Southeast Northumberland

“…and a Common Seal in a dead tree”; Otter Safari 02/12/16

by on Dec.04, 2016, under Druridge Bay, Otter, Southeast Northumberland

From the Fascinating ‘Life on Earth’ back in the 1970’s, through to the jaw-dropping ‘Planet Earth II‘ that’s currently showing on the BBC (2 episodes to go, ‘Grasslands’ this evening and ‘Cities’ next Sunday!), I’ve always enjoyed David Attenborough’s programmes.  Recent series have included a section at the end of each programme, detailing the planning and effort that went into capturing a particular sequence.  Those sections are really important, as they make it clear just how wildlife doesn’t work to a script…

I collected Emma and Kevin from Newbiggin and we set off for a day in search of Otters around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland.  My interest was piqued fairly quickly, as Emma removed her camera from it’s bag with a Nikon 200-500mm lens attached – the same lens that I’m currently thinking about buying 🙂  It was a great opportunity to see the lens in action, and to see some of Emma’s stunning images from their safari in Tanzania, but would Northumberland’s wildlife perform for the camera?  As Emma said “You can’t just rock up and expect wildlife to be there in front of you”…

Arriving at our first site I caught a brief glimpse of something dark rolling at the surface and vanishing into the flat calm water.  Otter? or Cormorant?  A loud squawk from a Black-headed Gull caught my attention, and we turned to see two gulls circling over one patch of water.  Look under them, look under them…and there’s an Otter 🙂  Twisting, turning and diving, the adult Otter caught a fish and headed towards a fallen tree…and a small cub swam out to greet it!  Kevin quickly spotted a second cub, and once the adult was out of the water, it was obvious that she’d got three cubs.  The cubs were staying close to the bank as mum headed out into deeper water to catch fish and, each time she swam away from them they’d start calling to her.  Swimming in the shallows, clambering over boulders and fallen trees, scattering terrified Goldeneye, Goosander, Little Grebe and Cormorant as a Kingfisher flashed by, and eventually disappearing, presumably for a nap after a busy couple of hours, this was a strong contender for ‘best Otter sighting for NEWT’ 🙂  Another sighting late afternoon, at a different site (where we know there’s a female with three cubs), provided an interesting observation of Otter behaviour.  This time the female was catching food and taking it out of sight, presumably to her cubs.  While she was still hunting in front of us I noticed Goldeneye and Teal scattering from another part of the pool…and there was an Otter cub.  Eventually the female stopped feeding and headed towards the cub before escorting it back to where we suspected it’s siblings were hiding. passing right in front of us on the way 🙂

A mind-blowing Starling murmuration and Roe Deer drinking at the water’s edge at dusk finished off a day of highlights so, with a certain amount of artistic licence, and to be sung to the tune of the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’…

20,000 Starling swirling, 9 Sanderling scurrying, 8 Pink-footed Geese yapping, 7 Shorelark shuffling, 6 Otters swimming, 5 Eiiiiddderr Ducks, 4 Cormorants fishing, 3 Sparrowhawk hunting, 2 Lions dozing, and a Common Seal in a dead tree.

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Strategy; Bespoke Otter mini-Safari 13/11/16

by on Nov.15, 2016, under Druridge Bay, Otter, Southeast Northumberland

Sunday was Claire and Sophie’s 2nd trip with NEWT, following a wildlife safari on the coast in 2014.  As we left Newbiggin the first scattered drops of rain hit the windscreen…

Arriving at our first location, Claire asked if she’d remembered correctly how to search for Otters, and started scanning an area of water that was noticeably devoid of ducks…then almost immediately answered her own question with another one “what’s this in front of me?  It’s an Otter” 🙂  We watched the cub as it fed on small fish and then it caught a much larger one which it took into the reeds.  Through the telescope we could see the dark shape of the Otter wriggling among the reeds, as a second cub came into view and started feeding.  Scattering Goldeneye, Mallard, Long-tailed Duck, Tufted Duck, Teal, Wigeon and Little Grebe as it continued in it’s relentless search for food we lost sight of it for a little while before it reappeared and made it’s way towards us before finally vanishing behind the reeds.  By now the rain was hammering down and we headed to our second site for the afternoon.  Under a leaden grey sky, with a chill wind and persistent rain we watched until it was too dark too see.  Grey Heron and Cormorant had been and gone and a Kingfisher dived repeatedly into the water from the bankside, silhouetted against the last meagre scraps of daylight.

Grim weather, great wildife and great clients.  What more could you want ? 🙂

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The enchantment of dusk; Bespoke Otter Safari 26/10/16

by on Oct.27, 2016, under Druridge Bay, Northumberland Coast, Southeast Northumberland

Whatever the time of year, that final hour or so before it’s too dark to see any wildlife is invariably the best bit of the day…

I collected Gerry and Tracey from The Swan and we headed towards the coast for a day in search of OttersGoldcrests, Long-tailed Tits and Robins provided noise and movement in the bushes, Teal, Mallard, Tufted Duck, Common Scoter, Wigeon, Gadwall and Little Grebe were dabbling and/or diving, Cormorant, Goosander and Red-breasted Merganser all emanated an air of sleek menace, Grey Heron and Little Egret stalked patiently along the edges of shallow pools where Black-tailed Godwits radiated elegance, Curlew probed for worms in grassy fields, Eider were just beyond the gently rolling surf as low sunlight illuminated the dunes to structures of extraordinary beauty and Carrion Crows harried a Common Buzzard as it flapped lazily over the coastal fields.

As the sun dipped towards the horizon, ducks and geese were silhouetted against a stunning orange reflection and an all-out assault on the senses began to build.  First Starlings, just a few hundred intially, building to a murmuration of several thousand as wave after wave of birds arrived – some to join the swirling amorphous dark cloud overhead, others heading straight in to the reeds as they’d arrived too late to join the party.  Water Rails screeched, squealed and chattered from the reeds nearby and Pink-footed Geese began arriving as Roe Deer grazed in the open as the cover of falling light levels provided them with a cloak of safety.  A few dozen geese, noisily yapping as they adjusted their approach to be into the headwind ready for landing, became a few hundred, then a thousand or so, and eventually around 5000 with skeins arriving from south and north east.  In front of us, the combination of sunset and dark cloud had left one sublime strip of orange light when Gerry said “what’s that just there?”.  Sleek, sinuous and menacing, the Otter swam across the strip of light and out of sight from us, although the geese and ducks spent a good 5 minutes staring in the direction it had departed 🙂

As the clouds overhead cleared the darkening sky revealed some of it’s gems; first Arcturus, then the Summer Triangle (Deneb, Vega and Altair) and Mars before the familiar asterism of The Plough and, appropriately as it was accompanied by the remarkable calls of Whooper Swans, Cygnus.  A great end to a fantastic day, searching for wildlife and discussing otters, squirrels, Pine Martens, rewilding and post-industrial landscapes with lovely clients 🙂

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Panic; Otter Safari 14/09/16

by on Sep.15, 2016, under Druridge Bay, Otter, Southeast Northumberland

We always try to provide a weather forecast a day or two before a trip; it helps people to decide what footwear would be appropriate for example.  Sunday’s update for everyone booked on yesterday’s Otter Safari was ‘Current weather forecast suggests dry and warm with only a very light NE breeze.’  By yesterday morning that had changed to ‘…likely to be cooler than anticipated, damp/misty and windy…’

I arrived at Church Point to collect Pamela, Conrad and David & Dianne, and we set off for an afternoon and evening searching for Otters around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland.  A beautiful ghostly pale adult Mediterranean Gull in the car park provided a nice comparison with the Black-headed Gull it was sitting next to and in the heavy mist that was about as far as we could see at the start of the tour.  Another Mediterranean Gull, this time a juvenile moulting into 1st-winter plumage provided an even more educational experience.  Gulls may not be everyone’s cup of tea but they’re great for learning all of the basics of moult and aging 🙂  Cormorant, Little Grebe, Canada and Greylag Geese, Mute Swan, Gadwall, Mallard, Wigeon, Teal, Tufted Duck, Grey Heron and Lapwing were just about everywhere we went,  Ruff demonstrated their obvious sexual dimorphism, Starling murmurations were developing in the misty gloom of mid-afternoon and Little Egrets were delicate, luminous, silently stalking along the water’s edge.  A juvenile Marsh Harrier quartered the edges of nearby fields but was subjected to continuous harrassment from corvids and a late brood of quite well-grown Swallows watched us from their nest. As dusk approached we were overlooking a stretch of water that I had high hopes for.  Suddenly, hitherto unseen on the water in the dark shadows of bankside vegetation, Teal scattered in an almost perfect circle, including some that flew straight into the tree-lined bank and the impenetrable darkness was bisected by the typical line of bright water of the wake of an Otter 🙂  In the deep gloom of dusk, and the softening blanket of mist, it was proving difficult to pin down, and not everyone managed to, and the sequential flushing of Grey Heron along the bank hinted at it’s progress before it eventually surfaced near a group of Mute Swans, diving in a slightly more obliging location for a minute or so before it disappeared into the darkness.

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Passing storms; Druridge Bay 08/09/16

by on Sep.12, 2016, under Druridge Bay, Southeast Northumberland

As a wildlife guide I’ve become ever so slightly obsessed with the weather, and weather forecasts…

I arrived at Church Point to collect Steve and Christine ahead of a day around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland, and looking inland there seemed to be a lot of low, dense, cloud.  The forecast suggested showers late morning, and a brighter afternoon, so we headed north along the coast with the intention of spending the first hour or so out in the open, before seeking the shelter of the various Druridge Bay hides once the poor weather arrived.  A Kingfisher flew by, whistling, adding a touch of sparkling iridescence to the gloom as the first few raindrops began to add a dimpled pattern to the water’s surface.  Suddenly it was dark, really dark, and the rain intensified as we drove to our next location.  Then the heavens opened while Mallard, Teal, Wigeon, Curlew, Cormorant and Grey Heron just got on with whatever they were doing.  House Martins and Swallows strung out in lines along telephone wires must have been seeing the long journey south as an even more attractive prospect 🙂 More Cormorants followed, as did even heavier rainfall, and then the weather started to break – passing through an extraordinary transition where we had bright sunshine, heavy rain and an incredibly intense rainbow low above the horizon as a juvenile Marsh Harrier quartered the nearby reedbeds.  Lunch time overlooking the North Sea produced a beach with plenty of Ringed Plover scuttling around and then, for  the afternoon, glorious sunshine brought out Painted Lady butterflies and dragonflies that weren’t going to hang around to be identified!  Two more juvenile Marsh Harriers obligingly settled amongst clumps of rush before one of them engaged in a fruitless pursuit of an adult Moorhen, during which it flushed lots of Common Snipe.  Our final juvenile Marsh Harrier delivered probably the most impressive spectacle of the day as it disturbed Lapwing and Curlew, forming a dense nervous cloud of birds as it passed by, and at least 17 Little Egrets.  We finished the day with a walk through some mixed woodland in vastly improved weather, although the trees were now bending in the rapidly strengthening breeze.

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Grand finale; Druridge Bay Bespoke mini-Safari 24/08/16

by on Aug.28, 2016, under Druridge Bay, Northumberland Coast, Southeast Northumberland

Wednesday brought a first for me – arriving at Church Point to collect Lucy, Jon, Hattie and Lily, the car park was completely full!  That’s nice weather for you though…

We started our afternoon around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland with a search for Red Squirrel.  With lots of people around it wasn’t entirely surprising that our quarry eluded us, but Chaffinch, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Goldfinch and Dunnock were all benefiting from the supply of free food as everyone tried to get to grips with the contact calls of Chiffchaff and Willow WarblerDragonflies were hawking around the tree tops and a range of insects finished up in our sample pot before being released back to the plants we’d taken them from.  On to wetter habitats and an attempt to catch a Blue-tailed Damselfly ended comically when it flew from its perch and settled on my finger instead 🙂  Common Snipe, Curlew Sandpiper, Common Redshank, Ruff, Curlew and Lapwing were a nice little haul of waders and a calling Greenshank stayed out of sight as Little Egrets stalked along the water’s edge and Grey Herons tried to remain inconspicuous amongst the clumps of rush.  I was called on to answer some tricky questions during the afternoon – “would a Grey Squirrel attack a person?” was slightly easier to answer than “what sort of cloud is that?” 😉

As often is the case, there was a discussion about best wildlife of the trip.  Common Snipe and Cinnabar Moth caterpillar both got the seal of approval, although the vote did come before we were heading back down the coast and a Barn Owl was quartering the roadside fields.  Death on silent wings, beautifully backlit by the later afternoon sun and the finale to Jon’s 40th birthday wildlife tour 🙂

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“I’ll believe Otters exist…”; Otter Safari 26/05/16

by on Jun.01, 2016, under Druridge Bay, Otter, Southeast Northumberland

“…when I actually see one”.  A remarkable number of NEWT’s clients seem to have had holidays on Mull/Shetland/Orkney/Skye searching for Otters (often on guided tours) without seeing one, and that revelation at the start of a tour always ramps the pressure up a bit…

I arrived at Church Point in heavy mist and drizzle, and quickly met up with Sarah and Charlotte, Keith and Maggie, and Stephanie, and we set off for an afternoon and evening searching for Otters around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland.  I juggled the sites we were visiting, to take account of the weather, but I knew where I thought we should be towards dusk.  In the misty, drizzly gloom a Little Egret looked luminous.  With warm, humid conditions the air was alive with the sussurating buzz of recently emerged insects.  Black-headed and Little Gulls, and swarms of Swifts, were rampaging through the dense clouds of flies as a Pheasant sat motionless in the grass on the water’s edge.  Gadwall, Goosander, Mallard, Tufted Duck, Canada Goose and Greylag Goose were all lazing on the water and Common Terns harried a Moorhen that had ventured just that little bit too close to their nest.  Grey Herons flew around calling and a dispute over a prime feeding spot broke out between two of these huge birds.

We arrived at what I’d planned as our final location for the evening and I suggested that one particular part of the pool would be worth keeping a close eye on.  Was that a dark shape beneath the gulls?  I lifted my binoculars and scanned, then decided my eyes must have been playing tricks on me.  As I set the ‘scope up, there was an “erm…” from Charlotte, who was looking at the same spot…and there was an Otter 🙂  We watched it for over an hour as it made it’s way around the pool, feeding almost constantly and creating an interesting wildfowl exclusion zone!  Here’s an Otter from last year, showing it’s fearsome dentition 🙂

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Eventually it vanished into the impenetrable depths of a reedbed and we headed back towards Newbiggin, encountering a Little Owl perched on a telegraph pole at the roadside 🙂

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…or maybe not; Otter mini-Safari 27/03/16

by on Mar.27, 2016, under Druridge Bay, Otter, Southeast Northumberland

After Friday’s lovely weather, it was almost too much to hope that the weekend would stay like that…

I arrived at Church Point to collect Jeanette and Simon, Liz and Simon & Gareth and Chris and we set off on a tour of southeast Northumberland in search of Otters.  As we arrived at our first site the raindrops began to pepper the car windscreen but were short lived.  The next 3 hours brought a remarkable range of weather conditions; bright warm sunshine, heavy cloud, heavy rain, glowering skies and a brutal biting wind.  Oystercatcher, Redshank, Cormorant, Mute Swan and Mallard were all braving the elements at our first site, but there was no sign of the elusive mustelid that we were seeking.  We moved on and watched more wildlife in the grip of the breeze; Tufted Duck, Wigeon, Teal, Mallard, Gadwall, Red-breasted Merganser, Greylag Goose, Goldeneye, Great Crested Grebe, Lapwing, Sand Martin and a Grey Heron which had to contend with the elements as well as the unwelcome attention of a persistent mob of Black-headed Gulls.

Things weren’t looking promising; all of the birds seemed calm and bitingly cold winds often make finding Otters a tricky task.  Another scan of the pool and there was a pair of Great Crested Grebes looking agitated…as an Otter cub surfaced in front of them 🙂  It surfaced and dived in the choppy water for a couple of minutes and then vanished, with all of the assembled waterfowl returning to feeding and drifting back into the area they’d vacated when the Otter was there.

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Midwinter mammal magic; Otter and Squirrel Safari 10/01/2016

by on Jan.11, 2016, under Druridge Bay, Otter, Southeast Northumberland

Trips with more than one target species can be tricky, particularly if the different targets don’t occur at the same sites as each other…

I collected Lynn, Alan, Glynis and Michael from Swarland and we headed southeast towards Druridge Bay.  The weather forecast promised showers and the first of those, accompanied by a bone-chilling breeze, hit just as we reached our first site. What didn’t mind the weather though were the two Otter cubs that we were soon watching 🙂  We watched them for 30 mins as they fed synchronously in turbulent water; drifting , diving, bobbing up like corks and, after coming very close to us, eventually drifting away when they heard a dog-walker shouting at her errant pet.  A walk on the beach worked up an appetite for lunch and then we were off in search of our second target for the day.  Chaffinch, Bullfinch, Coal Tit, Blue Tit, Great Tit and Great Spotted Woodpecker were all visiting feeding stations but in the icy breeze I wasn’t overly confident that we’d have any luck.  Checking a different clump of trees proved the key though, and we soon found ourselves just a few metres away from an apparently unconcerned Red Squirrel 🙂  As dusk approached, Little Grebe, Goldeneye and Mute Swan were silhouetted against water turned pink by a stunning sunset, and Lapwings flew by like gigantic moths in the half light.

Multi-mammal days are always fantastic.  Our one day record on a trip with clients is 8 species, but there’ll surely come a day (probably during the summer when we can search for bats at the end of the day) when we hit double figures!

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The approaching storm; Druridge Bay Prestige Tour 04/01/2016

by on Jan.05, 2016, under Druridge Bay, Otter, Southeast Northumberland

04/01/2008, and NEWT’s first ever day out with clients was a strange, cold, gloomy day where we managed to find our target species for the day, Roe Deer.  Eight years on and I found myself out with clients on January 4th again…

As I arrived at Church Point to collect Roberta and Dougie, the first thing that struck me was the height of the waves crashing into Newbiggin Bay.  Then the icy cold wind started probing, although it couldn’t breach the layers of clothing I’d aligned against it.  Whichever direction you looked, the weather looked different; a patch of blue sky, sunlight trying to break through the clouds, distant rain…all possibilities seemed open as we headed down the coast.  Greylag Geese, Tufted Duck, Mallard, Gadwall, Teal, Coot, Moorhen and a lone Lapwing braved the cold as the first rain shower of the day made the water’s surface dance.  Next came what all agreed was the highlight of the day as Goldeneye and Little Grebe drifted apart and the space between them was occupied by an Otter 🙂  With a 75% success rate on our Otter Safaris during 2015 it wasn’t suprising that 2016 started with such an obliging mustelid which came closer and closer before drifting away and feeding incessantly.

Lunch overlooking the North Sea brought Fulmars arcing effortlessly along the cliff tops, a very obliging Little Gull looked tiny alongside Black-headed Gulls and the wader and wildfowl list for the day continued to grow with Wigeon, Red-breasted Merganser, Scaup, Pochard, Pink-footed Goose, Dunlin, Ruff, Redshank, Curlew, Golden Plover and Long-billed Dowitcher.  A very vocal Fieldfare gave remarkably confiding views, Goldfinch and Tree Sparrow jostled for position on feeders and, as the wind strengthened, waves crashed on the shore with a roar reminiscent of heavy traffic and the rain showers intensified, we headed back to Church Point.

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