Choppington Woods

Fantastic Mr Fox; Another walk in the woods 02/11/18

by on Nov.03, 2018, under Choppington Woods

Under a leaden overcast sky the cold air wraps its damp tendrils around every exposed bit of my skin.  Jays are making their way across open ground between the plantations with a stuttering flight, white rumps flashing in the gloom, and a Woodcock heads out as the unseen sun dips below the horizon.  A last good feed of the day for Coal, Blue, Great and Willow Tits is on offer at a makeshift feeding station as I start scanning the hedgerow along the southern edge of a field of verdant green with new growth.  In the distance a lump breaking the gentle undulations of the field isn’t straightforward to identify in the half-light.  Moving along the hedgerow a few metres at time I get close enough to identify it as a Red Fox.  Closer still and I get a great view as he stands up and has a good stretch.  Now awake, he trots along for a few seconds and then sits, gazing intently around him.  I move through the hedge and watch him from a well concealed position and then parallel his movements, stopping regularly to watch what he’s doing.  By the time he eventually disappears through a hedge and into a small plantation 45mins have passed and I make my way home along dark paths wrapped in the scent and sound of the woods at dusk.

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A walk in the woods 01/11/18

by on Nov.02, 2018, under Choppington Woods

It’s been a difficult couple of weeks in the NEWT household.  We’d had a week away in and around Glencoe checking locations for a landscape photography holiday I’m leading over Christmas, then a couple of days after we got back home I wasn’t feeling well.  Sarah took me to see our GP and they sent me straight to the excellent Northumbria Specialist Emergency Care Hospital in Cramlington.  Four days later I was discharged, limited to a liquid-only diet and with surgery scheduled for early January.  Luckily I’m well enough to work, as we’ve got a very busy November ahead of us.  This week has been mainly recuperation at home, but I need to keep my mind and body active and daily walks in the woods behind our house are the best medicine…

With the light of day fading to dusk, the harsh ‘chek’ calls of Jackdaws and deep ‘rawk’ of Rooks gathering together to roost were layered with the staccato ratting of Magpies.  The woods are familiar and comforting, and a place to clear my mind.  We’ve walked them countless times over the last 18 years and the benches, interpretation boards, boardwalk/dipping platform and well-surfaced paths were the result of a successful funding bid that I presented back in 2009.  We know which intersections of the footpaths and tracks will produce the pungent scent of Red Fox, temporarily overwhelming the sweet earthy smell of Autumn decay and the heady perfume of Himalayan Balsam, which areas of the wood will have Goldcrest and Long-tailed Tit and where to search for Red Squirrel and the other inhabitants of this reclaimed colliery site.  Woodpigeons were gathering in treetops frosted orange by the setting Sun and, applying the shape, shadow and shine elements of concealment I chose a position on the shaded side of an Ivy-covered hedge.  Willow Tits and Coal Tits gave quiet alarm calls as a Sparrowhawk flew along the hedge and a Kestrel hovered over the field in the half-light.  Jays were crossing between plantations, Roe Deer ventured out from cover to forage close to the field edge, Redwings arrived to roost and the chacking calls so typical of pre-roost Blackbirds penetrated the crisp, cold air under a clear blue sky layered over the pastel pink of the Belt of Venus away to the east as I had a feeling that there was something close by.  A brief whirr of wings so I turned my head slowly…and found myself eye to eye with a handsome cock Pheasant 🙂

A connection with nature allows us to disconnect, even if only for a short while, from our connection with everyday life.  It’s good for body and soul and so many of our clients comment that one of the things they most enjoy about their days out with NEWT is just how relaxing it is to be taken away from work and the stresses of life.  Applying that to myself is working well too 🙂

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Home from home

by on Jan.16, 2014, under Birdwatching, Choppington Woods, Northumberland

During our quieter times of the year, I spend much of each day dealing with NEWT’s admin stuff.  I try to get out and enjoy some fresh air every day though…

It’s mid-January and it really should be cold; frozen ground, a dusting of snow, hoar frost on leaves and branches.  Instead, there’s a distinct air of early Autumn as I head out of the house and along the track to Choppington Woods.  The cold damp air coats everything in a thin layer of moisture, including me.  I soon give up using my binoculars as no sooner do I dry them than they’re fogged up again.  Instead, I rely on my hearing.  The thin high calls of Goldcrests emanate from the depths of the coniferous parts of the wood while the short sharp notes of Blackbirds surround me as they head to roost.  Then, from a hidden perch near the edge of one plantation, one of my favourite bird sounds lifts the gloom.  The tremulous hooting of a Tawny Owl, a sound that I’ll never tire of hearing.  We have at least two birds singing in the wee hours of the morning currently, both audible from our bedroom, and if they wake me up with their territorial caterwauling I’m not too bothered; I just lie there and listen to them, marveling at the rich complexity.  The bird on the plantation edge proves a master of disguise until, in response to a series of quavering hoots lower down the hill, it begins to move through the trees.  I follow it’s progress until it vanishes into the gloom and darkness of the canopy and I continue my walk.  Lost in my thoughts as daylight fades and everything begins to blur into the monochrome  realm of the owls, my reverie is disturbed as a Common Buzzard flaps laboriously over a plantation of Silver Birch. Like Cinderella, the buzzard is out and about perilously late, struggling to get home on time.

Now it’s near dark, and I’ve still got the final plantation to negotiate before I’m back home.  Some footpaths are good, some footpaths are bad…and some seem to gather water like a sponge.  As the clarty ground clings to my boots, trying to bind me to the earth, a Red Fox trots by, delivering what can only be a look of contempt at my ungainly struggle 🙂

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Rest and recuperation; A walk in the woods 04/11/2013

by on Nov.04, 2013, under Choppington Woods, Family and friends, Northumberland, Southeast Northumberland

Goldcrests are flitting tirelessly through the branches just overhead, Jays are leaving the edge of the wood and flying over nearby fields on strange bat-like wings, the thin high seee calls of Redwings mingle with the calls of Blackbird and Song Thrush as they head for the deepest darkest interior of the woods, seeking the sanctuary of their night-time roost and, beneath my feet, the soft yet lacerating carpet of pine needles adds to the earthy scent of autumnal decay as the putrid stench of a Common Stinkhorn assaults my sense of smell.  The cold damp air penetrates through to my gloved hands, biting at the flesh, a gentle hint that winter is on it’s way.

I’m on familiar territory; Choppington Woods occupies almost the entire view from our office window and provides an escape from the office and the fresh air to invigorate my mind.  Today though, it isn’t just about getting outside.  It’s ten days since I had surgery to remove the scar tissue from an old shoulder injury.  By next week I’ll be able to drive again, and the stitches will be removed from the operation wounds.  Another two weeks in and around the office and then I’ll be back guiding clients before the end of the month 🙂

For now though, I’m wrapped in the warming embrace of the multi-sensory comfort blanket of the world outside, with the words of my surgeon, when I came round from the anesthetic, still firmly burned into my memory “best thing for your recovery is to just get on with your normal life” …

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The passing of an extraordinary man

by on Mar.06, 2013, under Cheviot Valleys, Choppington Woods, Family and friends, North Pennines, Northumberland

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

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From the office window

by on Feb.21, 2013, under Birdwatching, Choppington Woods, Northumberland, Southeast Northumberland

I’m easily distracted and always have been, but also quite obsessive.  Maybe an odd combination, but it seems to work for me.  With an office window that looks over several allotments and gardens, as well as the 76ha of mixed woodland that is Choppington Woods Local Nature Reserve, I’m quite keen on keeping a close eye on what turns up in the garden…

With the shaded areas of the garden still carrying a light veneer of frost, and a stiff southeasterly breeze cutting to the bone as I filled the feeders yesterday morning, a Common Buzzard soared overhead as the Coal Tits perched just a few feet above me, providing encouragement for me to hurry up and fill the feeders.  As soon as I was back inside, the tree was a mass of excitement.  Chaffinches were dropping in from every direction and I settled to checking through the birds on the feeders, and on the ground below them, hoping that the Bramblings we’ve had for the last few couple of months would be still around.  What I found instead were visitors that were even more unusual in the context of our feeding station – 3 Lesser Redpolls were picking at fallen seed on the ground and a Goldcrest was hurrying around the edges of the shrubbery nearby.  The Redpolls were just another episode in what has been an unusual winter in our garden; our first garden record of Marsh Tit, second record of Tree Sparrow (2 birds which have been with us every day for a few months now), third record of Nuthatch, the return of Willow Tit after nearly a two year absence, regular sightings of Brambling and occasional Treecreeper have made this a winter where we really couldn’t predict what would be on the feeders whenever we checked them.

As I sat down to write this, I glanced out of the window and my eye immediately fell on seven bulky finches in our neighbour’s Silver Birch trees.  As one of the birds was hanging upside down while feeding, lifting my binoculars only confirmed what I already knew; another infrequent visitor had put in an appearance this winter.  I opened the window, and heard the metallic ‘chip-chip’ as the flock of Common Crossbills flew into the pines behind our house.  Now, what was I meant to be doing ? 🙂

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Big Garden Birdwatch 2013

by on Jan.31, 2013, under Birdwatching, Choppington Woods, Family and friends, Northumberland, Southeast Northumberland

Last weekend was the Big Garden Birdwatch and we followed tradition by sitting in our kitchen with a mug of coffee, and a bacon and tomato sandwich, having topped up all of the feeders the evening before.  An hour later, we’d racked up a list of 21 species; Blackbird 3, Jackdaw 2, Collared Dove 2, Robin 3, Chaffinch 20, Great Tit 3, Coal Tit 3, Magpie 1, Blue Tit 2, Dunnock 1, Goldfinch 8, Jay 1, Bullfinch 1, House Sparrow 1, Greenfinch 1, Woodpigeon 2, Redwing 1, Tree Sparrow 1, Song Thrush 1, Sparrowhawk 1, Brambling 2. Quite a successful hour, although most species weren’t present in the numbers we would have expected and, as usual, several species that had been visiting the garden in recent days (Marsh Tit, Willow Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Siskin, Great Spotted Woodpecker) failed to appear during the 1 hour of the survey.  Easy birding, and part of a huge national survey.  If you didn’t do it this year, give it a go in 2014 🙂

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Christmas Eve

by on Dec.24, 2012, under Choppington Woods, Family and friends, Northumberland, Red Squirrel

It’s become a tradition over the last few years that, on Christmas Eve, the Friends of Choppington Woods have a walk from one end of the reserve to the other.  One year we finish at our house and the next at Glen and Karen’s.  This year we were starting at our end of the woods so I drove to Glen’s and collected him and Sue, from Morpeth and District Red Squirrels, then back to our end of the woods for the start of the walk.

As we walked through the woods a lot of the conversation focused on the fight to maintain (and expand!) the population of Red Squirrels in Northumberland.  It’s a comfort, in difficult times for this icon of Northumberland’s wildlife, that the volunteer groups throughout Northern England are filled with the people who have a genuine passion for saving the species.

After just over an hour walking through the leaves and the mud, we all arrived at Glen’s and were greeted by Karen with delicious mulled wine.  After a buffet lunch (that has set the bar quite high in advance of Christmas Eve 2013…) we had a real treat as Glen drove us home in the original NEWTmobile!

Have a safe, merry and peaceful Christmas, wherever you are 🙂

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Enchanted evening

by on Nov.23, 2012, under Birdwatching, Choppington Woods, Northumberland, Southeast Northumberland

As the air cools, a pall of pale ghostly mist hangs just above the ground in a wildflower meadow dropping away ahead of me.  I’m on a woodland edge, standing on a soft cushion of fallen larch and pine needles.  Standing still and blending in, the mist wraps me in its cooling blanket as a flock of Goldcrests move through the trees just behind my vantage point.  Overhead Redwings, Rooks and Jackdaws head to roost as a Carrion Crow caws defiantly from the top of a tall larch and Wood Pigeons flutter up and down at tree-top height.  The incessant screeching of Jays and chatter of Blackbirds betrays the presence of a Tawny Owl; stirring in preparation for its nocturnal foray, it soon tires of the harassment and heads deeper into the wood.  A Woodcock appears at the same point where I emerged from the trees just a few minutes ago, having followed my route alongside the gurgling stream.  Away over the fields I can see a Barn Owl, hunting close to the site where it raised this year’s young hoolets, and Roe Deer nervously make their way out into the open.  As the light fades and I head for home, it’s hard to believe that I’m on the edge of the most densely populated area of Northumberland and walking through a mixed woodland where there were once three coal mines, including one of the first deep-shaft mines anywhere in the world.  For now though, it’s just me and the wildlife…

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NEWT’s Dawn Chorus – 12/05/2012

by on May.03, 2012, under Birdwatching, Choppington Woods, Northumberland

After 3 years of leading Dawn Chorus walks at Lee Moor Farm, we decided that this year we’d stay a bit closer to home.  Choppington Woods is very close to our hearts – it’s the view from our office window, it was the area I walked every day when I was recovering from knee surgery, and a lot of the improvements that have made it such an excellent community resource (boardwalk, improved paths, education pack for local primary schools) came about after I gave a presentation at the participatory budgeting event back in 2009.

One thing that makes a good Dawn Chorus event is good partners.  Ian at Lee Moor has been an outstanding host for the last few years, so we knew we’d have to find someone special…and we found 2 🙂  The Swan at Choppington will be the post-walk breakfast venue for our clients and we’re really excited to be delivering the event in association with the Northumberland Wildlife Trust.

Numbers are strictly limited for this event, and the cost of £15/person includes a guided walk and breakfast at The Swan  – check the NWT link for what’s included in that – it will be delicious 🙂  Give us a call on 01670 827465 to book your place before they’re all sold out!

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