Friday was a safari on the North Northumberland coast for Kathryn and Linda. As I collected them from the Lindisfarne Inn, the biting wind carried a flurry of snow, and I guessed this could well be a day for birdwatching from the warmth and comfort of the car.
Over the next few hours we had close views of Bar-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Redshank and Oystercatcher as they probed in the mud, seemingly oblivious to the breeze, a Peregrine shot by, menace on pointed wings, and a Brown Hare sat majestically in the middle of a field. From the car park at Stag Rock we could see the MV Danio, still stranded near the Longstone lighthouse, as Common Scoter and Eider rode up and over the impressive swell and Gannets battled into the breeze. Black-headed Gulls and Rooks were almost perched on the car, and the South Low below the Holy Island Causeway offered impressive views of Eider, Long-tailed Duck and Scaup.
Our lunch stop was the Bamburgh Castle Inn, which gave us a good view of the extent of the swell rolling from the south east…and the approaching snow, which got to us just before we got back to the car
As we walked home from The Swan on Friday night, serenaded by the tremulous song of a Tawny Owl, the air was damp and chilly. With a Lindisfarne mini-safari on Saturday morning I was hoping that the weather would be fine, and the forecast suggested it would be…
So, when the alarm went off and I looked out of the window, I was quite surprised that there was a good covering of snow. A few minutes later the snow started again, and I wondered what conditions would be like in the north of the county. It turned out that we were near the northern edge of the snow, and as soon as I was through Morpeth and on the A1 there was just an occasional light flurry, and no snow on the ground.
I collected Emily and Warren from St Cuthbert’s House and we headed straight for Holy Island so that we would be on the island for a couple of hours before the tide encroached onto the causeway. Dark-bellied Brent Geese were roosting and bathing in the Rocket Pools, Curlews were feeding in the fields by the Crooked Lonnen and a lone Fieldfare hopped along the track ahead of us. We could see that the weather was doing something ‘interesting’ out beyond the Farne Islands, and the icy wind coming in off the sea made it a day to really appreciate the resilience of our wintering birds. As we left the island, flocks of Lapwings were being blown on the breeze, Pale-bellied Brent Geese and Bar-tailed Godwits were working their way along the edge of the incoming tide and Eider and Long-tailed Duck were in the South Low, competing for the title of ‘most attractive duck of the day’. Kestrels were a regular feature of the morning, and we enjoyed good views of nine very obliging Roe Deer.
Driving back down the coast, I could see that the ‘interesting’ weather seemed to be over Bamburgh Castle and Seahouses, so it was no surprise that snow started to fall as we passed Budle Bay. Then it got heavier…and heavier. Eventually, as we reached Stag Rocks, there was an incredible blizzard coming in off the North Sea, reducing visibility to only as far as the shore. Emily jumped out of the car as soon as we’d stopped, revelling in the snowfall; I’m not the only one who enjoys the winter and really loves snow As the blizzard passed over us and made its way inland, the Farne Islands gradually faded into view and we made our way back to Seahouses.
Living in southeast Northumberland, we’re spoiled by having easy access to some outstanding birdwatching areas. Holy Island, which we still think is at its best during the winter, is just an hour north up the A1…
I collected Keith and Mary on Saturday morning and we crossed the causeway onto the island for a day of birdwatching around the Northumberland Coast AONB. Although we encountered wintering Pale-bellied Brent Geese, Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits and other waders and wildfowl, there was a definite spring feel to the day. The weather was glorious (although a little breezy), and Skylarks could be heard high overhead. Curlews were in full voice, Grey Herons were stalking through poolside vegetation, Grey Seals were hauled out at low tide and a steady stream of Gannets passed by offshore. Early afternoon we headed back to the mainland and more waders and wildfowl, as well as a mixed flock of Yellowhammers, Reed Buntings, Linnets and Tree Sparrows (with the male Yellowhammers looking particularly stunning) before finishing in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle with roosting Oystercatchers, Redshanks and Purple Sandpipers, Eiders bobbing about in the surf and a mixed raft of Common Scoters and Slavonian Grebes diving repeatedly in the swell and really testing powers of concentration.
Standing on the Heugh on Holy Island with Jill and Steve, we’re all scanning towards Guile Point. Cormorants, Shags, Red-breasted Mergansers and Eider are all bobbing about on the water, Pale-bellied and Dark-bellied Brent Geese, Bar-tailed Godwits, Grey Plover, Curlew and Oystercatchers are flying by, Common and Grey Seals are splashing in the surf as the tide falls…and I’m focused on the sea with one species in mind. Then 2 distant white dots, gradually narrowing the gap toward us, and I know I’ve achieved that primary target. Soon, I’ve got 2 very happy clients watching an immaculate drake Long-tailed Duck. Outrageously attractive, he waved that eponymous tail in the air before taking off and vanishing out of sight around the headland.
At the other end of the day we watched a flock of 20 Slavonian Grebes and a similar number of Common Scoter, another 6 Long-tailed Ducks, an elusive Black-throated Diver and 3 equally elusive Red-throated Divers and 2 Harbour Porpoises as the light faded to the point where even the impressive assembly of optical equipment wasn’t offering an advantage any more.
Sandwiched in between though, was a veritable feast of raptors; we’d already had a couple of Common Buzzards (and I’d had 2 on the drive to Hauxley before collecting Jill and Steve), 2 Sparrowhawks and several Kestrels by lunchtime, but the best was yet to come. First a Merlin perched on a post in front of us for 10 minutes, then we found 2 Peregrines sitting on boulders at low tide. Soon a wave of panic spread through the assembled waders, and the Barnacle, Greylag, Pink-footed and White-fronted Geese, as the 2 Peregrines swooped back and forth. Then, our second Merlin of the day began harrassing one of the Peregrines. As chaos raged across the mudflats, one of the Peregrines made a kill; an unfortunate Redshank. It took it’s prize to a rock and began plucking it…and 2 more Peregrines arrived! All 3 tussled over the spoils of the hunt, before 2 of them conceded and sat a little distance away. A dry, cold wintry day and spectacular drama played out by some excellent wildlife. The Northumberland coast in the winter – there’s nothing better
Just as I arrived at Harkess Rocks to collect Andy and Helen for an afternoon of birdwatching around the Holy Island of Lindisfarne and the North Northumberland coast, the first drops of sleety rain began splattering on the windscreen. We haven’t really had any sort of winter yet, apart from an hour of snow on December 16th, but yesterday afternoon did feel positively chilly. Undaunted by the easterly wind and icy showers we enjoyed the wader and wildfowl spectacle that is the Northumberland coast in the winter. Curlews singing as they flew by must have a joie de vivre that lets them vent that emotional haunting call wherever they may be. Other wading birds entertained as they probed, prodded and buried their bills face-deep in the mud; Grey Plovers, Bar-tailed Godwits, Redshanks and Oystercatchers were all making the most of the exposed mud at low tide. A big flock of Yellowhammers, Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Goldfinches, Tree Sparrows, House Sparrows and Reed Buntings held our attention for a good while and wildfowl were well represented with Shelduck, Eider, Mallard, Teal, Wigeon, Goosander and Pintail. As we watched a very obliging Dark-bellied Brent Goose, it was a sobering thought that our wintering birds are generally here because conditions in the areas where they breed are too harsh at this time of the year. Mammals were braving the cold too; 7 Roe Deer, a Brown Hare and 5 Common Seals made a not too shabby mammal list for the afternoon.
I often reflect on my decision to return to Northumberland from Arizona, and as we watched that lone Brent Goose, with the biting wind driving waves of showery rain, were my thoughts of the warmth and sunshine of Tucson? No, what I was thinking was that this is the weather I came home for…and the reason that good outdoor clothing is a necessity
The last 2 days were spent running 2 Prestige Tours for Peter and Alison, and the Northumberland coast delivered plenty of birdwatching gems.
On Wednesday we were covering Holy Island and the Northumberland coast, and planned to spend the morning on Holy Island and then come off at lunchtime just before the tide covered the causeway (remember – the crossing times are published for a reason, don’t drive into the North Sea, it won’t end well!). A thorough check around the village, and the Heugh, produced 2 Black Redstarts, Blackcaps, lots of Blackbirds, Fieldfares, Redwings and an intriguing Chiffchaff (almost sandy brown above, very unlike our breeding birds). Grey Seals and Pale-bellied Brent Geese were out on the mud, Dark-bellied Brent Geese, Wigeon and Teal were roosting on the Rocket Field and a Woodcock was flying circuits of the village. As well as an almost continuous wave of thrushes leaving the island, the distinctive flight calls of Skylarks and Lesser Redpolls could be picked out.
Once we were off the island, I’d decided to head north to Goswick. Another Black Redstart and a Yellow-browed Warbler were around Coastgurad Cottage, and we made our way through the dunes. The adult drake Black Scoter was still present, although less than easy to see with a line of rolling surf impeding the view. As the tide rose, flocks of Bar-tailed Godwit, Knot, Dunlin and Grey Plover rose from the exposed sandbar, shuffling along to the next ‘dry’ spot. A Short-eared Owl was seen coming in-off, harrassed by Herring Gulls before finally finding sanctuary on the Snook, and then the bird of the day (well, I think so anyway) appeared just behind us. Tracking south along the coast a juvenile Rough-legged Buzzard was given a bit of a going over by the local corvids.
Heading back towards Seahouses we stopped off at Harkess Rocks, where Purple Sandpipers, Turnstones, Redshank and Oystercatchers were all flitting from rock to rock and Eider were bobbing about just offshore as daylight faded and it was time to return Peter and Alison to their holiday accommodation.
The autumn regularly produces excellent birdwatching experiences, and our Friday afternoon Lindisfarne mini-safari was no exception.
I collected Pat and Ian from Glororum and we headed north towards Holy Island. With the tide falling, the newly exposed mud provided a veritable banquet for the massed waders and wildfowl. As far as the eye could see the shoreline was lined with Pale-bellied and Dark-bellied Brent Geese, Barnacle Geese were arriving and the mud was a hive of activity with Wigeon, Teal, Bar-tailed Godwits, Curlews, Redshanks, Oystercatchers, Knot, Dunlin and Grey Plover all tucking in. 2 Carrion Crows were administering a warm welcome to a Peregrine, and a Little Egret flew in, landing beside another egret that was stalking around the edges of a pool on the mudflats. As the afternoon wore on, we relocated to Bamburgh, and the rocks there produced excellent views of the waders we’d seen earlier as well as a few Purple Sandpipers.
Then came one of those real experience moments. Despite the strong offshore winds 3 Fieldfares were battling against the headwind, low over the waves. They crossed the beach, flew by us and as they dropped towards the shelter of the coastal fields they were intercepted by 2 Sparrowhawks. The final act of the encounter happened out of sight, but you can’t help thinking that it was a cruel end to a herculean effort.
I love Holy Island, but it can be a bit crowded sometimes…
I collected Mike and Maggie from St Cuthbert’s House on Tuesday morning and we began birdwatching our way north. In the shadow of Bamburgh Castle we watched Bar-tailed Godwits, Knot, Turnstones, Purple Sandpipers, Eider and Gannets in a bitingly cold northwesterly wind. We crossed onto Holy Island just before the rising tide covered the causeway…and found that the car park was empty! For the next 5 hours we practically had the island to ourselves, and enjoyed swirling flocks of Knot and Bar-tailed Godwit, Oystercatchers, Shags, Gannets plunge-diving, Red-breasted Mergansers, Grey Seals, Fieldfares, Redwings, Curlew, Teal, Black-tailed Godwits, Grey Plover, Kestrels, Peregrine and then, as the tide began to recede, flocks of Pink-footed Geese and Pale-bellied Brent Geese took to the air, heading for the newly exposed mud and the feast it brings.
Deliberately stranding yourself on Holy Island always carries risks as a birdwatcher; what if something really good turns up on the mainland? As an experience with clients though, particularly when one of them is a very keen wildlife and landscape photographer, it really is something special.
Being in the right place at the right time is so critical to everything we do; if we’re searching for Otters we need to be there when they rise from their slumber and become active, if Badgers are the target for the trip then arriving the correct length of time before sunset is important, and if we’re visiting Holy Island then timing is a real key to success.
I set off up the A1 with Jo on board, and collected Paul from Bamburgh. The plan for the day was a simple one; spend a few hours birdwatching on Holy Island, then leave as the tide was rising and check sites down the coast towards Bamburgh. From the top of the Heugh, we scanned across the sandflats whilst listening to the ghostly moaning of a group of Grey Seals. An Arctic Skua was harassing the roosting terns and gulls, Curlew and Bar-tailed Godwits were probing along the water’s edge, Grey Plover, many of them still in their incredibly beautiful breeding plumage, seemed to be everywhere that we looked and a Kestrel chased a Peregrine through the dunes around Snook House. Back on the mainland we found a Whimbrel in a group of Curlew, our second Peregrine of the day beat a menacing path along the shoreline and there was a real surprise in the shape of 5 Pale-bellied Brent Geese. Budle Bay produced a Little Egret, a flock of 150+ Grey Plover and a distant feeding frenzy of Gannets that could be seen above the breaking surf. Finally, as the tide begin to crash against the dunes in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, we watched as a flock of Knot, Turnstone, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Sanderling and Dunlin braved the onrushing waves for longer than the human visitors to the beach
In what appeared to be worsening weather, I drove north to Bamburgh to collect Lyndsey and Petter for their Lindisfarne Safari…and then things improved dramatically, with warm sunshine tempered by a cool southerly breeze We started in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, with Common Eider on the water, Turnstones on the rocks and Sandwich Terns and Gannets fishing just offshore. A stop at Budle Bay revealed a Greenshank amongst the masses of roosting Redshank and we continued to Holy Island itself. Waders continued to be the theme of the afternoon, with Ringed Plover, Golden Plover, Dunlin, Curlew and Lapwing all either roosting or feeding on the mudflats close by and Whimbrel calling as they passed through. As the tide fell, Grey Seals could be seen hauling themselves out of the water, ‘bottling’ in the afternoon warmth, swimming along with a remarkable turn of pace for such big animals, and splashing around like kids in a paddling pool.
Late August, sunny weather, masses of visitors on Holy Island…and the wildlife is still as good as ever