Snow on Monday, glorious weather on Tuesday…and torrential rain on Wednesday When I arrived to collect David and Janet for their Prestige Tour in the Cheviot Valleys we quickly decided to head towards the Northumberland coast instead as that would offer the chance of plenty of birdwatching with the prospect of being able to shelter from the worst of the weather.
Starting at Stag Rocks, we watched flocks of Eider and Common Scoter as they rolled up and over the substantial waves and a Grey Seal swam just beyond the breaking surf. One thing that was immediately obvious was that there was a movement of Gannets; birds were flying over the rocks and more could be seen offshore. Heading down the coast, the intensity of the rain increased and we had our second seawatch of the day, this time just south of Cresswell. An almost continuous passage of Gannets was evident as they headed north, flocks of Kittiwakes and Guillemots were passing by, the occasional Fulmar arced up above the clifftops and a single Manx Shearwater easily outpaced the Gannets. Avocets sat tight as the rain hammered down around them and, when the deluge finally ceased and blue sky and sunshine replaced the gloom, we watched a male Marsh Harrier as he quartered a nearby field before soaring heavenwards. A Great Crested Grebe sailed by serenely, a Whimbrel flew north, five Brown Hares were engaged in some half-hearted chasing and Swifts, Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins all took advantage of the feast of insects that had been stirred to activity by the improvement in the weather.
Even in poor weather, Northumberland can produce some excellent birdwatching
Most people adopt children. Somehow we adopted a cantankerous septuagenarian…
When we first met Jim, eleven years ago, he was already in his 70’s, but still very active and taking long walks in the countryside and camping most weekends. Retired for over a decade at that point, he became the first Treasurer of the Friends of Choppington Woods. He had a stroke in 2005 and was left unable to drive, so one of us, or Glen, would go and collect him so that he could attend FOCW meetings. We kept an eye on him and when we first started NEWT, and Martin had a lot of time on his hands, the two of them started going out around the Cheviot valleys and the North Pennines – two areas that Jim had studied extensively throughout his life. His boundless knowledge of the North Pennines, and its mining history and flora, was responsible for the itineraries that we developed for our trips to that area. Over time Jim was becoming less physically able; walks in the countryside followed by lunch became drives in the countryside followed by lunch and inevitably became drives to a nice pub for lunch. Discussions about book-collecting (a shared passion) and the natural history and landscape of Northumberland, County Durham and Scotland filled many, many hours and Jim inspired Martin’s interests in lichens, pollen analysis and botany. When he became ill in 2010, and moved into a residential care home, we took on the responsibility of keeping his close friends informed of how he was, and making sure that anything he needed was provided.
That responsibility meant that three weeks ago we had to let his friends know that he was seriously ill, and the hospital felt he was unlikely to survive. Jim had other ideas though and, after being taken off all medication, he woke up and asked where his breakfast was. After a week of remarkable high spirits and lucidity, now back in residential care, it was perhaps inevitable that he began to fade and we had to make those difficult calls again as he was readmitted to the hospital in a very poorly condition last Wednesday. Close friends came to the hospital to provide comfort to him, as even Jim’s resilience couldn’t hold back his own mortality any longer, and the hardest calls to make were on Saturday morning, to let his friends know that this extraordinary man – prolific book collector and binder, passionate supporter at one time or another of (amongst others) the Natural History Society of Northumbria, Society of Antiquaries, Lit. and Phil. and Northumberland Wildlife Trust, amateur geologist and botanist, with a wealth of knowledge in so many other fields – had passed away peacefully, just before midnight on Friday, with both of us at his side.
It was a privilege to have known him, cared for him and to have learnt so much from him in the last few years, and we’ll both miss him greatly. As we walk the fells of the North Pennines and explore the Cheviot valleys, we know he’ll be there in spirit.
Jim Milligan 1930-2013
Rest in Peace
As I collected Jason and Jane for a bespoke day of birdwatching in the beautiful Cheviot valleys, the first few raindrops pattered against the windscreeen of the car. As we headed south from Melkington the rain stopped and visibility improved, so I was sure were in for an excellent day.
The day featured all of the species we would expect; Roe Deer, Brown Hare, Raven, Dipper,Grey Wagtail, Common Sandpiper, Tree Pipit, Redstart and Red Grouse amongst many but a few of the regulars put on a really special performance.
Cuckoos were calling along the valley but frustratingly staying out of view, until a handsome male flew across the track ahead of us and then perched in full view. A pair of Whinchat provided another highlight as they flitted along a stream, dashing from rock to rock like Grey Wagtails, tails flicking as they sallied across the adjacent hillside.
Soon after I collected them, Jason had mentioned that he’d never seen a Ring Ouzel. No pressure there, then As we started our first walk of the day, I could hear a Ring Ouzel singing, and soon located him at the top of a distant tree. More followed, including a pair sitting together on a fence, but probably the best of the seven that we found was a singing male; high in a narrow gully his song reverberated beautifully off the surrounding rock carrying over a distance at which he was just a black speck through our binoculars, his song was as clear as if he was just along the hillside. As the wind and rain finally arrived, and we discussed sustainability and conservation (I really should write a book…), his song continued, although he shifted the side of the gully he was on to shelter from the rain. A remote valley exposed to the elements, a real mountain specialist putting on a performance for us, stimulating insightful thoughts from Jason and Jane…another memorable day at ‘the office’
There are times when you can visit the same location on successive days and see exactly the same wildlife, other times something you saw the day before has moved on but there’s compensation in the form of something unexpected…
I collected Julie and David from The Swan and we set off for day of bespoke birdwatching, combining the best of our uplands with the post-industrial birdwatching wonders of southeast Northumberland. As we headed inland towards the Cheviot valleys the spectacular scenery (not for the first time) elicited a number of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the passenger seats of the car. Crossing the ford where the Harthope Burn becomes the Wooler Water we enjoyed very close views of those two riverine specialists, Dipper and Grey Wagtail. I’m enthusiastic about most, if not all, birds but male Grey Wagtails are truly stunning birds, and one that often holds our clients entranced for extended periods of time. We continued along the valley, and set off to walk up a narrow valley leading up into the hills from the main valley. Red Grouse were cackling all around us, flying from one side of the valley to the other and occasionally perching in full view, imperiously staring at us as we followed the burn their territories. A female Ring Ouzel flew down the valley, over our heads and away to a distant clump of trees, a pair of Sparrowhawks displayed ahead of us, and we stopped for lunch. Our post-lunch walk was another spectacular one. This time in a steep-sided valley, with Peregrines, Kestrels, Common Buzzards and Ravens soaring overhead, Mistle Thrushes carrying food to hungry nestlings and the song of a male Ring Ouzel carrying on the strengthening breeze. An icy April shower added to the wild, remote feel of the valley and we headed back downhill into glorious sunshine. Our assemblage of raptors (including the honorary member – the Raven) didn’t feature the Osprey I’d seen the day before, but we did have a real bonus bird…one of the things about birding in narrow steep-sided valleys is that birds appear very unexpectedly, and on this occasion it was the enigmatic ‘Phantom of the Forest’ as a male Goshawk broke the skyline in front of us and beat his way powerfully across the moors.
The second half of the day was spent on the Northumberland coast, finishing close to home around Druridge Bay. The Common Eiders we found were greatly appreciated and the tour of NEWT’s ‘local patch’ produced a number of highlights with Marsh Harrier, Little Ringed Plover, Avocet, Pintail and Red-breasted Merganser all going down particularly well but, perhaps, the bird of the day was a Short-eared Owl that perched on a roadside fencepost and watched us just as intently as we were watching it; piercing yellow eyes holding us all enthralled as we completed a long day of birdwatching that seemed to be over too soon. Isn’t that always the way
There are days when the weather is so good that my resolve to stay in the office and get on with admin work gets stretched beyond breaking point…
Monday is my usual office day, but the afternoon looked promising and I soon found myself driving inland towards the Northumberland National Park. Knee surgery last December has given my legs a new lease of life, and the uphill bits (which I always find more interesting from a birdwatching perspective) of the Cheviot valleys are no longer tortuous. I only live 10 minutes from the coast, so you may wonder why I would drive for an hour inland…but one moment of the afternoon summed up everything that is special about our remoter areas.
Sitting on a boulder-strewn hillside I can hear a Ring Ouzel on the precipitous crag opposite me. Along the stream far beneath my perch, Grey Wagtails and Dippers are bobbing their way downstream, flitting from rock to rock. The complex song of a Skylark carries on the breeze, and Red Grouse cackle in the heather. There isn’t another human in sight, no sound of motor vehicles, nothing that breaks the natural soundscape of this vast amphitheatre. Then, black dots appear against the azure sky; two, no four, no wait, six Common Buzzards soaring high overhead, then smaller dots, a pair of Kestrels and a pair of Peregrines. A Raven joins the swirling mass of raptors and, above them all, an Osprey drifting lazily north. I lay back against the hillside, and watch…
by martin on May.29, 2011, under Bamburgh Castle, Birdwatching, Cheviots, Druridge Bay, Farne Islands, Holy Island, Lindisfarne, North Sea, Northumberland, Northumberland Coast, Southeast Northumberland
We’ve just finished what has almost certainly been our hardest week since we started NEWT; organising and guiding a 7-night Northumberland birdwatching holiday for no less than 18 clients.
The Bamburgh Castle Inn was our accommodation base for the week and the upstairs conservatory, with it’s excellent views over the harbour, Farne Islands and Bamburgh Castle, was reserved for our dinner each night of the holiday. Many, many thanks to Sean and his team for the entire week
The unseasonal high winds weren’t going to get the better of us, and our original itinerary for the week was shuffled/re-jigged/abandoned as we took some calculated risks to ensure that our planned boat trips to the Farne Islands and Coquet Island both went ahead. They did, and we’re eternally grateful to Billy Shiel’s Farne Island Boat Trips and Dave Gray’s Puffin Cruises for the incredibly professional way that they handled our clients.
I asked the group for their highlight of the week…and got a lot of answers; A mixed flock of waders, resplendent in breeding plumage, along the coastline of Druridge Bay. An Otter, lazily fishing in a coastal pool. Sailing around Coquet Island as the sky darkened and all of the terns flushed from the island when the RSPB warden walked up the slipway. A pair of very pink Roseate Terns mating. Walking through the dunes at Newton in the howling gales of Monday afternoon. Staple Island and Inner Farne. Red Grouse wandering through the heather on our day in the Cheviots.
All too soon, the week was over and I led a brief foray into the North Pennines for a few of the group as they headed south. There, in the driving rain and howling gale, a Black Grouse sat hunched in the bracken – looking even more annoyed than they usually do
The week wouldn’t have run so well without the quality of service from all of the other companies we worked with, but I want to say a massive thank you to Sarah. Client care, liaison with suppliers, running the NEWT office for the week and realising what I was going to ask before I had even asked it were all taken in her stride and made the week work. Thank You
We’re already dealing with enquiries for group holidays in May 2012, so get in touch to find out what we can offer you and your group; whatever time of the year, whatever the size of your group…
I’ve been a general naturalist since an early age, but birdwatching has been the thing that has always gripped my imagination. As a wildlife guide though, is that really enough? That’s a question that seems to arise occasionally on internet forums. I decided at an early stage of NEWT that I needed a much broader and deeper knowledge, so I spend a lot of time studying things that once upon a time (I’m ashamed to admit) I would have ignored, or even not noticed. Every day that I spend with clients, I make an effort to learn from them, whilst imparting my own knowledge, skills and understanding of what we encounter.
On Thursday I led an afternoon of guided birdwatching around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland. The blazing sunshine when I collected Karen from Newbiggin made it almost impossible to see anything in the bay but, as each small gull flew by, we checked for the identification features that would provide us with a Mediterranean Gull. All proved to be Black-headed Gulls, and we headed north up the coast. As we stood by the River Coquet, discussing how to separate Carrion Crow, Rook and Jackdaw in flight, I saw the tell-tale ghostly wings of a Med Gull as it drifted down towards the water’s edge. Jet black hood, pristine white wingtips and, as perfect as if it was scripted, sitting next to an adult Black-headed Gull allowing easy comparison. Some of our favourite birds followed; Marsh Harrier, Nuthatch, Heron and at least 17 Whimbrel. During the afternoon I learned a feature of Wood Sorrel that will ensure I never misidentify it (again…). Karen, you were right
Friday was something very different as we were headed inland to the Cheviots for a day searching for summer visitors. After a few hours with a spectacular roll-call of the wildlife of the valleys, including Brown Hare, Roe Deer, Whinchat, Tree Pipit, Wheatear, Spotted Flycatcher, Red Grouse, Curlew and Lapwings (with chicks), we followed the track up a steep sided valley in search of a bird that Sue hadn’t seen before (and really wanted to). As the sky darkened, the wind strengthened and chilled, and the first drops of icy rain began to fall, I spotted 2 distant birds flying down the valley. I didn’t have any doubt about the identification so, when they eventually settled on the tops of the heather, I aimed the ‘scope in their direction and Sue enjoyed her first views of the ‘Mountain Blackbird’. Ring Ouzels may often be seen on passage in the spring and autumn, but high in a remote valley, where you think the elements could give you a good working over at any time and the habitat supports so few species, is simply the right place to see them. Another lesson learned; memorable sightings make you forget about the weather
A couple of months after I left my teaching career, I was sent a link to this webpage… and I ended up in a pub at 10:00 on a Tuesday morning, explaining my ideas to an interview panel.
A few weeks after that interview I found myself on an Enterprise Island residential weekend and when we were asked the question “how will you know when your business is a success?” almost everyone answered that the measure of that would be if their customers were happy.
We had our first Cheviots Safari of the year yesterday. I collected Sally and Tony from Morpeth and we headed northwest. On a day that was cold, windy and overcast, the quality of the birdwatching in the Northumberland hills more than made up for the weather; 3 Ring Ouzels perched obligingly in one tree, allowing us a prolonged opportunity to watch them, Curlews were displaying high over the heather moorland, male Red Grouse were as stunning as ever, Chaffinches, Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps, Robins, Redpolls, Meadow Pipits, Mistle Thrushes and Wrens were all singing and we had an unexpected bonus in the shape of a White Wagtail. A real highlight of the day, although it wasn’t a highlight so much as a constant backdrop, was the number of raptors; 14 Common Buzzards (including 7 in the air at the same time), 2 Kestrels chasing each other around and a Sparrowhawk would have been a good haul on a cold day, but as we watched a Peregrine go into a stooping dive we were amazed to see that the object of it’s ire was a Goshawk, beating it’s way steadily across the hillside. As the falcon repeatedly buzzed the ‘phantom of the forest’, buzzards were hanging in the wind high above it, and a kestrel was hovering against the hilltop. It was one of those moments that I really can’t do justice to in writing.
And the connection to the anecdote at the start of this post? My answer to the question was that I would consider NEWT a success if I was happy with what we’re doing. Of course, me being happy requires happy clients… and the reason we had Sally and Tony out with us yesterday was that Sally had been given a gift voucher by one of our previous clients. Happiness is infectious
Although our Cheviot Valleys and North Pennines safaris are concentrated in the springtime, we run a few trips to those inland areas in the late summer and early autumn. The final day of August was a trip to the Cheviots, and it could hardly have been better; the weather was wonderful, there were hardly any other people to be seen anywhere and the wildlife was, well, as good and varied as we would expect.
After collecting Hamish and Vanessa we drove past Morpeth then up the A697 and through the ford at Coldgate Mill. The Happy Valley was deserted and peaceful; a Slow Worm was basking in the dappled light between gorse bushes, Small Copper butterflies (a personal favourite) were feeding and sunning themselves and there were even a few Silver Y moths. We get these migrants in our trap occasionally, and I’ve seen them in profusion on the coast, but these were well inland.Goldcrests were calling, and eventually spotted, Spotted Flycatchers, Treecreepers and Long-tailed Tits were all found in one tree, Robins seemed to be everywhere we went and the first of the day’s Common Buzzards, rising rapidly in a thermal, suggested that searching skywards could be productive for birdwatching.
After lunch we walked along the far end of the valley. Red Grouse were cackling hysterically on one side of the valley, at the same time as we could hear a shooting party on the other. Siskins and Lesser Redpolls were feeding around the treetops, although they did pause briefly so we had a chance to look at them. The warm sunshine and excellent visibility mean that it did turn out to be a raptor day; as well as Common Buzzards there were regular Common Kestrels and a Sparrowhawk then, as we walked back to the car park, a Peregrine soared majestically and menacingly against the blue sky overhead. Sadly our only Adder of the day was roadkill, although it had gathered an interesting collection of flies and beetles.
One thing that our safaris have proved to be is a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. If you need to get away from it all then give us a call, or if you know somebody who would benefit from a day of chilled out wildlife watching then our gift vouchers could be just the thing they need
Hamish kindly provided some images from the day (including the Silver Y that really didn’t want to be photographed) and my own favourites are here;
I’ve always maintained that, whatever the weather (with the possible exception of a howling gale), it’s always possible to have a really good day birdwatching in Northumberland. Yesterday’s forecast didn’t promise too much in the way of good weather though and, as it turned out, we had to contend with drizzly rain for the whole day.
I collected Reg and Val from Newcastle and we set off towards the Harthope Valley. This is one of NEWT’s favourite locations; spectacular scenery, excellent birdwatching and the all important absence of crowds. A holiday group from another birdwatching company were in the valley as well, though. Just before we reached the turning for Langleeford, a Brown Hare was sitting in a roadside field. As we’re in June, and all of the trees are in leaf, a lot of our birding was done by ear. Grasshopper Warbler was a nice find, Oystercatchers were chasing each other up and down the valley, a Cuckoo flew past, pursued by Meadow Pipits, the shivering trill of a Wood Warbler could be heard over the running water and Grey Wagtail, Common Sandpiper and Dipper were all along the water’s edge. Willow Warblers were singing from all around, Siskin and Redpoll were picked up on call and then eventually gave excellent views, Snipe were displaying over a recently planted area on the opposite side of the valley, Curlews were singing their haunting song (so much more appropriate on windswept, remote moorland than on the coast) and then I heard it; a call that is familiar in the winter, but not in the Cheviot valleys in June. I was still trying to convince myself that I’d misheard the call, when the bird appeared in front of us – unmistakeable really, there was a Twite. I looked, looked away, looked again; no, I wasn’t imagining it. It’s a species that’s suspected to breed in tiny numbers in Northumberland, although there seems to be a lack of confirmed records for the breeding season. Perhaps it was passing through, or maybe, just maybe, there is a breeding site in the Cheviots.
After the excitement of such an unexpected find, we had one major target species left for the day. Ring Ouzel is another bird that you may find on coastal headlands in the autumn, and there are sporadic wintering records as well, but the place to see them is surely the remote upland valleys where they breed. As we made our way up a steep-sided valley we had excellent views of a recently fledged Dipper, and I could hear an ouzel singing. We continued and then the bird appeared overhead, flying from one side of the valley to the other, singing as it crossed. It dropped out of sight, still singing, before retracing it’s route over the valley again. This time we knew where it had landed so we crept along a track towards it. Patience and persistence paid off (as they so often do) and we enjoyed prolonged views of the bird as it sang from a clump of heather on the skyline. The rain was becoming colder and more persistent so we headed back to the car and then down the A697 back to civilisation.