As I drove through the rolling hills of rural Northumberland to the west of Morpeth, the weather was looking superb; blue sky, sunshine, a nice breeze. I collected Mark and Nicola and we headed back towards the coastal plain, for an afternoon of birdwatching around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland.
The conditions looked good for raptors, and it wasn’t too long before we had our first Common Buzzards of the afternoon. Then another raptor appeared, soaring just overhead. With long, thin wings, and a long narrow tail, it didn’t look like another buzzard, but it had the sun behind it so was a difficult to view silhouette. Eventually it moved away to the north and, as it engaged in some mid-air sparring with one of the buzzards, its identity was revealed; juvenile Marsh Harrier. As the two protagonists drifted further north, the orange crown of the harrier flashed in the sunlight as the bird soared in circles, contrasting with the rich dark chocolate brown of the rest of its plumage.
Reaching the coast, we stopped off at Newbiggin to look for Mediterranean Gulls and it didn’t take too long before we spotted our first as it flew across from the southern end of the bay and landed on the beach right in front of us. More followed, including a juvenile bird, and Nicola soon commented that, regardless of any plumage differences, the structure of the birds was noticeably different to the nearby Black-headed Gulls. Leaving the Meds behind we began our journey along the coastal road through Druridge Bay. A quick check of the Bewick Drift Flash produced 9 Ruff, 10 Dunlin and a Curlew Sandpiper and we spent a little while comparing the differences between the two sandpipers as well as having a very close view of just how different male and female Ruff are in terms of size.
Our picnic stop, overlooking the North Sea, produced a beach filled with Ringed Plovers, and a lone Sanderling, as well as soaring Fulmars and rafts of Eiders, bobbing in the gentle swell far below us. It was starting to turn colder, breezier, and the first drops of rain started to fall. Cresswell Pond was very productive, as it has been for a few weeks now, but a few species really stood out; a Spoonbill, which had been at East Chevington during the afternoon, flew in and made its way right round the edge of the pond, sweeping that extraordinary bill from side to side in search of food, Yellow Wagtails arrived to roost and sat along the base of the reeds, where they provoked a very aggressive response from the Common Snipe that were feeding there and a Barn Owl came out following a heavy shower and caught a vole in the dunes away to the north before carrying it within a few metres of where we were sitting.
The finale to the trip came beside a fast flowing river, downstream was dark, inky blackness, but upstream the water was lit by the eerie glow from a nearby town. Daubenton’s Bats were trawling the water surface, their presence betrayed by the expanding circles where they’d gaffed prey at the surface. Then, a ripple too big to be from a bat; and an Otter surfaced for a few moments before disappearing into the dark.
They’re the sort of words I always want hear at the start of a day out with clients “The sole reason for coming to Northumberland on this holiday was to see an Otter“. So, no pressure there, then…
I collected Ann and Glyn from their b&b in Seahouses and we set out on an exploration of the best birdwatching and otter spotting locations on the Northumberland coast around Druridge Bay. Avocet and Whimbrel were among the birdwatching highlights of the afternoon then, as dusk approached, it looked as though everything was going to go wrong; wave after wave of torrential rain battered down so the surface of the pond looked as if it were boiling and columns of mist were drifting across our field of view.
I was still confident though. The ducks, swans and other waterbirds were looking nervous, and that’s always a good sign. Then it happened, as Ann said “what’s that over there by the reeds?”, I got the end of the reedbed in view, steadied my binoculars, and an Otter surfaced before swimming along, allowing all of us to get it in focus, and vanishing into the reeds; Ann had managed to see her first wild Otter and she’d found it herself As the rain cleared a Long-eared Owl flew straight toward us and the Otter reappeared, this time trying to grab a Moorhen that was perched half-way up the reeds. It twisted and turned, sleek and sinuous, and once again sought the cover of the vegetation at the water’s edge. As the waterfowl settled and began to look much less worried, we left the hide and waded back to the car
I managed a good bonus bird myself on the drive back down the coast as a Little Owl flew from a roadside fencepost.
The changing weather on Thursday afternoon hadn’t filled me with confidence for Friday’s bespoke birdwatching and Otter Safari and, as the rain hammered against my office window on Friday morning, several ‘phone conversations with Vicky explored our options for the day. Eventually we settled on starting early evening and going through until dark – perhaps that way the rain would have passed over?
As I arrived at Shieldhall to collect Vicky and Dave, it was still looking like an ‘interesting’ evening. We made our way to our favourite Otter site and had our picnic in the car. The rain stopped…and was replaced by heavy mist Never mind, we’ve had some fantastic wildlife experiences with clients in misty conditions so we made our way to the pool and settled into position and waited. All seemed calm, and it was only out of the corner of my eye that I thought I saw a distant, small black shape vanishing beneath the water’s surface. As I turned my binoculars in that direction, a Mute Swan began hissing and the Otter resurfaced As the insistent alarm calls of Blackbirds rattled in the distance (perhaps they’d found a Long-eared Owl to harrass?) the Otter made it’s way menacingly across the water before finally disappearing into the dark depths of the reedbed. Even when the weather’s inclement life goes on for our wildlife and, so long as we can stay reasonably sheltered and it isn’t too dark to see, excellent wildlife experiences still happen
We started June with three trips in the first four days of the month, all focused around our ‘local patch’; Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland.
On Friday morning I collected Gary and Claire from their holiday base in Proctor Steads, and we headed down the coast. Even though we’ve lived close to Druridge Bay for nearly 12 years, the wildlife of this post-industrial landscape is still as special as it always was. Whether it’s Tree Sparrows feeding young, ghostly pale Roseate Terns on their nest boxes on Coquet Island, a Cuckoo flying low over a coastal reedbed, dense flocks of hirundines and Swifts hawking insects low over a lake, Reed and Sedge Warblers singing from adjacent reedbeds allowing easy comparison of their song, Fulmars soaring along a cliff edge within a few metres of us as we eat our lunch or Blue-tailed Damselflies drifting along footpaths and tracks before settling on the grasses and apparently vanishing, there’s always something going on, always something to watch and the day always seems to end too soon.
Saturday was an afternoon/evening Otter Safari and I collected Lesley and Kevin from Church Point before heading north. After an afternoon spent birdwatching, with my own personal highlight being a very yellow Yellow Wagtail, and searching for Otters, we settled into position for an evening session at one of our favourite ponds. As a pair of Roe Deer grazed poolside vegetation, looking resplendent in the sublime light from a sunset that looked like a fire burning on the horizon, and a Long-eared Owl drifted back and forth over the reedbeds, our quarry made his appearance. Gliding menacingly through the water, the Otter managed to sneak up on 2 Mallards, who noticed him when he was just a few feet away and took flight. Exploring the rest of the pool he was pursued by an ever-expanding flock of Black-headed Gulls before finally vanishing into the sanctuary of the reeds.
Our third excursion around Druridge Bay was a Prestige Tour for Pete and Rachel. Sedge and Willow Warblers and Reed Buntings all sang from obligingly open locations, although Reed Warblers remained hidden deep in reedbeds, a Roe Deer put in an uncharacteristic daytime appearance and a Mute Swan had a remarkable hissy fit. The cause of his slightly embarrasing temper tantrum couldn’t be seen, but as he kept charging at a reedbed it seemed likely that a predator he saw as a threat to his cygnets was lurking out of our sight, but not his. Later in the day an even more impressive display of annoyance was demonstrated by two cock Pheasants as they spent a good 20 minutes posturing and fighting. Our clients frequently comment about how relaxing a day out with us is…and those Pheasants could really have done with chilling out too
Yesterday was the second of four Druridge Bay/Southeast Northumberland afternoon and evening trips this week, and I collected Natalie and Clive from Newton on the Moor just after lunch before heading south.
Starting with a short woodland walk, we enjoyed close views of those arboreal specialists Treecreeper, Nuthatch and Great Spotted Woodpecker, but this time Red Squirrel eluded us.
At East Chevington, we were watching a roosting flock of Lapwing, Ruff and Curlew, and checking through the mass of assembled ducks, when a distant call caught my attention. It was a minute or two before the birds appeared high in the sky to the north, but there they were; 29 Pink-footed Geese, the arrival that for me always heralds the end of the summer.
A flock of Dunlin, Redshank and Curlew at Cresswell contained a Little Stint, and a brief seawatch produced a small flock of Knot heading north.
A patient wait as the orange glow of the sunset illuminated the surface of a pond brought rewards as our attention was drawn to a scattering flock of Coot. Just a few metres from the ripples left by the rapidly departing birds, the menacing shape of an Otter was twisting, turning and diving. As it vanished in to the dark shadows of a reedbed, the final indication of it’s presence were the bright trails left by Mallards and Little Grebes as they made a frantic effort to be anywhere other than where the Otter was. Even more exciting for me, was the completely unexpected appearance of a mammal that I haven’t seen since childhood, as the twilight was punctuated by a loud ‘plop’ and a Water Vole swam cross in front of us Tawny Owls were calling and Common Pipistrelles flitted back and forth as the full moon, and cold wind, made the evening feel really autumnal.
I dropped Natalie and Clive back at Newton on the Moor, and decided to avoid the roadworks on the A1 on the route home and instead took the minor road from Shilbottle to Warkworth. I was still delayed though, but by a young Badger that trotted along the middle of the road ahead of me for a quarter of a mile before wandering into the verge and watching as I passed by. Expect the unexpected…
I had a feeling of deja vu just after the Bird Fair, when Alex and Richard joined us for a Prestige Tour on Richard’s birthday. My brief was the same as last year; birdwatching, photography and Otters, and I had no doubt that it was going to be a real pleasure. Last year the Otters eluded us, but we’ve found new sites since then, and changed the route, and timings, of our Otter Safaris to take that into account. A very obliging Grey Heron allowed consideration of composition…and why you shouldn’t set your camera to one of it’s pre-programmed modes A Common Snipe was a good subject to investigate why autofocus may sometimes be inferior to manual focus, and a very heavy shower produced a degree of contrast between sky and water that illustrated our discussions about camera metering systems.
Small groups of Whimbrel and Golden Plover were heading south, and we set ourselves close to one of our regular Otter sites as the day wore on. All of the wildfowl started heading in one direction…away from the Otter that was making its way menacingly across the water It vanished into the reeds, then reappeared before sliding away into the darkness again; leaving behind lots of terrified ducks, 2 very happy clients and a relieved guide
We’re just about at the point where our 3hr evening safaris will be starting before 6pm; early August and the evenings are drawing in already! Guided birdwatching, and a search for one of our favourite predators, always has an exciting atmosphere when it happens as darkness approaches.
On my way to collect Niki and Haydn from Warkworth, I stopped off for a few minutes beside the River Coquet – corvids and pigeons were swirling in the breeze, giving an autumnal feel to the evening.
With clients safely in our vehicle, we headed down the coast through the post-industrial landscape of Druridge Bay and the (only just) industrial heartland of southeast Northumberland. East Chevington was our first stop, producing sightings of 2 very obliging Common Snipe in the roost of Lapwings. A flock of Curlew heading south were travelling with 2 Whimbrel and a Bar-tailed Godwit and the 2 juvenile Marsh Harriers were much appreciated as they quartered the reedbeds, flushing Mallard, Gadwall and Teal.
We continued our journey through southeast Northumberland and, as the first drops of rain began to pepper the surface of the water, an obvious edginess among a flock of Gadwall heralded the arrival of the star of the show; gliding along, sleek, dark and menacing, the Otter showed well, although briefly, as it headed across the open water and into the reeds opposite. Then it was time for us to do the same, and depart into the deepening gloom of the evening.
Tuesday, and I’m sitting with Matt and Becky, waiting in anticipation as dusk approaches. An orange/yellow glow rimming the horizon and the pallid, diffuse nature of the clouds covering the rest of the sky enhancing the impression that a thousand fires were burning in the distance. Through the flames, dark ashes danced across our field of view; Tufted Ducks, Mallards and Coots skittering across the water. Against the smoke, more dark soot tossed on the strong northerly breeze, this time Noctule Bats and Pipistrelles.
Then a burst of excitement as a whirling dervish appears, chasing ducks and geese; the Otter porpoising with serious intent, hitting the water with a splash like the crackle of a burning log. Then the flames die and we’re left with the last few pops of the dying embers.
As the rain hammered down while I packed the car ready for Sunday’s Otter Safari I was filled with optimism; the weather forecast (really, I should stop believing these…) suggested that the afternoon and evening would be dry and bright.
When I arrived at Church Point Marc and Marika were already there, and we were joined by Becky and Jim soon after. The trip was a present for one of each couple, and we set off for an afternoon of birdwatching combined with searching for Otters. First stop was one of our Little Owl sites, and Becky’s sharp eyes picked out a juvenile bird that was doing a very passable impression of a stone. Our next stop, beside the River Coquet, produced Common Terns fishing, flyby Curlews (and a discussion of separation from Whimbrel), 4 Common Sandpipers and some impressive thunderstorms away to the north and west of us.
A heavy shower as we reached the NWT reserve at East Chevington kept us in the car for a few minutes, during which time we were entertained by a family party of Stonechats. As the rain eased we walked to the hide overlooking the north pool. Amongst the throng of Common, Sandwich and Arctic Terns and Lapwings were 3 adult Knot, still in breeding plumage. Suddenly the entire roosting flock lifted, and the unmistakeable figure of a Spoonbill flew across our field of vision. It seemed intent on landing, but the constant harrassment from the terns meant that we were treated to several flypasts, including one where it was just 20m away from us. As if this wasn’t spectacular enough, 2 Little Egrets appeared, while the Spoonbill was still circling, and were subjected to the same treatment. Eventually a semblance of calm returned and we watched a juvenile Marsh Harrier as it pranced comically in the wet grass, presumably eating worms that had been brought to the surface by the rain, and a second juvenile harrier harrassed by crows. Another creature to benefit from the rain was a very young Hedgehog busily eating worms and, in a real ‘aahh’ moment, pausing briefly to sniff the air.
Our picnic stop, overlooking the southern end of Druridge Bay, produced rafts of Eiders and Common Scoters, the piping calls baby Guillemots rising from the waves below, Gannets and Sandwich Terns plunging into the sea, at least 3 Arctic Skuas and the majestic lumbering menace of a Pomarine Skua passing south just offshore.
Changeable, showery weather often produces good sunsets, and this was no exception; as a band of steel grey cloud drifted along the horizon, sunlight shone through a narrow gap, fading from gold to orange to red to pink. And there, in the reflection of the dramatic sky, was the main event – an Otter, twisting and turning, creating panic among the waterfowl, perched imperiously on a boulder and then vanishing into the deepening shadows of the water’s edge. Clouds of Noctule Bats and Common Pipistrelles swirled overhead, occasionally passing within a few feet of us, a female Tawny Owl called from the nearby trees, and the scene faded to darkness…
Sunday was my third consecutive collection from Seahouses. By the time I collected Chris and Jayne a sea fret had rolled in. As we drove south, we left it behind and found ourselves in bright sunshine. After an afternoon of birdwatching around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland, including 5 stunning adult Little Gulls roosting together, we settled down to search for Otters. With the strong sunlight reflecting off the water it was difficult to see but, just as the sun sank behind a row of distant trees, all of the ducks began to look edgy. Sure enough, our quarry appeared soon after; twisting and turning, diving and leaping, before vanishing into the sunwashed reeds