Saturday saw an early start and a long drive south to Far Ings Nature Reserve in the shadow of the Humber Bridge. The reason for our journey was that Martin was one of the MARINElife researchers delivering a training course for potential volunteer researchers. MARINElife have survey teams on several passenger and freight ferry routes around the UK, gathering data on whales, dolphins, porpoises, seabirds and other marine wildlife, and those survey teams are made up of volunteers. Consistency and credibility of the data gathered is ensured by land-based training sessions, followed by ‘on the job’ training alongside experienced research team leaders.
If you would like to get involved, and add to the valuable sum of knowledge that we have about our offshore wildlife, then you can contact MARINElife through their website or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and we can point you in the right direction. We’re always keen to add new surveyors to our North East Cetacean Project research team, and you’ll get your hands-on training off the beautiful Northumberland coast.
January is a quiet month for NEWT as far as days out with clients go, but it’s been an incredibly busy month for other reasons.
The threat to tourism services in Northumberland, following public sector spending cuts and the impending closure of One Northeast, have occupied a lot of my time. As Chair of SENTA (Southeast Northumberland Tourism Association) and also Outdoors Northumberland (until last Monday when I stepped down at our AGM), as well as being part of Northumberland Tourism’s ‘Ambassadors’ group, I’ve been involved in meetings and discussions about where we go from this point on. I’m not going to go into great detail here, as there are many issues to deal with before the position that will be adopted by Northumberland’s tourism businesses is resolved enough to be made public.
The other big meeting this week was the latest NE regional hub meeting for Netgain (the North Sea Marine Conservation Zones Project). Along the Northumberland Coast, and in our offshore waters, we have some stunning wildlife and habitats. The Farne Islands and Druridge Bay are places that we’ve enjoyed so much wildlife with our clients and the North Sea itself has produced encounters with rare, elusive and iconic creatures on our pelagic trips for many years now. With so many different interests represented on the regional hub, there were always going to be conflicts (of ideology and interests, rather than personal conflict between hub members thankfully). The only way forward will be through concensus and that requires a certain amount of give and take by everyone involved. The Netgain team have done a fantastic job of managing the discussions, providing the mapping data that hub members have asked for and answering some often difficult, and contentious, questions.
I care passionately about tourism in Northumberland, and I’m sure that any regular reader of our blog will know my feelings about the North Sea, so I’ll keep doing all I can to help move both of those projects towards a sensible solution. Ultimately though, we’re a conservation-minded tourism business so I’ll be seeking solutions that have the best interests of tourism businesses and the marine environment at their core.
I even managed a couple of hours birdwatching earlier this week as well; a successful trip to see the Hawfinch at Mitford was followed by a walk across some exposed moorland where I was entertained by 2 Red Foxes as they bounded through a patch of heather like a couple of spring lambs. Invigorating and stimulating, and across the coastal plain of central and southeast Northumberland I could see the sea with the full moon rising over it. A truly magical moment that reminded me where my passion comes from.
With a good breeze coming from the east and misty drizzle on the coast, conditions have been looking good for a fall of migrants since yesterday morning. Some of the most exciting birdwatching available on the Northumberland coast happens in conditions like these…
As we left the house last night to walk down to The Swan, Redwings could be heard overhead and the distinctive call of a Yellow-browed Warbler gave us a heard-only garden tick.
This morning we had to be out well before dawn to count Pink-footed Geese at East Chevington as part of the Icelandic Goose Census. The air over the dunes was filled with the calls of Redwings, Song Thrushes, Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Bramblings and Goldcrests. Eventually, nearly 3000 geese departed their overnight roost and we drove to Cresswell, ready for our second survey of the day. This time it was our regular WeBS count. After a brisk walk north along the beach of Druridge Bay we arrived at East Chevington for the second time this morning, where there were flocks of Chaffinches and Goldcrests in the hedgerows and Sarah spotted a ‘ringtail’ harrier, but it quickly passed through. After taking both cars back home, and deciding how to spend the rest of the weekend (although most of that is predetermined), Sarah’s just gone to do some shopping, and I’ve just had a call about a Red-flanked Bluetail at Newbiggin…decisions, decisions 🙂
Our October tours will concentrate on the coast and birdwatching will feature heavily. Give us a call on 01670 827465 to find out what’s on offer and what we can do to enhance your Northumberland birdwatching experience.
As I grow older I’m finding that, alongside the generalist birdwatching that we usually do with clients, my own birding interests are becoming increasingly specialised; seawatching (when I can find the time…) still excites me as much as the first time I sat on Flamborough Head, raptors have been an obsession since I was very young and, more recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time reading about moult strategies and studying bird songs and calls. The Sound Approach books have all been incredibly inspirational and then, during the winter, I was on a survey trip for the Northeast Cetacean Project and Tim Sexton was mentioning how he’d added sound files to his blog posts. As we both use the same model of mp3 recorder, and the whole process sounded easy, I thought I’d give it a go. I’d got an external shotgun mic that was included when I last bought a camcorder, so I connected that up and started pointing it at anything that was singing. I added the relevant plugins to the blog…couldn’t make it work. Tim gave me some helpful advice…still couldn’t make it work. Finally, I tried another way of adding sound files and here’s the first (of many…)
This Blackbird was singing from the top of the Apple tree in our garden during a heavy shower in late April and, when he stopped singing and listened to the other Blackbirds (which can be heard faintly in the background), he tilted his head, depending on which other bird he was listening to. We even have a client who asked for a recording of a Blackbird for an arts project he’s involved in. Who can blame him, it really is a beautiful song.
Our two Druridge Bay mini-safaris last Wednesday both featured one of my favourite birds; Black-tailed Godwit. A group of eight flying N at dusk in torrential rain may have included the five that we saw at lunchtime. With plenty of Curlew, Lapwing and Dunlin, as well as a few Ruff and Common Sandpipers there was a ‘busy’ feel to birdwatching the coastal pools. Common Frog and Common Toad were perhaps to be expected in the damp conditions.
Thursday featured more torrential rain, although all of it whilst we were travelling between sites in Druridge Bay. After collecting two clients individually from Alnmouth we headed south. Dave had a day to remember with no less than five ‘lifers’; Little Owl, Dipper, Hobby, Scaup and Arctic Tern. The Hobby was one of those classic moments. I was watching a group of Sand Martins when they all suddenly rose high above the water. As I opened my mouth to suggest that there was a raptor about, Dave said “What’s this?”…and there it was, a first-summer Hobby, heading straight towards us low over the pool. A Whimbrel flew by, giving it’s distinctive call, and the transition from the occasionally difficult birding of mid-summer to the more productive time of mid-July is well underway.
Saturday was spent covering another three tetrads for the Bird Atlas and then on Sunday we had a few hours in our study area, searching for any sign of Hobby or Honey Buzzard. With heavy overcast conditions, occasional light rain, and a cold breeze very few raptors were in evidence; just a Common Kestrel and a Common Buzzard to show for our efforts.
Between the slow times of the winter (filled this year by the Northeast Cetacean Project) and the start of our busy season comes a week that is exhausting but enjoyable.
Sarah was away on Sunday so I took myself off for a walk in Harwood. Lots of Siskins and Crossbills were calling throughout the entire 10 miles, and I managed to capture some images. The howling wind made my other intention, recording their calls, a bit trickier. A couple of Common Buzzards were braving the breeze, and a female Goshawk appeared and disappeared before I could get the camera on to her. I’m not sure whether carrying a dSLR, 500mm lens and heavy tripod around 10 miles of, partially snow-covered, forest tracks is an indication of dedication or insanity. Whichever, it was certainly good exercise.
Tuesday was an extraordinary day; first the Hadrian’s Wall Trade Fair and Tynedale Tourism Day, then I drove to Matfen Hall for an Outdoor Show training session and from there up to the Gun Inn at Ridsdale for a pre-breeding season Hen Harrier volunteer meeting. Wednesday was the tourism fair in Berwick, organised by the NNTA, and yesterday I attended the Sustainable Tourism Conference at the Rivergreen Centre in Durham.
Now, at the end of the week, it’s the Alnwick Tourism Fair, followed by a SENTA member event at The Old Ship in Newbiggin.
The last six days have seen a rush of activity on the Northeast Cetacean Project; with the weather and sea conditions working to our advantage we completed three survey days this week. Time back onshore has been spent compiling a detailed database of cetacean sightings, preparing for the forthcoming tourist season, consulting on an important familiarisation visit and leading a southeast Northumberland birdwatching Safari Day on Wednesday.
The focus for the Safari Day was bird song and calls, so we concentrated on three of our local riverside woodlands. The warm sunny weather encouraged a lot of birds to be very vocal, particularly up to mid-morning. Bird songs and calls are something that can take a long time to get to grips with but, once you do, it makes a big difference to your birdwatching. You’ll know the birds are there before you see them, and vocalisations are a valuable identification tool as well. That was the rationale behind our Beginners Birdwatching ‘Bird Song’ course and, with bookings taken already, we’re looking forward to helping more of our clients to develop those skills.
For the first time this year we’re putting out the moth trap. It’s warm, cloudy and dry outside so hopefully we’ll have a good catch. With a bit of luck it’ll be cool enough in the morning that any moths we trap will be fairly inactive and they can be photographed, identified and released into the shrubbery with the minimum of fuss. With a good weather forecast for tomorrow, a day of photography could be on the cards.
On Saturday we led a wildlife walk on Holy Island. Grim, murky drizzle on the way north looked less than promising but, as we approached Beal, the weather improved and stayed fine throughout the walk. Possibly the highlight of the day was all of the birds on the Rocket field flushing as two Peregrines flew menacingly above the pools. The journey home produced our rarest sighting of the day, at least in a Northumberland context, when we watched 3 Bewick’s Swans in a field south of Alnmouth.
Sunday really was a case of something completely different, as I headed out to the Farne Deeps for the latest Northeast Cetacean Project survey. The project, which is been run by Northern Experience and Marinelife with our funding partners; Natural England and the Northumberland and Tyneside Bird Club, has several strands, with the surveys backed up by postcards that we’re distributing to local charter boats and marinas so they can submit their sightings, an analysis of all the records and reports we can find for the last 7 years and, coming soon, a website that will allow online submission of whale and dolphin sightings off Northumberland. Meanwhile, back on the boat…my survey team on Sunday was made up of Alan Tilmouth and Ross Ahmed who were part of the team on our surveys back in December, Tim Sexton who was on our blizzard-hit survey two weeks ago and Dan ‘Punkbirder‘ Brown. Highlights were a Common Dolphin and a small group of Little Auks.
Yesterday saw the Landy having it’s 6-monthly safety test. Unsurprisingly, with the work put in by Sandy to keep the mechanical bits working smoothly, and the electrical work that Darren has done to ensure that when you flick a switch what happens is what should happen, it passed again. Peace of mind for our clients, and the NEWT Landy will keep rolling around Northumberland, delivering them to top-quality birdwatching and wildlife experiences.
Now it’s Tuesday and I’ve got 50 miles of offshore survey ahead of me. Bring it on!
Saturday was planned as the next survey day for NEWT/Marinelife…and then in the early hours of Saturday morning the sea began to turn ‘a bit lumpy’ (c)Allan Skinner. With over 3m of swell smashing it’s way through the harbour mouth at Amble there was no chance of getting the boat out.
With all three NEWT guides having the day together we headed inland to finish our BTO Winter Atlas timed tetrad visits in Harwood. Ironically, given the wintry weather on the coast, there was less snow than on our last visit. Birds were few and far between and, after what turned out to be a strenuous 4 miles over rough ground, as we headed back towards home the late afternoon light looked just about perfect for a visit to Nursery Park to photograph the Waxwings. The light was as good as we could have wished for and the 20 or so birds that were still present were much more obliging than they had been in previous days.
On Sunday we separated out to do different surveys; Sarah covered the WeBS count stretch from Cresswell-East Chevington and back (taking her total distance walked over the weekend to nearly 12 miles) and Martin and Andy set out from Amble along with Tim Sexton, on calmer seas, to start surveying the Farne Deeps. Remarkably, all three surveyors on this trip used to live within 100m of each other in the late 90’s, on Percy Park in Tynemouth. Tim was on the famous Wilson’s Petrel pelagic back in 2002, and Andy only missed that one as he was delayed while heading back from Mull. The journey out to the deeps was unremarkable, other than for the number of Gannets that we found, and a lone Common Seal was an interesting find. Fulmar and Guillemot were also seen throughout most of the survey, and a small number of Puffins were around as well. As we headed east on the first transect we could see some very dark clouds massing to the south. By the time we’d completed the 13 mile run and turned to follow the next transect west the clouds had caught up with us. Sea state 5 in a near white-out was one hell of an experience, but we continued to keep our attention on the sea, still surveying in the hope that the weather would soon pass by. It did, and we completed that transect before heading north and then east along the next survey line. Ten miles along the transect we were hit by another winter storm, this time coming from the east. With the turning tide making our skipper’s task increasingly difficult, we made a note of the position we’d reached and headed back to the warmth and comfort of the shore. Two days, three NEWT guides, four surveyors.
Now I’ve got a couple of days of office stuff to catch up on; press trip proposals to write, images to process for articles I’ve written and we’re already well into planning for the Birdwatching Northumberland stand at the British Bird Fair. I reckon I’ll be able to fit in some time for photography though 🙂
Monday was the second classroom session of the NHSN Lichens and Bryophytes course. On Sunday, while I was out with Sarah on a walk through three atlas tetrads in Harwood, we found some interesting colonies of Cladonias lichens on the upturned root edges of some windblown Spruce. As the lichens course is currently looking at Heath and Moorland, and specifically at Cladonias, this was a chance to put the classroom practice into a fieldwork context. The two most frequent species were C. macilenta (‘Devils Matches’), and C.sulphurina (‘Greater Sulphur-cup’). Unfortunately, the weather was a bit on the harsh side, so it wasn’t possible to take any photographs of the lichens in the field. Never mind, that’s just a reason to go back and have another look on a brighter day 😉
The atlassing itself was a bit esoteric. During the entire 9 miles through the forest we only came across 6 different species;
Common Buzzard 3
Great Spotted Woodpecker 2
Common Crossbill 103
With temperatures hovering around freezing and 8″ of snow still covering over a mile of the footpaths and tracks, it was no great surprise that there were so few birds. Also unsurprising, throughout those 9 miles of beautiful, windswept, snow-covered Northumberland we didn’t encounter any other walkers. They don’t know what they were missing 🙂