeway onto the island for a day of birdwatching around the Northumberland Coast AONB. Although we encountered wintering Pale-bellied Brent Geese, Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits and other waders and wildfowl, there was a definite spring feel to the day. The weather was glorious (although a little breezy), and Skylarks could be heard high overhead. Curlews were in full voice, Grey Herons were stalking through poolside vegetation, Grey Seals were hauled out at low tide and a steady stream of Gannets passed by offshore. Early afternoon we headed back to the mainland and more waders and wildfowl, as well as a mixed flock of Yellowhammers, Reed Buntings, Linnets and Tree Sparrows (with the male Yellowhammers looking particularly stunning) before finishing in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle with roosting Oystercatchers, Redshanks and Purple Sandpipers, Eiders bobbing about in the surf and a mixed raft of Common Scoters and Slavonian Grebes diving repeatedly in the swell and really testing powers of concentration.
What is sustainable tourism? That’s a question we’ve pondered a lot since forming NEWT.
Discussions before, during and after the first Northumberland Sustainable Tourism Conference yesterday, jointly organised by the Northumberland Coast AONB, the Northumberland National Park and the North Northumberland Tourism Association, revealed that there isn’t really a concensus. For some businesses it means following the mantra of ‘reduce, re-use, recycle’, for others it means sourcing everything locally (where possible…). We’re in favour of those approaches, and our GOLD award from GTBS shows that we put them into practice. For other business, including NEWT, sustainable tourism means more than this though, so perhaps a definition of sustainable might help? There are many, but they can be summed up as ‘able to endure’. Whatever one generation does shouldn’t compromise the ability of future generations to do the same. The micro level of sustainability spread across lots of businesses minimises environmental impact, but will that be enough to sustain Northumberland’s tourism industry for generations to come? It probably won’t, but it will be a very stable base for sustainability. Some joined-up thinking is needed and there has probably never been a better time for control of the destiny of tourism in our beautiful county to be taken by the tourism businesses who actually understand the industry, the market and, perhaps most important of all, what Northumberland is all about.