I love the Northumberland coast, and my obsession with the North Sea and it’s wildlife is well documented, but I always look forward to the drive west – away from the sea and into forests and remote moorland…
I collected Jeanette and Simon for their second trip with NEWT, following the Otter mini-Safari on Sunday, and we headed across through Alnwick, Rothbury, Thropton, Elsdon and Otterburn. As we approached the dam at the southern end of Kielder Water I could see a bird ahead of us flying towards the reservoir. It was flying directly away from us but it’s a fairly distinctive bird from any angle…and the Osprey hovered over the water, plunged, surfaced with a large fish and flew along the dam wall, pursued by an angry mob of Common Gulls as 6 Roe Deer grazed just outside the cover of woodland beside the North Tyne 🙂 With occasional breaks in the cloud, and brief interludes of warm sunshine, it seemed a good time to find a suitable spot to sit and look over the forest…which worked just as planned with Common Buzzard, Sparrowhawk and Goshawk all making it on to the day list as a flock of Redwing called overhead 🙂
The drive from forest to moorland produced excellent views of a Dipper as it submerged in a fast-flowing stream, and then the moors produced another excellent crop of birds. Ravens, big impressive and noisy flew overhead, pairs of Common Buzzard seemed to be everywhere we looked, Red Grouse played hide-and-seek with us as they emerged from cover only to vanish again within a few seconds and three more raptors made it seven species for the day. Kestrel is still a regular bird on many of our tours but the other two were real scarcities; a pair of Merlin were calling noisily just behind us as a male Hen Harrier ghosted across the moor below us. Then he started skydancing 🙂 That would be a treat enough, but the bird that had prompted his display came into view…not the female harrier we’d expected, but a second male! The two tussled briefly in the air just above the heather before both drifting out of sight. Wild Goats were remarkably confiding close to the road as we headed back towards lower ground and trees.
Back down in the forest and a female Common Crossbill was a nice find as the high-pitched songs of Goldcrest and Treecreeper pierced the air, Goldeneye displayed out on the water as a drake Mandarin sat quietly behind the bankside vegetation and Grey Wagtails bobbed along the muddy edge. Another wildlife-filled day out with clients who were great company 🙂
There’s a lot of very impressive wildlife in and around Kielder, particularly if you extend your visit across the border into Scotland, and we always hope for bright clear weather with a bit of warmth and a breeze…
I collected Brian from Bellingham and we headed up the valley in just the sort of weather conditions that I was hoping for 🙂 Our day followed the typical pattern of one of our Kielder Safaris; some time in Kielder, some time over the border into the hills and moors of southwest Scotland, some more time back in Kielder. With the descending silvery cadence of Willow Warbler dripping from what seemed like every tree, the swee-wee-wee-wee-wee of Common Sandpiper around the water’s edge and Siskin, Chaffinch and Goldcrest all singing enthusiastically, the aural backdrop to the day was a canvas on which the raptors danced. Common Buzzards soared and mewed as Wild Goats trotted along a narrow valley with Hen Harriers, ringtail females and ghostly pale males, patrolling the fells above, Sparrowhawk soared just over a small plantation and then, the big three; Osprey, the stunning ‘fish eagle’ hovering over the water before plunging, unsuccessfully, in search of fish, Goshawk, the ‘phantom of the forest’ rising from a nesting plantation that we’ve been watching for a few years now before soaring up on a thermal to take station high over his mate and their nest and, the most surprising find of the day, dwarfing the Common Buzzards it was sharing a thermal with, a Golden Eagle casting it’s majestic shadow over the hills. One day it may be a common sight, but it still won’t lose the magic of a chance encounter 🙂
Dull, overcast, drizzly, misty, cold, miserable…the sort of day that makes Kielder a place where you really have to work for your wildlife sightings.
I collected David from Byrness and we headed into the border forests. After his coastal holiday with us in 2013, and a Farne Deeps pelagic trip in September last year, I was looking forward to meeting up with him again. One look at the weather told me this wasn’t likely to be a good Goshawk day, but it’s always worth trying 🙂 The ‘phantom of the forest’ did remain elusive, but another Kielder speciality put in an appearance with a flock of 15 Common Crossbill chipping away noisily around the forest drive. A Roe Deer crossed the track ahead of us, and we headed across the border. A tumbling Raven was demonstrating its prowess, Red Grouse popped up and down in the heather and, probably the highlight of the day, a pair of Hen Harriers soared over the moor; the female unobtrusive and low over the heather, her mate an enigmatic ghostly grey against the dark background. Common Buzzards circled against the sky and, above one of our favourite Goshawk sites, a Peregrine soared over a clearing between plantations, all muscular menace and effortless grace.
Even the days that don’t look promising still hold excellent wildlife 🙂
We’ve always tended to stick to the coast during the autumn and winter, but our Dark Skies experiences are attracting a lot of interest, particularly with clients who’d like to combine a wildlife tour with stargazing. Of course, the stargazing is rather weather dependent…
I collected Lorraine, Steve, Debbie and Gary from their holiday cottage in Longframlington and we headed west, along the Coquet Valley, nestled between the Cheviot Hills and Simonside and across into Kielder. The border forests aren’t blessed with quantity of wildife at this time of the year, but there’s no doubting the quality 🙂 Red Squirrels were the main target species for the trip, which Lorraine had booked as a wedding anniversary surprise for Debbie and Gary, and they didn’t disappoint, with two animals engaged in a furious chase around the trees as they struggled for dominance over a feeder. One quickly prevailed and began hoarding nuts, coming so close that you could almost reach out and touch it. Ravens were soaring over the road, and the one bird that was present in good numbers, as expected, was Chaffinch. We crossed over the border into Scotland, enjoying close views of Common Buzzards as they held position in the breeze above a ridge, a Kestrel perched on a telegraph pole and Stonechats in roadside vegetation. A covey of Red Grouse burst from the heather, then another, and then the source of their distress drifted by – a ringtail Hen Harrier 🙂 The harrier quartered back and forth over the moor for a few minutes before dropping out of sight and we made our way onward over the desolate moorland road.
As daylight faded and roosting Cormorants squabbled noisily, a Roe Deer was grazing quietly by the water’s edge. It came right down to the water to drink and then we could hear the splashing of ducks frantically trying to take off from the reeds. Had the deer disturbed them? No, by the edge of the reeds an Otter made its way menacingly along from where the ducks had flushed…and then got out of the water, spooking the deer and chasing it a few metres up the bank 🙂 It would have had to be an optimistic Otter to try and predate a Roe Deer, so they may well have just startled each other.
We made our way back across Northumberland, hoping for a break in the weather and a starry sky but it wasn’t to be and the first drops of rain peppered the windscreen as we reached Longframlington. Then I just had a short journey home to a delicious birthday dinner 🙂
Heading up the coast to Embleton to collect Pete and Janet for their fourth day out with NEWT (plus a couple of days with their local natural history society on a Northumberland visit in 2009), I had a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. It’s always a pleasure to have them on a tour, but this time we were heading to an area that I know quite well myself, but haven’t covered in any great depth with clients…
We headed inland, skirting the edge of the Cheviot massif, passing through Kielder and across into the Scottish borders in ever-improving weather 🙂 Common Buzzards were soaring against the blue sky, Skylarks were singing as they ascended heavenwards, Meadow Pipits parachuted down at the end of their display flights, Red Grouse popped their heads up above the heather, Grey Wagtails were flitting from rock to rock in the shallow streams, Whinchat were carrying food back to their nests, recently fledged Wheatears scolded us as we disturbed their afternoon nap, Wild Goats grazed steadily on the hillsides high above the valley bottom and then, in the warmth of the mid-afternoon, came one of those moments you dream of (well, I do – other naturalists may have other dreams!)…
Floating across the hillside on agile wings, passing over a Cuckoo perched on a small sapling, carrying food back to his mate and their hungry brood, the male Hen Harrier drifted by before depositing the prey at the nest. He quickly found more food for himself and settled on a prominent rock in the heather. As we watched him through the ‘scope, a familiar chattering call rattled down the fell. Something had disturbed the female harrier, and she had left the nest and was soaring above it. Then, the likely source of her displeasure appeared. Racing on swept back wings, a Merlin flew straight at the harrier. She twisted and turned to avoid the assault by the smallest of our falcons, and flew towards the ground. The Merlin wasn’t going to give up though, and the dogfight continued; the otherwise elegant harrier looking cumbersome as the annoying gadfly buzzed around her. Eventually the smaller bird broke off and settled in a nearby tree, as the male harrier left his perch and soared high over our heads against the blue sky. When I look back in years to come, this really will be an experience that’s fixed firmly in my memory 🙂
The alarm went off at 06:00 on Wednesday, and my heart sank as I looked out of the window…heavy mist, not ideal for any of our tours, but particularly not good for a day in Kielder. I drove to Kingston Park to collect Steph and we headed west in much more promising conditions; low cloud in some valleys, but some sunshine too. We collected Paul and Trish from Wark, and then Ivan from Tower Knowe and headed into the forest. It was a bit cool and misty for any raptors to be up and about, but two Common Crossbill flew by and the air around us was filled with the descending silvery cadence of Willow Warblers as Woodpigeons, Stock Doves and Carrion Crows caused a brief quickening of the heart rate as they flew between plantations.
A walk to the Bakethin reserve produced lots of Siskin, and Goldeneye, Tufted Duck, Teal, Oystercatcher, Cormorant and Common Sandpiper were around the water’s edge. As we got back to the car park, which provided good views of Treecreepers, Paul spotted a raptor high overhead, and binoculars resolved it into the impressive shape of an Osprey.
Over the border into Scotland we were soon encountering Common Buzzards, lots of them, and a remarkable number of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits. We reached our picnic spot and, as soup, sandwiches and carrot cake were consumed, raptors began to appear above the skyline. First Common Buzzards, then a female Hen Harrier, followed soon after by a skydancing grey male 🙂 Then more Common Buzzards, and more Common Buzzards. At one point we had between four and six birds behind us, while higher up the valley at least ten were kettling in one thermal along with a Peregrine 🙂 Absolute heaven for any birdwatcher who enjoys raptors…and who doesn’t? Along the stream Reed Buntings were pretending to be Dippers, but we did eventually find the genuine article, which obligingly bobbed up and down on a rock before diving into the fast flowing water, and Wheatears were perched on old stone walls. On the hillsides high above the valley bottom, Wild Goats were grazing as we enjoyed close views of Common Buzzards both perched and flying, and Red Grouse were found as we crossed the moors back towards England.
We finished the trip with an uncountable number of Chaffinches and a real Northumberland speciality as a Red Squirrel ran around on the ground before deciding to hang upside down on a peanut cage, and it was time to reverse the route and drop everyone off.
Saturday saw a much more relaxed start, at a much more civilised hour, for the second day of our Black Grouse Bonanza guided holiday. After another filling breakfast at Peth Head we set out for a day around Kielder and the Borders. With beautiful blue sky, fluffy white clouds and a nice breeze, it looked very much like a ‘Raptor Day’.
After a drive up the North Tyne valley, the first thing that struck us when we arrived at the dam end of Kielder Water was the number of Willow Warblers that were singing. Swallows were zipping back and forth and there was a real springtime feel in the air. As always, flocks of Chaffinches seemed to be everywhere, and we made our way to NEWT’s favourite raptor watchpoint. In our quite exposed position we were at the mercy of what turned out to be a bitingly cold westerly wind so hats, gloves, fleece jackets and windproof layers were required. There was an extraordinary difference between being in the sunshine and being under the layers of cloud that were scudding across from the west, and that had an effect on the birds too. After a couple of hours of occasional sightings of Common Buzzard, and one Goshawk that shadowed a buzzard over a distant plantation, midday was approaching when it all kicked off; first one pair of Common Buzzards appeared opposite our watchpoint, then a second pair appeared alongside them, and a third pair over an adjacent plantation were probably responding to the flurry of activity. Six buzzards in the air at the same time was only a start though, as the harsh croaking of a pair of Ravens drew our attention and these big, impressive ‘honorary raptors’ materialised from the background of the trees below our eyeline, breaking the skyline and soaring across the valley and disappearing over the trees to the northwest as another four Ravens rose into view away to the east. The buzzard activity drew the attention of a male Goshawk, who circled with one bird before gliding away over a distant plantation.
Before crossing the border into Scotland we sat by a small stream and watched two Dippers as they bobbed up and down on mid-stream rocks and dived into the crystal clear, and presumably icy cold, water. During our lunch break a Common Buzzard soared along a ridge just above our position, and as we crossed the moors a Raven was flying over a nest site, a Kestrel was hanging in the wind, Wild Goats were grazing contentedly, and a single Red Grouse raised its head above the shelter of the heather and into the breeze as we passed.
A stop at the Bakethin reserve on the way back down the North Tyne brought excellent views of an Osprey as it circled over the water, Common Sandpipers were displaying noisily, Oystercatchers had a noisy exchange during changeover at a nest, Teal were displaying, Goldeneye and Cormorant were diving, Chiffchaffs seemed to be in every tree and a Green Woodpecker was persistently yaffling. Each time it called we all scanned the ground in the direction the calls were coming from, more in hope than expectation. Eventually Derek managed to locate the bird…perched at the top of a tree, yaffling away like a Blackbird would sing from an exposed perch! The sky beyond the woodpecker held our 5th raptor for the day, a soaring Sparrowhawk, and we headed back to Peth Head.
The holiday was to produce a final bit of magic, as a night-time drive along a narrow country lane produced excellent views of two young Badgers, running across just a few metres ahead of us, a third Badger along the roadside and a Roe Deer running along the verge towards us before springing over a wall and away across the fields.
With such lovely clients, an excellent accommodation base and a whole series of stunning wildlife experiences during the holiday, I’m excited about next year’s Black Grouse Bonanza already 🙂 We’ll be announcing 2014 holiday dates shortly, but please get in touch if you would like to be kept informed of the details of what we have on offer next year.
Last week’s Kielder Safari was at the back end of that period of wintry weather that seemed to have been around for quite some time, and the snow provided one of the highlights of the day.
I collected Lucy, Mark and ‘the Mums’, Pat and Alison, from their holiday cottage in Falstone and we set out to explore the border forests. Coal Tits, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Greenfinches and Chaffinches…and Chaffinches…and Chaffinches were seen in the forested areas and there seemed to be a small movement of Blackbirds, with four males in quick succession heading west along one steep sided valley.
Dipper was on the target list for the day, and a stop at one of our favourite spots just south of the Scottish border produced not one, but two birds; dipping, swimming, flying, calling – a whole range of Dipper behaviour 🙂 Another riverside stop at a ‘staked out’ spot produced views of a gaudy drake Mandarin, looking so odd in the cold and gloom of the mid afternoon as he made his way along the edge of the water.
Wild Goats feature in most, if not all, of our Kielder trips and we had them on open moorland as well as a small group in amongst the trees along a forest track. Also out on the open moors, Red Grouse took a little bit of effort to find (as they often do in strong cold winds), and a Common Buzzard caused momentary panic as it looked particularly narrow-winged and pale.
As the afternoon wore on, and the skies were suddenly blue and the landscape bathed in sunlight, it was a great contrast to the start of the day. Just a few hours earlier we were standing on the edge of a steep forested valley, looking across to one of our most reliable sites for Goshawk, watching as a succession of snow storms moved along the valley, driven by the strong easterly wind, and the very edge of the snow just peppered our position. ‘The Mums’ retreated to the car (and who could blame them?) the Goshawks and Red Squirrels stayed in the shelter of trees (and who could blame them?) and comparisons were drawn with New Zealand, Canada, and the possibility of four seasons in one day. The forest and Kielder Water may be a man-made landscape, but it has the feel of a remote wilderness area, and some excellent wildlife too 🙂
On Saturday I was in the Kielder area with Sarah, collecting our new mountain bikes from Ian at The Bike Place. The weather was glorious; blue skies, sunshine – everything you would want on a day there with clients.
Skip forward to Sunday morning…
I collected Jon and Alison, Jill and Steve & Laura and Nicola from Hexham and we headed north towards the Border Forests. The weather was somewhat different; overcast, not even a slight breeze and the air was damp and bitterly cold. In those conditions the forest is an ethereal place, remote, other-worldly and an experience in itself. Mistle Thrushes and Chaffinches seemed to be everywhere that we looked, Common Buzzards were sitting hunched on tree-tops and telegraph poles, Roe Deer crossed the track ahead of us and the only Common Crossbills of the day were a group of four that flew by as we were trying to locate a very vocal Raven. Then, a very nice policeman stopped and showed us his Badger and Red Squirrel 🙂 A Green Woodpecker yaffled from the wooded slopes below us and Goldcrests, Blue Tits, Great Tits and Robins could all be heard.
Heading towards the border a Dipper sat on a rock at the water’s edge, bobbing up and down before heading upstream in a whirr of wing beats. Red Grouse was found soon after heading up onto the moors around Newcastleton and the next addition to the trip list was probably the highlight of the day (apart from the Badger…). The next grouse was well hidden, with only it’s head visible but, as I stopped the car to let everyone have a good look at it, it raised itself from the heather and revealed it’s true identity; a stunning male Black Grouse, resplendent in the day’s only real attempt at sunshine. He wasn’t alone though, as two more Blackcock appeared from amongst the heather and eventually a total of five flew across the road and settled again.
After a picnic stop in one of my favourite places, we went in search of Wild Goats. It didn’t take too long to find one and, as is often the case, once you’ve found one you soon find more. This prompted the following exchange in the back of the car “That goat’s got a baby” “You’re kidding me”…
Heading back towards Northumberland a flock of Fieldfares were on telegraph wires and two Great Spotted Woodpeckers were perched at the top of a small tree by the road. A walk to the hide at Bakethin produced Goldeneye, Mallard, Tufted Duck and Pochard and one of Northumberland’s more exotic inhabitants rounded off the day as we watched at least five Mandarins, including three gaudy drakes and two subtly beautiful ducks in a tributary of the north Tyne.
The weather was an experience, we had some excellent wildlife to enjoy, and we hardly saw another person all day…but what really made the day for me was having six clients who all got on so well with each other, were really enthusiastic about birdwatching and wildlife and provided a steady level of entertainment throughout the day 🙂
I love snow. Always have, always will. When I left Arizona in 2000, that decision was driven, in part, by not being happy with the idea of living somewhere where I would have to go into the mountains to find anything that matched my idea of the winter.
The snow finally arrived last week and, as luck would have it, I was heading towards the remote wilderness of Kielder on Thursday as part of a press trip for Discover Britain magazine. I met up with Vicky and Angharad when they arrived at Leaplish – after their satnav had thrown a bit of a hissy fit at finding itself in the middle of nowhere 🙂 The roads were clear (remember that, it’s important…) but there was a blanket of snow across the landscape that emphasised just how remote and sparsely populated Northumberland’s western border is.
Friday brought some proper snowfall, and once Sarah was home from work we walked the 1/4 mile to The Swan and had an interesting few hours with Kirsty and Chris, watching the snow falling and the snow ploughs and gritting lorries going by. As we walked back home through a good 12″ of snow, the grit had done it’s job and the roads were clear and driveable…
Watching reports on the BBC turned out to be quite an eye-opener: Northumberland was in the grip of winter, driving conditions were treacherous, deep snow was laying and causing travel chaos. The poor reporter couldn’t have looked to be more stranded unless they’d buried him up to his waist in the snow. The impression of winter chaos was helped by doing the piece to camera next to a narrow road on a forest edge – not the first time in recent winters that this particular dramatic device has been employed; our own favourites have been when they use narrow access tracks to country house hotels and give the impression that that’s the condition of the main roads, despite a clear and driveable main road being just a few metres away. We’ve always said that Northumberland in the winter is an excellent birdwatching destination, and we’ve yet to experience anything up here that’ll make us say anything different. Don’t be put off by over-sensationalized nonsense on the TV and in the press – come and find out for yourself 🙂
Now, we do appreciate that “there’s been some snow but roads in Northumberland are driveable” isn’t going to be award-winning journalism, but we really do take issue with this misrepresentation of our beautiful county. They may as well take the weather map, write ‘Here be dragons’ across the section between the Tyne and the Scottish Border and be done with it. Don’t be fooled – the next time you see a reporter and you’re not sure if they’re in Northumberland or on Mount Everest ask yourself one question…if conditions are so poor, how did they get there?