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
‘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
Saturday 03:30 and the alarm clock starts ringing. After eight long days out of the office, things were going to be topped off nicely with an early start for our ‘Dawn on the Coast’ Beginners Photography session. I arrived just ahead of Dave, and met up with Steve who had arrived early. In the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, with the North Sea washing close to our feet, we worked our way through the holy trinity of photography (shutter speed, aperture and ISO) and various compositional techniques as the approaching dawn illuminated the landscape around us. Snow, driven by a strong northerly breeze, passed by almost horizontally and the broken cloud to the east produced intermittently good lighting conditions. Red-breasted Mergansers and Fulmars flew by, Common Scoters and Eider were riding on the swell, Purple Sandpipers crept around the base of the rocks and we finished our session as less amenable weather approached from the east.
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 many regular readers of our blog will know, we have quite an affinity for our local pub The Swan at Choppington; Kirsty and Chris’s daughter, Annabel, is Sarah’s god-daughter, Northern Experience Images donated the photography for William’s calendar to raise funds for his World Challenge trip to Namibia and Botswana in 2013 (and Amy at Whiteacres, who has been the creative mind behind our logo and the NEWT Images range of cards and prints, donated her design services to the calendar project).
Friday evening is when we can usually be found relaxing at The Swan, and last Friday was no different. Then I was asked “are you Martin?”. Now, how was this going to pan out? What followed was a very enjoyable discussion about all things wildlife; Red Squirrels, Otters, White-beaked Dolphins, the Northumberland coast, the North Sea and the best places to find a lot of our local specialities. It was great to hear that a lot of locals follow our blog posts, and Peter had a request that we’re only too happy to oblige. Here you are Peter, just for you…
Our final full-day pelagic for 2012 was on Saturday and, although I was really looking forward to it, it’s always a shame when we reach the end of our offshore season.
With strong winds on Thursday, and charter boats cancelling trips on Friday, I still felt that we’d be able to sail. We gathered at Royal Quays just before 09:00 and boarded the SarahJFK. Brian spotted a Great Spotted Woodpecker just after we set sail, and as we headed downstream we could see a little bit of swell and a few whitecaps offshore. A skein of Pink-footed Geese high overhead were heading south, and we weren’t too far out of the river when we had our first skua of the day; and it was one of those ‘is it, isn’t it?’ moments as what was probably a dark Pomarine Skua flew north low over the waves. Three Great Skuas were heading the same way, and another one later caused a ‘dread’ amongst the birds gathered round a fishing boat. Fulmars and Kittiwakes were with us throughout most of the day and Gannets were soaring by on the breeze. Our first Sooty Shearwater was in a raft of gulls behind a trawler, and we had at least five more during the day.
As the swell began to ease slightly we were 8 miles off Cresswell, heading north west, when I saw two small waders flying up and over a wave crest. As they dropped onto the sea I shouted “Grey Phalaropes!” and called to Allan to stop the boat. Eventually we all had excellent views of these two tiny birds as they bobbed about in the swell. They were the 2nd and 3rd that I’ve seen on pelagics I’ve organised, following the 1st out in the Farne Deeps in 2010.
We headed towards the coast, and turned to make our way back towards Royal Quays. Our only Manx Shearwater of the trip was followed soon after by a Pomarine Skua, found by Cain, six Red-throated Divers (including four flying south together), 42 Pale-bellied Brent Geese heading north, 20 Wigeon and 30 Common Scoter. With only one Manx Shearwater, and no Arctic Skuas at all, this was quite an unusual pelagic but, if you like waders, and you like seabirds, then phalaropes are a dream bird
There’s always something special about days out with clients who have a connection with the north east; often we’ll visit locations that they haven’t seen for a long time, and they’ll share their memories of the place. One thing that’s constant though, is that they always have a passion for Northumberland, no matter how long they’ve been away, or where they live now.
I collected Dickie and Caroline from Church Point and we set off on the drive north along the Northumberland coast, heading towards Seahouses. The main part of the trip was a Seal Cruise on Glad Tidings 5, although in the ‘stiff’ breeze I wasn’t certain that we’d be sailing. We arrived in Seahouses to be greeted by the good news that we would be sailing, and the ‘interesting’ news that a party of 30 schoolchildren was booked on the same sailing. As we headed across to the islands, with John expertly guiding the boat to avoid everyone getting wet (as far as possible!) the school party were having a whale of a time. Then when the first Grey Seals began to bob their heads up out of the water and stare at the boat they got really excited Gannets were soaring overhead, Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers were fluttering around the base of the rocks, staying just above the breaking surf, and Shags and Eiders were bobbing around in the increasing swell. After an exciting journey back to the mainland, we had our picnic stop in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, and only a few hundred yards from where Dickie and Caroline used to live. A big bull Grey Seal made his way north just beyond the surf, and Caroline went for a paddle in the icy-cold sea As we made our way back down the coast (after a Caroline-requested stop at Swallow Fish in Seahouses), the weather was an extraordinary mixture of blue sky, sunshine and that breeze…
Our ‘Whale and Dolphin Cruise’ has become an integral part of the Northern Experience Pelagics annual itinerary, and with an excellent weather forecast for yesterday’s sailing (and some detailed discussions between Martin and our skipper, John) optimism was running high.
As we boarded Glad Tidings 5 with 50 clients, there was a really sociable atmosphere. Plenty of returning clients, and lots of new faces, were soon scanning the sea all around the boat. Martin started in the wheelhouse with John and they soon spotted a distant whale surfacing. The quite young animal surfaced again as we passed, another could be seen away to the north near the Farne Islands, and we headed in the direction of a feeding frenzy of Gannets. Another whale appeared, then another, and another. All told, in 4 hours we had 5 or 6 different Minke Whales Gannets provided a spectacular wildlife experience as vast flocks plunged into the sea in search of Herring, 3 Sooty Shearwaters soared effortlessly past the boat, a single Great Skua carved a path through the circling mass of Gannets, Fulmars glided by on stiff outstretched wings, a small flock of Kittiwakes lifted from the water as the boat approached, and one of the largest cheers of the day came when a small pod of Harbour Porpoises surfaced just ahead of us. Martin was kept busy, answering lots of questions from our very enthusiastic clients about whales and dolphins in the North Sea, and managed to grab a few images as well
In near-perfect conditions we arrived at Seahouses yesterday evening for our 3hr coastal cruise on Ocean Explorer. As well as some of our ‘regulars’ we had Andy, Jan and Sam on board, on their final evening in Northumberland.
Soon after heading south down the coast towards Dunstanburgh we came across a couple of Harbour Porpoises. Typically shy, they surfaced a few times and then vanished into the depths. Gannets featured throughout the evening, passing both north and south, and one or two were seen diving. Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills were bobbing about on the water and a mixed flock of Arctic and Common Terns and Kittiwakes had found something to hold their interest. We stopped to see if anything else would come along, and were soon joined by a Fulmar, stunning in the beautiful light.
We gradually headed north, and approached the Farne Islands as the sun began to set. Grey Seals poked their heads out of the water and came off the rocks to investigate our boat, Cormorants and Shags perched sentinel-like on the rocky islets, Turnstones prodded and poked their way around the edge of the mass of Seals and Sam punched the air in elation as his first Curlew flew by The setting sun provided an opportunity to experiment with an aspect of photography that I’ve never really been able to get to grips with, and one which I’ve always been fairly ambivalent about. Excellent light, excellent location, all the ingredients were there to convince me…
Friday was our final Royal Quays evening pelagic for this summer, and we were heading once again on to the North Sea in search of a species that has come to occupy much of my time; White-beaked Dolphin. My first encounter with them was in 2003, on an evening pelagic, and we’ve found them many times since then.
I’ve spent long, difficult days offshore in the winter, researching their distribution while leading the North East Cetacean Project, I’ve stood on a clifftop with clients (on an Otter and Badger Safari!) as a pod covering several square miles of the North Sea passed by, I’ve taken photos like this one on flat seas in beautiful weather
and I’ve had brief encounters in conditions where I was surveying but would never have taken clients out. I’ve spent several hours watching them bow-riding
and I’ve laid on the front of a boat, looking down at a dolphin that was bow-riding upside down looking at me.
On Friday though, we witnessed behaviour that myself and Andy (who was also on board) had never come across before. We think that what happened was a small group, including a tiny calf, were resting near the surface and we inadvertently woke them up. The first indication we had that there were any dolphins around was when an adult crossed close to our bow, tail-slapping. Another adult (or possibly the same one) then began breaching and for 20 minutes we found ourselves shadowed by a pod of about 10 animals. No bow-riding, no interaction other than escorting us as we travelled slowly through their area, and a rare insight into the behaviour of a pod of dolphins protecting the next generation. Eventually the pod dropped away from us and, as we headed south, we saw them for the final time as they milled about distantly in our wake.
We’ve got just one place still available for our September Royal Quays trips (that space is on September 22nd), our Whale and Dolphin Cruise from Seahouses on September 8th is filling rapidly and we’ve got a few spaces on our Farne Deeps trip from Royal Quays in search of White-beaked Dolphin, Minke Whale and seabirds on August 15th and our evening RIB trips from Seahouses. Click here for more details or to book, or call 01670 827465 to reserve your place before they’re all sold out.