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
As the damp, dreary weather of yesterday was giving way to brighter conditions I found myself heading up the coast to collect clients from Craster. Our targets for the evening were Red Squirrel, Otter and Badger; in that order of priority, so an evening safari in Southeast Northumberland had been planned to try and encompass all three species. A walk along the River Blyth produced what could well be a ‘must see’ for natural history enthusiasts over the coming years. Scampering along branches and leaping through the canopy, our first target entertained as it made it’s way through the trees – causing agitation in two Great Spotted Woodpeckers which had been feeding quietly before the squirrel’s appearance. A Jay allowed us an unusually close approach before it vanished into the trees and Dippers were zipping back and forth along the river as we returned to the Land Rover, and we set out to search for Otters. It wasn’t to be, although some compensation came in the shape of a Barn Owl, drifting along the dunes and then catching a vole before revealing the location of it’s nest by taking the food back to the waiting mouths. That’s the great thing about running birdwatching and wildlife tours; it may be unpredictable, but there’s always something to enjoy and appreciate.
With heavy drizzle hampering visibility, we made our way to a site where Badgers would hopefully be out and about. Sure enough, James spotted one as soon as we arrived, and a second movement on the hillside was probably another one, although it slipped out of sight in the undergrowth soon after being spotted.
Finding 2 out of 3 elusive mammals that we were looking for was a good success rate and, with some new sites for Otters that we’ve been monitoring, our bespoke ‘multi-mammal’ trips are sure to prove popular this summer.
Tuesday’s North Pennines Prestige tour was a complete contrast to Wednesday’s Otter Safari. The weather was much nicer than on Tuesday as I collected Mark and Clare from Alnwick. Our Otter Safaris, although structured to maximise our clients’ chances of getting good views of Otters, always produce lots of other wildlife as well. This one was no exception, with excellent views of Red Squirrel, Roe Deer, Brown Hare and Little Owl, amongst all of the usual suspects. Unusually, we were struggling to find an otter, so I had one last throw of the dice…however, the nice weather had brought out lots of holidaymakers and they appeared to be concentrated around that last chance Clare, after watching a ‘sleek, shiny lump’ hidden in a small channel in the reeds, that she decided couldn’t be an otter, was concerned that the lump had now vanished! Then, the behaviour we’d been watching for; Teal and Mallard began to leave the safety of the reeds and head out into the open water. More importantly, they were doing this in sequence along the edge of the pool. Sure enough, there was the sleek, dark shape of an otter working it’s way through the reedbed Not the best views, but Mark did see it lift it’s head, just before a group of holidaymakers appeared in front of the hide! One last view as it bounded along a furrow in the field behind the pool, and then the ducks all settled back down. They really are an excellent indicator; they know when a predator is close, and they know when it’s far enough away to stop worrying. The conclusion to two of the most enjoyable days we’ve had with clients since our first safari.
Northumberland is fortunate as an English county to still have a healthy population of Red Squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris). I can look out of my office window and see them chasing each other around the trees in Choppington Woods, but for how much longer?
The decline of the Red Squirrel in England has been well documented here but it still clings on in Cumbria and Northumberland.
I’ve heard the opinion voiced recently, by a naturalist for whom I have a great deal of respect, that it’s a waste of resources to try and protect the Red Squirrel from the inexorable expansion of the population of Grey Squirrels.
However, steps are being taken to maintain Northumberland as a safe haven for the Red Squirrel but this doesn’t meet with universal approval, particularly amongst people who have little, or no, experience of Red Squirrels.
It’s a sad fact that, over much of England, the only squirrel that people know and love is the Grey Squirrel, but at least in Northumberland visitors and locals alike can appreciate this charming inhabitant of our woodlands.