This morning was another early start, and I crawled out of bed at 03:30 as the alarm disrupted my sleep…
I collected Daniel and Nigel from Ponteland and we headed towards the North Pennines. Curlew and Lapwing were displaying over the fells, but in the icy cold stiff breeze, Red Grouse and Black Grouse were more of a challenge to find than they were yesterday. Golden Plover, Oystercatcher, Common Snipe and Common Redshank were quickly found and we came across some much more obliging Red Grouse, and two Fieldfare, before heading even further to the southwest. Nigel had just spotted a probable Common Redstart, in a plantation dripping with Mistle Thrushes, when the light drizzle, that had accompanied us for most of the trip, turned to sleet and then proper snow with large flakes speckling the windscreen of the car 🙂 We sat it out, and once the poor weather had cleared the hills produced the sort of birding that is jaw-dropping. First a Short-eared Owl, quartering the fells with stiff, slow, wingbeats before dropping onto a vole in the grass and then obligingly taking it onto an open area where we could watch it through the telescope. Soon after that we came across 14 Blackcock, who abandoned foraging, flew to a lek right in front of us and then all kicked off as a Woodcock shuffled through the grass, accompanied by an aural backdrop of calling Snipe. In the bone-chilling cold, yesterday’s Spring Gentians were no longer displaying their finery and Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls were struggling against the breeze as Skylarks soared overhead and a Kestrel matched the success of the Shortie before we finished with lunch and a Dipper 🙂
Yesterday was an early start for David, who was the runner up in the junior category of last year’s North East Wildlife Photography competition, and his parents Helen and John. We’ve sponsored the junior category since the inception of the competition and, for some reason, the winners of the prize that we offer usually choose to have their Bespoke photography trip in the North Pennines…
With beautiful light soon after sunrise, Brown Hare, Lapwing, Meadow Pipit, Red Grouse and Black Grouse were soon subject to the scrutiny of David and his camera. The Hares, in particular, looked stunning with natural rim-lighting. After a few Red Grouse remained stubbornly tucked down in the vegetation we came across the star of the day. This Red Grouse wasn’t hiding his light under a bushel, in fact he appeared to be auditioning for Britain’s (Moorland’s) Got Talent. First he was on a fence post, pushing his breast out and watching us intently. Then he dropped to the ground and had a couple minutes feeding before hopping back to the fence post. Back to the ground for another feed and then he decided it was time to advertise his territory. Stretching his neck and head high above the grass he started calling. As well as the typical grouse call, he was making lots of churring, clucking sounds that we probably wouldn’t have heard if we were any further away from him. What was really impressive though, was how his whole body quivered with each prolonged call. I’ve never watched a grouse at such close range before so it was remarkable to see the physical effort that goes into his territorial song.
Fieldfare were hopping amongst clumps of rush, no doubt feeding up ready for their migration, and in bright sunshine we found, largely thanks to Helen’s sharp eyesight, dozens of Spring Gentian in flower 🙂 Over the moors, Curlew and Skylark were displaying, Common Snipe and Common Redshank were perched on fence posts and a Ring Ouzel flew by before 3 Dippers chased each other back and forth along a small stream while we were having our lunch.
The first drops of rain speckled the windscreen of the car as I arrived at Church Point to collect Luke and Louise for their third day out with NEWT this week – an afternoon and evening around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland searching for Otters…
With the lovely weather of recent days replaced by an icy cold breeze and drizzle, it was looking like it would be a long, hard afternoon. Common Redshank, Curlew and Oystercatcher were probing tidal mudflats and noisily displaying when they took a break from feeding. A herd of Mute Swans included two birds that were engaged in a courtship display; like a serene slow-motion version of the Great Crested Grebe display they were mirroring each other’s head and body movements. As we watched territorial disputes between pairs of Great Crested Grebes the rain intensified and the birds, alongside Tufted Ducks and Goldeneye, were sitting on water that looked to be boiling with the impact of raindrops. Shoveler, Pochard, Teal, Wigeon, Lapwing, Green Sandpiper, Grey Heron and Little Egret were added to the day list and the rain started to ease…
As we were having our picnic on the clifftop overlooking Druridge Bay, accompanied by a raggedy male Stonechat, the weather took a change for the better. Broken cloud produced a dramatic sky, and it was looking good for a decent sunset. A tip-off from one of our local wildlife photographers pointed us in the direction of a pair of Little Owls, who very obligingly posed for Luke’s camera 🙂 One of the owls had gone off, presumably in search of food, and the other one was still sitting there when a dog walker with a Staffie came along. We were wondering how long the owl would wait before flying off…but it sat tight, and instead of fleeing it just stretched itself to as tall and thin as it could before slumping back to it’s usual shape once the dog and walker had passed by! In ever-improving light we watched a Black Tern at East Chevington as it fed amongst Common Terns, Sand Martins and Swallows. A thick bank of cloud to the west obscured the sunset but as a Brown Hare loped across a field, a Common Buzzard was perched in a small tree in a hedgerow, and mist started rising from the water the light was sublime. Scanning slowly along the water’s edge, there was the sign I was looking for; only a slight disturbance, but I hadn’t seen any ducks in that direction. The the Otter surfaced briefly before diving again 🙂 In flat calm conditions we could see the trail of bubbles as it travelled under the water, and then it vanished into the mist. What we could still see though were Mute Swans, Canada Geese and Mallards and they were all watching the Otter. The mist cleared and it reappeared, running along the bank before returning to the water for a few metres and then getting out again. Eventually it vanished into the gloom of the reed edges, only to reappear a few minutes later right in front of us as Grasshopper Warblers reeled and Noctule Bats hawked insects overhead.
Fade to black…
I collected Luke and Louise from alnwick, then Alison and Neil from Kingston Park and we headed west at the start of a day searching for raptors around Kielder and the Scottish Borders…
We stopped at the southern end of Kielder Water and the ‘chip chip’ calls of Common Crossbill drew our attention to these impressive bulky finches as they passed overhead. With Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Chaffinch and Blackbird singing all around us we were soon watching Common Buzzards in every direction as Raven and Carrion Crow flew by. Then Luke spotted a large raptor circling in front of the trees…and there was a Goshawk 🙂 We watched as it soared higher and higher until it was just a tiny speck, even through binoculars, against the clouds. Kestrel and Sparrowhawk on the drive to and from Kielder added to the raptor total for the day and we crossed the border into Scotland for the afternoon.
Our picnic spot brought more raptors; first more Common Buzzards, then the shrill alarm calls of a Merlin drew our attention to a pair of displaying Peregrines as Ravens flew along the ridges above us, Wild Goats foraged amongst the scattered trees on the valley sides, and even more Buzzards rose on the stiff breeze. Out on the open moorland Luke was quick off the draw again, this time with a stunning male Hen Harrier. As he gave directions to the bird, it was clear that the rest of us were watching a second male harrier as it quartered the skyline. A flash of blue was a male Merlin racing across the fells, a Red Grouse flushed from the roadside puddle where it was having a droink as we passed, and the air seemed to be filled with Emperor Moths 🙂 A low-flying Common Buzzard passed just over the car as we headed back into Northumberland and finished the day with Common Sandpiper and a fly-by Mandarin.
Quantity on a Kielder Safari isn’t the game we play, but the day list is usually dripping with quality 🙂
I collected Steph from her home in Gateshead, for the first of four North Pennines trips I’m guiding over the next week, and we headed westwards…
A Greyhen, hunkered down against the wind and rain in roadside vegetation, was fairly obliging as Snipe, Curlew and Lapwing displayed overhead and a Blackcock sat motionless in a nearby field. Red Grouse, after Red Grouse, after Red Grouse, followed and offered great photo opportunities for Steph, although the Brown Hares we came across weren’t hanging around to have their picture taken! Then it was the turn of Black Grouse, with a handsome Blackcock on the moor close to the car, soon followed by two more feeding out in the open. Drumming Snipe and displaying Curlew took cover as the rain intensified, but each break in the weather was filled with birds; Black Grouse, Red Grouse, Common Snipe, Curlew, Common Redshank, Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Golden Plover, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Meadow Pipit, Skylark, Goosander and towards the end of the trip, a male Ring Ouzel perched on a fence post, a Grey Partridge on a dry stone wall next to the road and a pair of Peregrine engaged in a display flight 🙂
I collected Luke and Louise from Alnwick, for the first of their three trips with us this week, and we headed north to Lindisfarne…
Crossing the causeway, with hardly any water in sight, it was hard to believe that this has been the scene of so many attempts by the unwary and the foolish to drive through seawater that brings their journeys to an abrupt end and the ignominy of having to be rescued by the RNLI and RAF. On the island, Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff were singing from deep cover as foraging Lapwings were joined by a Fieldfare that was chancing it’s arm with repeated threat displays. Meadow Pipits were sitting on fence posts and dry stone walls as the air all around seemed to be filled with singing Skylarks. Eight Roe Deer were feeding in a grassy field and a buck near the village took umbrage at beeing watched and took off at pace, clearing fence after fence and wall after wall as he headed towards the dunes on the north of the island. House Sparrows were chirping from what seemed like every bush on the island and Grey Herons blended in to the reeds around the Lough to such an extent that Louise’s sharp eyes picked one out and it took a while, and the heron suddenly moving it’s head, before myself and Luke could see it.
As a cold north easterly breeze gathered pace, the eerie calls of Grey Seals and the shrill cries of Curlew carried across the mudflats. Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese, surely getting ready to depart for northern climes, arrived with the rising tide and Little Egrets, Wigeon, Teal, Redshank, Curlew, Oystercatcher, Shelduck, Herring, Black-headed, Common, Lesser Black-backed and Great Black-backed Gulls were joined along the edge of the swelling water by three Whimbrel.
To enjoy my unedited views about Holy Island causeway strandings, why not join one of our Lindisfarne Safaris? We run them throughout the year, although October (for migrants), November-February (wintering waders and wildfowl) and June-July (flora and insects) are the slightly better months to visit.
Yesterday’s Otter Safari had an interesting weather forecast; damp during the afternoon, but forecast to be completely clear by 7pm. Soon after I collected Rachel, Andrew, Gemma and Dave from Church Point, the first part of the forecast was borne out by reality, as we spent the first couple of hours in persistent rain…
Common Redshank, Curlew and Oystercatcher were all calling noisily and alarming, but the only thing we could see that was causing them any distress was themselves. Despite the rain, the warm conditions had triggered a substantial hatch of insects and Black-headed Gulls, Sand Martins and Swallows were all taking advantage of nature’s bounty. The clearing weather brought a ten minute spell of nice weather as we had our picnic while watching a Grey Seal and Common Eiders in the surf, and Fulmars soaring on stiff wings along the clifftops. Grey Herons and Little Egrets were standing motionless as Lapwings displayed overhead with their bizarre calls defying belief and a stunning drake Pintail flew around.
Following Friday’s unsuccessful Otter Safari we’d made a few changes to the plan for Sunday and, as the sun set away to the west in what was absolutely not a cloudless sky, Sand Martins were replaced in the pursuit of flying insects by Noctule and pipistrelle bats, a Long-eared Owl hunted along a woodland edge and…we watched an Otter hunting in the shadow of a reedbed for nearly 45 minutes 🙂
Friday was Adrian and Ruth’s 2nd day out with NEWT, after Monday’s Cheviots Valleys/Druridge Bespoke tour, and I arrrived at Church Point to collect them, as well as Sandra and Paco, and Rachel and Andy. A torrential downpour passed mercifully quickly and we were on our way for an afternoon and evening around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland searching for Otters…
The transitional nature of mid-April was really obvious; Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Teal and Wigeon are typical birds of winter on the Northumberland coast, but now they were alongside displaying Great Crested Grebes and Avocets as a White Wagtail pottered along the edge of a shallow pool, Swallows and Sand Martins were hawking newly emerged insects as the songs of Chiffchaff and Sedge Warbler emanated from deep cover in trees and reedbeds and the descending silvery cadence of Willow Warbler trickled on the breeze. A noisy flock of Long-tailed Tits were just above a male Blackcap who chacked angrily as we disturbed whatever it was that he’d been up to before we walked by and the peace and elegance of Little Egrets was shattered as a Great White Egret objected to their proximity to the rushes where it was hiding. Grey Herons stalked the water’s edge as Skylarks ascended heavenwards, Meadow Pipits parachuted back down at the end of brief display flights and Reed Bunting and Stonechat perched at the tops of isolated bushes in the dunes.
With an icy cold breeze rippling the water’s surface and nipping at noses and fingers we finished at sunset with our quarry for the day having eluded us.
We’re often asked what the chances are of seeing an Otter on one of our trips, and it isn’t an easy question to answer. They’re wild animals and they don’t run to a timetable that guarantees we’ll find them. That’s something that makes wildlife watching so great – the unpredictability of it all 🙂 To put some numbers to it though…this was our 12th Otter Safari since the start of November 2016, and only the 2nd of those where we haven’t found at least one Otter!
I collected Adrian and Ruth from Seahouses for the first of their two days out with us this week; a Cheviots-plus Bespoke tour…
We started at Bamburgh, with Oystercatcher, Redshank and Purple Sandpiper along the edge of the breaking surf, Common Eider, Common Scoter, Red-throated Diver and a lone Puffin surfing the waves just beyond and distant Gannets breaking the horizon above a sea that had been whipped into a mass of whitecaps by a stiff northerly breeze.
Heading inland, it was starting to look cloudier and the forecast deterioration in the weather seemed to be on its way. You can’t necessarily trust the forecast though, and the spectacular landscape of the Cheviot valleys was bathed in sunlight. The triumvirate of nervously bobbing riverside dwellers all put in very obliging appearances; Dipper, Grey Wagtail and Common Sandpiper have so much in common, and are always great to watch. Sand Martins and Swallows, always a sign that things are changing, were hawking insects overhead as a Raven flew by, the eerie cries of Curlew revealed their presence as they displayed high over the valley, Red Grouse chuckled from the surrounding heather, Chiffchaffs were singing their relentlessly onomatopaeic song from every clump of trees and Ruth spotted a stunning male Ring Ouzel hopping around on a fellside that was dripping with Mistle Thrushes and Wheatears. Lunch was accompanied by 3 Common Buzzards high overhead, tussling and skydiving as partnerships and territories for the breeding season start to take shape.
Continuing along our planned loop for the day brought us to the coast of Druridge Bay and Avocet, Shorelark, Ringed Plover, Kestrel, Sanderling, a raft of at least 9 Red-throated Divers and then, as we headed back to the car at the end of the day, a Short-eared Owl quartering rough fields with deep slow wingbeats 🙂
Following an invitation from DFDS, I arrived at the Royal Quays passenger terminal on Saturday morning for the ‘Whale Tales of the North Sea’ event, celebrating 10 years of DFDS and the charity ORCA working together.
I spend part of my time working for MARINElife, but I’ve also been an ORCA member for nearly two decades and NEWT’s involvement with them goes back to 2010. when I led a familiarisation trip for the wildlife officers ahead of their season onboard. Our own Whale and Dolphin trips during the summer usually pass by one of the Newcastle-IJmuiden ferries, either as we sail out of the Tyne, or return at the end of the day, and the NEWT team enjoyed a mini-cruise to Holland in 2010 as guests of DFDS. We’d highly recommend it 🙂
Following a packed lunch, Michaela Strachan presented a series of short clips of some of her experiences with whales and dolphins around the world, which kept all of the younger members of the audience entertained. With only ~90 different species, cetaceans are poorly represented compared to terrestrial mammals (~4200 species), birds (~10000 species) and insects (~1000000 species, with potentially another 5-29000000 million species still to be discovered!). What they lack in numbers they make up for in sheer size, and some of the film clips demonstrated just how big they are.
Anna Bunney from ORCA gave a presentation about the cetaceans of the North Sea and there we have an even smaller range of species. Harbour Porpoise, Bottlenose Dolphin, White-beaked Dolphin and Minke Whale are all relatively common, but there’s a range of rarer visitors to the waters of North East England; Risso’s Dolphin, White-sided Dolphin, Killer Whale, Sperm Whale, Pilot Whale and Humpback Whale have all appeared in recent years and historical records contain some real oddities.
Educating people about the wealth of marine wildlife in the North Sea is something that ORCA and DFDS are doing really well, and the data that surveyors are gathering onboard is a valuable resource, combined with the ferry data gathered by MARINElife on other North Sea routes and the small-boat survey data from the North East Cetacean Project in Northumberland.
Many thanks to DFDS for the invitation to join them for the celebration with ORCA 🙂
If you’re not already convinced that our marine wildlife is awesome, here are a few pictures that should speak for themselves 🙂