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
After the snow of last Monday, Tuesday brought two mini-safaris. The first was a recce trip for a TV production company, assisting with checking out potential filming locations on the Northumberland coast. The weather was glorious; beautiful blue sky, fluffy white clouds and a gentle breeze. The peace and tranquility captured what Northumberland is all about – somewhere that you can relax and simply enjoy the countryside around you.
The second trip of the day began as I collected Neil and Ann from The Swan, and we headed out on a journey along the coast. Avocets were sitting on nests, Reed Warblers, Sedge Warblers and Reed Buntings were all singing and an incredibly bright Yellow Wagtail walked along the water’s edge. With a bit of persistence we located a Grasshopper Warbler singing from a reedbed, body quivering as it delivered it’s ‘reeling’ song with it’s head turning slowly from side-to-side. As we continued northwards we came across the first of three Barn Owls for the evening. As dusk approached Roe Deer came out of hiding, a Red Fox ran across directly in front of us carrying prey, Common Pipistrelles flitted backwards and forwards against the darkening sky and the assembled ducks, geese and swans started acting very nervously. I’d checked that site with Sarah two days earlier and watched a very obliging Otter as it fed. Today though it remained hidden in the reeds, almost certainly the cause of panic amongst the wildfowl…
‘Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep…beep, beep, beep. Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep…beep, beep, beep’, the mega-alert on my pager wasn’t entirely unexpected…
I’d collected Charlie and Edna from Holy Island for a day of birdwatching, from Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland north along the Northumberland coast and eventually back to Lindisfarne. Eponymously disyllabic Chiffchaffs, the descending silvery cadence of Willow Warblers and the mechanical reeling of Grasshopper Warblers accompanied our woodland walk as the first heavy drops of rain precipitated the donning of waterproof jackets. As we sat eating lunch, overlooking the North Sea, the strengthening wind, heavy rain and decreasing visibility might not have filled everyone’s heart with joy. I’m not everyone though, and I described the potential of early May, southeasterly winds, poor weather and the Northumberland coast to Charlie and Edna As it began to clear we continued our journey and enjoyed excellent close views of Sedge Warblers and Reed Buntings singing and at least six Avocets. A stunningly yellow Yellow Wagtail was sharing a field with an equally stunning male Whinchat. Another heavy shower accompanied murky misty conditions…then came the piercing shrill of the pager as we drove through Embleton on our northward journey.
Just a few minutes later we were at Low Newton, enjoying good views of yet another excellent find by the Beadnell Stringer
Even after 40+ years of wildlife-watching, there are still (in fact, quite often) occasions when I see something that’s really quite special.
After an afternoon around Druridge Bay and Southeast Northumberland with Michael and Wendy, we were heading for one of NEWT’s favourite spots along the River Wansbeck. The afternoon had produced some excellent birdwatching, with four Yellow Wagtails, including one bird that was almost canary yellow, a White Wagtail, four Avocets, a female Marsh Harrier, and a Peregrine hunting pigeons. As we passed Ellington a Barn Owl flew low across the road from our right, narrowly missing the oncoming traffic and quickly gained elevation above our side of the road with what appeared to be a look of surprise on it’s face
Surprise of the day came as we walked along the Wansbeck. In still quite good light, a Daubenton’s Bat was hawking low over the water. It’s a species we’ve encountered frequently on our trips, but never in such good light that we could really appreciate the beautiful red-brown of it’s upperparts and the white underside. As darkness fell, and we headed back to our starting point, another red-brown mammal finished the day for us, as a Red Fox trotted across the road.
As I pulled into the car park at The Swan, Peter and Elizabeth were sitting in the bright sunshine. There was still a cold edge to the breeze though, and we set out to explore Druridge Bay, south east Northumberland and the Northumberland coast.
Masses of frogspawn was evidence that our amphibians were getting on with business as usual, regardless of the weather, and a newt rose to the surface of a small pond to take a gulp of air before sinking out of sight back into the murky depths. Chaffinches, Robins, Song Thrushes and Blackbirds were singing, and a Chiffchaff was a welcome sound – we’d normally expect to start hearing them in mid-March, but this was our first this year. A flock of Redwings were blown by like scraps of paper on the strengthening breeze and, just south of Cresswell, Fulmars glided effortlessly by, riding the updraft of the wind seemingly perilously close to the cliffs.
Another amphibian joined the day list, as a Common Toad walked along the path towards us, realised we were there, then retreated to the edge of the path and tucked all of it’s legs in so that it resembled a stone and waited for us to pass by. A Greylag Goose was incubating and I mentioned that the same site usually held a pair of Mute Swans…and one appeared, but we didn’t see where from. The mystery was solved a few minutes later as it’s mate walked out of a reedbed, straight over the incubating Greylag and paddled across the water. Incredibly the Greylag barely gave the swan a second glance, but just sat tight on it’s nest.
A Brown Hare sat haughtily in a roadside field, and a Sparrowhawk flew just ahead of the car for over 100m, before perching on a hedgerow and staring menacingly at us as we drove by. By early evening the wind had really stiffened again and it started raining. This didn’t dissuade a sub-adult male Marsh Harrier from hunting over a reedbed close to our position, and he eventually dropped into the reeds and onto prey; judging by the squealing he may have caught a Water Rail. Sand Martin, Swallow and House Martin in one flock were additions to the year list, 18 Red-breasted Mergansers were displaying, a few Goldeneye were busy feeding and, as we finished our day, along one of NEWT’s favourite rivers, a dark shape moving slowly along the water’s edge caused some excitement. Was this our quarry, the sinuous predator that terrorises fish, birds and small mammals? No, it was a Moorhen…
With the wind still whistling around our ears last Thursday, I arrived at Church Point to collect Paul and Alex for a mini-safari around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland.
Red-breasted Mergansers flew by at our first stop, as Alex’s sharp eyes picked out a Roe Deer, eying us nervously from the opposite bank of the river before vanishing into the undergrowth (the deer that is, not Alex!). More Mergansers were displaying (quite a comical act), as were a pair of Great Crested Grebes, including ‘dancing with weed’ – that could conjure up some odd images Meadow Pipits were picking their way along a grassy field, Wigeon were grazing, a single Long-tailed Duck stayed distant and spent much of it’s time underwater and Tufted Duck, Gadwall and Goldeneye demonstrated that you don’t need to be colourful to be attractive.
Despite the weather, and the late arrival of many of our summer visitors, one pair of birds seemed oblivious to the conditions. A female Marsh Harrier fought against the breeze before dropping out of sight, only to reappear again as a male, who we had watched hunting at some distance, flew over with prey. The female rose ahead of him, and as he caught up with her he tossed the love offering through the air and into her talons. Harrier food-passes will always be one of my favourite wildlife spectacles. The raw emotion and the invisible connection between the birds, following the arc of the food item as it travels between them, is just very, very special.
After a relaxing break over Christmas and New Year, last Saturday was one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the year; the Northumberland Winter Bird Race.
A simple set of rules; start any time you like after midnight, teams of four (or three…or five…), three members of the team must positively identify a species for it to be counted, get to the Three Horse Shoes between 17:00-17:30 and be ready to declare your team total at 18:00.
The starting point for our, vaguely planned, itinerary for the day was to be the NEWT office at 06:00. As Sarah opened the door at 05:45, when our other team members (NTBC Field Trips officer Trevor, and local legend the Liverbirder) arrived, bird #1 was added to the list as a vocal Tawny Owlsang his haunting melody from the churchyard opposite our house. #2 Barn Owl (the first of at least five found around dawn and dusk)joined the list as we headed north in Gordon’s car for our first ‘only one chance’ species…Red Grouse duly obliged and we’d made a flying start. Down on the coast a stunning sunrise also brought Little Egret for the list, as well as occasional good-natured banter with two other teams that had started in the north (including ‘The Tiddlers’) and three more hours in North Northumberland, coupled with Gordon’s local knowledge of Cramlington, which brought us a Kingfisher that we pointed out to several curious dog walkers, saw us reach #85 by midday. The afternoon proved much more testing, and some excellent birds including Smew, Slavonian Grebe, Mediterranean Gull and a fly-by Bittern, took us to a total of 105 by the time we’d eventually given up on trying to tick Goldfinch on call in the dark
Four of the other five teams were already at the Three Horse Shoes by the time we arrived. Species missed were being compared and there was a general feeling that it had been a difficult day. We were only one species short of our best winter bird race total (achieved the last time that we didn’t have an itinerary planned to the nth degree…) but were expecting to be somewhere round 5th out of 6 (historically we’ve been a much stronger Spring bird race team). With other teams declaring totals of 98, 101, 103, 104 and 108, we’d exceeded all expectations and finished 2nd, with 105 species out of a cumulative total across all 6 teams of 129 To put the day in context, the highest total for Northumberland in a Winter Bird Race is 126 for a single team…
Looking forward to early January 2014 already!
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!).
As a chemist I’ve found fireworks fascinating for some time. While I was still teaching, I developed a series of demonstration experiments that illustrated how different colours are produced by varying the chemicals in the mix and managed, during one particularly spectacular demo, to set fire to a pile of homework and the surface of my desk. Every year there are information campaigns about domestic pets and fireworks, but never really anything about the effect on wildlife…
I met up with Pete and Georgie at Church Point and we set off (in their car, but that’s a whole other story…) around Southeast Northumberland and Druridge Bay. Perhaps my own favourite moment of the day came quite early as a Merlin chased a Common Snipe through the dunes at Cresswell. An elusive Brambling played hide and seek with us nearby and the Coots, Moorhens, Mallards, Teal, Wigeon, Gadwall, Tufted Duck and Shoveler at each pond we visited seemed unconcerned and not indicating the presence of the sinuous predator that enlivens so many of our trips on the coast.
As dusk approached things started to look a bit more interesting; Whooper Swans were clearly alert and agitated, all staring into the same reedbed. We’ve seen it so many times before…and then ‘whoosh’, ‘whoosh’, ‘whoosh’, ‘bang’, ‘bang’, ‘bang’, ‘bang’, ‘bang’, as a fireworks display on a nearby beach scattered everything! Ducks, geese, swans all took to the air and we finished the trip with not very much wildlife in view at all.
As we headed back to the car a figure appeared out of the dark “Dr Kitching. Slight change of plan, Sarah’s poorly so I’ve come to collect you”. The hero of the day was a man whose knowledge of the Northumberland coast is second to none, and whose blog is really worth checking out. Cheers Ipin, you’re a star
Sunday was a Prestige Otter Safari for Chris and Sophie. It was Chris’ birthday and, as I collected them from Berwick in some pretty horrible conditions, I was hoping that we would drive south into better weather. Sure enough, we did pass out from under the rain clouds, but the day stayed quite gloomy and windy. I’d already had an excellent start to the day’s birdwatching, with a flock of 14 Waxwings flying alongside the road as I approached Berwick. I’m often asked what my favourite bird is, and usually reply that it’s impossible to have a favourite…but Waxwings have a special place at the top of my list
Down in southeast Northumberland we found an adult Mediterranean Gull, and Chris proved to be remarkably eagle-eyed – picking out a sleeping Jack Snipe in an area of cut reeds. On the water the usual suspects (Mallard, Teal, Wigeon, Tufted Duck, Shoveler, Gadwall) were joined by some less regular species; Scaup, Pintail and a pair of Long-tailed Ducks. Some surprising entertainment was provided by a Merlin which spent several minutes harassing a Magpie, and then there was a sudden movement of Goldeneye, Coot and Moorhen away from a reedbed. They stared intently at the reeds for a few minutes before drifting back towards the edge, then repeated the whole process twice more! There was something in the reeds that was causing concern, but it didn’t reveal itself (not an unusual occurrence in strong winds – and who could blame anything for staying sheltered?). We moved on to another pool…and had a repeat performance, this time with Pochard, Goldeneye, Teal, Tufted Duck and Whooper Swan being a bit on edge. Sometimes wildlife can be frustrating…
Given the low temperatures and high wind, it seemed a little over-optimistic to get the bat detector out. However, just to confirm that you can’t ever predict wildlife, we had at least two or three Common Pipistrelles, including some frenzied feeding activity around a streetlight, before heading back up the coast.