Monday was Pete and Jan’s 8th trip with NEWT, and we were heading back to the Cheviot valleys where we’d watched a Cuckoo together back in 2013. It’s always a pleasure to have a day out with them and catch-up on what’s been happening since we last met, as between us we’re keen recorders of a range of wildlife and the other members of their local Natural History Society are always busy recording some weird and wonderful species…
In glorious sunny weather the verges were alive with insects. Lots of hoverflies (I’m just starting to take an interest in these…) and a very bright Orange-tip as well as a couple of unidentified female damselflies. Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff were singing enthusiastically as Oystercatchers plundered the earthworm population of grassy fields before returning to feed their chicks. Brown Hare sat motionless in short crops, as if we couldn’t see them, before realising they were being watched and loping off. The triumvirate of riparian nervous energy all put in an appearance; Grey Wagtail flycatching above the rushing stream, Common Sandpiper bobbing up and down as it made it’s way upstream in a game of avian hopscotch from one bankside rock to the next and Dipper, almost invisible until it turned and revealed it’s bright white throat and breast. On the edges of the heather moorland, Red Grouse were standing, sentinel like, and territorial disputes were revealed by the resonant cries of ‘go back, go back, go back’. Common Buzzards soared on the breeze, a Kestrel flew quickly by and the plaintive cries of Curlew echoed around the valley sides. Throughout the afternoon, our walk towards the Scottish border was accompanied by the onomatopaeic calls of Common Cuckoo. As the air buzzed with the trill of Lesser Redpoll, a Goldcrest showed itself briefly after a burst of song, Spotted Flycatchers sallied from trees and fence posts and Cuckoos were calling from every plantation. One perched in a treetop and was quickly mobbed by Meadow Pipits, another flew over the neighbour it had been having a vocal dispute with, prompting a harsh grumbling response, and others flew across the valley.
Gorgeous weather, and clients who are great company – an ideal start to the summer…
mid-April can be a strange time inland. Some summer visitors will have arrived, but you can never be quite sure which ones…
I collected Richard and Florence from West Acre House and we headed westwards towards the central massif of Northumberland. An unexpected, and very pleasant, surprise was bumping into Dean from Cheviot View who was enjoying a walk in the glorious sunshine. Goldeneye, Tufted Duck, Great Crested Grebe, Canada Goose, Greylag Goose and Oystercatcher were all pottering around on old gravel pits as Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and Blackcap all sang and fed, a Brown Hare loped through the trees and we headed deeper into the valleys as lunchtime approached, encountering Pheasant after Pheasant, and Red-legged Partridge after Red-legged Partridge, as well as Mistle Thrush and Song Thrush obligingly feeding next to each other and offering an opportunity for comparison as a Dipper bobbed up and down on a mid-stream rock before flying up to it’s concealed nest. Red Grouse cackled, the trilling buzz of Lesser Redpoll punctuated the air overhead, the eerie cries of Curlew echoed around the valley, the swee-wee-wee-wee-wee of a nervous Common Sandpiper pierced the excited bubbling of the stream and Common Buzzards soared lazily on the warm breeze as the shocking yellow of a Grey Wagtail added a splash of colour to the dappled light of the valley bottom. Swallow and Sand Martin harvested the bountiful insects overhead and, as we walked back down the valley towards the car, I could hear a simple song from the steeper ground above us. Focusing my attention on the direction that the sound was coming from brought not one, not two, but three Ring Ouzels 🙂
Certainly felt like the spring…
Last Friday was an event that I’d been eagerly anticipating; leading a stargazing event at Kirknewton for the Northumberland National Park Authority.
Rain and sleet on the journey north wasn’t particularly promising, so I arrived at the village hall and set everything out for a slide show (just in case the weather didn’t cooperate…). When Duncan arrived we set up a couple of telescopes in the hall, ready to be deployed outside if the cloud cleared. Start time arrived and it had clouded over completely so, following Duncan’s introduction to light pollution and the Northumberland International Dark Sky Park, I gave a presentation on practical stargazing for beginners. Duncan was keeping an eye on the weather and just as I finished the first section of my presentation the cloud cleared 🙂 Everyone donned hats, coats and gloves and we moved the ‘scopes outside, as well as arming everyone with binoculars. The dazzling beauty of the Milky Way, Orion, the Pleiades, Gemini, Auriga, Taurus and the Andromeda Galaxy had everyone gripped by what can be seen when there’s little light pollution, and shooting stars were seen every couple of minutes. Delicious hot soup and bread rolls finished the evening off nicely and there were lots of questions about how to learn more about stargazing. We’ll hopefully be leading more events for the National Park during the winter; sign up and bring your enthusiasm and hat, gloves and plenty of warm clothing 🙂
Looking back through previous blog posts I was reminded that we’ve done a few days combining the best of the hills and the best of the coast, and I headed towards Old Bewick to collect Helen for an afternoon and evening exploring the Cheviot Valleys and Druridge Bay.
As a Common Buzzard soared over the steep valley sides, Curlews launched from the heather, calling in alarm. Dippers bobbed on mid stream rocks, a Nuthatch with young was busying itself along tree trunks and branches, Whinchats flicked nervously through the bracken, the air was split by the explosive trilling song of Lesser Redpoll and Spotted Flycatchers perched upright on fence posts before sallying forth after flies.
Down on the coast we enjoyed the sight of Avocets mating, two Spoonbills feeding with their heads sweeping from side to side and bills submerged, a female Marsh Harrier causing alarm as it flew over the edge of a pond and Swallows singing and bringing feathers to line their nests. Dusk brought a remarkable wildlife spectacle, with 30-40 bats hunting in front of us. The bat detector revealed an astonishing wall of sound as Common Pipistrelle and Noctule swooped, tumbled and hunted insects…right above an Otter that was stalking Tufted Ducks 🙂
The journey back to Old Bewick produced Barn Owl, and a Tawny Owl in the middle of the road sitting on a baby Rabbit! Then it was time for me to head back towards southeast Northumberland…and Northumberland’s country lanes produced a late night plethora of wildlife; Red Fox, Brown Hare, Roe Deer, Barn Owl, another Tawny Owl sitting on a baby Rabbit, and three Badger cubs trotting alongside the edge of the road 🙂
As I arrived at Spindrift to collect David and Margaret for their second trip with NEWT, following a day in the North Pennines in 2013, I was thinking about how to structure the rest of the day. The weather forecast suggested that there would be heavy showers by early afternoon, so I thought it would make sense to do a longer walk before then, and check sites that we could park near as the afternoon wore on and the weather deteriorated…
One of the main target species for our trips into the Cheviot Valleys is Ring Ouzel, so hearing a male in full song as you get out of the car is always a good start 🙂 He was singing from a dry stone wall, as his mate hopped around on the grass below and a second pair of ouzels flew over calling. A pair of Whinchats were on a heather covered hillside where a Red Grouse was sunning herself, as Grey Wagtails and Dippers bobbed up and down on midstream rocks, the buzzing song of a Common Redpoll revealed the presence of this attractive finch overhead and a Tree Pipit parachuted down from the sky. A few spots of rain soon cleared to give much brighter conditions and Common Buzzards soared and lazily hovered over the valley tops as a Cuckoo called persistently but remained hidden from view. Then the sky started to darken and a few drops of rain quickly turned into a heavy hailstorm with rumbling thunder adding to the extraordinary atmospheric conditions. The hailstorm moved away down the valley and we made our way back to the car, stopping to admire a male Ring Ouzel feeding only 30m away from us, in a field rendered white with hail. Common Sandpipers bobbed along the stream edge and more Common Buzzards soared against the steep sides of the valley.
There were two species that David and Margaret were both very keen to see during the day, and I thought I knew just the place for them. So, in mid-afternoon we found ourselves in a beautiful, atmospheric area of woodland…marvelling at the beauty of a pair of Common Redstarts and watching a mating pair of Pied Flycatchers, with all four birds in the same tree at one point 🙂 As we headed back to Seahouses, we could see some impressive storms in every direction, so I suspected I might have a challenging drive back home at the end of the day…
Although Druridge Bay was still planned to be the focus of part of the day, we decided to start with a quick trip into the Cheviot Valleys first. Lapwings were displaying, newly arrived Willow Warblers seemed to have comandeered almost every bush and tree, Dippers were bobbing up and down on mid-stream rocks, a Peregrine soared along the top edge of the valley as Red Grouse chuckled and chuntered from the heather-clad slopes below and then, in a bare tree in a narrow steep sided valley, a real prize – a stunning male Ring Ouzel 🙂 Roger spotted another Peregrine and then a female Ring Ouzel perched obligingly in another bare tree.
The coast had lots of what we would expect…but the ‘quality over quantity’ of the hills won out on the day 🙂
Heading up the coast to Embleton to collect Pete and Janet for their fourth day out with NEWT (plus a couple of days with their local natural history society on a Northumberland visit in 2009), I had a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. It’s always a pleasure to have them on a tour, but this time we were heading to an area that I know quite well myself, but haven’t covered in any great depth with clients…
We headed inland, skirting the edge of the Cheviot massif, passing through Kielder and across into the Scottish borders in ever-improving weather 🙂 Common Buzzards were soaring against the blue sky, Skylarks were singing as they ascended heavenwards, Meadow Pipits parachuted down at the end of their display flights, Red Grouse popped their heads up above the heather, Grey Wagtails were flitting from rock to rock in the shallow streams, Whinchat were carrying food back to their nests, recently fledged Wheatears scolded us as we disturbed their afternoon nap, Wild Goats grazed steadily on the hillsides high above the valley bottom and then, in the warmth of the mid-afternoon, came one of those moments you dream of (well, I do – other naturalists may have other dreams!)…
Floating across the hillside on agile wings, passing over a Cuckoo perched on a small sapling, carrying food back to his mate and their hungry brood, the male Hen Harrier drifted by before depositing the prey at the nest. He quickly found more food for himself and settled on a prominent rock in the heather. As we watched him through the ‘scope, a familiar chattering call rattled down the fell. Something had disturbed the female harrier, and she had left the nest and was soaring above it. Then, the likely source of her displeasure appeared. Racing on swept back wings, a Merlin flew straight at the harrier. She twisted and turned to avoid the assault by the smallest of our falcons, and flew towards the ground. The Merlin wasn’t going to give up though, and the dogfight continued; the otherwise elegant harrier looking cumbersome as the annoying gadfly buzzed around her. Eventually the smaller bird broke off and settled in a nearby tree, as the male harrier left his perch and soared high over our heads against the blue sky. When I look back in years to come, this really will be an experience that’s fixed firmly in my memory 🙂
I collected John, Graham, Andy, Sue, Sue and Lesley from their cottage in Shilbottle and we set off inland towards the imposing landscape of the Cheviot massif. As we got out of the car and donned waterproofs we had the first rain shower of the day, but it quickly passed and the path began gaining in altitude as Oystercatchers perched on fence posts, swallows and martins hawked back and forth through air buzzing with insects in the warm, humid conditions and Willow Warblers and Chaffinches competed with their congeners in a singing contest. The plaintive cries of Curlew echoed around the steep valley sides, the high calls of Siskin and the buzzy rattle of Lesser Redpoll came from overhead and one of the archetypal valley birds put in an appearance as we found a succession of adult and juvenile Dippers. A lone Common Buzzard hovered high over the moors in search of prey and a Peregrine repeatedly rose above the skyline before dropping back down in a prolonged attack on an unfortunate, and unseen, victim.
Lunch overlooking the sea was accompanied by Fulmars gliding gracefully back and forth on stiff wings, before we switched our attention to waders, wildfowl and waterbirds. Little Egrets and Grey Herons were stalking menacingly along shallow pool edges, at least 50 Black-tailed Godwits were roosting, and a small group of Little Gulls looked diminutive alongside Black-headed Gulls (which aren’t all that big themselves!). Reed Buntings were singing their rather repetitive song, Sedge and Reed Warblers flew by before vanishing into the depths of the reedbeds and we enjoyed the sight of delicate and dainty, yet incredibly feisty, Avocets. Great Crested Grebes were feeding their stripy offspring, Arctic, Common and Sandwich Terns perched obligingly, allowing easy comparison, and the afternoon brought an unexpected surprise in the shape of no less than six Spoonbills. They did little more exciting than occasionally wake up and preen for a short while before nodding off again, but the sight of six of these impressive birds together wrapped up the day nicely 🙂
Northumberland may be a coastal county, but heading inland you soon encounter some big impressive landscapes. I collected Gordon and Mandy, who were last out with us on a Druridge Bay trip in June last year, and we headed through the foothills of the Cheviots, down to the Tyne valley and then up into the North Pennines.
We’d all packed waterproofs…but it turns out that the weather forecast isn’t always right 🙂 On a big, rolling landscape, under big, big skies, Common Snipe, Curlew, Redshank, Oystercatcher andLapwing were all displaying, the plaintive cries of Golden Plover carried across the moorland on a cool breeze, Skylarks soared overhead, delivering their rich repertoire against the backdrop of azure sky, Cuckoo and Merlin attracted the attention of angry Meadow Pipits asBlack Grouse fed contentedly in grassy fields adjacent to the moors. Golden Plover andRed Grouse kept a watchful eye as their chicks scrambled up and over tussocks of heather and an impressive array of flowers, including Spring Sandwort, Mountain Pansy, Bird’s-eye Primrose and more Spring Gentians than we’ve seen in the last six years, provided interest at our feet. It’s an experience that really has to be, well, experienced, in order to appreciate what the area has to offer.
The North Pennines could almost tempt me to move away from the sea, almost 😉
A brilliantly sunny Bank Holiday Monday is the only time you’re likely to encounter anything even remotely approaching crowds of people in Northumberland, but it does happen occasionally.
I collected Marcus, Alison, Norman (Grandad) and Isobel from their holiday cottage in the shadow of the Wandylaw wind farm, and we set off for a day wildlife-watching. With it being such a sunny morning, I thought it would be worth starting with one of our trickier animals; if it’s too cold they won’t be out and about, if it’s too warm they’ll already have slithered off somewhere cooler, and if they feel the ground vibrate as you approach they’ll beat a hasty retreat. We know just the spot to see them when everything falls into place though; a warm, bare, stony patch of earth surrounded by tall grass. At first we couldn’t see any sign, but I crept through the vegetation for a closer look. Two Adders weren’t keen on this, and quickly slithered away into the long grass. The third one was much more obliging though, and I motioned for Isobel to come a bit closer. Incredibly, the snake remained coiled, and settled, for a few minutes. It eventually lifted it’s head to fix us with a baleful reptilian glare for another minute before following it’s companions into the vegetation and out of sight.
In the bright sunshine Kestrels hovered over roadside fields, Willow Warblers sang their silvery descending cadence, Chiffchaffs endlessly repeated their name, Chaffinches were proclaiming their territories (and Isobel had done a very impressive colouring of a Chaffinch picture), the scratchy rattle of Whitethroat song buzzed through the warm air, flotillas of goslings patrolled the water with their parents in close attendance and darting damselflies added a streak of azure to the lush green of the grass. Down on the coast, dainty Avocets swept the water edge for morsels, Grey Plovers (probably my favourite wader, certainly when they’re in their summer finery) chased back and forth, Common andSandwich Terns roosted together, Fulmars rode the updraft of the warm breeze along the clifftops, Eiders were resplendent in the sunshine, and ‘wooly bear‘ caterpillars and cuckoo spitwere just the thing for a six year old to enjoy 🙂
Most entertaining though, judging by the giggling, was a Rook that was rummaging through a bag of rubbish and found what it seemed to consider a suitable food item. That item was a (full) dog-poo bag… So disgusting that I almost titled the blog after it 🙂