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 🙂
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” …
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
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 ? 🙂
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 🙂
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 🙂
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…
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!
Sunday and Monday illustrated the range of things that NEWT do on a regular basis.
Sunday saw me leaving the office at 03:30 and driving to Alnwick. Highlight of the drive was a Barn Owl, hunting alongside the A1 near Eshott. After collecting Helen and Steve, two of our returning clients, we headed to Bamburgh, and a rendezvous with the sunrise. Landscape photography tuition was first on the menu, followed by some macro photography around the rock pools at low tide. All the while, the crowds were building further along the beach in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, enjoying views of the Black Scoter just offshore. Once the sun was well above the horizon, and the shadows were getting too harsh, it was time to drive back to Alnwick.
A walk around Choppington Woods in the afternoon produced plenty of butterflies, Small White, Large White, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Comma, and the unexpected patch tick of Hooded Crow. We weren’t finished yet though, and an evening excursion in southeast Northumberland produced excellent views of 2 of our favourites; Tawny Owl and Badger.
Yesterday morning, the day dawned overcast and calm; ideal for our latest Northeast Cetacean Project Transect Survey. I met up with Maeve, Claire, Rachael and Steve at Royal Quays and we set out on just about the flattest sea I’ve ever seen. Even 4 miles offshore it was glassy calm. Cetacean sightings were down compared to the February/March surveys, with a pod of 4 Harbour Porpoises being the only sighting of the day. Avian highlights were our first Manx Shearwater and Pomarine Skua for the year, and lots of Puffins throughout the day.
Now it’s Tuesday morning and I’m getting ready for 9 tours with clients in the next 11 days. Hopefully I’ll find time to blog…
During the winter, when I’m busy with admin and business development, I do most of my birdwatching close to home. Studying Jackdaw and Starling roosts involves a short walk, but with a constant level of activity around the feeding station (conveniently placed to be visible from the office window) I can enjoy the hobby that has been with me since early childhood throughout most of the day.
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve had my camera and tripod set up in the kitchen. Any newcomers to bird photography could do worse than concentrate on the birds in their own garden. I blogged about our feeding station recently, but I make no apologies for adding a few more images to the blog now 🙂One species I finally managed to get some good images of is a bird that captivated me when I first saw a flock of them, nearly 40 years ago, in my neighbour’s Pear tree. With their almost non-stop movement, persistent vocalisations and, let’s face it, looks that are so cute it should be illegal Long-tailed Tits are enchanting. In previous years they’ve been infrequent visitors to our garden but this winter they are here pretty much all day every day. A lot of our clients have made similar observations and wondered why this change of behaviour has happened. Long-tailed Titsare insectivorous and it seems that likely that the hard winter weather, coming so early in the winter has had a devastating impact on their natural food source and made them increasingly reliant on artificially provided food.