Natural History

Wild Goose chase; Bespoke Birdwatching 30/10/2014

by on Nov.03, 2014, under Birdwatching, Druridge Bay, Holy Island, Natural History, Northumberland Coast

Thursday was Pete and Janet’s 6th trip with NEWT, and the dismal, gloomy, drizzly south easterly weather as I drove to Embleton seemed ever so slightly promising 🙂

We started around Druridge Bay, checking a small area of woodland close to the coast, and soon encountered one of my favourite passerines, with three Brambling feeding quietly high in the canopy and two more flying over noisily.  Everywhere we went there were Robins and Blackbirds, although little sign of any other migrants other than a large flock of Redwing over Cresswell and a flock of Fieldfare near Beadnell.  Leaping Salmon on the River Coquet provided a lot of entertainment and a Cormorant which had been catching small fish, dived, causing a large Salmon to leap clear of the water.  The fish splashed back down and the Cormorant surfaced, gripping it behind the gills.  As the bird drifted downstream with its catch, we couldn’t believe that it would be able to deal with such a large fish…then it manouvered it so that the fish’s head was pointing down it’s throat and swallowed it whole!

As dusk approached, we were on the coast near Holy IslandLittle Egrets, Grey Plover, Curlew and Redshank were on the mudflats and the high yapping sound of Pink-footed Geese could be heard distantly.  Skein after skein appeared against the dark clouds overhead, settling close to the oncoming tide.  Then more, and more, and more…thousands and thousands of geese, still arriving when it was so dark that they were just a slightly darker speckling against an almost featureless backdrop.  Finally, as we headed back to the car, the ‘teu-it’ call of a Spotted Redshank cut through the gloom as the geese continued to arrive.

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Marshland magic; Druridge Bay 04/07/2014

by on Jul.08, 2014, under Birdwatching, Druridge Bay, Natural History, Northumberland, Southeast Northumberland

I love all of the different locations that we visit on our tours, but a day around NEWT’s local patch of Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland is always special.  Maybe because it’s so close to home, maybe because of the incredible industrial heritage that has gradually been transformed into fantastic wildlife habitat or maybe just because it’s really, really good 🙂

I collected Sue from Church Point and we headed north up the coast.  A brood of Goosanders were perched on mid-stream rocks as Grey Wagtails flitted back and forth across our field of view, tails wagging vigorously each time they settled before flycatching again just above the water.  An insistent squawking made us turn our heads – and there was a brood of Blackbird fledglings, just a few metres away, watching us with curiosity as their parents brought food.  Great Crested Grebes, Gadwall and Tufted Duck all had young in attendance too and, as is often the case once we reach July, a lot of our attention was taken by wading birds.  30+ Black-tailed Godwits were sleeping as a Common Sandpiper bobbed around their feet, a group of unusually obliging Common Snipe fed out in the open water, black-bellied Dunlin searched purposefully around the godwits, Redshank stalked along the pool edge and into the longer vegetation and three Wood Sandpipers added a touch of ‘scarce’ to the afternoon.  Two Spoonbills spent most of the time, as Spoonbills do, sleeping until a helicopter passing over roused them from their slumber and they did a fly-around before settling back to their previous spot and immediately returning to sleep close to a Little Egret.  Juvenile Marsh Harriers were making short flights over reedbeds, Reed Buntings were still singing their simple song with enthusiasm and a pair of Avocets with four chicks launched repeated furious assaults on any other birds that came too close; Shelduck, Little Ringed Plover, Sandwich Tern, Black-headed Gull and even the ‘so cute they surely couldn’t do any harm’ Little Gulls all came in for a hard time as the young Avocets pottered about in the shallows.

A great day with a lovely client (we don’t have any other type!) and even the added bonus of bumping into my favourite double act, Gavin and Syd 🙂

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Drumming and lekking; North Pennines 05/04/2014

by on Apr.21, 2014, under Birdwatching, Natural History, North Pennines, Northumberland, Photography

A pre-dawn start heralded a long anticipated day out with Sam and Brian, part of Sam’s prize from last years Natural History Society of Northumbria Photography competition.  Sam is part of a generation of young photographer/naturalists in Northumberland, and it was a pleasure to have a day discussing photography, wildlife and ethics with himself and Brian.

As we headed west, the first tendrils of daylight began creeping over the eastern horizon in the rear view mirror and a Tawny Owl perched on a fence post and another flew over as we stopped to have a look at it. The plan for the day was to visit the Black Grouse lek at Langdon Beck first, and then begin slowly exploring back through the North Pennines into Allendale.  I’ve had some stunning days with clients in the North Pennines, including a remarkable grouse and raptor day, but this one was breathtaking.  Visually, Black Grouse are spectacular, and the strutting and posturing of a group of lekking blackcock is one of those wildlife experiences that everyone should experience at least once, but the sound when you’ve got 30+ of these birds all kicking off at the same time is indescribable.

As the lek disassembled, we prowled the moors in search of subjects for Sam’s and Brian’s cameras.  Common Snipe and Lapwing were very close to the road, and when Sam mentioned that he’d always wanted to get close shots of Common Snipe, I thought I knew just the place.  Sure enough, the sky was filled with Snipe drumming, and several of them were taking a break, obligingly perched on fence posts 🙂  Throughout the day we encountered lots of those birds that are common on the coast in winter, but much more thinly spread on the moors in the Spring; Oystercatcher, Redshank, Golden Plover, Curlew.  An unexpected addtion to my Cow Green list presented itself in the form of a flock of 22 Whooper Swans.  That moorland speciality, Red Grouse, was seen in good numbers offering photogenic views in mist, rain, sunshine and everything else the elements could muster.  A heart-stopping moment at the end of the day produced an all too fleeting glimpse of the striking black-and white tail of what could only be a Rough-legged Buzzard, which sadly drifted behind nearby trees without lingering long enough to be captured on camera.

Now, all I’ve got to do is work out how to get the bubbling cooing sounds of the lek out of my head 😉

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A real challenge

by on Jul.02, 2010, under Birdwatching, Natural History, Northumberland

In the 17 years that I’ve lived here, I’ve always believed that Northumberland is one of the finest counties for birdwatching in the whole of the UK.  That belief played a big part in reaching the decision to launch NEWT, and it’s why we’re such an enthusiastic member of the Birdwatching Northumberland Consortium.  We’ll be at the Bird Fair in August (Marquee 1, Stand 53/54) so come along to meet us and find out just how good Northumberland is.

This morning, though, my attention is on mammals.  We don’t do too badly for them either; Badger, Red Fox, Grey Seal, Red Squirrel, Roe Deer, Weasel, Stoat and Brown Hare all feature regularly on our safaris and, on our Northern Experience Pelagics, there’s the possibility of Minke Whale, White-beaked Dolphin, Harbour Porpoise and other cetaceans.  We’ve had some random sightings as well; a Bank Vole that sat munching on a leaf just a few feet away from us and a Mole that walked into a hide we were sitting in were both bizarre (especially the Mole; I hadn’t seen a live one for a long, long time).

With the exciting news earlier this week of the first confirmed evidence in 16 years of Pine Marten in Northumberland, we’ve got a new challenge 🙂  We’ve spent some time in the last couple of years checking likely sites and following up reports that we’ve received.  Some of those have been very tantalising, and the species may be more widespread than people imagine.  Otters and Badgers are fairly difficult, but we’ve developed an excellent track record with those two species.  Pine Marten is going to be an altogether different proposition, but we relish a challenge.

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Life through a (hand) lens

by on Feb.09, 2010, under Lichens, Surveys

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

Sparrowhawk 1

Goshawk 1

Great Spotted Woodpecker 2

Goldcrest 5

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 🙂

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I’m lichen it

by on Dec.03, 2009, under Natural History

If there’s a prize for worst blogpost title then I must be in the running with this one.  What makes it even worse is that I thought of it on Friday night last week and have only just got round to using it now.  Perhaps my subconscious was suppressing it?

Anyhow, last Friday I attended one of the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s indoor meetings.  The speaker for the evening was Janet Simkin, a lichenologist.  Now that’s quite a thing…lichens are widespread, they can be studied all year round and they are fascinating indicators of the cleanliness, or otherwise, of the air around us, yet some of my clients who have deep interests in many branches of natural history have always issued dire warnings about lichenologists; “they’re a bit strange”, “if you have one on one of your trips, you’ll be lucky if they leave the carpark”, “they move in a geological timeframe” are some of the kinder words spoken.

So why am I blogging about lichens?  Well, a few weeks ago I was visiting an elderly friend, who has a remarkable personal library, and we were looking through his collection of books on lower plants.  Tucked in amongst them was a guide to identifying lichens, which he removed from the shelf, handed to me and said “here, life’s too short…if I’d started 50 years ago this may have been some use”.  I’d started to take notice of the lichens report in the excellent British Wildlife as well, some mouth-watering images and tales of rare and remote species stimulating my interest.

Dr Simkin’s talk was fascinating , detailing how lichen species have appeared and then vanished with changes in air quality.  There was then a short presentation by Katy Barnard about the OPAL Air Survey. Now this is a bit of fieldwork/research that anyone can participate in.  The results can be viewed online, and it gives you an excuse to get outdoors and get some fresh air (assuming that’s what the lichens you find indicate…)

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