Spray from the overnight rain kicks up as I drive along the dark coast road. It’s early, but I’m on a mission to be at my intended destination before the first rays of daylight illuminate the seaward edge of the dunes. Then, glowing in the beam from the car’s headlights, perched at the top of a bare hawthorn, a Little Owl. After the obligatory head-bobbing inspection of this unexpected annoyance, it flies away across the fields. Unsurprisingly I relocate it just a minute or two later, close by the tree where they bred this year. Leaving it in peace I continue my journey and I’m soon out of the car and walking quietly towards the edge of the pool where the geese roost. I wrote about visiting coastal pools at dusk, in our most recent newsletter, but first thing in the morning can be very good as well. It’s worryingly quiet. The harsh barking of two Short-eared Owls, disturbed by my arrival, cuts through the still air but the expected yapping of Pink-footed Geese is absent. In the half-light I can see the ethereal mist hanging just above the water, and my fears are confirmed…the geese aren’t there. It’s happened in previous winters; a regular roosting site suddenly deserted and the birds dispersed throughout southeast Northumberland, making accurate survey work a near impossibility. As I mull over the potential of other roosting locations I get the feeling that I’m being watched. I am – just a few metres away a Long-eared Owl is perched on a fence post. Man and bird observe each other and then the silent assassin is off, and I get to watch as it hunts along the fence line of a nearby sheep field. A Barn Owl glides past, silent and ghostly and then the Shorties reappear. Silent and still, they don’t perceive me as a threat and they pass close by before perching on adjacent fence posts. As I lean on a wooden gate and take in the the wonder of our countryside at first light I notice two shapes at the far corner of the field. Silhouetted against the steel grey sky, the two Roe Deer watch me for a few seconds and then bound across the field, white rumps flashing like beacons in the gloom.
Yesterday was a long birdwatching day on the southeast Northumberland coast. I drove across to Haltwhistle to collect Judith and Doug, and was impressed by the big flocks of Redwing and Fieldfare around their farm. Once on the coast we found a flock of Dark-bellied Brent Geese bathing in a pond newly-created by Sunday’s rain, watched a swarm of Goldfinches and Twite flying around the dunes and then enjoyed groups of Wigeon, Teal and Mallard as they drifted about on the pond. We were just about to move on when I noticed the Cormorants getting agitated and they all quickly departed. “Let’s give this another minute or two” was the right strategy as two otters appeared in the centre of the pool. One eventually swam by just a few metres from where we were sitting, allowing everyone to take in the graceful, sinuous twisting and turning as they hunted for fish.
Next was a journey along a stretch of the River Coquet. More Cormorants were busy decimating the fish population and one suddenly panicked and bolted across the river. There was a swirling pattern on the water, and something beneath the surface was leaving a very noticeable swim-line. Then it surfaced; a Grey Seal, away from it’s usual open water habitat. All the while this was happening we were all entranced by a young Peregrine as it persistently dived towards a bush full of Rooks. Every time it flushed them it separated one off from the flock and chased it, although never making a serious attempt to terminate the chase with a kill. Eventually it departed and the corvids settled into the riverside bushes, free from molestation.
Our final site for the day would, hopefully, produce some interesting birds going to roost. A family party of Whooper Swans flew in and a small group of Pintail were amongst all of the other wildfowl. Starlings arrived in big groups and swirled around overhead. Two Long-eared Owls were a real bonus; sitting on fence posts and staring straight at us with those piercing orange eyes. The grasses and the reeds around the edge of the pond were all lit by a sublime golden pink/orange glow and the moonrise above the dunes was simply stunning as a skein of Pink-footed Geese flew south.
Finally, I returned two very happy clients to Haltwhistle, where the monnlit night was filled with the calls of Redwing – a sound that epitomises the autumn.
We finished October with four events in three days. Thursday was our last Seal Safari for the regular season, although we’ve got exclusive trips on November 21st and December 5th (give us a call, places are filling quickly). The seals performed as well as they always do (one pair performing a bit too well…) but the fantastic finale to the day was a Peregrine hunting waders and wildfowl over the mudflats as the tide fell.
Then came a Druridge Bay mini-safari on Friday morning featuring a cast of several ducks, with many of the males now nearly out of eclipse plumage and into their breeding finery. As soon as I’d dropped Ann and Charles back at Newbiggin, I was on my way to Choppington Woods to supervise the bat box making that was part of a SENSE/FOCW Halloween event in the reserve. Do you realise how much faith you need in order to hold the back and sides of a bat box together…while a four year-old with a cheeky grin is braying the nails with a hammer that’s almost too heavy for her to lift? After a couple of near misses I returned home, with all digits intact, once it was dark. The South East Northumberland Sustainable Environment project has allowed the Friends of Choppington Woods to increase the number of events that we hold in the woods, and the ‘Wansbeck. You Decide’ funding is improving access dramatically.
Our final October event was a Halloween wildlife walk at Bamburgh. After a brief introduction to the wildlife that is active at dusk, we set off through Mortuary Woods. With myself and Sarah providing information about the wildlife, helped by the songs of Robins and calls of Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Redwings, and Chris Calvert describing the history of the area around the castle, it was a great way to spend a moonlit evening. As we entered the castle grounds, heading towards the pumpkin soup and fresh bread that awaited us, Chris regaled the group with ghost stories about Bamburgh Castle. Then the bats appeared, flitting eeriely through the air in front of us they concluded the month by enchanting the whole group, as fireworks sparkled in the air between the castle and Seahouses.
After the excitement of finding a Sabine’s Gull yesterday, today was spent mainly at Alnwick Castle. After a private tour of the castle and grounds, and an excellent lunch, I headed back home to deal with all of today’s enquiries. As I drove down the A1, there were quite a few fields with large flocks of Rooks and Jackdaws. I’ve blogged about my love of corvid roosts previously, but they really are something special. Whether you’re watching the scattered lines of eerie black shapes as the birds return from their feeding areas, marvelling at a field full of silent birds (the pre-roost is truly extraordinary) or gazing at a mass of birds descending into the roost, it’s one of the great avian spectacles. Why not set yourself the task of finding a local roost and then try to observe all of the associated behaviour? You won’t regret it.
It’s not often that we get to do a lot of birdwatching together but yesterday was an exception.
The late-breaking news on Thursday night about the Eastern Crowned Warbler in Trow Quarry, South Shields, was exciting but we couldn’t be sure when (or if) we would have a chance to go and see the biggest avian star of this autumn (at least the biggest so far…). The stumbling block was a hospital appointment at 08:50 on Friday. We could have gone into the deep south for dawn, and then travelled to the hospital after that, but we decided to wait and go once our other commitments were dealt with. Thankfully, the surgeon made a very quick decision (perhaps she knew how twitchy I was getting?) and we were free to join the crowds overlooking the trees in Trow Quarry. The bird appeared soon after we arrived and what a stunning bird it was. With a Yellow-browed Warbler for company, the differences between the two closely-related species were very obvious. As the crowd swelled, we departed…back into Northumberland and to Holy Island in search of more rare warblers. After the drive up the A1 we crossed the causeway, checked the bushes behind the car park for the Radde’s Warbler that had been there on Thursday (no luck though), then along the Crooked Lonnen for a Barred Warbler that had been seen yesterday morning (no luck there either, although one birder did his best…by misidentifying three consecutive Redwings!). A walk through the dune slack on the Snook revealed Alan Gilbertson, who had seen a Pallas’s Warbler a few minutes earlier. We settled into a gap in the dunes between two sets of trees, and I began to arrange my tripod and camera. Just at the point when the tripod head separated into it’s component parts, like a Manfrotto Meccano set, Sarah followed some movement in the tree behind my head and calmly announced “there it is”. Less than 20ft away and I was unable to get my camera on it. Never mind, we lifted our binoculars and took in the beauty of the ‘seven-striped sprite’. The ECW may have been the rarest bird we’ve seen this year, but there are very few birds that can rival Pallas’s Warbler in appearance.
This morning the forecast rain hadn’t arrived so we set out early, grabbing a bacon butty for sustenance, and headed to Druridge Bay. Checking a flock of tits and ‘crests, in the cold, wind and light drizzle, revealed the prize we were searching for; a Firecrest, one of those few birds that really can rival Pallas’s Warbler.
So, two days out birding together, a good haul of cracking birds…and a few thoughts for future blog topics have taken root in my mind as well.
Although there are some unpleasant connotations to the word ‘snipe’ these two definitions are related directly to the bird and it’s habits;
Snipe n. One of nearly 20 wading birds in the Genus Gallinago, Lymnocryptes or Coenocorypha
Snipe v. To shoot at usually exposed individuals from a concealed point of vantage
Snipe are secretive, cryptically patterned birds that, unlike most other waders, spend their time tucked in amongst reeds and rushes. Occasionally, if there’s a nice bit of exposed mud with cover close by, they may venture into the open and allow prolonged observation. In the spring their ‘drumming’ display is an extraordinary spectacle above the damp fields where they breed. A ‘sniper’ was someone skilled enough to shoot a snipe.
Yesterday we were fortunate, on a hastily arranged mini-safari to see both Common Snipe (the breeding bird of British moorland) and that master of disguise the Jack Snipe, alongside one another. It was a real identification masterclass opportunity and we watched them for quite a while. Whenever the Jack Snipe stopped feeding, it also stopped the bizarre bobbing motion that makes it look as though it’s legs are on springs. As soon as it was still it blended in with the bankside vegetation and it was a struggle for everyone to pick out where it was resting.
When I returned home at the end of the evening, Sarah reminded me about the last Jack Snipe that we saw together.
Today was a very special day. Way back in February I gave a presentation at the Wansbeck You Decide! voting day, and the Friends of Choppington Woods were awarded Â£10k based on my impassioned plea to support the reserve that lies behind my office. We’ve done a lot with the money but my own personal favourite part of the project is a boardwalk and pond-dipping platform, designed with our local schools in mind (not influenced at all by the fact that I’m Chair of Governors at Choppington First School…). So, this morning we had an inaugural pond-dipping session, organised by the Northumberland Wildlife Trust SENSE project, with a group of Year 2/3 pupils from the school. Although it was cold and there wasn’t a great deal of life in the pond, the enthusiasm of the pupils was clear for all to see and they did catch a lot of pond snails and a water boatman. Another little bit of breaking down the disconnect between children and the environment, and the launch of an excellent community resource as well.
“Thank God I’m not a Redshank” That was a comment made yesterday by a client on a visit to the Lindisfarne NNR. The reason for the comment was the sad, windblown Redshank trying to extract a meal from the mudflats in front of us, while being buffeted by the wind. This came at the end of a excellent day birdwatching on this magnificent section of the Northumberland coast; wild geese in the 1000′s, 100′s of Gannets in a spectacular feeding frenzy and rafts of Common Eider drifting on a turbulent sea…
The Redshank worked it’s way slowly along the edge of the rising tide, picking and poking into the dark mud. With it’s feathers displaced from their usual neat arrangement by the wind that had made the whole day so atmospheric, those gleaming white secondaries were like a beacon in the gathering gloom of the late afternoon. Ours were not the only eyes to see that though…there was a sudden burst of alarm from the terrified wader as it came under attack from a Peregrine. The raptor swooped and the Redshank avoided that first assault. As the falcon rose and turned to regain it’s aerial advantage the Redshank saw an opportunity and flew. Quickly it realised the futility of that effort as the Peregrine closed the gap with breathtaking speed. A quick turn and the Redshank was back at it’s starting point, again avoiding the striking talons. Fleeing was abandoned as an option and it headed into the water. The falcon stooped repeatedly from a low height, trying to flush it’s target and make the hunt a much more one-sided effort. The Redshank crouched lower and lower, hugging the safety of the water. In a final stoop the falcon stalled at the last second before it would have hit the water and reached down a taloned claw…plucking the Redshank from it’s sanctuary.
I woke this morning to the sound of a gale howling across our back garden. I didn’t need to worry about the fence blowing down though…it had already been slowly removed over the last four years, so we now have a hedge of bramble and clematis on one side and a slowly developing hedge of hawthorn, blackthorn, elder and other native species down the other side of the garden.
Today’s excitement wasn’t in the hedges though – it was in the air over the garden as the local Jackdaws did that thing they do when it’s windy; almost beak-to-tail chases vertically up, and then back down, before a group of birds all gathered together and seemed to place themselves at the mercy of the elements. Are they just being blown about, or do they make the decision to place themselves on that particular rollercoaster? The joie de vivre of Corvus monedula.
Having set dates for our new Kielder Safaris only two weeks ago, the route was almost as new to me as it was to our clients, Helen and Steve. Having someone who is both a client and a friend as the first participant helped to calm any ‘first night’ nerves.
Collecting the couple from Alnwick we headed through Rothbury and across to Bellingham. The first part of our Kielder Safari route is the special bit; it isn’t open to vehicle access by the general public and, from the mobile hide that is our Landrover, who knows what could be seen along the way. Soon we were enjoying close views of Stonechats, Meadow Pipits and a Siskin that was almost in the vehicle with us as it fed on a thistle head. Along the narrow forest tracks we had close prolonged views of Common Buzzards – something I’ve never managed on Northumberland’s ‘normal’ roads. Dragonflies were patrolling the tracks and butterflies were all along our route. When we left the Landy and set off on a short walk, the thing that struck us all was the quantity, and diversity, of fungi. A Southern Hawker Dragonfly inspected us closely as we passed through it’s territory and we made our way down to the edge of the reservoir. As well as tree-roost of 14 Cormorants, highlights were a screaming Jay, a yaffling Green Woodpecker and a Dipper that flew low over the water.
Our route out of Kielder is also along a forest road and we had good views of more Buzzards, five Wheatears lined up on adjacent fence posts and Mountain Bumblebees. Perhaps most impressive though, is the sight of the heather on the moors in bloom.
Our next Kielder Safari is on Thursday September 3rd so why not give us a call on 01670 827465, we’ve got a few places left. Dates for 2010 will be sorted sometime soon.