The ‘quality over quantity’ birdwatching in the North Pennines has been the predominant feature of our days out with clients in the last two months, and a ‘phone enquiry on Tuesday saw me collecting David and Margaret on Wednesday morning for a day birdwatching in the hills.
Red Grouse was the first of the upland specialities we encountered and, after a few single birds scattered across the moors we came across a pair with a brood of 10 chicks. The adults watched us carefully as their offspring wandered about, completely unconcerned by our presence. Lapwing and Curlew seemed to be everywhere and one Lapwing provided our only sighting of Snipe for the day, as it chased one over the road in front of us. Oystercatcher, Redshank and Golden Plover were noisily displaying, Kestrels were stationary in the strong breeze and our first three Black Grouse were all seen distantly. I was sure that we’d get much closer views of Blackcock and, sure enough, at the same spot where I photographed a displaying bird earlier this month, we came across what were probably the same two birds from that trip.
A walk at Cow Green reservoir brought a non-avian highlight as Spring Gentians were in bloom. If you’ve never seen one, this is what they look like
After our walk we watched a small group of Blackcock as they engaged in their, slightly comical, lekking behaviour before heading back north east after another excellent day in the hills.
Chris’ comment as we arrived to spend Friday evening, as we do most Friday evenings, at The Swan suggested a customer with a fascinating repertoire of anecdotes… As Philip was about to head to his room, he came across to say goodnight to Chris and Kirsty, and we all got talking. As he’s passionate about wildlife, fly-fishing, photography and sustainability there were plenty of shared interests to chat about When we discovered that he hadn’t had much publicity for the Northumberland coast section of his walk, a flurry of texts and tweets (at 22:30 on Friday night) led to interviews on BBC Radio Newcastle and Radio Northumberland on Saturday as he walked from Cresswell to Blyth. The other thing we could help him with was transport to Cresswell on Saturday morning, and some company for the first part of the walk.
Martin collected Philip at 10:00 and accompanied him for a very wet five miles down the coast to Newbiggin. Fulmars were soaring steeply above the clifftops, Gannets were heading north into the strong breeze and Skylarks sang overhead during interludes between showers. As they reached Newbiggin a lady came out of her house and put some money into Philip’s collection tin – she had been keeping an eye out for him after hearing his interview on BBC Radio Newcastle!
Philip’s a fascinating man, undertaking an amazing journey for a very worthy cause so if you can help him in any way, please do; follow him on Twitter, donate via JustGiving or check the schedule for the rest of his walk and think if you can help in some way as he passes along your stretch of the coastline
Snow on Monday, glorious weather on Tuesday…and torrential rain on Wednesday When I arrived to collect David and Janet for their Prestige Tour in the Cheviot Valleys we quickly decided to head towards the Northumberland coast instead as that would offer the chance of plenty of birdwatching with the prospect of being able to shelter from the worst of the weather.
Starting at Stag Rocks, we watched flocks of Eider and Common Scoter as they rolled up and over the substantial waves and a Grey Seal swam just beyond the breaking surf. One thing that was immediately obvious was that there was a movement of Gannets; birds were flying over the rocks and more could be seen offshore. Heading down the coast, the intensity of the rain increased and we had our second seawatch of the day, this time just south of Cresswell. An almost continuous passage of Gannets was evident as they headed north, flocks of Kittiwakes and Guillemots were passing by, the occasional Fulmar arced up above the clifftops and a single Manx Shearwater easily outpaced the Gannets. Avocets sat tight as the rain hammered down around them and, when the deluge finally ceased and blue sky and sunshine replaced the gloom, we watched a male Marsh Harrier as he quartered a nearby field before soaring heavenwards. A Great Crested Grebe sailed by serenely, a Whimbrel flew north, five Brown Hares were engaged in some half-hearted chasing and Swifts, Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins all took advantage of the feast of insects that had been stirred to activity by the improvement in the weather.
Even in poor weather, Northumberland can produce some excellent birdwatching
I collected Andreas ahead of a day of birdwatching in the North Pennines with two things in mind; Andreas’ target list for the day (Red Grouse, Black Grouse, Ring Ouzel) and the weather forecast (sleet and snow showers, temps as low as 7C)…
Glorious and breezy weather accompanied our journey southwest and we were soon at the first of our regular Black Grouse sites. We arrived there just ahead of the first of the day’s snow showers – which saw the temperature plummet all the way down to 1C! We soon found our first Red Grouse of the day, as Curlews displayed overhead, and a third of Andreas’ target list had been achieved. An unexpected find by Andreas was a Woodcock, tucked into the vegetation as we made our way across from Allendale to Weardale.
Soon after the Woodcock we came across a displaying Common Snipe, and then our first Black Grouse of the day; a male sitting on a drystone wall, iridescent blue in the sunshine, followed by this bird, half-heartedly displaying while another one fed close by. Two out of three…
Brilliant sunshine was followed by snow, was followed by brilliant sunshine, was followed by snow, and that pattern continued throughout the rest of the day.
As we headed for our regular lunch spot, Andreas spotted a female Ring Ouzel, and completed his target list for the day As the sunshine bathed the landscape around us, a very confiding Lapwing allowed some easy photography.
After watching two Blackcock lekking, with seven other birds pottering about nearby, we headed northeast. The heaviest snow of the day accompanied our journey out of the hills, a reminder that conditions on high ground can be poor at any time…but the reward for braving our remotest landscapes is some really high quality birdwatching.
‘Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep…beep, beep, beep. Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep…beep, beep, beep’, the mega-alert on my pager wasn’t entirely unexpected…
I’d collected Charlie and Edna from Holy Island for a day of birdwatching, from Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland north along the Northumberland coast and eventually back to Lindisfarne. Eponymously disyllabic Chiffchaffs, the descending silvery cadence of Willow Warblers and the mechanical reeling of Grasshopper Warblers accompanied our woodland walk as the first heavy drops of rain precipitated the donning of waterproof jackets. As we sat eating lunch, overlooking the North Sea, the strengthening wind, heavy rain and decreasing visibility might not have filled everyone’s heart with joy. I’m not everyone though, and I described the potential of early May, southeasterly winds, poor weather and the Northumberland coast to Charlie and Edna As it began to clear we continued our journey and enjoyed excellent close views of Sedge Warblers and Reed Buntings singing and at least six Avocets. A stunningly yellow Yellow Wagtail was sharing a field with an equally stunning male Whinchat. Another heavy shower accompanied murky misty conditions…then came the piercing shrill of the pager as we drove through Embleton on our northward journey.
Just a few minutes later we were at Low Newton, enjoying good views of yet another excellent find by the Beadnell Stringer
Towards the end of a day in the North Pennines with Tony and Caroline, I suggested that we should head back to a Black Grouse lek where we’d watched two Blackcock pottering about in the early afternoon…
Everything had been performing well. Red Grouse and Black Grouse playing hide-and-seek-and-run-away-a-bit, Curlew, Redshank, Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Golden Plover and Snipe all displaying, Skylark and Meadow Pipit singing as they ascended skywards, a Wheatear on a midstream rock doing a credible impersonation of a Dipper and the mystery bird of last week’s trip revealed to be a Starling…with a pale crescent on it’s breast!
Now, we were overlooking a lek site that we regularly visit on our North Pennines trips. Two hours earlier there had been just two Blackcock visible, now there were nine, or ten, or five, or two…every scan produced a different total as birds stopped feeding, sat down in the long vegetation and simply vanished. A few minutes later they all stood up, started feeding and wandered about for a little while before repeating the process. After another cycle of ‘feed-hide-reappear’, a minor skirmish developed in amongst the feeding birds. Two Blackcock squared up to each other; wings spread, tails raised, leaping into the air and lashing out at each other. All of the other birds suddenly became very alert, and then the fight stopped and they took flight to the nearby area of low vegetation where we’re used to seeing them display. Other birds, previously unseen, arrived and soon there were 14 of them; arranged in pairs they began the dance that characterises the early mornings of the North Pennines, each bird facing one adversary, strutting around, leaping and cooing (although the wind was carrying that evocative song away from our ears). Four pairs stopped, and adopted a much more relaxed posture, then two more pairs followed suit. Soon only two birds were still displaying…and, bizarrely, the other 12 were standing in the exact positions where they’d been when they gave up, like an odd game of musical statues. Finally one of the remaining combatants pulled his wings in, lowered his tail and raised his head. The final lekking bird stopped soon after, and we assumed that he was the afternoon’s winner. As the gladiatorial contest ended, all of the other birds came out of the trance that they appeared to be in and began feeding. The defeated bird from the final pairing made a half-hearted attempt at resuming the battle, but soon desisted when the reigning champion headed menacingly in his direction.
Sometimes a wildlife experience is just breathtaking, and watching the lek, from the trigger that kicked it all off to the final mystifying tableau, has crashed into my all-time Top 5
As I collected Jenny and Rob for a day in the North Pennines, the weather looked promising, although a little breezy, and we were quickly in the hills. The song of Lapwing, Curlew, Snipe, Redshank, Golden Plover and Oystercatcher carried on the breeze as we found our first Black Grouse of the day – a Blackcock and two Greyhens. Red Grouse seemed to be filling every available bit of moorland and we had an ‘is it or isn’t it?’ moment with an upright, backlit, black bird on an old barn that seemed to show a pale crescent on the throat/breast. It flew out of sight and we were left wondering (I’ve been back and do know what it is, but you’ll have to wait for my next blog post…).
Our afternoon finished with eight Blackcocks lekking, but probably the stars of the day were one of our smaller moorland birds, as we came across a succession of Wheatears. Strikingly handsome male, and subtly beautiful female, Northern Wheatears are always a pleasure to see, but the real surprise was a group of six birds together. Big, upright, and flushed underneath with pinky-orange, these birds were Greenland Wheatears. Migration doesn’t happen only on the coast
Saturday saw a much more relaxed start, at a much more civilised hour, for the second day of our Black Grouse Bonanza guided holiday. After another filling breakfast at Peth Head we set out for a day around Kielder and the Borders. With beautiful blue sky, fluffy white clouds and a nice breeze, it looked very much like a ‘Raptor Day’.
After a drive up the North Tyne valley, the first thing that struck us when we arrived at the dam end of Kielder Water was the number of Willow Warblers that were singing. Swallows were zipping back and forth and there was a real springtime feel in the air. As always, flocks of Chaffinches seemed to be everywhere, and we made our way to NEWT’s favourite raptor watchpoint. In our quite exposed position we were at the mercy of what turned out to be a bitingly cold westerly wind so hats, gloves, fleece jackets and windproof layers were required. There was an extraordinary difference between being in the sunshine and being under the layers of cloud that were scudding across from the west, and that had an effect on the birds too. After a couple of hours of occasional sightings of Common Buzzard, and one Goshawk that shadowed a buzzard over a distant plantation, midday was approaching when it all kicked off; first one pair of Common Buzzards appeared opposite our watchpoint, then a second pair appeared alongside them, and a third pair over an adjacent plantation were probably responding to the flurry of activity. Six buzzards in the air at the same time was only a start though, as the harsh croaking of a pair of Ravens drew our attention and these big, impressive ‘honorary raptors’ materialised from the background of the trees below our eyeline, breaking the skyline and soaring across the valley and disappearing over the trees to the northwest as another four Ravens rose into view away to the east. The buzzard activity drew the attention of a male Goshawk, who circled with one bird before gliding away over a distant plantation.
Before crossing the border into Scotland we sat by a small stream and watched two Dippers as they bobbed up and down on mid-stream rocks and dived into the crystal clear, and presumably icy cold, water. During our lunch break a Common Buzzard soared along a ridge just above our position, and as we crossed the moors a Raven was flying over a nest site, a Kestrel was hanging in the wind, Wild Goats were grazing contentedly, and a single Red Grouse raised its head above the shelter of the heather and into the breeze as we passed.
A stop at the Bakethin reserve on the way back down the North Tyne brought excellent views of an Osprey as it circled over the water, Common Sandpipers were displaying noisily, Oystercatchers had a noisy exchange during changeover at a nest, Teal were displaying, Goldeneye and Cormorant were diving, Chiffchaffs seemed to be in every tree and a Green Woodpecker was persistently yaffling. Each time it called we all scanned the ground in the direction the calls were coming from, more in hope than expectation. Eventually Derek managed to locate the bird…perched at the top of a tree, yaffling away like a Blackbird would sing from an exposed perch! The sky beyond the woodpecker held our 5th raptor for the day, a soaring Sparrowhawk, and we headed back to Peth Head.
The holiday was to produce a final bit of magic, as a night-time drive along a narrow country lane produced excellent views of two young Badgers, running across just a few metres ahead of us, a third Badger along the roadside and a Roe Deer running along the verge towards us before springing over a wall and away across the fields.
With such lovely clients, an excellent accommodation base and a whole series of stunning wildlife experiences during the holiday, I’m excited about next year’s Black Grouse Bonanza already We’ll be announcing 2014 holiday dates shortly, but please get in touch if you would like to be kept informed of the details of what we have on offer next year.
As I drove to Peth Head Cottage on Thursday afternoon, the rain was hammering against the car windscreen. Friday’s forecast was good though so, after a meal at The Travellers Rest in Slaley, I reminded Derek and Deirdre that we would have an early start the next morning.
19/04/2013 05:00…the incessant ringing of the alarm pierced the depths of my sleep and I jumped out of bed, showered and opened my bedroom window. The dawn chorus, mainly Blackbirds, Robins and Song Thrushes, was deafening, and the last remnants of rain were pattering down as we set off across the moors to a Black Grouse lek. Roe Deer were watching us from a roadside field and a Tawny Owl flew across in front of us, no doubt heading for a secluded daytime roosting site. First lek site, no birds, second lek site two Greyhens and a distant altercation between two Blackcock along a drystone wall as Curlew, Snipe, Oystercatcher and Lapwing displayed nearby and a Common Buzzard lumbered its way across the horizon. A third site produced the goods though as, adjacent to a field filled with summer-plumaged Golden Plover, two Blackcock were strutting their stuff for the benefit of three Greyhens…who watched them with what appeared to be complete indifference
After returning to Peth Head for a delicious, and very filling, breakfast (accompanied by Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Siskins, Robins, Dunnocks and a Reed Bunting on the feeders just outside the dining room window) we set out again. By now, the sun was up, bathing the moors in sublime warm tones, and Derek spotted the tell-tale white flash of a displaying Blackcock. This bird was strutting around next to two Greyhens, head down, tail up, pausing occasionally to stand bolt upright before jumping in the air and singing. Just beyond the lekking lothario, a Short-eared Owl was quartering the moor. Backwards and forwards on long narrow wings, the owl flew closer to our position, until eventually binoculars were put down when the field of view was completely filled with yellow-eyed menace as the owl flew over the bonnet of the car before veering away just inches from the windscreen.
Deeper into the North Pennines AONB, over moorland liberally sprinkled with pairs of Red Grouse, flocks of Golden Plover flying around and giving their plaintive call, with a Dunlin easily picked out in one flock by it’s small size, and farmland with Brown Hares chasing each other, Derek’s sharp eyes picked out a bird on telegraph wires…and we had our first Ring Ouzel of the trip. Singing it’s simple song, this could well have been the bird that I watched with Sarah in late March. A pair of Ring Ouzels followed soon after, staying just ahead of the car as we traversed a narrow road high above Weardale. Deirdre spotted several displaying Blackcock and we passed from Weardale into Upper Teesdale. Walking the remote moors produced close views of Red Grouse, Golden Plover, Wheatear, Skylark and Meadow Pipit before a completely unexpected find; for a second I wasn’t sure what I was watching, as a large brown and white bird drifted over the moor with deep lazy wingbeats, but as I lifted my binoculars I could barely contain my excitement as I let Derek and Deirdre know that there was an Osprey flying by! We watched the bird as it hovered and then dived into a nearby reservoir, but it’s departure route took it out of sight so we didn’t see if it was successful in its hunt. A pair of Goosander were feeding along the reservoir edge and, as they eventually crossed the open water, they picked up a Tufted Duck for company.
I had a hunch that Black Grouse would be lekking late afternoon, so we returned to a site that had held just one resting Blackcock earlier in the day. Sure enough, ‘the boys’ had gathered for a bit of a barney; 15 of them had turned up – seven obvious pairs of combatants and one bird sitting off to one side holding his wings, head and tail in the typical display posture but just standing still and watching the series of duels that were taking place in front of him. A couple of them broke out into physical fights, and all of the birds were calling as the lek reached a crescendo before, as if someone had flicked a switch, they suddenly lowered their undertail coverts, lifted their heads, folded their wings back in and started nonchalantly pottering around the gladiatorial arena as if nothing had happened. Just as exciting though, was what was going on above the lek. In my field of view I could see a Curlew drop almost vertically before heading skyward again. I raised my binoculars to follow it’s path and as it dropped again it was harassing, with the assistance of a flock of Black-headed Gulls, a male Goshawk! Open moorland may not be typical habitat for this fearsome inhabitant of our upland forests, but it isn’t the first time we’ve seen one out of context in late April.
Back across the moors to Hexhamshire we saw more Red Grouse, more Black Grouse and, after a quick stop back at Peth Head we headed out to eat at the Dipton Mill Inn. We followed that with a drive into Slaley Forest for Woodcock and Tawny Owls then, before retiring to bed, I stood in the dark outside the cottage and listened as at least four Tawny Owls called from close by. A superb end to an excellent day
As I pulled into the car park at The Swan, Peter and Elizabeth were sitting in the bright sunshine. There was still a cold edge to the breeze though, and we set out to explore Druridge Bay, south east Northumberland and the Northumberland coast.
Masses of frogspawn was evidence that our amphibians were getting on with business as usual, regardless of the weather, and a newt rose to the surface of a small pond to take a gulp of air before sinking out of sight back into the murky depths. Chaffinches, Robins, Song Thrushes and Blackbirds were singing, and a Chiffchaff was a welcome sound – we’d normally expect to start hearing them in mid-March, but this was our first this year. A flock of Redwings were blown by like scraps of paper on the strengthening breeze and, just south of Cresswell, Fulmars glided effortlessly by, riding the updraft of the wind seemingly perilously close to the cliffs.
Another amphibian joined the day list, as a Common Toad walked along the path towards us, realised we were there, then retreated to the edge of the path and tucked all of it’s legs in so that it resembled a stone and waited for us to pass by. A Greylag Goose was incubating and I mentioned that the same site usually held a pair of Mute Swans…and one appeared, but we didn’t see where from. The mystery was solved a few minutes later as it’s mate walked out of a reedbed, straight over the incubating Greylag and paddled across the water. Incredibly the Greylag barely gave the swan a second glance, but just sat tight on it’s nest.
A Brown Hare sat haughtily in a roadside field, and a Sparrowhawk flew just ahead of the car for over 100m, before perching on a hedgerow and staring menacingly at us as we drove by. By early evening the wind had really stiffened again and it started raining. This didn’t dissuade a sub-adult male Marsh Harrier from hunting over a reedbed close to our position, and he eventually dropped into the reeds and onto prey; judging by the squealing he may have caught a Water Rail. Sand Martin, Swallow and House Martin in one flock were additions to the year list, 18 Red-breasted Mergansers were displaying, a few Goldeneye were busy feeding and, as we finished our day, along one of NEWT’s favourite rivers, a dark shape moving slowly along the water’s edge caused some excitement. Was this our quarry, the sinuous predator that terrorises fish, birds and small mammals? No, it was a Moorhen…