If you’d like something different, and outstanding photographic opportunities during the Parade of Sail during the Tall Ships regatta on August 29th, we’ve got a boat reserved (sailing from Amble at 10:30 and returning there once the Parade of Sail has finished which will probably be mid-afternoon) that will sit offshore from Blyth as the Tall Ships head out on the next leg of their journey. Numbers are limited and at £50/person offers exceptional value. Click on August 29th on our website calendar http://www.northernexperiencewildlifetours.co.uk/calendar and follow the buy now link to reserve your place
We’ve always said that NEWT has something for everyone, and occasionally we have very young participants…
I met up with Kay, Spencer and Kai, and shortly after Matthew, Harriet and Florence (15 months old!) arrived and we set off along the coast for a few hours searching for Otters around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland. Herds of Mute Swan, Great Crested Grebes swimming serenely with their stripy-faced chicks, Grey Herons engaging in disputes over the best fishing spots and clouds of Sand Martins and Swallows feasting on the bounteous harvest of flying insects in the warm, muggy evening air made the time seem to fly by and we found ourselves at dusk watching a stretch of river. Mallards flushed from the area of the riverbank where we’ve been seeing Otters, although the cause of the panic didn’t reveal itself, as Daubenton’s Bats flitted low over the water below and we listened to their echolocation on our bat detector.
It’s remarkable how often a theme seems to develop during a trip; flocks, migration, raptors, birds with similar names – all have happened over the last few years.
I drove up to the Breamish Valley to collect Donna and Andy and we headed towards the coast and Druridge Bay with the plan of spending the afternoon and evening birdwatching, finishing at what has been our most reliable Otter site this year (although a run of five successful trips eneded with our last two Druridge Bay safaris not producing any sightings of this enigmatic predator). Starting in the hills on a nice afternoon, I thought it would be good to search for Adders, and Andy’s sharp eyes produced the goods, with the smallest Adder that I’ve ever seen 🙂
The afternoon continued with the waders we would expect – Ruff, Curlew, Lapwing, Redshank, Oystercatcher, Dunlin, Common Snipe – and one much more scarce, in the shape of two Little Stints. We had a rear-end view of a Spoonbill heading north and a Little Egret was stalking along the shallows. It may be a predominantly white bird, but it’s stunning in good light. Adult and juvenile Mediterranean Gulls were picked out from the roosting Black-headed Gulls and, as dusk approached, we settled into position to watch for Otters. A juvenile Marsh Harrier was quartering the reedbeds, Starlings were arriving to roost, with some murmuration, a Spoonbill flew in, magnificent in the sunset, then, in the fading rays of daylight, there was an Otter 🙂 Clearly a theme was developing, as this was a very small Otter cub. Eventually light levels reached the point where we decided to call it a day and head back northwest. The day’s theme continued, with a tiny Rabbit along the roadside, and then the final wildlife experience, on a day with wildlife and clients that reminded me so often why I love my job; a Barn Owl crossing the road ahead of us before perching in the beam of our headlights 🙂
As I collected Jaap, Nancy, Maartje and Laura for their Lindisfarne Safari it was good to see that we’d made the right decision in postponing from the previous Monday (which would have been an unpleasant day to be out and about on Holy Island).
Lindisfarne is an excellent birdwatching location in the winter months, and can be spectacular during spring and autumn migration, but the summer brings a real variety of things to look at. As we walked around the island Starlings were swirling, Grey Seals and Eiders were bobbing just beyond the breaking surf and Swallows were feeding hungry nestlings. There was plenty on the ground too; Cinnabar Moth caterpillars were munching on Ragwort, Viper’s Bugloss was by the side of the paths and Maartje spotted, and identified, a Dark Green Fritillary. With exposed sandbars at low tide there were lots of Grey Seals just lazing about and the shoreline was bustling with bird activity; Bar-tailed Godwits, Curlews, Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Grey Plover and Turnstone were around the island’s edge and in the gooey mud of the harbour. Golden Plover were swirling over the island in impressive flocks before settling in the fields, an adult Mediterranean Gull was perched obligingly close as we headed back to the village, and all too soon it was time to leave the island as the rising tide approached the causeway. Landscape photography stops at Bamburgh and Newton on the way south were followed by distant views of lightning and then an impressively dark sky out over the North Sea. With so much wildlife in one day it would be hard to choose one highlight…but my own personal favourite was the brightest pink binoculars that I’ve ever seen 🙂
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.