In an ideal world, a bespoke photography day with a client involves arriving at our chosen location, discussing techniques that will be required to achieve the desired image and then waiting for the perfect light to fall on the subject…
I arrived at Church Point on Sunday afternoon to collect Gareth for his bespoke photography trip. My task was to deliver locations that would provide the opportunities for landscape or wildlife photography, and give advice on technique when needed. In advance I’d planned a route through Druridge Bay, southeast Northumberland and the Northumberland coast that would provide a series of landscape opportunities. So, discovering that visibility on the coast was poor was a bit of a spanner in the works My backup plan was some nice close, obliging wildlife…swifts, swallows and martins were the ideal subject for the afternoon. Difficult enough to test the abilities of most photographers, but usually obligingly consistent in their feeding, bathing and drinking behaviour.
As Gareth honed his ‘birds in flight’ skills we had an unexpected bonus in the shape of four Otters! A writhing sinuous mass of muscle and menace, they twisted and turned in the water before climbing onto the bank and one of them munched contentedly on the fruits of it’s labour – a large Eel.
Displaying Redshank, typically unobliging Little Grebes and a ghostly Barn Owl drifting across a reedbed as dusk approached all added to the wildlife experience as Gareth shot lots of images of Swallows as they twisted, turned and stalled just a few feet away from us. I managed a few shots myself, as we compared the effect of different camera settings, focal lengths etc.
‘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
Even after 40+ years of wildlife-watching, there are still (in fact, quite often) occasions when I see something that’s really quite special.
After an afternoon around Druridge Bay and Southeast Northumberland with Michael and Wendy, we were heading for one of NEWT’s favourite spots along the River Wansbeck. The afternoon had produced some excellent birdwatching, with four Yellow Wagtails, including one bird that was almost canary yellow, a White Wagtail, four Avocets, a female Marsh Harrier, and a Peregrine hunting pigeons. As we passed Ellington a Barn Owl flew low across the road from our right, narrowly missing the oncoming traffic and quickly gained elevation above our side of the road with what appeared to be a look of surprise on it’s face
Surprise of the day came as we walked along the Wansbeck. In still quite good light, a Daubenton’s Bat was hawking low over the water. It’s a species we’ve encountered frequently on our trips, but never in such good light that we could really appreciate the beautiful red-brown of it’s upperparts and the white underside. As darkness fell, and we headed back to our starting point, another red-brown mammal finished the day for us, as a Red Fox trotted across the road.
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…
With the wind still whistling around our ears last Thursday, I arrived at Church Point to collect Paul and Alex for a mini-safari around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland.
Red-breasted Mergansers flew by at our first stop, as Alex’s sharp eyes picked out a Roe Deer, eying us nervously from the opposite bank of the river before vanishing into the undergrowth (the deer that is, not Alex!). More Mergansers were displaying (quite a comical act), as were a pair of Great Crested Grebes, including ‘dancing with weed’ – that could conjure up some odd images Meadow Pipits were picking their way along a grassy field, Wigeon were grazing, a single Long-tailed Duck stayed distant and spent much of it’s time underwater and Tufted Duck, Gadwall and Goldeneye demonstrated that you don’t need to be colourful to be attractive.
Despite the weather, and the late arrival of many of our summer visitors, one pair of birds seemed oblivious to the conditions. A female Marsh Harrier fought against the breeze before dropping out of sight, only to reappear again as a male, who we had watched hunting at some distance, flew over with prey. The female rose ahead of him, and as he caught up with her he tossed the love offering through the air and into her talons. Harrier food-passes will always be one of my favourite wildlife spectacles. The raw emotion and the invisible connection between the birds, following the arc of the food item as it travels between them, is just very, very special.
I’m easily distracted and always have been, but also quite obsessive. Maybe an odd combination, but it seems to work for me. With an office window that looks over several allotments and gardens, as well as the 76ha of mixed woodland that is Choppington Woods Local Nature Reserve, I’m quite keen on keeping a close eye on what turns up in the garden…
With the shaded areas of the garden still carrying a light veneer of frost, and a stiff southeasterly breeze cutting to the bone as I filled the feeders yesterday morning, a Common Buzzard soared overhead as the Coal Tits perched just a few feet above me, providing encouragement for me to hurry up and fill the feeders. As soon as I was back inside, the tree was a mass of excitement. Chaffinches were dropping in from every direction and I settled to checking through the birds on the feeders, and on the ground below them, hoping that the Bramblings we’ve had for the last few couple of months would be still around. What I found instead were visitors that were even more unusual in the context of our feeding station – 3 Lesser Redpolls were picking at fallen seed on the ground and a Goldcrest was hurrying around the edges of the shrubbery nearby. The Redpolls were just another episode in what has been an unusual winter in our garden; our first garden record of Marsh Tit, second record of Tree Sparrow (2 birds which have been with us every day for a few months now), third record of Nuthatch, the return of Willow Tit after nearly a two year absence, regular sightings of Brambling and occasional Treecreeper have made this a winter where we really couldn’t predict what would be on the feeders whenever we checked them.
As I sat down to write this, I glanced out of the window and my eye immediately fell on seven bulky finches in our neighbour’s Silver Birch trees. As one of the birds was hanging upside down while feeding, lifting my binoculars only confirmed what I already knew; another infrequent visitor had put in an appearance this winter. I opened the window, and heard the metallic ‘chip-chip’ as the flock of Common Crossbills flew into the pines behind our house. Now, what was I meant to be doing ?
One of my favourite birds eased the pain of a shopping trip to Morpeth on Saturday morning. Why a painful shopping trip?…well, going to order a pair of reading glasses was my acceptance that my eyesight (at least my near vision) isn’t what it was when I was younger. I do a lot of reading, but I’ve reached the point where my arms simply aren’t long enough to hold things far enough away for me to be able to read them, and I can’t grow longer arms…
As we approached Morpeth, it was comforting to realise that my vision, beyond a few feet, is still fine, as a distant flock of birds resolved into a group of at least 38, outrageously beautiful, Bohemian Waxwings. There really isn’t too much in the way of subtlety where Waxwings are involved and, shopping trip completed, I positioned myself with camera. Take a few shots…move closer…take a few shots…move closer. Then the inevitable happened and the birds moved closer to me, and too close to focus on (with the camera, not with my eyes!). Before that though, I did manage just under 300 images
Last weekend was the Big Garden Birdwatch and we followed tradition by sitting in our kitchen with a mug of coffee, and a bacon and tomato sandwich, having topped up all of the feeders the evening before. An hour later, we’d racked up a list of 21 species; Blackbird 3, Jackdaw 2, Collared Dove 2, Robin 3, Chaffinch 20, Great Tit 3, Coal Tit 3, Magpie 1, Blue Tit 2, Dunnock 1, Goldfinch 8, Jay 1, Bullfinch 1, House Sparrow 1, Greenfinch 1, Woodpigeon 2, Redwing 1, Tree Sparrow 1, Song Thrush 1, Sparrowhawk 1, Brambling 2. Quite a successful hour, although most species weren’t present in the numbers we would have expected and, as usual, several species that had been visiting the garden in recent days (Marsh Tit, Willow Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Siskin, Great Spotted Woodpecker) failed to appear during the 1 hour of the survey. Easy birding, and part of a huge national survey. If you didn’t do it this year, give it a go in 2014
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?
On days when one species doesn’t appear, the supporting cast can often be equally stunning.
An icy breeze was whistling around the car as I collected Matt and Kate for a day searching for Otters and other wildlife around southeast Northumberland. We started with a riverside walk and were soon enjoying excellent views of a Kingfisher, stunning orange and electric blue, as it perched, hovered, dived and whizzed backwards and forwards along the river. A Grey Wagtail bobbed around, oblivious to our presence, and a Little Grebe dived in the gravelly shallows.
Our next port of call produced a mixture of pleasure and sadness; while we were watching three Red Squirrels a Grey Squirrel appeared Northumberland is probably the best place to see Red Squirrel in England, and the southeast of the county still has a few sites where excellent views can be obtained, but the arrival of Greys is often followed by the rapid spread of parapox through the local Red population.
A stop at East Chevington produced lots of Tufted Ducks and Goldeneye, more Little Grebes and a Grey Heron…and a strengthening breeze and increasing cloud cover. If there was an Otter about, it was doing the sensible thing and keeping itself hidden away out of the wind. Whooper Swans were sitting in a flooded field, with Mute Swans nearby for ease of comparison, and everything we encountered was facing into the wind to minimise heat loss.
Our final site for the day was another stretch of river; one that we walk regularly ourselves, and where we’d had up-to-date info about Otter activity. A stunning Red Fox watched us inquisitively from the opposite side of the river, Moorhens swam back and forth with that curious jerky motion that they have and, as daylight gave way to darkness and a Tawny Owl called nearby, a succession of dog walkers commented “you should have been here yesterday…”.