Archive for May, 2012
Earlier this year I blogged about a North Pennines trip on which we found a pair of Hen Harriers, a species that is very close to the hearts of both owners of NEWT as we spent a lot of time monitoring a nest site in North Tynedale from 2006-2008 (and since then, even though there hasn’t been a subsequent successful nesting attempt at the site). During the three years where we had successful nesting attempts, that one site and the surrounding area had an adult female shot, an incubating adult female ‘abandoned’ a nest overnight, a nest was robbed, unleashed dogs were allowed to run straight through a nest site, a number of empty nests were located. And that’s just the persecution/disturbance that we know about.
The sighting in the North Pennines was astonishing, as the area where the birds were is a heartland of illegal raptor persecution. First the female, and then the ghostly, sublimely beautiful, male dropped down into the heather close to a small burn. After a brief discussion with our clients on the day, a ‘phone call was made to alert a local raptor worker, with vast experience of monitoring harrier nests. He was astonished too, and couldn’t remember how long it was since a potential breeding pair had been recorded in that area. 24hrs later there was no sign of either bird at the site, and the breeding attempt had presumably gone the same way as so many others. Now we’re in a position where there is only one nesting pair in England, and the main contributory factor in that is illegal persecution.
Yet, with illegal persecution still rife and affecting many birds of prey, DEFRA commissioned, and has now thankfully scrapped, a study into the effect of Common Buzzard predation on Common Pheasant populations. Methods proposed included destroying nests and capturing Common Buzzards and taking them into captivity for falconry. That’s right, £375,000 of taxpayer’s money was going to be spent deliberately suppressing the population of a native species, that is still recovering after centuries of persecution, in order to protect a non-native, artificially reared and introduced gamebird. You couldn’t make it up, it’s so far-fetched and ridiculous. This would have just been the thin end of a very big wedge though. Sparrowhawks next? then Peregrines and all of our rarer raptors?
What’s really needed is the full force of the law to be brought to bear on those individuals, and estates, that persist in the barbaric, outdated, illegal practice of raptor persecution. Perhaps DEFRA could fund a study into what happens if raptor populations are left unhindered?
We’ve had the first two bird ID sessions for the North Pennines WildWatch project already, and both have produced some excellent sightings during the ‘in the field’ bit of the course.
The first session, at Eggleston, produced one outstanding bird – at least for those in the group who weren’t impatiently hurrying back for their bread, cheese and soup…as a group of us watched a Song Thrush gathering food, I looked skywards (a good habit to get into, you never know what could be overhead) and there was an Osprey Bird of the day/month/year for those who were lucky enough to see it.
One of my favourite species rounded off the first session, and the second session around Muggleswick as well, as we watched Woodcock roding and chasing each other. The end of the first session produced another exciting bird that was missed by the group that headed straight back to the cars, as a few of us heard, and then saw, a Tawny Owl.
Both sessions concentrated on identifying birds by song and call, with paticipants getting to grips with Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Blackbird, Blackcap, Willow Warbler, and Chiffchaff amongst others, and the third session, at Lambley, will have the same focus. I changed approach between the first two sessions, and I’m busy restructuring the course for the third session based on the teaching/learning experiences gained during the first two. I knew there was a reason we bought a parabolic microphone (there’s a reason for everything, we just don’t always realise it at the time…)
After four years of guiding visiting birdwatchers around some of the stunning habitat that we have in Northumberland, one thing we’ve learned above all else is that hardly any two people hear, or see, things the same as each other.
As I drove to Rothbury, to collect Bill, Kate, Gerry and Ieva, I was wondering what the day would bring. I knew what the weather would be like; clear blue skies, glorious sunshine, maybe a cool breeze on the coast. What had me gripped though, was what a group of clients from the US would find most entrancing about Northumberland’s wildlife.
As the day progressed I found myself seeing and hearing some of our regular species as if for the first time. With clients who were already familiar with some of our birds, but unfamiliar with others, we paid an incredible deal of attention to Tree Sparrows, Little Grebes, Shovelers, Shelducks and the other birds that we see on most, if not all, of our Druridge Bay trips. As each new species was observed, a field guide was produced to check relevant ID features (always a good approach if dealing with an unfamiliar bird). A Willow Warbler perched obligingly in full view just a few metres away, singing his descending silvery cadence, two Reed Warblers delivered their metronomic chuntering from adjacent reedbeds, Avocets dozed in the bright, warm sunshine, strings of Gannets flew northwards into the stiffening headwind, Puffins swirled around Coquet Island, Eiders bobbed about on the swell and a Turnstone, respendently white-headed on it’s northward journey to the breeding grounds, played Sanderling-like with the onrushing tide. As Kate demonstrated some excellent field ability, picking out a distant Roseate Tern, a Stonechat grabbed our attention. Starkly black and white, with a rich orange breast, as he flitted away from us along the fenceline he flashed a white rump and big white wingbars. Almost certainly a Siberian Stonechat, he evaded all of Ieva’s attempts to photograph his striking rump and then vanished across the fields in pursuit of a Meadow Pipit.
Bird of the day? I’ll leave that one to Bill “For me, it has to be Sedge Warbler“
As I collected Jason and Jane for a bespoke day of birdwatching in the beautiful Cheviot valleys, the first few raindrops pattered against the windscreeen of the car. As we headed south from Melkington the rain stopped and visibility improved, so I was sure were in for an excellent day.
The day featured all of the species we would expect; Roe Deer, Brown Hare, Raven, Dipper,Grey Wagtail, Common Sandpiper, Tree Pipit, Redstart and Red Grouse amongst many but a few of the regulars put on a really special performance.
Cuckoos were calling along the valley but frustratingly staying out of view, until a handsome male flew across the track ahead of us and then perched in full view. A pair of Whinchat provided another highlight as they flitted along a stream, dashing from rock to rock like Grey Wagtails, tails flicking as they sallied across the adjacent hillside.
Soon after I collected them, Jason had mentioned that he’d never seen a Ring Ouzel. No pressure there, then As we started our first walk of the day, I could hear a Ring Ouzel singing, and soon located him at the top of a distant tree. More followed, including a pair sitting together on a fence, but probably the best of the seven that we found was a singing male; high in a narrow gully his song reverberated beautifully off the surrounding rock carrying over a distance at which he was just a black speck through our binoculars, his song was as clear as if he was just along the hillside. As the wind and rain finally arrived, and we discussed sustainability and conservation (I really should write a book…), his song continued, although he shifted the side of the gully he was on to shelter from the rain. A remote valley exposed to the elements, a real mountain specialist putting on a performance for us, stimulating insightful thoughts from Jason and Jane…another memorable day at ‘the office’
The festival is an excellent idea, and organised/sponsored by 3 organisations that we’ve worked closely with in the last few years - DFDS, ORCA and ERIC NE – so we were more than happy when asked if we could run a pelagic trip as part of the festival. No matter how many talks you attend, how many wildlife documentaries you watch or how much time you spend on the coast looking out to sea, actually getting on a boat and experiencing the North Sea up close is still the best way to really appreciate how special it is.
I was interviewed on Radio Newcastle earlier this week, responding to the question ‘conservation – can we afford it?’. When I look at the importance of our ecosystem, and the North Sea in particular through my work with MARINElife, the North East Cetacean Project and ERIC NE, I think the question should be ‘conservation – can we really afford not to do it?’. A sustainable world can only be achieved through conserving what we have and sustaining our planet for future generations. The definition of sustainability is an often contentious issue, but clients, friends and colleagues who we’ve spoken to since the phone-in all agree that conservation should be a priority for government. We wouldn’t expect anything else
Trips with existing clients are always a pleasure, not only because it’s very gratifying to get a booking from someone we’ve taken out before, but also because we already have shared memories. I had 3 things vivid in my mind from when I took Pete and Janet out in September 2008 – it rained, we saw 11 adult Mediterranean Gulls on the beach at Newbiggin and Janet found an Otter.
I collected Pete and Janet from their holiday cottage in Embleton, and we headed across to Sharperton to collect David and Mary. They’re all members of the same Natural History Society, who were our first group booking, back in 2009, and we always enjoy catching up with them, and the other members of their group, at the Bird Fair each August. Tuesday was a bespoke trip, combining Harwood and Druridge Bay, and the weather forecast suggested that it wouldn’t rain…
As we approached Harwood a Roe Deer crossed the track, walked into the trees and then stopped to watch us. This was the first of 11 that we saw on our journey through the forest (well, it was about 11, and if I say 11, it’ll help the punchline to this post!).
Harwood again produced memorable sightings; Roe Deer, Tree Pipit, at least 3 Cuckoos, Siskins, plenty of Crossbills, more Roe Deer and a mouth-wateringly attractive male Common Redstart. A list of species can never really do justice to just how good encounters with wildlife can be though; as 2 Roe Deer bounded across the clearfell area beside the track, 2 Cuckoos were engaged in a frantic chase, calling frequently and mobbed by Meadow Pipits every time they left the safety of the trees, while the male Redstart flicked along the edge of a nearby plantation, red tail shivering as he perched on a tree stump, black face contrasting with his white forehead and supercilium, the subtle grey of his crown and mantle and the orangy-red of his breast.
As we tucked in to our picnic lunch, overlooking a very calm North Sea, the first drops of icy rain began to patter down. Then, a comment from Janet to set the pulse racing “I’m sure I just saw a fin”. With such calm water the sudden appearance of black shapes at the surface stood out, and Janet had found yet another exciting mammal on a NEWT safari. This time it wasn’t the sleek, sinuous predator of our lakes and rivers, but another sleek, sinuous predator. We watched for several minutes as the pod of Bottlenose Dolphins moved slowly south. At least 6 animals, including a very small calf, they surfaced lazily every 30seconds or thereabouts as I texted observers further south to let them know what was coming.
Avocet, Garganey (2 handsome drakes), Common Sandpiper, Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, clouds of Swifts, Swallows and martins, and weather best described as changeable, all contributed to an excellent afternoon around Druridge before I completed our circular route, dropping Pete and Janet, and then David and Mary. See you at the BirdFair
So, it rained, we saw 11(ish) Roe Deer in Harwood and Janet found some Bottlenose Dolphins…
“Is Sarah keeping you organised and under control?” – that was a question I was actually asked by a client who I took out, for their second trip, recently. Now, I’m the first to admit that organisation isn’t really one of my strengths, but the other owner of NEWT encourages me ;-)
With four clients, and three separate pick-up locations, for our Kielder Safari last Friday, there was plenty of opportunity for the plan to not go smoothly. However, with Neil collected from his accommodation at The Swan, and Ken and Paddy collected from Low Hauxley, we pulled into the car park at The Pheasant Inn in Kielder at 10:00 – exactly the time I’d said I would be there to collect Roger, our fourth participant for the day.
As we drove through the forest, home of Roe Deer, Red Squirrel and Goshawk, on rough tracks we stopped to watch a Great Spotted Woodpecker perched at the top of a very flimsy spruce, Common Buzzards soared over nearby plantations, Meadow Pipits flitted across the track ahead of us, Chaffinches were singing from what seemed like every tree and a flock of 20 or so Common Crossbills moved through the trackside trees, pausing to nibble at cones, and constantly giving their ‘chip, chip’ calls. As we continued, a mixed flock of Common Crossbills and Siskins suddenly erupted from the trees. These two colourful denizens of the dark forests often seem outrageously bright against the dark green foliage, and are always well appreciated by our clients.
Other moorland and upland specialities followed as we headed through the afternoon; Red Grouse, picking their way through the heather, Goosander flying upstream in remote narrow valleys, Ravens – tumbling, cronking and having a real battle with Carrion Crows - and one of my personal favourites, Wild (Feral) Goats. The collective noun for them is a ‘trip’, coincidentally the same as for one of our favourite birds, the Dotterel – a mountain and moorland specialist that we’ve yet to find on a NEWT Safari
With shared interests including photography, fly fishing and, of course, a deep love of Northumberland there was plenty of discussion amongst everyone during the day. Vast forest, small world…
We’ve got a busy few weeks coming up, giving talks locally, exhibiting at the Scottish Bird Fair and delivering the bird identification training courses for the North Pennines WildWatch programme. Once that’s out of the way, we’ll be into our busy period for trips out with clients, and then delivering more training courses – this time on offshore wildlife survey techniques for MARINElife/North East Cetacean Project and our local Wildlife Trusts.
With all of that in mind we had a weekend in the North Pennines, staying at Saughy Rigg Farm and making an early start on Saturday to visit a Black Grouse lek. Armed with our new Telinga Pro8W and Stereo DATmic…we sat in the car with the heaters on as the temperature hit 3C and it started snowing We could see the grouse – they were sitting huddled in clumps of rush, looking decidely miserable – but they weren’t performing (at least not early on Saturday morning). A ghostly-pale Short-eared Owl braved the elements, quartering the grassland in search of prey, and the mic picked up the sound of drumming Snipe, calling Curlew and cackling Red Grouse, but once the Blackcock started lekking they were upwind of us and the wind tunnel effect of trying to record them led to a change of tactic and concentrating on photography.
Over the course of the two days, we had excellent views of Red Grouse, Black Grouse, Golden Plover, Curlew, Common Snipe, Redshank, Curlew, Brown Hare, Roe Deer and Rabbit. The maze of little roads throughout the area offer lots of photographic opportunities so we made the most of them
After 3 years of leading Dawn Chorus walks at Lee Moor Farm, we decided that this year we’d stay a bit closer to home. Choppington Woods is very close to our hearts – it’s the view from our office window, it was the area I walked every day when I was recovering from knee surgery, and a lot of the improvements that have made it such an excellent community resource (boardwalk, improved paths, education pack for local primary schools) came about after I gave a presentation at the participatory budgeting event back in 2009.
One thing that makes a good Dawn Chorus event is good partners. Ian at Lee Moor has been an outstanding host for the last few years, so we knew we’d have to find someone special…and we found 2 The Swan at Choppington will be the post-walk breakfast venue for our clients and we’re really excited to be delivering the event in association with the Northumberland Wildlife Trust.
Numbers are strictly limited for this event, and the cost of £15/person includes a guided walk and breakfast at The Swan – check the NWT link for what’s included in that – it will be delicious Give us a call on 01670 827465 to book your place before they’re all sold out!
We often find ourselves, usually when we’re at the British Bird Fair, explaining that Northumberland isn’t a particularly rainy county, in fact it’s very much the opposite. It is sometimes cold and windy though…but all you need to do is wrap up warm
I collected Philip and Pauline from Outchester and we headed south towards Druridge Bay for a day’s birdwatching on the coast of southeast Northumberland. A brief search around Woodhorn for the Great Grey Shrike that had been there until the day before proved fruitless, and we continued to follow the road up the coast. With a bitterly cold northerly wind I guessed where our regular Little Owl would be sunning itself – and it performed like the star that it is; peering inquisitively at us and then craning it’s neck to look at something on the ground far below. Our lunch stop, overlooking the North Sea, was as spectacular as ever with rolling surf and plenty of ‘white horses’. Cresswell produced some of the best birds of the day, with a pair of Great Crested Grebes, Hooded Crow, 5 Northern Wheatears, 5 Avocets and 2 Little Ringed Plovers being the highlights. East Chevington provided very close views of a Roe Deer, a female Marsh Harrier, Skylarks singing on the breeze and a mixed flock of Swallow, House Martin, Sand Martin and Swift.
With clients from the town of my birth and an enthusiasm for cetaceans like my own, as well as a keen eye for the locations used in popular television series, it seemed that the day was over very quickly and I dropped them back at Outchester in the early evening, stopping for a few minutes to look at Pauline’s hydrophone. Gadget geek? No, not me