Saturday 03:30 and the alarm clock starts ringing. After eight long days out of the office, things were going to be topped off nicely with an early start for our ‘Dawn on the Coast’ Beginners Photography session. I arrived just ahead of Dave, and met up with Steve who had arrived early. In the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, with the North Sea washing close to our feet, we worked our way through the holy trinity of photography (shutter speed, aperture and ISO) and various compositional techniques as the approaching dawn illuminated the landscape around us. Snow, driven by a strong northerly breeze, passed by almost horizontally and the broken cloud to the east produced intermittently good lighting conditions. Red-breasted Mergansers and Fulmars flew by, Common Scoters and Eider were riding on the swell, Purple Sandpipers crept around the base of the rocks and we finished our session as less amenable weather approached from the east.
Friday was a safari on the North Northumberland coast for Kathryn and Linda. As I collected them from the Lindisfarne Inn, the biting wind carried a flurry of snow, and I guessed this could well be a day for birdwatching from the warmth and comfort of the car.
Over the next few hours we had close views of Bar-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Redshank and Oystercatcher as they probed in the mud, seemingly oblivious to the breeze, a Peregrine shot by, menace on pointed wings, and a Brown Hare sat majestically in the middle of a field. From the car park at Stag Rock we could see the MV Danio, still stranded near the Longstone lighthouse, as Common Scoter and Eider rode up and over the impressive swell and Gannets battled into the breeze. Black-headed Gulls and Rooks were almost perched on the car, and the South Low below the Holy Island Causeway offered impressive views of Eider, Long-tailed Duck and Scaup.
Our lunch stop was the Bamburgh Castle Inn, which gave us a good view of the extent of the swell rolling from the south east…and the approaching snow, which got to us just before we got back to the car
As we walked home from The Swan on Friday night, serenaded by the tremulous song of a Tawny Owl, the air was damp and chilly. With a Lindisfarne mini-safari on Saturday morning I was hoping that the weather would be fine, and the forecast suggested it would be…
So, when the alarm went off and I looked out of the window, I was quite surprised that there was a good covering of snow. A few minutes later the snow started again, and I wondered what conditions would be like in the north of the county. It turned out that we were near the northern edge of the snow, and as soon as I was through Morpeth and on the A1 there was just an occasional light flurry, and no snow on the ground.
I collected Emily and Warren from St Cuthbert’s House and we headed straight for Holy Island so that we would be on the island for a couple of hours before the tide encroached onto the causeway. Dark-bellied Brent Geese were roosting and bathing in the Rocket Pools, Curlews were feeding in the fields by the Crooked Lonnen and a lone Fieldfare hopped along the track ahead of us. We could see that the weather was doing something ‘interesting’ out beyond the Farne Islands, and the icy wind coming in off the sea made it a day to really appreciate the resilience of our wintering birds. As we left the island, flocks of Lapwings were being blown on the breeze, Pale-bellied Brent Geese and Bar-tailed Godwits were working their way along the edge of the incoming tide and Eider and Long-tailed Duck were in the South Low, competing for the title of ‘most attractive duck of the day’. Kestrels were a regular feature of the morning, and we enjoyed good views of nine very obliging Roe Deer.
Driving back down the coast, I could see that the ‘interesting’ weather seemed to be over Bamburgh Castle and Seahouses, so it was no surprise that snow started to fall as we passed Budle Bay. Then it got heavier…and heavier. Eventually, as we reached Stag Rocks, there was an incredible blizzard coming in off the North Sea, reducing visibility to only as far as the shore. Emily jumped out of the car as soon as we’d stopped, revelling in the snowfall; I’m not the only one who enjoys the winter and really loves snow As the blizzard passed over us and made its way inland, the Farne Islands gradually faded into view and we made our way back to Seahouses.
With the cessation of the rain that plagued Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday dawned cold and breezy; almost ideal for a day out on the birdwatching paradise that is the Northumberland Coast in the Winter.
As I collected Ele and Lisa from their holiday cottage in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, the icy northerly wind cut through the multiple layers that I’d put on before leaving the house. We started our day’s birdwatching at Budle Bay, where the wind somehow seemed even icier, and Oystercatchers, Redshank and Curlew were probing the oozing mud as a distant Peregrine flushed flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plover. Eiders were surfing the top of the impressive swell on the open coast and we headed south towards Druridge Bay. Mediterranean Gulls drifted overhead, ghostly pale, as Oystercatchers, Curlew, Turnstone, Redshank and Sanderling worked along the edge of the surf. Among all the immaculate ducks, two species really stood out; Goosander sleek and menacing, and Red-breasted Merganser drakes all trying to out do each other in their attempts to attract the ladies. A flock of Pink-footed Geese fed in a nearby field
As daylight faded a flock of Waxwings were in the distant tree tops and two species that are always a pleasure to see put in an appearance. Short-eared Owl and Barn Owl drifted along the edges of the reedbeds; death on silent wings. Here are a couple of pictures of them from earlier this year (in better light and a gentler breeze!).
Having lived on, or near, the Northumberland coast for 15 years (apart from my 6 month sojourn to Texas and Arizona) it’s a location I return to time and again with my camera/binoculars/telescope/camcorder/sound recording gear (delete as applicable depending on my mood and/or aim for the day). The coast is my favorite location for one-to-one photography tuition with clients too (although the North Pennines AONB runs it pretty close!).
I drove down to Wallsend to collect Mac for his day of photography tuition, and we set off along the coast of southeast Northumberland and Druridge Bay. I’ve always seen dilapidated farm buildings as ideal locations for Little Owl and Barn Owl, but one group of buildings made an ideal location to explore the reciprocal relationship between shutter speed and aperture, before we headed north and Mac added immeasurably to my knowledge of the opencast mining operations of the area. Next stop was on the top of the dunes overlooking the north of Druridge Bay and, as well as the impressive scene looking across the rolling surf out to sea, a high-tide wader roost was building up on the rocks below us. Redshank, Turnstone, Oystercatcher and Curlew were all arriving as the surf lapped at their feet. Then they all scattered. Sadly this didn’t herald the arrival of a Peregrine or other predator…but, instead, a jogger. As luck would have it, I was due at a meeting with a Lead Adviser from Natural England a few days later, to discuss coastal activities and wildlife disturbance. The conclusion of a brief discussion at that meeting was that jogging through a high-tide wader roost in a SSSI is mindless stupidity, sheer ignorance and possibly an offence. People really should know better.
Boats at Boulmer and Holy Island came under the focus of Mac’s camera before we arrived at our final location for the day. Breaking surf, rock pools and the Northumberland coast’s stunning edifice of Bamburgh Castle provided our last shoot before the sun dipped behind the dunes and out of sight, and we headed back south. The light wasn’t the best, although it was a good day to experiment with exposure settings, so here’s a shot of Bamburgh Castle in the sort of conditions that I really enjoy.
There’s always something special about days out with clients who have a connection with the north east; often we’ll visit locations that they haven’t seen for a long time, and they’ll share their memories of the place. One thing that’s constant though, is that they always have a passion for Northumberland, no matter how long they’ve been away, or where they live now.
I collected Dickie and Caroline from Church Point and we set off on the drive north along the Northumberland coast, heading towards Seahouses. The main part of the trip was a Seal Cruise on Glad Tidings 5, although in the ‘stiff’ breeze I wasn’t certain that we’d be sailing. We arrived in Seahouses to be greeted by the good news that we would be sailing, and the ‘interesting’ news that a party of 30 schoolchildren was booked on the same sailing. As we headed across to the islands, with John expertly guiding the boat to avoid everyone getting wet (as far as possible!) the school party were having a whale of a time. Then when the first Grey Seals began to bob their heads up out of the water and stare at the boat they got really excited Gannets were soaring overhead, Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers were fluttering around the base of the rocks, staying just above the breaking surf, and Shags and Eiders were bobbing around in the increasing swell. After an exciting journey back to the mainland, we had our picnic stop in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, and only a few hundred yards from where Dickie and Caroline used to live. A big bull Grey Seal made his way north just beyond the surf, and Caroline went for a paddle in the icy-cold sea As we made our way back down the coast (after a Caroline-requested stop at Swallow Fish in Seahouses), the weather was an extraordinary mixture of blue sky, sunshine and that breeze…
Wednesday was a trip that I’d been looking forward to for some time. Syd is a regular client, and always very entertaining, and this time around his son Gavin was booked with him as well, for a Farne Islands safari.
With plenty of comments on Twitter in the weeks leading up to the trip, we were all praying for good sea conditions for the day. The forecast suggested that the afternoon could be a bit wet so I thought about visiting Staple Island instead of Inner Farne, before satisfying myself that it would stay dry for us in the afternoon and sticking with my original plan of walking along the dunes at Newton in the morning, and catching the 1pm boat to Inner Farne. The morning walk produced lots of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits as well as Common Blue Butterflies and Northern Marsh, Pyramidal and Bee Orchids. The tern colony was a hive of activity, with the Arctic Terns bringing food to their chicks and some Little Terns engaging in some late season breeding activity. While we were there, the terns kept lifting from the dunes in a ‘dread’ but the source of their concern wasn’t immediately obvious. Myself and the wardens commented that it was what we would expect if a Peregrine was passing over, but scanning the sky overhead didn’t produce the menacing shape of that particular predator. Eventually we did spot a raptor, although not an expected one, as a Marsh Harrier flew south along the fields inland from the terns. After having our lunch stop in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, we took the short drive to Seahouses. Approaching Monk’s House Pool, Syd and Gavin had the bird of the day as a Hobby flew north over the roadside fields.
We boarded Glad Tidings IV for the journey across to the islands and sat next to local birder TC, who had watched all of the hirundines in Seahouses start alarming…just a few minutes before the Hobby was between Seahouses and Bamburgh. After the sailing around the islands, with their Grey Seals, Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins, Kittiwakes, Fulmars, Shags and Common, Sandwich and Arctic Terns, we landed on Inner Farne and Gavin concentrated on photographing Puffins. We were ‘treated’ (if that’s the right word…) to an example of just how cruel nature can be as a Kittiwake chick wandered away from it’s nest and towards the edge of the ledge. It turned back from the edge, made it’s way unsteadily back to the nest, and was promptly tossed over the edge of the cliff by the adult! As it landed on the next ledge down, it was attacked and killed by 2 juvenile Shags in front of a group of horrified onlookers.
After nearly 2 hours on Inner Farne, we boarded Glad Tidings for the journey back to the mainland…and the first few drops of rain fell as we reached the top of the steps on the harbour
Delivering a birding package for the first time with a new partner is always a mixture of excitement and worry; will the experience we deliver to our clients blend well with the standards of service, accommodation and food that are provided? Our exclusive Doxford Hall birding break on Thursday and Friday didn’t hold too many worries though – I’ve attended conferences and other events there before and, having known David Hunter since he was at Matfen Hall, I knew that the entire Doxford experience would be a memorable one for all the right reasons.
I arrived first thing Thursday morning to collect Paul and Sue, who had won their exclusive birding break in a competition that ourselves and Doxford Hall ran recently in Birdwatch magazine. Our original plan of Druridge Bay on Thursday, Lindisfarne on Friday, had been altered following a ‘phone call during the week from Sue – there was one species they particularly wanted to see, and our recent blog posts had revealed that now might be a good time…so, after a day of hectic communication with the Forestry Commission to arrange access through Kielder, and check where along our route there would be any forestry activity, our first trip headed inland. We started at Harwood in near-perfect weather conditions; warm, sunny and with a good breeze. Common Buzzards, Common Crossbills, Siskins and a very vocal Raven were all seen but no Goshawk so we continued west. Once we were in Kielder another Raven entertained us, tumbling and cronking over a remote farmhouse in the warm afternoon sunshine before soaring heavenwards and then dropping back out of the sky alongside its mate. We stopped to scan over another plantation, where I’ve watched Goshawks previously, and I soon spotted a bird just above the trees. He quickly got into a thermal and rose until we lost sight of him. I suggested that we just needed to wait for a Common Buzzard to drift over the Gos’ territory, and we began a patient vigil. Eventually a Common Buzzard did appear, we all lifted our binoculars to focus on it…and a distant speck in the binoculars above the buzzard grew rapidly larger as the Goshawk dropped out of the sky. The intruder thought better of hanging around and quickly folded it’s wings back and crossed the valley like an arrow. Having shepherded the buzzard away, the Phantom of the Forest rose quickly again to resume his sentinel watch. More Common Crossbills and Common Buzzards followed as we travelled down the valley back towards civilisation, and 2 pairs of Mandarin brought a touch of stunning colour to the afternoon.
Dinner at Doxford Hall on Thursday evening was exceptional (outstanding food and outstanding levels of service throughout the 2 days), and having clients with such an enthusiasm for birding, and fantastic sense of humour, made it even better. After dinner conversation did reveal that there was an obvious gap in their life-lists though…
Friday’s plan was simple; head to the coast and then bird our way down it to finish in Druridge Bay late afternoon. We started at Harkess Rocks, in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, with a very nice flock of 79 Purple Sandpipers. In the heavy swell a flock of Common Scoters proved elusive, Common Eiders dived through the surf, small rafts of Common Guillemot and Razorbill bobbed about, Gannets soared effortlessly, Sandwich Terns were feeding just offshore and Long-tailed Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers in breeding finery were a reminder that our winter visitors are about to pack their bags and head north. Red-throated Divers, including one bird with a very red tinge to it’s throat, were typically elusive, diving just as we got onto them. I’d got another species in mind though and, when I found one, it was sitting obligingly next to a Red-throated Diver. Soon, Paul and Sue were admiring the elegant structure, neat contrasty plumage and white flank patch of their first Black-throated Diver. 2 days, 2 lifers
We headed south and, after watching an adult Mediterranean Gull, and two 2nd calendar year birds, winter and spring came together with flocks of Greylag and Pink-footed Geese, and a Short-eared Owl, being characteristic of the last 5 months of our coastal trips, Green Sandpiper and Whimbrel on passage and a male Marsh Harrier drifting over a coastal reedbed.
In beautiful afternoon light, with the sound of the roaring surf of the North Sea crashing into the east coast, the Short-eared Owl quartering a nearby reedbed and a pair of Great Crested Grebes displaying on the pool in front of us, a couple of comments by Sue - two of many memorable ones during the trip – summed things up nicely “chilled-out birding” and “we like the view from Martin’s office”
The autumn regularly produces excellent birdwatching experiences, and our Friday afternoon Lindisfarne mini-safari was no exception.
I collected Pat and Ian from Glororum and we headed north towards Holy Island. With the tide falling, the newly exposed mud provided a veritable banquet for the massed waders and wildfowl. As far as the eye could see the shoreline was lined with Pale-bellied and Dark-bellied Brent Geese, Barnacle Geese were arriving and the mud was a hive of activity with Wigeon, Teal, Bar-tailed Godwits, Curlews, Redshanks, Oystercatchers, Knot, Dunlin and Grey Plover all tucking in. 2 Carrion Crows were administering a warm welcome to a Peregrine, and a Little Egret flew in, landing beside another egret that was stalking around the edges of a pool on the mudflats. As the afternoon wore on, we relocated to Bamburgh, and the rocks there produced excellent views of the waders we’d seen earlier as well as a few Purple Sandpipers.
Then came one of those real experience moments. Despite the strong offshore winds 3 Fieldfares were battling against the headwind, low over the waves. They crossed the beach, flew by us and as they dropped towards the shelter of the coastal fields they were intercepted by 2 Sparrowhawks. The final act of the encounter happened out of sight, but you can’t help thinking that it was a cruel end to a herculean effort.
I love Holy Island, but it can be a bit crowded sometimes…
I collected Mike and Maggie from St Cuthbert’s House on Tuesday morning and we began birdwatching our way north. In the shadow of Bamburgh Castle we watched Bar-tailed Godwits, Knot, Turnstones, Purple Sandpipers, Eider and Gannets in a bitingly cold northwesterly wind. We crossed onto Holy Island just before the rising tide covered the causeway…and found that the car park was empty! For the next 5 hours we practically had the island to ourselves, and enjoyed swirling flocks of Knot and Bar-tailed Godwit, Oystercatchers, Shags, Gannets plunge-diving, Red-breasted Mergansers, Grey Seals, Fieldfares, Redwings, Curlew, Teal, Black-tailed Godwits, Grey Plover, Kestrels, Peregrine and then, as the tide began to recede, flocks of Pink-footed Geese and Pale-bellied Brent Geese took to the air, heading for the newly exposed mud and the feast it brings.
Deliberately stranding yourself on Holy Island always carries risks as a birdwatcher; what if something really good turns up on the mainland? As an experience with clients though, particularly when one of them is a very keen wildlife and landscape photographer, it really is something special.