Chris’ comment as we arrived to spend Friday evening, as we do most Friday evenings, at The Swan suggested a customer with a fascinating repertoire of anecdotes… As Philip was about to head to his room, he came across to say goodnight to Chris and Kirsty, and we all got talking. As he’s passionate about wildlife, fly-fishing, photography and sustainability there were plenty of shared interests to chat about When we discovered that he hadn’t had much publicity for the Northumberland coast section of his walk, a flurry of texts and tweets (at 22:30 on Friday night) led to interviews on BBC Radio Newcastle and Radio Northumberland on Saturday as he walked from Cresswell to Blyth. The other thing we could help him with was transport to Cresswell on Saturday morning, and some company for the first part of the walk.
Martin collected Philip at 10:00 and accompanied him for a very wet five miles down the coast to Newbiggin. Fulmars were soaring steeply above the clifftops, Gannets were heading north into the strong breeze and Skylarks sang overhead during interludes between showers. As they reached Newbiggin a lady came out of her house and put some money into Philip’s collection tin – she had been keeping an eye out for him after hearing his interview on BBC Radio Newcastle!
Philip’s a fascinating man, undertaking an amazing journey for a very worthy cause so if you can help him in any way, please do; follow him on Twitter, donate via JustGiving or check the schedule for the rest of his walk and think if you can help in some way as he passes along your stretch of the coastline
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
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…
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.
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?
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!).