Archive for June, 2013

Scouring the moors; North Pennines birdwatching 25/06/2013

by on Jun.26, 2013, under Birdwatching, North Pennines, Northumberland

Returning clients have become a bit of a theme for NEWT in the last couple of years, and it’s always lovely to meet up and hear what our clients have been doing, and seeing, since they were last out with us.

Mike and Maggie were visiting Northumberland again, and their day out with me this year was to be a bespoke birdwatching and photography experience in the North Pennines.  As soon as we were on the higher ground, Curlew, Golden Plover, Lapwing and Red Grouse were all found with chicks, Redshank were calling noisily from nearby rushy fields and Skylark and Meadow Pipits were singing overhead.  More Red Grouse and Golden Plover became targets for Mike’s camera and a Ring Ouzel feeding in a grassy field flew up onto a dry stone wall, next to another ouzel, as a third flew across the road behind us.  As we dropped from the high ridge between Weardale and Upper Teesdale, an unexpected bonus bird was sitting in the middle of the road.  The unmistakeable ‘built like a breeze block’ figure of a Woodcock was just sitting there.  As we watched, it called, and two Woodcock chicks came out of the long grass to join it 🙂  Creeping along on short legs and big feet, the adult bobbed up and down, like a Jack Snipe on steroids, as it led it’s young across into the dense cover of the grass on the opposite side of the road.

Our post-lunch walk produced Golden Plover, Ringed Plover, Grey Wagtail, Red Grouse, a single Spring Gentian and a female Ring Ouzel, gathering food by a  fast flowing stream.  The journey back towards Allendale was enlivened by the impressive wingspan and mad staring yellow eyes of a Short-eared Owl as it quartered the high moorland.  There was one species on our target list for the day that was still missing though, and we’d already checked almost all of our usual sites.  Then, as we crossed back into Northumberland, I slowed the car almost to a standstill and mentioned that the next field on the left, in between the clumps of rush closest to the road, was a regular spot for Black Grouse… 🙂

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Watching the wildlife; Otter Safari 24/06/2013

by on Jun.26, 2013, under Birdwatching, Druridge Bay, Northumberland, Northumberland Coast, Otter, Southeast Northumberland

Sunday morning, and the weather forecast of impending doom brought the not unexpected ‘phone call that saw clients transferring from Sunday’s to Monday’s Otter Safari.  Monday afternoon, and the weather looked reasonable as I collected Ken and Rosemary from The Swan and then we drove to the coast and collected Paul, and Lisa and Steve, from Church Point.

I’d seen at least ten Otters in the last month, so I was fairly confident that an afternoon and evening around Druridge Bay, southeast Northumberland and the Northumberland coast would have a higher-than-average chance of successfully locating our target species for the trip.  What we found raising interest in the local Mallards and Tufted Ducks in the mid-afternoon sunshine wasn’t an Otter, but the birds’ behaviour of slowly swimming along a reedbed, just a few metres from the shore, was a good indication of the predator they had spotted and we watched as a Red Fox slowly made it’s way along the edge of the pond followed by an ever-expanding entourage of ducks 🙂  At least eight Little Gulls provided some undeniably cute birdwatching interest and we continued our search.  The next mammal to join the day list was Rabbit, under-rated and attractive, but still not an Otter.  Flocks of geese and ducks seemed to be responding to some hidden menace;  getting out of the water, cackling as if startled, getting back in the water, getting out of the water…but still no sign of an Otter.

As dusk approached, and a Roe Deer walked slowly along the edge of the pond, there was a change in the mood of the assembled ducks; suddenly alert, feeding stopped and heads were raised as high as their outstretched necks would allow.  A pair of Greylag Geese were doing the same and Paul soon spotted the cause of their consternation as the head, then the sinuous body, and finally the tail, of an Otter broke the surface 🙂  Heading into a small bay in the reeds it soon slipped out of sight, only to reappear a few minutes later; twisting and turning as it fed close to the reeds.  Common Pipistrelle, as we walked back to the car, and Brown Hare, as we drove back towards Newbiggin, were mammals #5 and #6 for the day and the trip was rounded off with a Barn Owl, flying from a fence post as we passed by.

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Sailing the ocean blue; Seal Safari 20/06/2013

by on Jun.26, 2013, under Bamburgh Castle, Farne Islands, Grey Seal, Northumberland, Northumberland Coast

In any list of ‘Northumberland’s Big 5’ there will always be disagreements about the species that should be included.  One species that really epitomises the wildlife of North Northumberland is the ‘hook-nosed sea pig’…or Grey Seal to give it a less offensive handle than the translation of it’s Latin name 😉

I collected John and Jennifer from Church Point and we drove northwards along the Northumberland coast.  Arriving in Seahouses, ready for our Seal Cruise on Glad Tidings V, conditions were near perfect; beautiful blue sky, calm sea and just the slight breeze that always seems to be present on the coast, even on calm days.  As the distance between ourselves and the mainland increased, streams of Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills were heading to and from the islands, Gannets were passing by in impressive groups, Cormorants and Shags were sitting like sentinels at the gates of some mystical wildlife world and then we came across the seals.  Bathing in the sunshine, and only occasionally lifting their heads to avoid unexpected sprays of breaking surf, they allowed a close approach that had an entire boat full of camera-wielding visitors clicking away like a knitting circle.

Back on dry land we sat and had lunch, just along the coast from the impressive bulk of Bamburgh Castle, and then continued north to look for more seals.  As high tide approached they could be seen ‘bottling’ close to Holy Island, and we made our way back down the coast.

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A picture paints a thousand words; NEWT’s North Sea pelagic 21/06/2013

by on Jun.22, 2013, under Birdwatching, North Sea, Northumberland

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Back to school

by on Jun.21, 2013, under Farne Islands, Northumberland, Photography

Occasionally I still get to do the whole school teacher role…but it’s enjoyable for me and my students 🙂

I met up with Carol at Seahouses Harbour last Saturday for an all-day one-to-one photography session, only to learn the inevitable – conditions weren’t suitable for landing on Staple Island, so we were going to be sailing at noon, and spending 3hrs on Inner Farne.  We had a wander down the coast and worked through all of the relevant settings on Carol’s camera, so that once we were on the island and the air was filled with birds, the only thing to concentrate on would be technique; camera settings were all sorted and should take care of themselves 🙂  It was a rewarding afternoon as Carol soon worked out where to stand to get the shot she was after, how to decide which bird to follow through the lens and when to hit the shutter release.  Minor adjustments to camera settings were made as needed and the birds offered lots of opportunities.  Puffins, Razorbills, Guillemots, Fulmars, Kittiwakes and Shags all passed before the lens and Carol was delighted at her ability to capture that classic Farnes shot of a Puffin flying with beak filled with Sandeels.

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Tuesday brought another Farnes photography session, this time the latest in our Beginners Photography series.  Dave had been with us on our Dawn on the Coast session in April, and was back for something a bit warmer at a more civilised time of the day 🙂  We sailed around the islands before landing on Inner Farne.  Puffins were again flying by with substantial beakfuls of Sandeels and the cold southerly breeze was a reminder of the often harsh conditions faced by the Farne Islands birds (and Rangers!), even during the summer months.  I’ll be giving a talk about the Farne Islands at the Bird Fair at Rutland Water this year so if you’re there please do come along and find out more about this extraordinary wildlife experience.

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“a real birding day” Birdwatching in the North Pennines 14/06/2013

by on Jun.21, 2013, under Birdwatching, Coquet Island, North Pennines, Northumberland

After a successful sailing around Coquet Island last Thursday, with sightings of Roseate Terns perched and flying,

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Britain’s rarest breeding seabird

our re-arranged North Pennines Safari was on Friday.

I collected Liz and Ronnie from The Swan and we headed southwest into the hills.  Only a month earlier we had a North Pennines trip in near-zero temperatures, but now everything was much more springlike.  Curlews were gliding across the moors, their haunting cries carrying on the breeze, Lapwings were displaying in that bizarre way that has you half convinced they they’re just going to crash into the ground and there were plenty of birds with chicks; Redshank, Curlew, Lapwing, Golden Plover and Red Grouse were all mindful of their offspring as we made our way across the moors.  Common Snipe appeared unexpectedly from clumps of rush and one obliging bird perched on a fence post as we sat just a few metres away.  Pairs of noisy Redshank flew from fence post to dry stone wall and back again and, like the Snipe, one bird perched obligingly (like the one pictured here from 2011).

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Liz’s feedback e-mail, at the end of the holiday and our day in the North Pennines, summed it up so well – “a real birding day” 🙂

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Seabird Spectacular 10-13 June 2013; birdwatching on the Northumberland coast

by on Jun.13, 2013, under Birdwatching, Coquet Island, Druridge Bay, Farne Islands, Northumberland, Northumberland Coast

Arriving at The Swan on Monday evening I met up with Ronnie and Liz at the start of our Seabird Spectacular holiday.  Of all of our holidays, this is the one that concentrates on the really outstanding wildlife available on the Northumberland coast in the summer.

Tuesday started out very nice, although cloud cover was increasing and, by lunchtime, eventually it was overcast, misty and spotting with rain.  We’d spent the morning around Druridge Bay, with one of the highlights being a very obliging male Reed Bunting who sat just a few metres away from us and sang for over 20 minutes, Wall and Green-veined White Butterflies flitted across the tracks ahead of us, Sedge and Reed Warblers played hide-and-seek in the edge of the reeds and a male Marsh Harrier quartered a reedbed, giving prolonged views at relatively close range.  As we ate lunch, overlooking the North Sea, watching Eiders, Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Fulmars and Gannets, the southeasterly breeze was starting to build a noticeable swell…

The inevitable happened and our planned sailing around Coquet Island was cancelled on safety grounds, so we continued around Druridge Bay.  Sandwich Terns and a Grey Seal were near the weir between Amble and Warkworth and we ended up watching five Otters as they munched their way through a feast of Eels 🙂 A Great Northern Diver flew south between Coquet Island and the mainland and we could see clouds of Puffins and a few ghostly white Roseate Terns from our clifftop vantage point.  Swifts were around in good numbers – a scythe-winged menace to flying insects – and at the end of the day we returned to The Swan and were joined for dinner by Sarah.

After Tuesday’s cancelled boat trip it was a relief to see that the wind had died down by Wednesday morning, and our all-day birdwatching trip to the Farne Islands went ahead as planned.  There were lines of Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills streaming back towards the islands, Gannets were effortlessly heading either to or from the Bass Rock, and the sights, sounds and smells of the seabird colony were just a few minutes away when we came across two Harbour Porpoises. Cormorants and Shags perched sentinel-like  on the Scarcar rocks and landing on Staple Island we watched Guillemots, Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Puffins, Razorbills, Shags and Rock Pipits at close range before having our picnic lunch in superb weather conditions on this magical rock just a few miles offshore from the Northumberland coast.  Transferring across to Inner Farne at 13:00, via a brief detour to look at the Grey Seals lazing in the sunshine, we were greeted by Head Ranger David Steel and then enjoyed the very different experience of running the gauntlet of a succession of angry Arctic TernsCommon and Sandwich Terns were around too, and we watched Puffins skilfully avoiding the attention of Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls.  A pair of Rock Pipits nesting beneath the boardwalk were carrying beakfuls of food and I had a Farnes ‘tick’ in the shape of a Swift soaring over the lighthouse buildings.  We tried to find a Roseate Tern in amongst the roost by the Inner Farne jetty, but without success.  Back to The Swan for tea, reflection on a successful day and my Plan B…

Today was planned to be a one-day extension to the holiday, visiting the North Pennines, but we’ve moved that to tomorrow and the ladies have an extra afternoon out with me, to take the boat trip around Coquet Island 🙂

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One Cuckoo flew over the pipit’s nest; birdwatching in the Cheviot Valleys 09/06/2013

by on Jun.11, 2013, under Birdwatching, Cheviot Valleys, Northumberland

Sunday was another trip into the Cheviot Valleys, with two of our returning clients.  We first met Pete and Janet at the Bird Fair in 2008 and this was their third trip with us (plus a trip that they organised for their local Natural History Society in 2009).  It’s always a pleasure to meet up with them, and the prospect of a trip into the Cheviots was a mouthwatering one.  You just never know what you’ll find, or see…

The trip started with two species that we didn’t find on our Cheviots trip on Thursday; two Brown Hares were sitting by the ‘wader puddle’ and, one of our target species for the day – two Ring Ouzels flew over us, calling, as we started the first of the days walks.  Janet soon spotted a juvenile Dipper, and we watched as an adult flew in and fed it.  Grey Wagtails were all along the valley, a Spotted Flycatcher was living up to it’s name admirably and a very obliging Tree Pipit perched close to the path.  As on Thursday’s trip we heard, but couldn’t see, a Common Redstart.

Every so often, something happens that leaves us marveling at nature…and Sunday provided an extraordinary spectacle.  As we sat eating our lunch by a small stream, enjoying close views of Lesser Redpoll (a species we’d been hearing all morning although only seeing as small flying dots) I noticed a bird flying across the valley.  Initially it looked like a Kestrel – until I raised my binoculars and the pointy-winged, long-tailed, shape resolved into a Cuckoo.  It headed down into the heather and was immediately chased by a pair of Meadow Pipits.  They pursued it part way across the valley and it dropped out of sight behind the trees…only to reappear a minute later, chased by more pipits.  Landing in exactly the same spot in the heather it was chased away for a second time, by four pipits.  It rose higher and then began soaring, with the flap-flap-glide that is so characteristic of a Sparrowhawk.  More Meadow Pipits joined the attack, presumably revealing their nest locations, and the bird suddenly closed its wings and dropped like a stone, out of sight behind the trees.  A minute later and the Cuckoo was heading across the valley again, dropping back in the same spot as previously.  This time it was driven off by a pair of Red Grouse, that came charging down from near the summit of the hill, and it flew back and out of sight behind the trees, only to reappear a few seconds later with more Meadow Pipits in tow.  In total we watched it make ten visits to what was presumably a Meadow Pipit nest that it was targeting.  By the ninth visit it spent several seconds on the ground with angry pipits swirling around it’s head, which we could see sticking up above the heather, and the tenth visit was a prolonged one too.  After that it flew back across the valley and didn’t reappear, so perhaps it had been successful in laying an egg in the pipit nest.

Our final walk of the day produced another example of birds defending their nesting territory, as the plaintive cries of a pair of Curlew echoed around the steep valley sides and we looked up to see them flying at a Common Buzzard.  The buzzard continued on it’s way and the Curlews dropped out of sight above the ridge, only to reappear a few seconds later as a second buzzard flew down the valley.  Excellent weather, stunning scenery and clients whose enthusiasm and knowledge adds so much to the day 🙂

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Heading for the hills; Birdwatching in the Cheviot Valleys 06/06/2013

by on Jun.10, 2013, under Birdwatching, Cheviot Valleys, Northumberland

Thursday brought a trip that I’d been looking forward to for some time; I first met Chris many years ago, while I was Field Trips Officer for the Northumberland and Tyneside Bird Club, so it was going to be a day out with a client who knew me several careers ago.

We met up at Church Point and headed inland towards the Cheviot Valleys, a location that features some stunning landscapes; steep-sided valleys, towering hills, mysterious sun-dappled woodland, heather moorland and all that goes with it.  As we approached the start of the higher ground, I suggested we check a damp area of an arable field.  It’s often good for wading birds and this was no exception; two broods of Lapwing chicks, as well as Oystercatchers and Redshank, were pottering around the edge of the now small puddle.

Perhaps the best thing about our forays into the Cheviots is the chance to stretch your legs, get some fresh air…and see hardly anyone else while you’re there 🙂  The time passes quickly and the cackling of Red Grouse, simple song of Spotted Flycatcher, silvery descending cadence of Willow Warbler, plaintive mewing of Common Buzzards and the eponymous songs of Cuckoo and Chiffchaff all accompanied parts of our walk.  Grey Wagtails, Dippers and Common Sandpipers were all occupying that particular ecological niche that they’re all so suited for, a Redstart delivered his distinctive song from a hidden perch, Curlews gave their haunting cries from high on the hillsides, Tree Pipits sang from treetops and a Kestrel was hanging in the air over the ridge at the top of a steep valley.  Away from civilisation, surrounded by wildlife, it was the relaxed enjoyable trip that I always knew it would be 🙂

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Otter Watching 02/06/13 – Patience pays off

by on Jun.07, 2013, under Druridge Bay, Northumberland, Otter, Southeast Northumberland

Just a couple of days before the end of 2008, I led an Otter Safari that produced prolonged sightings of our target species…just 5 seconds after arriving at the first site I’d planned to visit that day!  That produced a complication all of it’s own – how do you keep a family with a young child entertained for over 7 1/2 hours?  In that case the answer was rockpooling; not the most enjoyable of experiences as I plunged my arm into the icy cold water to turn over a series of rocks chosen by a very excited four year-old.  Usually though, wildlife requires a bit more of a patient approach…

I collected John and Kelly from Morpeth railway station on Sunday afternoon, in glorious sunshine, and we set off to search Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland.In the warm afternoon, with a myriad of insects buzzing around, Black-headed and Little Gulls, Swallows, Swifts and House and Sand Martins were all giving incredibly close views as they sallied back and forth in their pursuit of the tiny morsels of protein.  Grey Herons were standing by the water’s edge, Little Grebes dived, re-surfaced, dived, re-surfaced repeatedly and Mallard, Gadwall and Tufted Duck seemed to be in two minds whether to simply laze around or engage in some half-hearted courtship.  After 3 hours of peace and tranquility, and no Otters, I was wondering if we should move to another location.  Instead I decided that staying put would be the better option…

A pair of Mallards came out of a gap in the reeds, no hurry, no panic but taking a direct line out to open water.  I focused my attention on where they’d just appeared from and then a dark, menacing, sinuous shape twisted and turned in amongst the reeds and we had our Otter.  Sometimes, you just need a little patience 🙂

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