North Pennines

The passing of an extraordinary man

by on Mar.06, 2013, under Cheviot Valleys, Choppington Woods, Family and friends, North Pennines, Northumberland

Most people adopt children.  Somehow we adopted a cantankerous septuagenarian…

When we first met Jim, eleven years ago, he was already in his 70’s, but still very active and taking long walks in the countryside and camping most weekends.  Retired for over a decade at that point, he became the first Treasurer of the Friends of Choppington Woods.  He had a stroke in 2005 and was left unable to drive, so one of us, or Glen, would go and collect him so that he could attend FOCW meetings.  We kept an eye on him and when we first started NEWT, and Martin had a lot of time on his hands, the two of them started going out around the Cheviot valleys and the North Pennines – two areas that Jim had studied extensively throughout his life.  His boundless knowledge of the North Pennines, and its mining history and flora, was responsible for the itineraries that we developed for our trips to that area.  Over time Jim was becoming less physically able; walks in the countryside followed by lunch became drives in the countryside followed by lunch and inevitably became drives to a nice pub for lunch.  Discussions about book-collecting (a shared passion) and the natural history and landscape of Northumberland, County Durham and Scotland filled many, many hours and Jim inspired Martin’s interests in lichens, pollen analysis and botany.  When he became ill in 2010, and moved into a residential care home, we took on the responsibility of keeping his close friends informed of how he was, and making sure that anything he needed was provided.

That responsibility meant that three weeks ago we had to let his friends know that he was seriously ill, and the hospital felt he was unlikely to survive.  Jim had other ideas though and, after being taken off all medication, he woke up and asked where his breakfast was.  After a week of remarkable high spirits and lucidity, now back in residential care, it was perhaps inevitable that he began to fade and we had to make those difficult calls again as he was readmitted to the hospital in a very poorly condition last Wednesday.  Close friends came to the hospital to provide comfort to him, as even Jim’s resilience couldn’t hold back his own mortality any longer, and the hardest calls to make were on Saturday morning, to let his friends know that this extraordinary man – prolific book collector and binder, passionate supporter at one time or another of (amongst others) the Natural History Society of Northumbria, Society of Antiquaries, Lit. and Phil. and Northumberland Wildlife Trust, amateur geologist and botanist, with a wealth of knowledge in so many other fields – had passed away peacefully, just before midnight on Friday, with both of us at his side.

It was a privilege to have known him, cared for him and to have learnt so much from him in the last few years, and we’ll both miss him greatly.  As we walk the fells of the North Pennines and explore the Cheviot valleys, we know he’ll be there in spirit.

 

Jim Milligan 1930-2013

Rest in Peace

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North Pennines 04/09/12

by on Sep.05, 2012, under Birdwatching, North Pennines, Northumberland

One of my favourite locations, at a time of year when it isn’t often visited, and returning clients (always a pleasure!) made for an excellent day’s birdwatching in southwest Northumberland and north west County Durham yesterday.

I collected Reg and Val from their home in Newcastle and, as we headed west along the Tyne valley, the clear blue sky promised a good day.  Starting with a walk along the River Allen, we soon encountered a mixed flock that included Nuthatch, Coal Tit, Great Tit, Blackbird and Robin.  The river produced some stunning Grey Wagtails and a brood of Goosanders, shepherded by mum as they scoured the river, heads held below the surface as the current carried them along.  Common Buzzards were calling from high against the azure sky and we could have been forgiven for thinking it was a nice Spring day – other than that the only birds singing were Robins.

Once we were out on the moors. we started to encounter Red Grouse.  Always a stunning bird, whether you’re looking at the handsome males or the intricately patterned females, the sunlight really brought out the best in this moorland specialist.  Black Grouse proved slightly more difficult, unsurprising as there was a ‘stiff’ breeze racing across the fells of the North Pennines AONB 🙂  After a lot of effort, we did find three young Blackcocks sheltering between clumps of rush, and they were very obliging for Reg’s camera.  As we crossed one (very) minor road, we came across my own personal highlight of the day.  Two Ravens appeared over a nearby ridge and headed towards a plantation at the top of the ridge ahead of us.  As they soared higher, a third Raven came into view and began tumbling.  The two closer birds responded with a breathtaking display of aerobatics and, as they plunged towards the ground before swooping up again, their deep croaking calls carried on the breeze to where we were sitting.  A special bird in a special place, and simply awe-inspiring 🙂

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Caught short

by on Jun.22, 2012, under Birdwatching, North Pennines, Northumberland, Photography

Tuesday was Christina’s second day out with us this week, and we had a very specific target for our afternoon and evening of birdwatching and photography, luckily I’d already spent a lot of time this year checking out breeding locations for the species concerned…

As the stunning weather illuminated the North Pennines AONB in beautiful light, Mountain Pansies and Cotton Grass were gently swaying in the breeze, Curlews and Lapwings were calling as they traversed the fellsides, Skylarks were singing from high overhead, Ring Ouzels and Mistle Thrushes flitted from tree to boulder to grassy slope and back again, a lone Woodcock (presumably with a faulty body clock) was roding in bright sunshine and there, on a fence post not 50 metres away was our quarry; stretching, posturing and delivering a haughty stare with piercing yellow eyes, the Short-eared Owl sat obligingly as Christina rattled off frame after frame of pin sharp owl portraits.  The owl was just one small part of the whole experience, but it was the part that the afternoon had been structured to deliver and it slotted into its appointed place in the vast landscape and soundscape.  Our wildlife doesn’t always perform to plan (and it would be rather dull and predictable if it did!), but when everything comes together perfectly it feels sublime.

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Beyond belief

by on May.30, 2012, under Birdwatching, Hen Harrier, North Pennines, Northumberland

Earlier this year I blogged about a North Pennines trip on which we found a pair of Hen Harriers, a species that is very close to the hearts of both owners of NEWT as we spent a lot of time monitoring a nest site in North Tynedale from 2006-2008 (and since then, even though there hasn’t been a subsequent successful nesting attempt at the site).  During the three years where we had successful nesting attempts, that one site and the surrounding area had an adult female shot, an incubating adult female ‘abandoned’ a nest overnight, a nest was robbed, unleashed dogs were allowed to run straight through a nest site, a number of empty nests were located.  And that’s just the persecution/disturbance that we know about.

The sighting in the North Pennines was astonishing, as the area where the birds were is a heartland of illegal raptor persecution.  First the female, and then the ghostly, sublimely beautiful, male dropped down into the heather close to a small burn.  After a brief discussion with our clients on the day, a ‘phone call was made to alert a local raptor worker, with vast experience of monitoring harrier nests.  He was astonished too, and couldn’t remember how long it was since a potential breeding pair had been recorded in that area.  24hrs later there was no sign of either bird at the site, and the breeding attempt had presumably gone the same way as so many others.  Now we’re in a position where there is only one nesting pair in England, and the main contributory factor in that is illegal persecution.

Yet, with illegal persecution still rife and affecting many birds of prey, DEFRA commissioned, and has now thankfully scrapped, a study into the effect of Common Buzzard predation on Common Pheasant populations.  Methods proposed included destroying nests and capturing Common Buzzards and taking them into captivity for falconry.  That’s right, £375,000 of taxpayer’s money was going to be spent deliberately suppressing the population of a native species, that is still recovering after centuries of persecution, in order to protect a non-native, artificially reared and introduced gamebird.  You couldn’t make it up, it’s so far-fetched and ridiculous.  This would have just been the thin end of a very big wedge though.  Sparrowhawks next? then Peregrines and all of our rarer raptors?

What’s really needed is the full force of the law to be brought to bear on those individuals, and estates, that persist in the barbaric, outdated, illegal practice of raptor persecution.  Perhaps DEFRA could fund a study into what happens if raptor populations are left unhindered?

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North Pennines Wild Watch

by on May.23, 2012, under Birdwatching, North Pennines

We’ve had the first two bird ID sessions for the North Pennines WildWatch project already, and both have produced some excellent sightings during the ‘in the field’ bit of the course.

The first session, at Eggleston, produced one outstanding bird – at least for those in the group who weren’t impatiently hurrying back for their bread, cheese and soup…as a group of us watched a Song Thrush gathering food, I looked skywards (a good habit to get into, you never know what could be overhead) and there was an Osprey 🙂 Bird of the day/month/year for those who were lucky enough to see it.

One of my favourite species rounded off the first session, and the second session around Muggleswick as well, as we watched Woodcock roding and chasing each other.  The end of the first session produced another exciting bird that was missed by the group that headed straight back to the cars, as a few of us heard, and then saw, a Tawny Owl.

Both sessions concentrated on identifying birds by song and call, with paticipants getting to grips with Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Blackbird, Blackcap, Willow Warbler,  and Chiffchaff amongst others, and the third session, at Lambley, will have the same focus.  I changed approach between the first two sessions, and I’m busy restructuring the course for the third session based on the teaching/learning experiences gained during the first two.  I knew there was a reason we bought a parabolic microphone (there’s a reason for everything, we just don’t always realise it at the time…) 😉

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North Pennines – Busman’s Holiday

by on May.04, 2012, under Birdwatching, North Pennines

We’ve got a busy few weeks coming up, giving talks locally, exhibiting at the Scottish Bird Fair and delivering the bird identification training courses for the North Pennines WildWatch programme.  Once that’s out of the way, we’ll be into our busy period for trips out with clients, and then delivering more training courses – this time on offshore wildlife survey techniques for MARINElife/North East Cetacean Project and our local Wildlife Trusts.

With all of that in mind we had a weekend in the North Pennines, staying at Saughy Rigg Farm and making an early start on Saturday to visit a Black Grouse lek.  Armed with our new Telinga Pro8W and Stereo DATmic…we sat in the car with the heaters on as the temperature hit 3C and it started snowing 🙂  We could see the grouse – they were sitting huddled in clumps of rush, looking decidely miserable – but they weren’t performing (at least not early on Saturday morning).  A ghostly-pale Short-eared Owl braved the elements, quartering the grassland in search of prey, and the mic picked up the sound of drumming Snipe, calling Curlew and cackling Red Grouse, but once the Blackcock started lekking they were upwind of us and the wind tunnel effect of trying to record them led to a change of tactic and concentrating on photography.

Over the course of the two days, we had excellent views of Red Grouse, Black Grouse, Golden Plover, Curlew, Common Snipe, Redshank, Curlew, Brown Hare, Roe Deer and Rabbit.  The maze of little roads throughout the area offer lots of photographic opportunities so we made the most of them 🙂

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Greyhens, Allendale, Northumberland 28/04/2012

 
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lekking Blackcocks, Upper Teesdale 28/04/2012

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Nothing to grouse about

by on Mar.29, 2012, under Birdwatching, North Pennines, Northumberland

On a beautiful spring day, with raptors soaring against an azure sky, and birdsong carrying on the breeze, just being in the landscape is an experience.

As I collected Peter and Margaret from Barnard Castle for a day of birdwatching around the North Pennines AONB, the temperature gauge on the car hit 18C, and we set off in search of one species in particular.  Our lunch stop, overlooking a Black Grouse lek site, was accompanied by Curlew, Common Snipe, Meadow Pipit and Golden Plover all singing.  As we went deeper into the hills, a Black Grouse stared at us imperiously from a rushy field.  As we enjoyed very close views of the handsome bird, two cyclists came along the road and he flushed…along with another 3 Blackcock.  As Margaret kept a close eye on the birds as they landed and began making their way uphill, Curlew and Golden Plover  landed nearby and began calling.  Then Margaret found another 3 Blackcock, flying by and landing much closer, and watched them before asking “you saw where they landed, can you see them now?”.  I couldn’t but, having watched exactly what they did, Margaret described where they were, and what they were doing.  Incredibly, they were only a few metres from where they’d landed, but had managed to position themselves amongst the rushes and stopped moving so that, unless you happened to be watching them when they did that, you couldn’t see where they were.

As the day continued and we headed across into Upper Teesdale, we found some very close Black Grouse, Common Snipe drumming overhead, Wheatears flitting along dry stone walls, Red Grouse cackling in the heather, a Short-eared Owl quartering grassland in stunning late-afternoon light and 2 Hen Harriers.  That last sighting was exciting, and yet sobering at the same time; it’s been a long time since they bred successfully in that vast area of prime habitat.

Fittingly, our last sighting of the day was of 2 more Black Grouse, picking their way through sun-dappled woodland in the early evening.

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Raptorfest

by on Sep.29, 2011, under Birdwatching, North Pennines, Northumberland

We don’t usually do North Pennines trips in September; by this time of the year we’re focused closely on the coast, and our inland visits tend to be limited to our own photography projects.  However, when we had a ‘phone call on Monday “we’re stopping in Allendale, what can you do for us this week?”, it seemed logical to head into the bleak open expanse of southwest Northumberland and Upper Teesdale.

I collected Jan and Pete from their holiday cottage and we headed cross country as I explained that birdwatching in the North Pennines tends to be about quality rather than quantity…

Sure enough, the mouth-watering quality of birdwatching on the moors was soon evident.  After lots of obligingly photogenic Red Grouse we went through a remarkable period of raptor sightings.  Kestrels and Common Buzzards were followed by a Peregrine harassing a Carrion Crow, a Common Buzzard somehow getting embroiled in that same dispute, a Merlin that raced across the fell behind the intriguing 3-way dogfight, more Kestrels and Common Buzzards, and a Sparrowhawk that had caught a Lapwing (which broke free and flew off, with the Sparrowhawk in pursuit).

Then we had a quantity of quality, as our afternoon and evening produced no less than 73 Black Grouse! 54 Blackcocks and 19 Greyhens was an extraordinary total for one trip and we enjoyed the sight of the cryptically patterned Greyhens, the iridescent blue of the adult Blackcocks and we picked out a few young birds amongst the groups as well.

Rounded off with a carmine pink sky just after sunset, we’ll have to think about adding some autumn North Pennines trips into our schedule for 2012 🙂

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Like a different world

by on Jun.09, 2011, under Birdwatching, North Pennines, Photography

I had 2 days in the North Pennines late last week; a one-to-one photography day and a birdwatching trip.  Separated by just 48hrs, the days could hardly have been any different.

The photography day took place in gales that were so strong, I had to choose the direction of the car carefully when parked so that we could open the doors, and plan the route as we went along so that Michael would be in a position to get shots from his side of our mobile hide, with as little interference as possible from the weather.  As well as serving up Black Grouse, Red Grouse, Golden Plover, Curlew and Short-eared Owl I had a stint as photographer’s assistant, holding my Cubelite in place so that it acted as a diffuser and windshield as Michael enjoyed having some of the area’s flora in front of his macro lens.

2 days later and I collected Mandy, Sara and Stevan from Jesmond and headed west again.  As we crossed the remote moorland roads and walked in Upper Teesdale, we found Snipe, Curlew, Meadow Pipit, Skylark and Wheatear all displaying.  We had excellent views of 2 Greyhens and a Blackcock was dozing in the afternoon sunshine.  Common Sandpipers were flitting about across the water and the Mountain Pansies were glorious in the sunlight.  All too soon, it was time to head back towards civilisation.

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Making the best of the weather

by on May.19, 2011, under North Pennines, Northumberland, Photography

We put a lot of effort into finding locations for species that our clients are keen to photograph and we can apply decades of experience and fieldcraft…but we can’t control the weather.  As we left the lowland coastal strip of Northumberland on Sunday, gaining altitude in a search for Black Grouse at some of our favoured spots in the North Pennines, the rain started to patter on the car windows.  As the wind strengthened, and the pattering turned to a shower, this added another factor to our considerations; 1) find birds, 2) position vehicle so that a) client has a clear shot and b) lighting angle is good, were joined by c) rain isn’t drenching client 🙂  With all of those achieved it just remained for Arthur to fill his memory cards with those species that the North Pennines produces such close views of; Black Grouse, Red Grouse (with chicks), Curlew, Common Snipe, Lapwing, Golden Plover (with chicks) and Short-eared Owl being the stars of the day.  As we drove a steep remote road towards Weardale we even had excellent, and close, views of the often elusive Greyhen, and throughout the day we found several groups of Blackcock (including 7 in one field).  To be honest, if we could control the weather…I’m not sure we would 😉

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