Little sign of human habitation, miles and miles of rolling hills, heather moorland and the occasional small stream and isolated lough for additional interest. A day in the North Pennines is an intriguingly different prospect after a couple of days on the coast…
I collected Clare and Peter from The Swan and we headed southwest into the interior wilderness of the North Pennines. Our main target for the day didn’t put up the elusive fight that I expected, as we were no sooner on higher ground than Peter spotted a Greyhen sitting on a dry stone wall. A Blackcock was feeding in the rough pasture nearby, and suddenly broke off to engage in a couple of minutes of unexpected solo display. More Black Grouse followed throughout the day and Red Grouse popped up in the heather every few metres. Kestrels hovered over the fells, Common Buzzards soared along ridges and a flock of Golden Plover was an unexpected find. Swallows swooped low over streams, fattening up in preparation for the long journey ahead of them, Golden Plover, Grey Plover, Ruff, Black-tailed Godwit, Lapwing, Teal and Wigeon were around the edges of a lough in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall and the day wouldn’t have been complete without a charm of Goldfinches 🙂
When I arrived at Waren Mill to collect Kevin and Chris, things weren’t looking promising for our planned Farne Islands Safari. We drove down to the sea at Bamburgh and a quick look told me all I needed to know; there really was no chance of boats sailing out of Seahouses with the frothy white sea being driven by a strengthening southwesterly breeze. A quick discussion revealed a few species that Chris hasn’t seen yet, and we headed southwest towards the North Pennines to try and catch up with a couple of those.
Ring Ouzel was first up on our revised ‘shopping list’ and we got out of the car, only to discover that it was now so windy that standing upright was a challenge! We were close to a nest site, and I’ve spent enough years there to know that the birds feed in an area of short grass and clumps of rush just below the narrow secluded valley where they nest. A couple of minutes later I was scanning along the line of a drystone wall – and a male Ring Ouzel hopped out from behind a clump of rush 🙂 After a few minutes, enjoying good views of the ‘Mountain Blackbird’ as he crossed the rough pasture, we continued on our way. Curlew, Red Grouse, Golden Plover, Lapwing and a Woodcock, contentedly digging worms out of the earth, were all seen as we headed towards the next species on Chris’s target list. Black Grouse can be a difficult bird to find in the middle of the day, but I knew where I would expect them to be, and Kevin quickly spotted a dark head, with the tell-tale huge red eyebrow, poking up from the dense grassland. More Black Grouse followed and we headed across to the coast in search of a third lifer for Chris. The howling wind appeared to be driving a storm in our direction, and we just managed to find a Roseate Tern before the first rain drops started pattering on our heads 🙂
Sunday 03:00 and the insistent beeping of the alarm tells me that it’s time to be up and out, to collect Sam and Brian. Two cancelled Kielder trips, due to ‘adverse’ weather conditions, led them to suggest that we switch our attentions back to the North Pennines, where we’d had a successful early start just over a year ago. Brian has written an excellent blog post about the day, which started with sunshine and ended with hail, and you can read his account here.
Once again the Black Grouse performed beyond expectation. At least 29 Blackcock were lekking and a minimum of 14 Greyhens were in and around the lek. Subsequently we found two Blackcock lekking individually, each perched atop a small mound, apparently without any other grouse nearby. Back at the main lek, a major point of interest was the behaviour of the adult males towards a younger bird. Each time he appeared in the lek, the older, more experienced, birds broke off their attention from each other and pursued him until he flew off. Time and time he came back, each time getting the same treatment. The NGB (Next Generation Blackcock) upstart seemed undeterred by, perhaps even relishing the attention of, the beating he was taking from the experienced birds at the lek as they pranced, pouted, cooed and squared off against each other. Wildlife’s an odd thing sometimes, but always fascinating to watch 🙂
I collected Peter for his third day out with NEWT and we headed southwest towards the big hills of the North Pennines.
Midsummer on the moors is a very different prospect to the spring and early summer. Common Snipe, Curlew, Redshank, Lapwing, Oystercatcher and Golden Plover are all still there, but occasional calls are the norm, rather than the all-enveloping soundscape of March and April. Black Grouse have, in the main, finished displaying but can still be found furtively creeping between clumps of rush, and the condensed growing season for plants in the often brutal environment of exposed areas so high above sea level means that some of the most sought-after species aren’t in flower by the time we reach the end of June.
What midsummer does bring though is chicks, and photo opportunities 🙂 Young Curlew, fluffy, short-billed replicas of their parents, were pottering about, and apparently intent on not letting Peter get his camera focused on them, Red Grouse with their large broods, including one pair with chicks picking grit from the roadside, seemingly oblivious to our presence, and Golden Plover, watching us from raised tussocks in the heather as their young prodded and poked around the vegetation nearby. A Blackcock, now showing signs of moult and no longer the strutting dandy of the lekking season, wandered across a rushy field and, after a day in the hills, probably my own favourite moment of the day came as a Common Snipe perched on the apex of a dead tree and Peter patiently waited for it to turn its head to one side so that he could capture the extraordinary length of the bill. The bird obliged, of course 🙂
Northumberland may be a coastal county, but heading inland you soon encounter some big impressive landscapes. I collected Gordon and Mandy, who were last out with us on a Druridge Bay trip in June last year, and we headed through the foothills of the Cheviots, down to the Tyne valley and then up into the North Pennines.
We’d all packed waterproofs…but it turns out that the weather forecast isn’t always right 🙂 On a big, rolling landscape, under big, big skies, Common Snipe, Curlew, Redshank, Oystercatcher andLapwing were all displaying, the plaintive cries of Golden Plover carried across the moorland on a cool breeze, Skylarks soared overhead, delivering their rich repertoire against the backdrop of azure sky, Cuckoo and Merlin attracted the attention of angry Meadow Pipits asBlack Grouse fed contentedly in grassy fields adjacent to the moors. Golden Plover andRed Grouse kept a watchful eye as their chicks scrambled up and over tussocks of heather and an impressive array of flowers, including Spring Sandwort, Mountain Pansy, Bird’s-eye Primrose and more Spring Gentians than we’ve seen in the last six years, provided interest at our feet. It’s an experience that really has to be, well, experienced, in order to appreciate what the area has to offer.
The North Pennines could almost tempt me to move away from the sea, almost 😉
A pre-dawn start heralded a long anticipated day out with Sam and Brian, part of Sam’s prize from last years Natural History Society of Northumbria Photography competition. Sam is part of a generation of young photographer/naturalists in Northumberland, and it was a pleasure to have a day discussing photography, wildlife and ethics with himself and Brian.
As we headed west, the first tendrils of daylight began creeping over the eastern horizon in the rear view mirror and a Tawny Owl perched on a fence post and another flew over as we stopped to have a look at it. The plan for the day was to visit the Black Grouse lek at Langdon Beck first, and then begin slowly exploring back through the North Pennines into Allendale. I’ve had some stunning days with clients in the North Pennines, including a remarkable grouse and raptor day, but this one was breathtaking. Visually, Black Grouse are spectacular, and the strutting and posturing of a group of lekking blackcock is one of those wildlife experiences that everyone should experience at least once, but the sound when you’ve got 30+ of these birds all kicking off at the same time is indescribable.
As the lek disassembled, we prowled the moors in search of subjects for Sam’s and Brian’s cameras. Common Snipe and Lapwing were very close to the road, and when Sam mentioned that he’d always wanted to get close shots of Common Snipe, I thought I knew just the place. Sure enough, the sky was filled with Snipe drumming, and several of them were taking a break, obligingly perched on fence posts 🙂 Throughout the day we encountered lots of those birds that are common on the coast in winter, but much more thinly spread on the moors in the Spring; Oystercatcher, Redshank, Golden Plover, Curlew. An unexpected addtion to my Cow Green list presented itself in the form of a flock of 22 Whooper Swans. That moorland speciality, Red Grouse, was seen in good numbers offering photogenic views in mist, rain, sunshine and everything else the elements could muster. A heart-stopping moment at the end of the day produced an all too fleeting glimpse of the striking black-and white tail of what could only be a Rough-legged Buzzard, which sadly drifted behind nearby trees without lingering long enough to be captured on camera.
Now, all I’ve got to do is work out how to get the bubbling cooing sounds of the lek out of my head 😉
Returning clients have become a bit of a theme for NEWT in the last couple of years, and it’s always lovely to meet up and hear what our clients have been doing, and seeing, since they were last out with us.
Mike and Maggie were visiting Northumberland again, and their day out with me this year was to be a bespoke birdwatching and photography experience in the North Pennines. As soon as we were on the higher ground, Curlew, Golden Plover, Lapwing and Red Grouse were all found with chicks, Redshank were calling noisily from nearby rushy fields and Skylark and Meadow Pipits were singing overhead. More Red Grouse and Golden Plover became targets for Mike’s camera and a Ring Ouzel feeding in a grassy field flew up onto a dry stone wall, next to another ouzel, as a third flew across the road behind us. As we dropped from the high ridge between Weardale and Upper Teesdale, an unexpected bonus bird was sitting in the middle of the road. The unmistakeable ‘built like a breeze block’ figure of a Woodcock was just sitting there. As we watched, it called, and two Woodcock chicks came out of the long grass to join it 🙂 Creeping along on short legs and big feet, the adult bobbed up and down, like a Jack Snipe on steroids, as it led it’s young across into the dense cover of the grass on the opposite side of the road.
Our post-lunch walk produced Golden Plover, Ringed Plover, Grey Wagtail, Red Grouse, a single Spring Gentian and a female Ring Ouzel, gathering food by a fast flowing stream. The journey back towards Allendale was enlivened by the impressive wingspan and mad staring yellow eyes of a Short-eared Owl as it quartered the high moorland. There was one species on our target list for the day that was still missing though, and we’d already checked almost all of our usual sites. Then, as we crossed back into Northumberland, I slowed the car almost to a standstill and mentioned that the next field on the left, in between the clumps of rush closest to the road, was a regular spot for Black Grouse… 🙂
After a successful sailing around Coquet Island last Thursday, with sightings of Roseate Terns perched and flying,
our re-arranged North Pennines Safari was on Friday.
I collected Liz and Ronnie from The Swan and we headed southwest into the hills. Only a month earlier we had a North Pennines trip in near-zero temperatures, but now everything was much more springlike. Curlews were gliding across the moors, their haunting cries carrying on the breeze, Lapwings were displaying in that bizarre way that has you half convinced they they’re just going to crash into the ground and there were plenty of birds with chicks; Redshank, Curlew, Lapwing, Golden Plover and Red Grouse were all mindful of their offspring as we made our way across the moors. Common Snipe appeared unexpectedly from clumps of rush and one obliging bird perched on a fence post as we sat just a few metres away. Pairs of noisy Redshank flew from fence post to dry stone wall and back again and, like the Snipe, one bird perched obligingly (like the one pictured here from 2011).
Liz’s feedback e-mail, at the end of the holiday and our day in the North Pennines, summed it up so well – “a real birding day” 🙂
I always enjoy meeting up with our previous clients again, and Saturday morning found me at Newcastle Airport waiting to meet Jacob and Nancy as they arrived for a couple of days birdwatching in Northumberland. They were going to be spending Sunday on the Farne Islands, but our destination on what was developing into a gloriously sunny Saturday was the North Pennines.
Just 12 days earlier I’d been marvelling at the temperature of 1C at 10:30am but now Curlew, Lapwing and Oystercatcher were all flying around and calling noisily as we reached the higher ground southwest of Hexham, Skylarks were singing exuberantly against the azure sky, Meadow Pipits were ‘parachuting’ down at the end of their song flights and Common Snipe were calling from concealed positions in the grassland. In the stunning light, Barn Swallows were eye-wateringly iridescent, a pair of Golden Plover flew in front of us and a pair of Red Grouse watched closely over eight chicks. Red Grouse was a lifer for Jacob and Nancy and one male allowed a very close approach and provided a lot of photo opportunities for them. Eyebrows, raised, eyebrows lowered, facing left, facing right, staring into the lens; he went through a veritable supermodel repertoire of poses before seemingly melting into the vegetation.
As we travelled across a high moorland road, a Northern Wheatear posed obligingly for photographs.
Skylarks and Meadow Pipits provided a memorable aural backdrop to our lunch stop, and a Golden Plover was silhouetted on top of a nearby ridge, keeping a close eye on it’s territory. Near perfect weather, a gentle breeze, spectacular landscape and stunning birds; what more could you want from a day’s birdwatching?
The ‘quality over quantity’ birdwatching in the North Pennines has been the predominant feature of our days out with clients in the last two months, and a ‘phone enquiry on Tuesday saw me collecting David and Margaret on Wednesday morning for a day birdwatching in the hills.
Red Grouse was the first of the upland specialities we encountered and, after a few single birds scattered across the moors we came across a pair with a brood of 10 chicks. The adults watched us carefully as their offspring wandered about, completely unconcerned by our presence. Lapwing and Curlew seemed to be everywhere and one Lapwing provided our only sighting of Snipe for the day, as it chased one over the road in front of us. Oystercatcher, Redshank and Golden Plover were noisily displaying, Kestrels were stationary in the strong breeze and our first three Black Grouse were all seen distantly. I was sure that we’d get much closer views of Blackcock and, sure enough, at the same spot where I photographed a displaying bird earlier this month, we came across what were probably the same two birds from that trip.
A walk at Cow Green reservoir brought a non-avian highlight as Spring Gentians were in bloom. If you’ve never seen one, this is what they look like 🙂
After our walk we watched a small group of Blackcock as they engaged in their, slightly comical, lekking behaviour before heading back north east after another excellent day in the hills.