After some wild weather the blue skies and fluffy white clouds, as I set off for a day searching for Otters around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland with Jo, Pat, Rachel and Dave, came as a welcome sight…
Now that we’re in the late winter, wildfowl are looking at their finest and are starting to display with an impressive level of determination. Red-breasted Merganser were strutting their stuff in their engagingly comical bowing display, Goldeneye were delivering their similar, though slightly less elaborate dance and Tufted Duck, Mallard, Wigeon, Scaup, Teal and Pochard were all clad in spring finery, but the long-staying Pacific Diver remains alone. A pair of Common Buzzards were soaring against the clouds at a site where I’ve never encountered them breeding previously. Huge clouds of Pink-footed Geese were replaced by an impressive Starling murmuration as dusk approached, and Common Snipe were uncharactersitically obliging as they fed away from cover amongst Redshank, Lapwing, Curlew and Black-tailed Godwit. On a good day for mammal-watching we saw at least 2, possibly 3, maybe even 5, Red Squirrels and 3 Roe Deer.
With light levels dropping rapidly we had brief sightings of 2 Bitterns, as Water Rail squealed from deep in the reeds, and we were on the verge of admitting defeat to the Otters when Rachel said “what’s that in front of us?”. I turned to look, and the first thing I noticed were the Mallards quickening their pace…as they headed away from the Otter that Rachel had spotted on the bank right in front of us 🙂 We watched it for 10mins, until it was too dark to see it as it twisted and turned in the water, before heading back to Newbiggin.
In glorious sunshine I arrived in Longframlington to collect Lisa and Lucy ahead of a day searching for Otters, Red Squirrels and Kingfishers around Druridge Bay and the Northumberland coast. I was greeted by Ridley, Lisa’s cockerpoo, and it was quickly decided that he would be joining us on the trip 🙂
Our first Otter site had an obvious area of water that the Mallard, Teal, Gadwall, Tufted Duck and Little Grebe were all avoiding, and Greylag Geese left in a bit of a hurry, but no sign of the sinuous predator we were searching for. A change to our usual picnic spot brought a brief glimpse of a female Merlin as she chased Lapwing and Wigeon, and then a Bittern flew between reedbeds. Red Squirrels were next on our planned route for the day and I had 20mins dog-sitting while Lisa and Lucy checked the edge of the trees that I suggested. Sure enough, they returned with photographs of Red Squirrel and we were on our way to the next Otter site 🙂 Through binoculars I could see dark shapes twisting and turning at the water’s surface and, with the additional magnification of our telescope, those shapes resolved into two Otter cubs in a play-fight 🙂 We went along to where they were, but by that time they were out of the water and running around on boulders and through the dense undergrowth before quickly vanishing.
We headed to our final Otter site to finish the day, and the weather was starting to deteriorate. As the breeze whistled in our ears, the temperature dropped so our breath was condensing into lingering clouds, a cold damp mist took hold over the water and Red-breasted Merganser and Goldeneye were displaying, Starling arrived to roost, foregoing the elegant ballet of the murmuration in favour of quickly finding shelter, the eerie cries of Curlew echoed across the pool and Lapwing formed a tight panicked flock as a Sparrowhawk flew low over the reeds, a Bittern flew by in the gloom and Little Grebe scattered as an Otter swam across in front of us, tucked in to the reed edge and sheltered from the breeze 🙂
I love watching wildlife, always have done since I was very young and I love watching wildlife with our clients. Sometimes though, people are just as interesting…
I collected Richard and Jan from their b&b in Chatton and we headed down through the centre of Northumberland in search of the Red Squirrel. Our first stop was one of our regular sites for squirrels, but didn’t produce the goods this time. Next was what a friend described as the best ‘guaranteed’ site for Red Squirrel in Northumberland…no joy here either, although it looked perfect. We weren’t the only people in the hide – a couple came in and he set up his camera while his wife tried to keep their dog quiet. Then she dropped his tripod on the hide floor. Unfortunate, and could happen to anyone, but likely to reduce the chance of seeing a squirrel. Then it happened again, careless, but still not helping the cause of wildife watching. Her husband didn’t even flinch as the tripod crashed to the floor and, when it happened for a third time, we were all wondereing if it was his wife’s way of trying to get his attention. If it was she was failing spectacularly 😉 At that point we gave up and headed across towards the coast, where I’d planned to have our lunch stop at another site that has worked well for us on previous Red Squirrel trips. Sure enough, as soup and sandwiches were consumed, a squirrel came down from the canopy in search of it’s lunch 🙂 It made off with a peanut and was soon back for more.
After achieving our main aim for the day we spent the rest of the afternoon around Druridge Bay. Avocet, Spoonbill, Little Egret, Bearded Tit, Black-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover, Great Crested Grebe and much more made for an excellent afternoon birdwatching. following on from a morning of squirrelwatching and peoplewatching 🙂
It’s become a tradition over the last few years that, on Christmas Eve, the Friends of Choppington Woods have a walk from one end of the reserve to the other. One year we finish at our house and the next at Glen and Karen’s. This year we were starting at our end of the woods so I drove to Glen’s and collected him and Sue, from Morpeth and District Red Squirrels, then back to our end of the woods for the start of the walk.
As we walked through the woods a lot of the conversation focused on the fight to maintain (and expand!) the population of Red Squirrels in Northumberland. It’s a comfort, in difficult times for this icon of Northumberland’s wildlife, that the volunteer groups throughout Northern England are filled with the people who have a genuine passion for saving the species.
After just over an hour walking through the leaves and the mud, we all arrived at Glen’s and were greeted by Karen with delicious mulled wine. After a buffet lunch (that has set the bar quite high in advance of Christmas Eve 2013…) we had a real treat as Glen drove us home in the original NEWTmobile!
Have a safe, merry and peaceful Christmas, wherever you are 🙂
On days when one species doesn’t appear, the supporting cast can often be equally stunning.
An icy breeze was whistling around the car as I collected Matt and Kate for a day searching for Otters and other wildlife around southeast Northumberland. We started with a riverside walk and were soon enjoying excellent views of a Kingfisher, stunning orange and electric blue, as it perched, hovered, dived and whizzed backwards and forwards along the river. A Grey Wagtail bobbed around, oblivious to our presence, and a Little Grebe dived in the gravelly shallows.
Our next port of call produced a mixture of pleasure and sadness; while we were watching three Red Squirrels a Grey Squirrel appeared 🙁 Northumberland is probably the best place to see Red Squirrel in England, and the southeast of the county still has a few sites where excellent views can be obtained, but the arrival of Greys is often followed by the rapid spread of parapox through the local Red population.
A stop at East Chevington produced lots of Tufted Ducks and Goldeneye, more Little Grebes and a Grey Heron…and a strengthening breeze and increasing cloud cover. If there was an Otter about, it was doing the sensible thing and keeping itself hidden away out of the wind. Whooper Swans were sitting in a flooded field, with Mute Swans nearby for ease of comparison, and everything we encountered was facing into the wind to minimise heat loss.
Our final site for the day was another stretch of river; one that we walk regularly ourselves, and where we’d had up-to-date info about Otter activity. A stunning Red Fox watched us inquisitively from the opposite side of the river, Moorhens swam back and forth with that curious jerky motion that they have and, as daylight gave way to darkness and a Tawny Owl called nearby, a succession of dog walkers commented “you should have been here yesterday…”.
Days out with a specific target in mind for our clients can be very good, or very frustrating and, as I drove across the snow and ice coated roads towards Elsdon to collect George, Tam, Ken and Kath, I had a good feeling about the day ahead.
One of NEWT’s all-time favourites was in our sights for the day; Red Squirrel is becoming more and more difficult to see. One of our most reliable sites over the last five years has seen the arrival of Grey Squirrels and a diminishing population of Reds, and that’s a pattern repeated in many places.
After a drive through snowy wastelands, the car was loaded with an arsenal of camera equipment and we headed towards southeast Northumberland. I’d got two ‘new’ sites in mind and the first of these produced sightings of at least two Red Squirrels and a nice flock of Redwings, Song Thrushes and Mistle Thrushes. Good for viewing, not so good for photography with dense foliage on many of the trees and the squirrels in a position where they were heavily backlit. I was confident that the second site I planned to visit would offer better photo opportunities…and it did. In excellent light, we watched at least five Red Squirrels; camera shutters were firing at a machine-gun rate and George and Kath took over 500 shots between them. I went back the next day and had a bit of luck myself…
There was a degree of reluctance to leave the squirrels behind, but the light began to fade and we headed onto the coast in search of more wildlife. Owls were high on the wishlist and two Short-eared Owls performed for the cameras just like this one from last year.
A Common Snipe was unusually bold, feeding along the water’s edge well away from cover, Pink-footed Geese were grazing a nearby field, Whooper Swans whooped as they arrived to roost and a small murmuration of Starlings soon thought better of flying around in the bitter cold and quickly headed instead for the warmth of the roost. Then it was time for us to head back in the dark through the frozen hinterland of Northumberland.
Now, we’ve never made a secret of our love for Red Squirrels; we regularly take clients to see and/or photograph them and we have them as a garden visitor.
Red Squirrel conservation is a bit of a thorny issue though, particularly as control of Grey Squirrel numbers, especially in and around areas where Red Squirrels still have healthy populations, is an important part of it.
I went last week to a meeting of Northern Red Squirrels (NRS) (I’m currently Chair of one of the NRS member organisations), and there was an excellent presentation from Red Squirrels Northern England (RSNE). It was refreshing to see a project which is realistic about the size of the task facing it, realistic about what it’s proposed outcomes should be and aware of the issues, and potential pitfalls, that surround all of that.
It was encouraging to see just how many local ‘Red Squirrel’ groups there are, and good to see that they’re all communicating with one another. With good lines of communication between NRS and RSNE, the battle to conserve the Red Squirrel population of Northumberland and the other Northern England counties is one that can surely be won.
Please, please, please…if you have any sightings of either Red or Grey Squirrels in Northumberland, Cumbria, Merseyside, Lancashire, north-west Durham or the Yorkshire Dales, then submit them via the sightings page of the RSNE website. A good evidence base makes it much more likely that conservation measures can be targeted appropriately and we’ll see a successful outcome to the project.
Finding Red Squirrels on a Bank Holiday Monday had the potential to be a tricky task. With a good weather forecast, all of our local woodlands were likely to be filled with visitors. I headed up to Alnwick, to collect Tracy, Graham, Eleanor and Joe, before the rush started, and Sarah set off at the same time on a related mission…
By the time I arrived at our favourite squirrel site, with a car-load of clients, feeders had been checked and strategic areas baited. Jays, Great Tits and Woodpigeons were all in the trees around us, and Eleanor soon picked out the sound of a Red Squirrel in the canopy high overhead. We waited, patiently and quietly, and then Joe spotted movement along a branch and a Red Squirrel ran down the trunk of a nearby tree and tucked in to the provided feast.
After our woodland excursion a couple of hours of birdwatching in southeast Northumberland and Druridge Bay produced good sightings of Grey Heron, Little Grebe, Kestrel, Common Buzzard, Stock Dove and a juvenile Mediterranean Gull in amongst a mass of Black-headed Gulls from a landfill site.
Wildlife doesn’t perform to order, but when you’ve spent some time concentrating, listening and focusing on every sound and every movement there’s a good feeling when that effort is rewarded 🙂
Thursday was my 3rd consecutive late finish.
Before setting off for a ‘Red Squirrel and Badger Safari’ I had a few admin things to get done including some more planning for the Birdwatching Northumberland stand at this year’s British Bird Fair (I’ve got 2 lecture slots at the Bird Fair this year!).
After collecting our picnic from The Swan, I headed to Church Point to collect Vince and Karin for their second safari day this week. Some unexpected birdwatching highlights included a Little Tern and a Cuckoo. A group of Tufted Ducks staring at a reedbed, and a clearly annoyed Mute Swan staring at the same reedbed and hissing, suggested that we were close to an Otter but in the blazing sunshine it stayed in the shade of the reeds and out of sight.
The first of the day’s targets was achieved with possibly the reddest Red Squirrel I’ve ever seen, simply stunning as it ran along the sun-dappled canopy, and then it was time to position ourselves close to our favourite Badger sett. Would the badgers come close? would they only appear when it was too dark to really appreciate what magnificent animals they are? all worries were eased when, in broad daylight, our first Badger of the evening came trotting along only 5m away, apparently oblivious to our presence. Another 3 Badgers followed, as well as 3 Red Foxes, and Tawny Owls were calling from the trees around us.
Of all of our tours, our evening mammal trips perhaps have the greatest unpredictability and the most remarkable ‘atmosphere’ of them all. It’s still my favourite time of the day 🙂
Yesterday was the first of several forthcoming days where we’re running multiple trips on the same day, and with 6 clients during the day, and 2 of them joining us for an evening safari as well, it was a day that could go really well, or not…
The primary target species for everyone was our old favourite, Otters. We started with a spot of birdwatching, and excellent views of the Little Owl that we should probably be adding to the NEWT payroll 😉 Our first Otter site didn’t produce the goods, although 2 Brown Hares chasing each other around a nearby field provided good entertainment. Once we’d been there as long as I’d decided in advance of the trip, I had a hunch that another site, that has disappointed for several months now, might just produce the goods. As we arrived I pointed out the location of a holt and suggested that the area around that was a good place to check. Within a minute, Anthea had found 2 Otters, and we watched them for 75 mins as they fed, played, paddled along the surface, dodged in and out of the reeds and eventually vanished, probably to have an afternoon nap after their marathon feeding session. A bit more birdwatching further up the coast produced excellent views of Common and Sandwich Terns and then it was time to return Liz & James and Kate & Take (pronounced Tarka – the most appropriate name for any participant in a NEWT trip so far) to their respective holiday locations and start the second trip of the day with Andy and Anthea.
Anthea is an Australian with a fascination for British wildlife and the day out was part of a target list that she has for a 3 month trip around Britain and Europe. Red Squirrel was next on the list and patience and persistence paid off as we settled ourselves close to a feeding area and eventually had excellent views of at least 3 squirrels, and some very close Jays, Great Spotted Woodpeckers and a Nuthatch.
With such a long day, sustenance came in the form of a meal at The Swan before we were on our way again. Myriads of Rabbits were along the roads and we made our way along the heavily wooded valley of a small stream and got into position opposite a Badger sett. A Red Fox walked along the hillside before vanishing into the undergrowth and causing consternation in all of the birds that were settling to roost. It re-appeared just up the track from where were sitting and ran up the hill behind us, then a 2nd Fox crossed the hillside. Soon we were treated to the sight of not one, not two, but three Badgers crossing a clearing. As the light levels in the wood dropped to unmanageable we relocated to a feeding area that’s popular with Badgers and Foxes where we watched another Fox as it stalked along an edge, apparently invisible to the Rabbits that were sitting on the grass. As we walked back to the Land Rover we added mammals #7 and #8 to the day list; Common Pipistrelle and Daubenton’s Bat. A long day, but a really, really excellent one 🙂