Northumberland is a sparsely populated county where it’s relatively easy to get away from it all and enjoy watching wildlife without the hustle and bustle of large numbers of other people…
I met up with Lynsey, Francis, Gregory and Thea in the main car park on Holy Island ahead of an afternoon mini-Safari around the island. The car park was busy, really busy, and there were lots of people walking to and from the village and the castle. There’s so much more to Holy Island than that though, and we set off along the Straight Lonnen and away from the crowds 🙂 Gannets were passing by offshore, Oystercatchers were roosting just above the tide line and Grey Herons were stalking through rockpools as Goosander swam rapidly past them with their heads submerged in a search for fish. Little Grebe, Moorhen, Coot, Mute Swan and Mallard were on The Lough and Curlew flew overhead. Viper’s Bugloss and Grass of Parnassus were still in flower as the sharp eyesight of Thea and Gregory brought hoverflies, bees, moths and Meadow Brown, Painted Lady and Small Tortoiseshell flicked back and forth across the path in front of us. Meadow Pipits appeared out of the grass and vanished almost as quickly and a Pheasant broke into a trot ahead of us. As the rising tide began to flood over Fenham Flats, the eerie moans of Grey Seals carried on the breeze and a dense swirling cloud of distant waders soon resolved into the familiar shape, and sound, of Golden Plover. As we returned to the car park, there were only half a dozen cars still there and the island was incredibly quiet as the rising tide had brought the usual mass departure 🙂
The unpredictability of the weather in northern England is one of the reasons I love living here. Early August and you just don’t know whether there’ll be clear skies and sunshine, or something akin to the depths of the autumn…
I arrived at Kingston Park and met up with Chris (for his third trip with NEWT), Diane and Robin and we headed up the A1 to Berwick where we collected Gill (for her second trip with NEWT in a week). Our first destination was the Holy Island causeway, where we found a Common Seal, Little Egret, Dunlin, Redshank, Curlew, Sanderling, Ringed Plover, a distant dense flock of Golden Plover and a few Whimbrel (including one bird that was obligingly standing next to a Curlew). A sudden increase in wind strength heralded the arrival of the first rain shower of the day, and a noticeable drop in temperature. Thinking that the poor weather was going to move through earlier than forecast I decided to switch around the plan for the rest of the day and we headed down the coast where we watched Sandwich Terns, Gannets and masses of gulls feeding as Fulmars soared past us on stiff wings, effortless in the breeze. Rafts of Eider were just beyond the breaking surf as a female Goosander sat preening on the edge of a rockpool and Knot and Turnstone rummaged in the seaweed exposed on the falling tide. Back to scanning the mudflats and Grey Plover joined the days wader list and Grey Seals called mournfully from exposed sandbanks before we crossed over onto Holy Island with the weather showing signs of improvement. An adult Mediterranean Gull was an unexpected find in the car park and we set off to walk around the bits of the island that weren’t busy with visitors…
Grey Herons, Little Grebes and Moorhen were around the edges of the Lough as a Reed Warbler delivered it’s rhythmic chuntering song from a hidden perch in the reeds and the rest of our walk produced Stonechat, Meadow Pipit, a juvenile Kestrel, Cinnabar moth caterpillars and, probably the bird of the day, a Short-eared Owl quartering the dunes and fields with impressively slow deep wingbeats 🙂
Thursday was a Lindisfarne Safari where we had the option of either staying on the island over the high tide period, or concentrating on the mainland sites in the Lindisfarne NNR…
I collected Stephen and Kate from The Swan, and we headed up the A1 to collect Gordon and Mandy for their 4th day out with NEWT. With a stiff chilly northerly breeze we decided that the mainland would be the better option, but we started on the Holy Island causeway. Knot were hunched against the wind on the mud as the rising tide approached, flocks of Dunlin flew just inches above the road and we had the opportunity to compare the size difference between Sandwich Tern and Little Tern as both species hovered obligingly close to each other over the South Low, diving into the water in pursuit of small fish. Curlew probed the mud on the periphery of the encroaching tide and Grey Seal were ‘bottling’ as they were lifted them from their low-tide haul outs by the water. The simple song of Reed Bunting carried on the breeze from their exposed perches on hawthorns and fence posts as ‘parachuting’ Meadow Pipits displayed nearby. Golden Plover were stunning in breeding plumage, and flocks of Ringed Plover were accompanied by Dunlin sporting the jet black bellies of the breeding season. Offshore, Eider were riding the impressive swell as Gannet and Fulmar soared on the wind, Common, Arctic and Sandwich Terns were plunging into the water, Shag and Cormorant flew by and lines of Puffin, Guillemot and Razorbill flew to and from the Farne Islands.
Probably as tricky a trip to organise as we’ve ever had; a journalist/author researching outdoor activities for a forthcoming book and looking for a stargazing experience. The vagaries of the weather can potentially play havoc with any trip, so we’d been watching the weather forecast very carefully so that her journey up from London, would culminate in ideal conditions to appreciate Northumberland’s night sky. I’m not going to spoil the story, but we’ll make sure that we do a longer blog post when the book is published 🙂
I pulled into the car park at the mainland end of the Holy Island causeway, and Heather was already there for our Beginners Photography ‘Winter Wildfowl’ workshop. The first thing that struck me as I go out of the car was just how cold it was. With a bitingly cold cold wind racing across the exposed mudflats, it felt like the middle of the harshest winter. So, we started with a session in the car, checking camera settings and delving deep into the recesses of the camera menu. Then it was time to venture back out into the cold. Curlew, Redshank, Bar-tailed Godwit and Turnstone were eking out an existence in the wind-blasted landscape, a Little Egret still looked supremely elegant, with barely a feather ruffled out of place, and Heather’s attention was on a flock of Common Eider in the channel under the causeway. Our county bird is quite stunning, and makes a excellent photographic subject, so Heather was soon engrossed in capturing them whenever they turned their heads towards us and the slightly trickier task of catching one in the act of stretching and flapping it’s wings. Here’s one of my images of a drake Eider, from a warmer and less windy session a few years ago, showing just how beautiful they are.
Our Beginner’s Photography Workshops are ideal if you’re just getting used to your camera, or want to improve a particular skill or technique, so give us a call on 01670 827465 to reserve your place.
The Northumberland coast in the late autumn is a birdwatching destination that I’ll never tire of. Even in weather that could best be described as inclement, there’s a wealth of wildlife to enjoy.
I collected Mike and Janet from the Dunstanburgh Castle Hotel and we headed north for a day birdwatching around Lindisfarne and the North Northumberland coast. Starting with a walk around Holy Island village, a harsh chuckling call betrayed the presence of a Fieldfare in a small tree. Two others joined it, before they all departed noisily. Then more chuckling Fieldfare, and the high seee calls of Redwing, carried through the air from high overhead and we could make out, in the mist, a mixed flock of these thrushes arriving high from the north east and bypassing the island on their way across to the mainland. A Sparrowhawk raced by, hedge-hopping and swerving out of sight behind The Heugh, as thousands of Pale-bellied Brent Geese flew out onto the exposed mud of the wildfowl refuge area and Shag, Eider and Red-breasted Merganser dived just offshore. A couple of very obliging Rock Pipits showed the subtle, dusky beauty that can only be appreciated with close views and Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Redshank, Oystercatcher and Grey Plover were reaping the rich bounty of the mud, as Dark-bellied Brent Geese settled in the newly exposed mud of the harbour, and the high whistling calls of drake Teal carried across to us from the Rocket Field, a Little Auk flew along the main street through the village. Crossing back to the mainland, a Little Egret was stalking through the shallows along the roadside and Curlew and Oystercatcher were so close we could have almost reached out of the car and touched them. As the falling tide exposed sandbars, Grey Seals were moaning eerily and splashing about in shallow water. Suddenly, there were thousands of Wigeon and Golden Plover in the air. They settled but then flushed again so I started a methodical check of every rock that I could see on the mud. Then I found what I was looking for – a rock that was just too vertical…and the view through our ‘scope revealed the impressive muscular menace of a female Peregrine 🙂 She shuffled around and took off, only to settle on another rock closer to us. Our attention was drawn to a charm of Goldfinches feeding nearby, and the Peregrine departed while we weren’t looking.
As the weather moved through in waves of varying grot, we watched a group of three Roe Deer grazing in a roadside field, and then headed a bit further down the coast. Dusk was approaching rapidly as we watched more waders feeding busily as the tide rose, Lapwings flew over like giant bats and thousands of Black-headed and Common Gulls arrived to roost. Wave after wave of mist and drizzle, wave after wave of birds, wave after wave of waves 🙂
Most of the afternoon was spent concentrating on waders, with Purple Sandpiper, Oystercatcher, Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Golden Plover, Grey Plover, Turnstone and Redshank all studied in detail. A pale, elegant, wader swimming in the channel under the Holy Island causeway turned out to be a Spotted Redshank – possibly the bird I heard calling in the dark on Thursday‘s trip – and flocks of Wigeon and Pale-bellied Brent Goose carpeted the mudflats. It’s amazing how time flies when you’re engrossed in watching birds sticking their faces in mud, and three hours quickly passed and I dropped George back at Beadnell before heading down the coast to home myself.
Thursday was Pete and Janet’s 6th trip with NEWT, and the dismal, gloomy, drizzly south easterly weather as I drove to Embleton seemed ever so slightly promising 🙂
We started around Druridge Bay, checking a small area of woodland close to the coast, and soon encountered one of my favourite passerines, with three Brambling feeding quietly high in the canopy and two more flying over noisily. Everywhere we went there were Robins and Blackbirds, although little sign of any other migrants other than a large flock of Redwing over Cresswell and a flock of Fieldfare near Beadnell. Leaping Salmon on the River Coquet provided a lot of entertainment and a Cormorant which had been catching small fish, dived, causing a large Salmon to leap clear of the water. The fish splashed back down and the Cormorant surfaced, gripping it behind the gills. As the bird drifted downstream with its catch, we couldn’t believe that it would be able to deal with such a large fish…then it manouvered it so that the fish’s head was pointing down it’s throat and swallowed it whole!
As dusk approached, we were on the coast near Holy Island. Little Egrets, Grey Plover, Curlew and Redshank were on the mudflats and the high yapping sound of Pink-footed Geese could be heard distantly. Skein after skein appeared against the dark clouds overhead, settling close to the oncoming tide. Then more, and more, and more…thousands and thousands of geese, still arriving when it was so dark that they were just a slightly darker speckling against an almost featureless backdrop. Finally, as we headed back to the car, the ‘teu-it’ call of a Spotted Redshank cut through the gloom as the geese continued to arrive.
As I met up with David for breakfast at The Swan on Wednesday morning, ahead of two days on the Northumberland coast, we’d already switched our itinerary round. The plan to visit Holy Island on Thursday looked as though it might be slightly impacted by the weather, so we switched Druridge Bay to that day instead.
The drive north on the A1 was in glorious weather, with Common Buzzards soaring low over plantations in the chill of the early morning and we were soon on Holy Island in a stiffening breeze, carefully stalking towards a flock of Dark-bellied Brent Geese that posed for David’s camera. Bar-tailed Godwits, and a lone Black-tailed Godwit were probing the exposed mud of the harbour at low tide and Wigeon and Teal were on the Rocket Pool. A Common Kestrel was hovering nearby and, as the tide turned, we headed to the causeway to see what would be pushed towards us by the advancing water. Redshank, Curlew, Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit, Shelduck and a Little Egret all fed along the swelling channels
and then a mass of Pale-bellied Brent Geese flew in from the south. As the water began to lap at the edge of the causeway we drove back on to the mainland, and headed to a quiet stretch of shoreline where I knew David could use the cover of a hedgerow to approach a flock of Pale-bellied Brents whilst avoiding detection.
Using the car as a photographic hide (something of a theme for the holiday!) we got very close views of a flock of Wigeon,
and then we settled in the iconic shadow of Bamburgh Castle and scanned the sea in temperatures that were now bone-chilling 🙂 Purple Sandpipers, Turnstones, Oystercatchers and Redshank were roosting just above the water line and beyond the rafts of Eider were flocks of Common Scoter, with one large group of females looking stunningly orange in the beautiful late afternoon sunlight. Long-tailed Ducks played hide and seek, utilising their propensity for diving, and the developing swell, to keep me on my toes as I located a group with the ‘scope so that David could see them. Scanning the scoter flocks paid dividends as a female Velvet Scoter rose up and over one advancing wave crest, Red-throated Divers cruised along in their eternal search for fish and a last scan before we headed back down the coast produced a Slavonian Grebe. As it turned dark, the clear sky afforded excellent ‘scope views of the crescent Venus, and the thinnest sliver of crescent Moon. So soon after New Moon would be a spring tide, and the one forecast for the following day was predicted to be a big one…
After a planned 5 week break to recover from surgery I headed to Bamburgh, to collect Laura and Richard for a mini-Safari around Lindisfarne, brimming over with enthusiasm to be back and doing what I love.
Starting in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, we watched Purple Sandpiper, Turnstone, Redshank and Oystercatcher as they flew from wave-blasted rock to wave-blasted rock with Eiders appearing and disappearing in the swell just beyond them. A flock of Twite rose briefly from the weedy fields and, sitting on a ridge in adjacent field was the largest Peregrine that I’ve ever seen. As we neared Holy Island a flock of Pale-bellied Brent Geese were making their way along the shoreline and Grey Plover, Ringed Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit were exploring the recently uncovered mud as a Greenshank slept with it’s head tucked between its wings. We were using two cars, as Laura and Richard thought it would make more sense then transferring their three dogs to my car. As we headed across the causeway a Merlin chased a flock of Snow Buntings, but they were up and over the dunes before the second car reached them 🙁
As daylight faded we enjoyed excellent ‘scope views of a crescent Venus in the western sky, and then I was on my way back down the coast to get ready for a full day trip on Saturday 🙂