Seasonality in wildlife watching is an important consideration, but ‘micro-timing’ shouldn’t be overlooked. There’s a time of day when we rarely meet anyone else on our tours, and I don’t entirely understand why…
Thursday was Day Five for Clare and Peter, and I collected them from The Swan before heading north to start our day on the coast. The rising tide brought Turnstone, Redshank, Curlew, Purple Sandpiper and Ringed Plover towards us as Common Eider drifted on the swell and innumerable Gannets circled above what must have been a huge shoal of fish. Bar-tailed Godwits, probing in the sand, were moved towards the pebbly shore by the inexorable tide until eventually they abandoned feeding and roosted on a rocky outcrop alongside Curlew. In the rising tidal reaches of a river, a Dipper entertained us by diving headlong into the water, a female Goosander sailed serenely into view before diving and re-emerging back under the riverside vegetation, Grey Wagtails added a stunning splash of colour and a Kingfisher raced by.
As dusk approached a Starling murmuration was passed by a Marsh Harrier and a noisy roost of geese included Canada, Greylag, Pink-footed and – my favourite wildfowl escapees – Bar-headed Geese. A lone Ruff remained when the roosting Lapwings took flight, but was then joined by a Redshank. Dusk is, by some considerable margin, my favourite time of the day – regardless of habitat type – and it was a great finish to a great week guiding Clare and Peter around Northumberland’s well known, and some less well known, birdwatching hotspots 🙂 We hope they’ll be back soon to explore more!
As I drove to Newton to collect Sue and Julian, the first few raindrops hit the windscreen of the car. My optimism that the rain would soon pass over was drenched, literally, by a torrential downpour that the windscreen wipers couldn’t cope with and which sounded like I was in a tin can being pelted with stones 🙁 We set off for Bamburgh, completely surrounded by storms and found a flock of Common Scoter and Eider on the sea, and a miserable looking Puffin on the beach. The rainfall left the air warm and humid, so as the afternoon passed into evening paths were covered in slugs and snails. Common Toad and Common Frog crossed our path too, and the air was alive with small insects – and a good handful of Common Pipistrelles hunting them. A Fox trotted along the edge of Cresswell Pond, where Avocets and Black-Tailed Godwit were roosting and feeding. A male Marsh Harrier flew by, causing consternation amongst the Swallows, and Tufted Duck and Red-breasted Merganser both looked elegant as Mute Swans and Shelduck watched carefully over their young. A Whitethroat sang from rank vegetation just a few metres away from us, and dusk brought Swallows, Sand Martins and Starlings to roost.
The day will remain in the memory for years to come though, as a pod of dolphins put on a remarkable display. We’d just finished our picnic and I decided to have one last scan before heading up the coast. Top Tip – always have ‘one last scan’ 🙂 Close inshore I saw a small group of dolphins breaking the surface. White-beaked Dolphin should be here in a few days time, but these were big, dark animals and we soon confirmed that they were Bottlenose Dolphin. Now, these are big impressive animals, and we spent nearly 40mins watching at least 12 of them as they slowly travelled north. They weren’t just travelling though; synchronous breaching, tail-slapping, lob-tailing, spy-hopping, flipper waving and fighting continued as they passed by our viewpoint and eventually out of sight away to the north. I’ve spent a lot of time watching dolphins, both with clients and when carrying out offshore surveys, but I’ve never seen a group of dolphins so animated as these were. Wonder if they’ll be there for this evening’s pelagic trip 🙂
We did get something slightly warmer, although no less windy. As I arrived at Bamburgh the wind was buffeting the car, which was shaking once I’d parked. Heather arrived, but no sign of our other participants (who’d woken up, listened to the howling wind, and thought better of it!). Down on the beach we were sheletered in the lee of the dunes and worked through compositional techniques, exposure compensation and the use of graduated filters. Another photographer made his way down to the shoreline, before very gingerly heading back across the slippery seaweed-covered rocks in the teeth of the gale. Another excellent morning with the elements throwing the hard stuff at us, and Heathers’ parting comment made me smile “What workshops do you in the summer when the weather’s nice?” 🙂
I always enjoy our Beginner’s Photography Workshops, whether we’re on the Farne Islands at the height of the breeding season, chilled to the bone at dawn in the late winter or exploring the hidden world of autumn woodland everyone learns something, including me 🙂 I met up with Sian for a session photographing the coastal landscape at dusk and quickly learned that she was already very familiar with various compositional approaches to photography. That made the structure of the rest of the session a straightforward one and we concentrated on exposure – exposing for highlights, exposing for shadow areas, exposing for a ‘balanced’ scene, exposure compensation and using the histogram as an exposure guide. All too soon, the light faded, contrast fell and it was time to finish. Our next workshop is Autumn Colours on Saturday 8th November. Give us a call on 01670 827465 if you’d like to learn how to get more from your camera 🙂
After a break from work and blogging, and our first proper holiday in quite a while, I got back into the swing of things on Sunday with a visit to probably my favourite mid-October location…
Crossing the causeway to Holy Island is always accompanied by a sense of anticipation, and when I collected Graham and Joan from the Manor House they mentioned that Yellow-browed Warblers had been seen the day before. Checking the bushes and trees in the Vicar’s Garden didn’t produce any sight or sound of the Siberian speciality, but everywhere was heaving with Robins – presumably recent arrivals from the continent – and Grey Plover, Pale-bellied Brent Goose, Bar-tailed Godwit and Grey Seal could be seen, and heard, by turning through 90 degrees from the trees. After checking other suitable spots around the village, and finding a couple of Goldcrest, we crossed to the mainland and down to Bamburgh. Oystercatcher, Turnstone, Curlew, Purple Sandpiper and Knot were around the rocks as Eider and Guillemot rose and fell with the gentle swell of the sea and Gannet and Sandwich Tern plunged into shoals of fish offshore in conditions that wouldn’t have been out of place in mid-June. We made our way slowly back up the coast, taking in vast flocks of Wigeon over the mudflats and a Weasel that responded obligingly to my imitation of a dying mouse (the sound, rather than a visual imitation!). Little Egrets and Shelduck were exploiting the food supply on the exposed mud and we crossed back on to the island…only to learn that a White-tailed Eagle had been soaring high inland of us while we were watching the Weasel 🙁 We headed down to the causeway, to see if the eagle would make a reappearance, as flocks of Sanderling, Dunlin, Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit, Pale-bellied Brent Goose and Golden Plover concentrated on the rapidly diminishing areas of mud above the rising tide and a Peregrine powered across our field of view before it was time for me to cross back to the mainland and head south.
After some poor sea conditions recently, things looked more promising for Friday’s trip; a seal cruise around the Farne Islands, followed by a few hours of birdwatching along the North Northumberland coast. A change is as good as a rest, and the North Northumberland coast is quite a change from the sand dunes and coastal pools of Druridge Bay 🙂
I collected Anne-Marie, Dave, Melanie and Mike from the Queen’s Head in Berwick and we drove to Seahouses for our sailing on Glad Tidings V, which thankfully was fairly smooth, and featured plenty of wildlife. Gannets were soaring by, Kittiwakes were still on their cliff-edge nest sites in good numbers as Fulmars arced over them, Grey Seals were hauled out on rocks and bobbing around in the water, two Common Guillemots were still sitting on the rocks, Cormorants and Shags were drying their wings in the stiff breeze, Sandwich Terns called as they flew back to the islands and, unexpectedly, five Puffins were seen with beakfuls of fish. Photographing Puffins in flight can be a challenge on land, with lots of birds to choose from, and a bird appearing unexpectedly at sea is an even harder proposition but Anne-Marie and Melanie responded with lightning fast reflexes to capture these late breeding birds.
Back on dry land we had our lunch in the impressive shadow of Bamburgh Castle, as Eiders bobbed around just beyond the breaking surf, and then we explored the coast as the tide fell. Little Egrets have become a frequent feature of our coastal trips, and two birds flew by at quite close range. Dozens of Grey Seals could be seen ‘bottling’ at high tide and then, as the water receded, exposing patches of mud, we started encountering waders. Redshank, Ringed Plover, Curlew, Lapwing, Dunlin and Oystercatcher were joined by Knot, Ruff and Greenshank as more Little Egrets, and a flock of Teal, flew by.
Heading back to Berwick we could see poor weather to the north and to the east, and I got caught in some heavy rain as I drove south on the way home, but we’d had a day where the only water that landed on us was the spray from the bow of the boat 🙂
Our Beginners Photography workshop on Saturday had got me thinking about an aspect of photography that I’ve neglected in recent years, but one which dominated much of my photography in the late ’80s and early ’90s – black & white. Back then I spent much of my time composing, exposing, developing and printing landscapes and portraits in monochrome, but in the digital age I haven’t really given it much thought. It isn’t unusual to see discussions about the relevance of b&w in this age of intensely saturated HDR images, but it makes challenging demands of the photographer. Stripped of colour, the image relies on something else – dynamic, graphic, dramatic – to grab the attention.
So, on Monday, I drove north on the A1 in heavy fog, which thankfully thinned a bit towards the coast. After 4 hours of scrambling around Stag Rocks I composed the image that I’d pre-visualised, applied ND grad and ND filters to balance the exposure and slow the shutter speed right down and then waited for the tide 🙂
As I met up with David for breakfast at The Swan on Wednesday morning, ahead of two days on the Northumberland coast, we’d already switched our itinerary round. The plan to visit Holy Island on Thursday looked as though it might be slightly impacted by the weather, so we switched Druridge Bay to that day instead.
The drive north on the A1 was in glorious weather, with Common Buzzards soaring low over plantations in the chill of the early morning and we were soon on Holy Island in a stiffening breeze, carefully stalking towards a flock of Dark-bellied Brent Geese that posed for David’s camera. Bar-tailed Godwits, and a lone Black-tailed Godwit were probing the exposed mud of the harbour at low tide and Wigeon and Teal were on the Rocket Pool. A Common Kestrel was hovering nearby and, as the tide turned, we headed to the causeway to see what would be pushed towards us by the advancing water. Redshank, Curlew, Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit, Shelduck and a Little Egret all fed along the swelling channels
and then a mass of Pale-bellied Brent Geese flew in from the south. As the water began to lap at the edge of the causeway we drove back on to the mainland, and headed to a quiet stretch of shoreline where I knew David could use the cover of a hedgerow to approach a flock of Pale-bellied Brents whilst avoiding detection.
Using the car as a photographic hide (something of a theme for the holiday!) we got very close views of a flock of Wigeon,
and then we settled in the iconic shadow of Bamburgh Castle and scanned the sea in temperatures that were now bone-chilling 🙂 Purple Sandpipers, Turnstones, Oystercatchers and Redshank were roosting just above the water line and beyond the rafts of Eider were flocks of Common Scoter, with one large group of females looking stunningly orange in the beautiful late afternoon sunlight. Long-tailed Ducks played hide and seek, utilising their propensity for diving, and the developing swell, to keep me on my toes as I located a group with the ‘scope so that David could see them. Scanning the scoter flocks paid dividends as a female Velvet Scoter rose up and over one advancing wave crest, Red-throated Divers cruised along in their eternal search for fish and a last scan before we headed back down the coast produced a Slavonian Grebe. As it turned dark, the clear sky afforded excellent ‘scope views of the crescent Venus, and the thinnest sliver of crescent Moon. So soon after New Moon would be a spring tide, and the one forecast for the following day was predicted to be a big one…
After a planned 5 week break to recover from surgery I headed to Bamburgh, to collect Laura and Richard for a mini-Safari around Lindisfarne, brimming over with enthusiasm to be back and doing what I love.
Starting in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, we watched Purple Sandpiper, Turnstone, Redshank and Oystercatcher as they flew from wave-blasted rock to wave-blasted rock with Eiders appearing and disappearing in the swell just beyond them. A flock of Twite rose briefly from the weedy fields and, sitting on a ridge in adjacent field was the largest Peregrine that I’ve ever seen. As we neared Holy Island a flock of Pale-bellied Brent Geese were making their way along the shoreline and Grey Plover, Ringed Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit were exploring the recently uncovered mud as a Greenshank slept with it’s head tucked between its wings. We were using two cars, as Laura and Richard thought it would make more sense then transferring their three dogs to my car. As we headed across the causeway a Merlin chased a flock of Snow Buntings, but they were up and over the dunes before the second car reached them 🙁
As daylight faded we enjoyed excellent ‘scope views of a crescent Venus in the western sky, and then I was on my way back down the coast to get ready for a full day trip on Saturday 🙂
Late August/early September is an exciting time on the Northumberland coast; wader passage is still ongoing, wintering wildfowl are arriving and you just never know what could turn up…
I collected Andy and Lia from Alnwick and we set off for a day birdwatching on the Northumberland coast from Bamburgh to Druridge Bay. Knot, Turnstone, Oystercatcher, Curlew, Sanderling and some very elusive Purple Sandpipers started the day for us, as Linnets fluttered around in the long grass, Meadow and Rock Pipits were around the tideline, Gannets were soaring majestically by and Eider and Common Scoter were bobbing around just beyond the surf and a mixed flock of Common and Sandwich Terns were flushed by walkers before settling back on the rocks close to the breaking surf. Offshore a small flock of birds grabbed my attention, and through the telescope resolved into one of Northumberland’s winter specialities; seven Pale-bellied Brent Geese steadily heading north were our first of the autumn.
Further south, waders were still the main focus of our day; Dunlin, Redshank, Greenshank, Snipe, Whimbrel, Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit and Ruff were all pottering about in the water’s edge. When we arrived at East Chevington to look for the Spotted Crake, there were a few local birders already there. With an astonishing amount of luck, we’d arrived just as a White-rumped Sandpiper was being watched 🙂 Not the easiest of birds to identify, but as it wandered around a flock of sleeping Teal with Dunlin and Snipe alongside for comparison it stood out quite well.
Another cracking day’s birdwatching, with a proper rarity to add a touch of the unusual 🙂