There’s always something special about days out with clients who have a connection with the north east; often we’ll visit locations that they haven’t seen for a long time, and they’ll share their memories of the place. One thing that’s constant though, is that they always have a passion for Northumberland, no matter how long they’ve been away, or where they live now.
I collected Dickie and Caroline from Church Point and we set off on the drive north along the Northumberland coast, heading towards Seahouses. The main part of the trip was a Seal Cruise on Glad Tidings 5, although in the ‘stiff’ breeze I wasn’t certain that we’d be sailing. We arrived in Seahouses to be greeted by the good news that we would be sailing, and the ‘interesting’ news that a party of 30 schoolchildren was booked on the same sailing. As we headed across to the islands, with John expertly guiding the boat to avoid everyone getting wet (as far as possible!) the school party were having a whale of a time. Then when the first Grey Seals began to bob their heads up out of the water and stare at the boat they got really excited Gannets were soaring overhead, Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers were fluttering around the base of the rocks, staying just above the breaking surf, and Shags and Eiders were bobbing around in the increasing swell. After an exciting journey back to the mainland, we had our picnic stop in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, and only a few hundred yards from where Dickie and Caroline used to live. A big bull Grey Seal made his way north just beyond the surf, and Caroline went for a paddle in the icy-cold sea As we made our way back down the coast (after a Caroline-requested stop at Swallow Fish in Seahouses), the weather was an extraordinary mixture of blue sky, sunshine and that breeze…
When I was on the coast just south of Cresswell on Friday evening, I didn’t hold out much hope for Saturday’s pelagic going ahead; a menacing sea, with waves forming towering peaks, didn’t look likely to abate.
However, the sea is often fickle and Saturday saw nothing more than a long, lazy swell as we set sail into the North Sea for a day of offshore birdwatching along the coastlines of Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland. Conditions changed throughout the day with, at times, the sea as calm as a millpond. 3 ‘Blue’ Fulmars, 5 Great Skuas, a probable Pomarine Skua, 3 Arctic Skuas, 5 Sooty Shearwaters, 4 Red-throated Divers, 2 Manx Shearwaters, Teal, Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes, Gannets, Mediterranean Gulls and Swallows! were all appreciated and a Grey Seal and 2 Harbour Porpoises added some mammalian interest.
I’m resolute in my belief that the winter is an excellent time to visit Northumberland. It’s relaxing and quiet (not that it’s ever really anything else), there’s a lot of wildlife (ditto) and we often get stunning weather that showcases our remarkable landscape at it’s best.
Today was a day when everything came together just the way you hope. As I drove up the A1 Kestrels, Common Buzzards and Roe Deer were all in roadside fields and Redwings and Fieldfares were hedge-hopping from one side of the road to the other.
I collected Tracey, Guy and Connor (and Ghillie – their collie dog) just after lunch, from their holiday cottage near Belford, and we headed to Holy Island. The sea by the ends of the causeway was frozen and a sprinkling of snow covered the dunes. As we crossed towards the island a Merlin flushed from a roadside post and we stopped to admire the beautiful diffused light that illuminated the mudflats. Our walk on the island was on ground frozen solid, and covered with ice and snow. The wind was bitingly cold but Grey Seals, Meadow Pipits, Shags, Curlews, Eiders, Red-breasted Mergansers, Pale-Bellied Brent Geese and flocks of Teal heading towards the mainland all diverted the attention. As we headed back to the mainland a handsome male Stonechat played hide-and-seek with us along the edge of the causeway, but persistence paid off and Tracey and Guy managed some good shots. I love having keen photographers on our safaris – especially ones who really appreciate the quality of light that we enjoy up here – so we made several stops as the changing light produced a series of photo opportunities. I can only hope that we get similar conditions for our first Beginners Photography workshop in January. The rising tide and fluffy pink clouds of the late afternoon combined with Bamburgh Castle in the snow to offer more memorable images, while we were watching Oystercatchers, Turnstones, Redshanks and a Ringed Plover on the frozen beach. The route back was made easier by being in a Landrover, and the steady journey allowed us to pick out Brown Hares in the snow-covered fields – seven in total, standing sentinel-like as we approached. Once I was back on the ice-free A1 and travelling south it was like a different world to the one I’d been in for the last few hours. Environmental escapism at it’s best.
Saturday was scheduled for our “Seal And Seaduck Special” (sounds like a really bad curry concocted by the Farnes wardens to see them through the ‘hard times’, is in fact a 4 hour NEWT cruise around the Farne Islands and Holy Island).
The weather forecast hadn’t been particularly promising (that’s not entirely true – it had been promising…heavy rain and howling southeasterlies) but a ‘phone call to William on Friday raised the possibility that we would be able to run the trip. As we arrived at Seahouses Harbour we could see Glad Tidings VI approaching with the wardens safely on board and their zodiac towed behind. We had time to welcome David Steel back onto the mainland and then we all boarded and set out into a noticeable swell.
The trip had a really good social event feel to it (as all of our pelagic trips tend to do); all three NEWT guides were on board, one of our clients was on her 5th trip with us (this time bringing two of her friends, for a trip they’ll probably never forget – for all the right reasons) and our friends Tim and Vera from Cottingburn House in Morpeth were among the other passengers. Once we were across at the islands there were a lot of seals, and many of them were ‘singing’ their mournful song; surely the source of many legends of sea-monsters and mermaids. 1347 pups have been born on the islands this year and most of them have departed or moulted out of their cute baby fur already. A Peregrine Falcon entertained everyone on board as it perched on the Pele Tower on Inner Farne before being pursued towards the Wideopens by a Herring Gull. The next leg of our journey took us up to Holy Island and several Red-throated Divers flew by and a Great Northern Diver was on the water near Guile Point. The weather changed at this point and sunlight illuminated Lindisfarne Castle. We then began a slow run down the coast in search of seaduck. Flocks of Common Scoter scattered well ahead of our arrival but Sarah managed to get some good images, showing the typical appearance of a flock of flying scoters;
We also encountered one of the most beautiful birds that winters off Northumberland – Long-tailed Duck. Camera shy? These birds made the scoters look like they were hogging the limelight;
The increasingly choppy seas were making photography frustrating but Sarah stuck gamely to it. As she was using my camera, and a lens that she wasn’t familiar with, it was even more challenging than pelagic photography usually is. As we passed by Bamburgh Castle (as impressive from the sea, if not more so, than it is from land) and then Monk’s House the tide turned the last 10 minutes of the cruise into a real experience. That’s always the point when somebody on board reveals that they usually feel seasick on the boating lake in their local park…
Nobody was adversely affected by the swell, everyone saw plenty of seals, and the flocks of seaduck flying around us added up to a real winter pelagic treat. We couldn’t have asked for more from our final journey into the North Sea for 2009.
of suffering and depravation. That’s the ongoing tale of heroics, kelp crisps and seal milk over on the Farne Islands blog. I’ve always been impressed by the majesty of the North Sea, particularly when it’s crashing against the east coast in the early winter. It can’t be much fun for the lads out on the Farnes though, with food supplies almost exhausted and beer just a distant memory…
I was once asked to list my top 5 birdwatching experiences and the Farne Islands are right near the top of that list. The islands feature regularly on the NEWT itinerary; between April-October we run Seal Safaris, from May-July we include landing trips, and in November and December we have our exclusive ‘Tystie Trek’ and ‘Seal and Seaduck Special’ cruises.
A seabird colony at the height of the breeding season is a thing of great wonder. One of our trips this year was for a journalist from Coast magazine, who we took across to the islands to give her the experience of our beginners birdwatching courses and we arranged an interview with the Head Warden, David Steel, for her as well. At this time of year the birds (well most of them anyway) may be gone but the seals are there. There can’t be many creatures more resilient…but the Farne islands wardens are giving it a go.
Today featured two very unusual occurences; a mid-November boat trip and all three of the Northern Experience guides on one trip together.
Watching the weather forecasts for the last few days meant that we were confident the trip would go ahead; and our confidence wasn’t misplaced. Twelve enthusiastic participants gathered at Seahouses harbour at 10am and we boarded the Glad Tidings VI. Heading across to the Farne Islands, the sea was calm and blue, visibility was excellent for many, many miles around and it was just cold enough to make it a proper pelagic experience. Shags and Eiders were around all of the islands but the main entertainment was provided by the Grey Seals and the many pups that they have produced so far this year; little white bundles of fur, marked with bright orange, yellow or red so that the wardens know if a pup has already been counted in their regular surveys of the breeding colony. A seal falling off a jetty in to the sea had several of our participants laughing so hard it’s a wonder they didn’t join it for an impromptu dip. The photographers on board had frame-filling opportunities to fill the memory cards in their cameras.
Searching around the Gun Rock and the Megstone failed to produce any sightings of Black Guillemot (a rare winter visitor in Northumberland) but a majestic Great Northern Diver flew close past the bow of the boat as we headed back towards Seahouses. Back on dry land we arranged an otter safari for tomorrow with two of today’s participants and answered a few queries about our next boat trip; an exclusive winter cruise taking in the Farne Islands Grey Seal colony, Holy Island and the seaduck of the Skate Road.