North Pennines

Scouring the moors; North Pennines birdwatching 25/06/2013

by on Jun.26, 2013, under Birdwatching, North Pennines, Northumberland

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… 🙂

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“a real birding day” Birdwatching in the North Pennines 14/06/2013

by on Jun.21, 2013, under Birdwatching, Coquet Island, North Pennines, Northumberland

After a successful sailing around Coquet Island last Thursday, with sightings of Roseate Terns perched and flying,

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Britain’s rarest breeding seabird

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).

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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” 🙂

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Flying in for a day birdwatching in the North Pennines

by on May.27, 2013, under Birdwatching, North Pennines, Northumberland

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.

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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?

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Spring (Gentian) time in the hills

by on May.25, 2013, under Birdwatching, North Pennines, Northumberland

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 🙂

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Spring Gentian,Gentiana verna,macro photography tuition,flower photography tuition,Upper Teesdale,www.northernexperienceimages.co.uk

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.

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North Pennines Birdwatching 13/05/13

by on May.14, 2013, under Birdwatching, North Pennines, Northumberland

I collected Andreas ahead of a day of birdwatching in the North Pennines with two things in mind; Andreas’ target list for the day (Red Grouse, Black Grouse, Ring Ouzel) and the weather forecast (sleet and snow showers, temps as low as 7C)…

Glorious and breezy weather accompanied our journey southwest and we were soon at the first of our regular Black Grouse sites.  We arrived there just ahead of the first of the day’s snow showers – which saw the temperature plummet all the way down to 1C!  We soon found our first Red Grouse of the day, as Curlews displayed overhead, and a third of Andreas’ target list had been achieved.  An unexpected find by Andreas was a Woodcock, tucked into the vegetation as we made our way across from Allendale to Weardale.

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Soon after the Woodcock we came across a displaying Common Snipe, and then our first Black Grouse of the day; a male sitting on a drystone wall, iridescent blue in the sunshine, followed by this bird, half-heartedly displaying while another one fed close by.  Two out of three…

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Brilliant sunshine was followed by snow, was followed by brilliant sunshine, was followed by snow, and that pattern continued throughout the rest of the day.

As we headed for our regular lunch spot, Andreas spotted a female Ring Ouzel, and completed his target list for the day 🙂  As the sunshine bathed the landscape around us, a very confiding Lapwing allowed some easy photography.

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After watching two Blackcock lekking, with seven other birds pottering about nearby, we headed northeast.  The heaviest snow of the day accompanied our journey out of the hills, a reminder that conditions on high ground can be poor at any time…but the reward for braving our remotest landscapes is some really high quality birdwatching.

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Watching the drama unfold

by on May.09, 2013, under Birdwatching, North Pennines, Northumberland

Towards the end of a day in the North Pennines with Tony and Caroline, I suggested that we should head back to a Black Grouse lek where we’d watched two Blackcock pottering about in the early afternoon…

Everything had been performing well.  Red Grouse and Black Grouse playing hide-and-seek-and-run-away-a-bit, Curlew, Redshank, Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Golden Plover and Snipe all displaying, Skylark and Meadow Pipit singing as they ascended skywards, a Wheatear on a midstream rock doing a credible impersonation of a Dipper and the mystery bird of last week’s trip revealed to be a Starling…with a pale crescent on it’s breast!

Now, we were overlooking a lek site that we regularly visit on our North Pennines trips.  Two hours earlier there had been just two Blackcock visible, now there were nine, or ten, or five, or two…every scan produced a different total as birds stopped feeding, sat down in the long vegetation and simply vanished.  A few minutes later they all stood up, started feeding and wandered about for a little while before repeating the process.  After another cycle of ‘feed-hide-reappear’, a minor skirmish developed in amongst the feeding birds.  Two Blackcock squared up to each other; wings spread, tails raised, leaping into the air and lashing out at each other.  All of the other birds suddenly became very alert, and then the fight stopped and they took flight to the nearby area of low vegetation where we’re used to seeing them display.  Other birds, previously unseen, arrived and soon there were 14 of them; arranged in pairs they began the dance that characterises the early mornings of the North Pennines, each bird facing one adversary, strutting around, leaping and cooing (although the wind was carrying that evocative song away from our ears).  Four pairs stopped, and adopted a much more relaxed posture, then two more pairs followed suit.  Soon only two birds were still displaying…and, bizarrely, the other 12 were standing in the exact positions where they’d been when they gave up, like an odd game of musical statues.  Finally one of the remaining combatants pulled his wings in, lowered his tail and raised his head.  The final lekking bird stopped soon after, and we assumed that he was the afternoon’s winner.  As the gladiatorial contest ended, all of the other birds came out of the trance that they appeared to be in and began feeding.  The defeated bird from the final pairing made a half-hearted attempt at resuming the battle, but soon desisted when the reigning champion headed menacingly in his direction.

Sometimes a wildlife experience is just breathtaking, and watching the lek, from the trigger that kicked it all off to the final mystifying tableau, has crashed into my all-time Top 5 🙂

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Moorland meanderings

by on May.02, 2013, under Birdwatching, North Pennines, Northumberland

As I collected Jenny and Rob for a day in the North Pennines, the weather looked promising, although a little breezy, and we were quickly in the hills.  The song of Lapwing, Curlew, Snipe, Redshank, Golden Plover and Oystercatcher carried on the breeze as we found our first Black Grouse of the day – a Blackcock and two Greyhens.  Red Grouse seemed to be filling every available bit of moorland and we had an ‘is it or isn’t it?’ moment with an upright, backlit, black bird on an old barn that seemed to show a pale crescent on the throat/breast.  It flew out of sight and we were left wondering (I’ve been back and do know what it is, but you’ll have to wait for my next blog post…).

Our afternoon finished with eight Blackcocks lekking, but probably the stars of the day were one of our smaller moorland birds, as we came across a succession of Wheatears.  Strikingly handsome male, and subtly beautiful female, Northern Wheatears are always a pleasure to see, but the real surprise was a group of six birds together.  Big, upright, and flushed underneath with pinky-orange, these birds were Greenland Wheatears.  Migration doesn’t happen only on the coast 🙂

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Black Grouse Bonanza Day 1; Nothing to grouse about

by on Apr.22, 2013, under Birdwatching, North Pennines, Northumberland

As I drove to Peth Head Cottage on Thursday afternoon, the rain was hammering against the car windscreen.  Friday’s forecast was good though so, after a meal at The Travellers Rest in Slaley, I reminded Derek and Deirdre that we would have an early start the next morning.

19/04/2013 05:00…the incessant ringing of the alarm pierced the depths of my sleep and I jumped out of bed, showered and opened my bedroom window.  The dawn chorus, mainly Blackbirds, Robins and Song Thrushes, was deafening, and the last remnants of rain were pattering down as we set off across the moors to a Black Grouse lek.  Roe Deer were watching us from a roadside field and a Tawny Owl flew across in front of us, no doubt heading for a secluded daytime roosting site.  First lek site, no birds, second lek site two Greyhens and a distant altercation between two Blackcock along a drystone wall as Curlew, Snipe, Oystercatcher and Lapwing displayed nearby and a Common Buzzard lumbered its way across the horizon.  A third site produced the goods though as, adjacent to a field filled with summer-plumaged Golden Plover, two Blackcock were strutting their stuff for the benefit of three Greyhens…who watched them with what appeared to be complete indifference 🙂

After returning to Peth Head for a delicious, and very filling, breakfast (accompanied by Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Siskins, Robins, Dunnocks and a Reed Bunting on the feeders just outside the dining room window) we set out again.  By now, the sun was up, bathing the moors in sublime warm tones, and Derek spotted the tell-tale white flash of a displaying Blackcock.  This bird was strutting around next to two Greyhens, head down, tail up, pausing occasionally to stand bolt upright before jumping in the air and singing.  Just beyond the lekking lothario, a Short-eared Owl was quartering the moor.  Backwards and forwards on long narrow wings, the owl flew closer to our position, until eventually binoculars were put down when the field of view was completely filled with yellow-eyed menace as the owl flew over the bonnet of the car before veering away just inches from the windscreen.

Deeper into the North Pennines AONB, over moorland liberally sprinkled with pairs of Red Grouse, flocks of Golden Plover flying around and giving their plaintive call, with a Dunlin easily picked out in one flock by it’s small size, and farmland with Brown Hares chasing each other, Derek’s sharp eyes picked out a bird on telegraph wires…and we had our first Ring Ouzel of the trip.  Singing it’s simple song, this could well have been the bird that I watched with Sarah in late March. A pair of Ring Ouzels followed soon after, staying just ahead of the car as we traversed a narrow road high above Weardale.  Deirdre spotted several displaying Blackcock and we passed from Weardale into Upper Teesdale.  Walking the remote moors produced close views of Red Grouse, Golden Plover, Wheatear, Skylark and Meadow Pipit before a completely unexpected find; for a second I wasn’t sure what I was watching, as a large brown and white bird drifted over the moor with deep lazy wingbeats, but as I lifted my binoculars I could barely contain my excitement as I let Derek and Deirdre know that there was an Osprey flying by!  We watched the bird as it hovered and then dived into a nearby reservoir, but it’s departure route took it out of sight so we didn’t see if it was successful in its hunt.  A pair of Goosander were feeding along the reservoir edge and, as they eventually crossed the open water, they picked up a Tufted Duck for company.

I had a hunch that Black Grouse would be lekking late afternoon, so we returned to a site that had held just one resting Blackcock earlier in the day.  Sure enough, ‘the boys’ had gathered for a bit of a barney; 15 of them had turned up – seven obvious pairs of combatants and one bird sitting off to one side holding his wings, head and tail in the typical display posture but just standing still and watching the series of duels that were taking place in front of him.  A couple of them broke out into physical fights, and all of the birds were calling as the lek reached a crescendo before, as if someone had flicked a switch, they suddenly lowered their undertail coverts, lifted their heads, folded their wings back in and started nonchalantly pottering around the gladiatorial arena as if nothing had happened.  Just as exciting though, was what was going on above the lek.  In my field of view I could see a Curlew drop almost vertically before heading skyward again.  I raised my binoculars to follow it’s path and as it dropped again it was harassing, with the assistance of a flock of Black-headed Gulls, a male Goshawk! Open moorland may not be typical habitat for this fearsome inhabitant of our upland forests, but it isn’t the first time we’ve seen one out of context in late April.

Back across the moors to Hexhamshire we saw more Red Grouse, more Black Grouse and, after a quick stop back at Peth Head we headed out to eat at the Dipton Mill Inn.  We followed that with a drive into Slaley Forest for Woodcock and Tawny Owls then, before retiring to bed, I stood in the dark outside the cottage and listened as at least four Tawny Owls called from close by.  A superb end to an excellent day 🙂

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In the grip of winter…in late March

by on Apr.04, 2013, under North Pennines, Northumberland

Sunday saw the two of us heading southwest into the North Pennines to carry out some recce work for a press trip that Martin was leading.  As soon as we were up above the level of the Tyne valley there was snow laying, which got deeper as we gained altitude.  Lapwings, Curlew and Oystercatcher were all displaying, Common Kestrels were hovering over the few clear areas of vegetation and Common Buzzards soared by.  With a white landscape, Red Grouse and Black Grouse were easy to find and a few Red Grouse were close enough to make it worthwhile getting the camera out.

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Red Grouse,bird photography,bird photography tuition,Northumberland

Red Grouse,bird photography,photography tuition,Northumberland

The highlight of the day came just over the border in County Durham with a stunning male Ring Ouzel, close to a nest site, being harrassed by a Mistle Thrush. The ‘Mountain Blackbird’ just seemed to be in exactly the right place in the wintry hills in deep snow.

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Along the frontier

by on Apr.04, 2013, under North Pennines, Northumberland

After our Holy Island trip I had 2 days of Outdoor First Aid training, to renew my OFA certificate for another 3 years.  The course was delivered by Dave Jones at Inspirational Training and was a lot of fun – even the outdoor casualty scenarios on the second day in a brutally cold, howling easterly wind!  A very pleasant surprise was finding myself on the same training course as one of my former pupils, Tom Hopper.

What came next was something of a departure from my routine work, as I guided a TV research team along Hadrian’s Wall for five days.  After visiting numerous archaeological sites, museums, cafes, castles and pubs during the week there was one highlight that stood out above all others;  The team were looking around the Housesteads Roman Fort while I sat in the car, re-arranging our activities for the following day.  I was just starting to think that they’d been gone for quite a while when my mobile started ringing; “Martin, it’s Nic.  We’re walking to Steel Rigg.”  I drove to Steel Rigg, made sure I was well wrapped up and started walking towards Housesteads to meet up with them on the path above Sycamore Gap.  With several inches of snow beside the path, a bitingly-cold easterly wind and frequent snow showers, it was a glorious afternoon to be walking along the Roman Wall with outstanding views over the North Pennines, Jackdaws tossed in the wind like black leaves, Curlews wandering aimlessly on snow-covered meadows and faint snatches of Meadow Pipit song carried on the breeze.  whatever the weather, Northumberland’s still outstanding 🙂

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