Following an invitation from DFDS, I arrived at the Royal Quays passenger terminal on Saturday morning for the ‘Whale Tales of the North Sea’ event, celebrating 10 years of DFDS and the charity ORCA working together.
I spend part of my time working for MARINElife, but I’ve also been an ORCA member for nearly two decades and NEWT’s involvement with them goes back to 2010. when I led a familiarisation trip for the wildlife officers ahead of their season onboard. Our own Whale and Dolphin trips during the summer usually pass by one of the Newcastle-IJmuiden ferries, either as we sail out of the Tyne, or return at the end of the day, and the NEWT team enjoyed a mini-cruise to Holland in 2010 as guests of DFDS. We’d highly recommend it 🙂
Following a packed lunch, Michaela Strachan presented a series of short clips of some of her experiences with whales and dolphins around the world, which kept all of the younger members of the audience entertained. With only ~90 different species, cetaceans are poorly represented compared to terrestrial mammals (~4200 species), birds (~10000 species) and insects (~1000000 species, with potentially another 5-29000000 million species still to be discovered!). What they lack in numbers they make up for in sheer size, and some of the film clips demonstrated just how big they are.
Anna Bunney from ORCA gave a presentation about the cetaceans of the North Sea and there we have an even smaller range of species. Harbour Porpoise, Bottlenose Dolphin, White-beaked Dolphin and Minke Whale are all relatively common, but there’s a range of rarer visitors to the waters of North East England; Risso’s Dolphin, White-sided Dolphin, Killer Whale, Sperm Whale, Pilot Whale and Humpback Whale have all appeared in recent years and historical records contain some real oddities.
Educating people about the wealth of marine wildlife in the North Sea is something that ORCA and DFDS are doing really well, and the data that surveyors are gathering onboard is a valuable resource, combined with the ferry data gathered by MARINElife on other North Sea routes and the small-boat survey data from the North East Cetacean Project in Northumberland.
Many thanks to DFDS for the invitation to join them for the celebration with ORCA 🙂
If you’re not already convinced that our marine wildlife is awesome, here are a few pictures that should speak for themselves 🙂
I arrived in Berwick to collect Juan and Erika from the railway station for their tour of Lindisfarne and the North Northumberland coast and a first for NEWT – clients from Argentina!
We headed down the coast in some unforecast rain and in the mighty shadow of Bamburgh Castle we watched Purple Sandpiper and Turnstone as they picked their way through the rocks within inches of the frothing surf. Common Eider, Common Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Guillemot and Puffin were all rising and falling in a deep swell and Kittiwakes were passing by as we set the telescope up on the side of the car that was sheltered from the wind and rain. Heading north we came across lots of Shelduck, Wigeon, Teal, Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit and Lapwing, as well as smaller numbers of Shoveler, Goosander and Common Redshank, and a lone Kestrel hanging motionless facing into the wind, then over on to Holy Island where the sky was blue, the clouds were white and fluffy and the wind was still howling…
Grey Seals were hauled out on the mud at low tide and as their mournful calls carried on the breeze across the island Skylarks were singing, tiny black dots against the sky, Meadow Pipits were song-flighting and there were at least 21 Roe Deer feeding in a remarkably dense herd. Red-breasted Merganser were having their crests ruffled by the wind, Pied Wagtails were searching for insects around the car park and panic rippled through the birds out on the mudflats. Grey Herons stalked through marshy edges, the eerie cries of Curlew drifted through the dunes and, as we made our way back across the causeway with the tide rising and the sun setting, Common Eider were displaying, Common Redshank and Pale-bellied Brent Geese were on the edge of the rising water and a Curlew decided to sit on the road right in front of us 🙂
I arrived at Church Point, to collect Clive, Val, Nicola and Mark ahead of a day searching for Otters around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland, knowing that if the weather forecast was accurate our usual dusk sightings of these elusive predators would be in jeopardy…
I’d planned the day so that we’d be at exposed locations in the nicer weather of the morning and early afternoon and then with plenty of options to shelter from the forecast rain, wind and falling temperatures later in the day. Our first site for the day wasn’t looking promising – lots of disturbance tends to not make for good otter spotting. Little Grebe, Cormorant, Curlew, Mallard, Tufted Duck and Goldeneye were all apparently unmenaced by any rampaging mustelids so I started a systematic search of the most likely spots…and there was an Otter cub, out of the water and munching happily on a fish 🙂 We watched it as it returned to hunting and then it vanished, only to reappear a few minutes later alongside a second Otter 🙂 With two photographers amongst the group the next 2 hours passed in a whirr of clicking shutters as the Otters dived, surfaced, fed, clambered around on boulders and eventually vanished from sight.
After lunch, we had close views of the long-staying Shorelarks, feeding with a flock of Ringed Plover, and a more distant view of the Pacific Diver, more Goldeneye, Mallard and Tufted Duck as well as Great Crested Grebe, Little Egret, Scaup, Lapwing, Grey Heron, Gadwall, Red-breasted Merganser and an impressive flock of Pink-footed Geese, with at least 12 White-fronted Geese scattered amongst them. By the time the heavy rain arrived, driven by a cold westerly wind, we were back in the car and returning to Newbiggin. Timing is everything 😉
If you’d like to join us in a search for Otters, please do get in touch. Here’s a cub from 2 years ago 🙂
Nazarra had originally booked her Dark Sky Safari for Saturday, but the weather forecast prompted a late rearrangement…and that was looking like a great idea when the weather on Saturday evening proved to be far worse than forecast 🙂
As I drove to Newbiggin on Sunday evening the rain was hammering against the windscreen but away to the west I could see the weather starting to clear and, by the time I collected Nazarra, Venus was shining bright against a dark blue background. Patchy cloud revealed most of the sky at various points during the evening, and the only real weather we had to contend with was a bone-chilling breeze. After a good look at the Orion Nebula (M42), Pleiades (M45), Andromeda galaxy (M31), Orion, Taurus, Gemini, the Plough, Cassiopeia, Auriga and Sirius, Nazarra mentioned that she hadn’t photographed the night sky but was keen to learn how to do that. Choosing camera settings that would be appropriate for a widefield starscape, Nazarra pressed the shutter release as I held the tripod stable against the breeze. That first shot looked rather orange but I couldn’t see any low cloud that would reflect light pollution…a quick change of the white balance setting did away with the orange glow and the next image had a trace of the Milky Way visible 🙂 With the cloud clearing further, the Milky Way came into naked eye visibility and several sections of the sky were imaged before it was time to return to Newbiggin.
I’ll be leading some landscape astrophotography workshops at the fantastic Battlesteads Observatory from March onwards, and I’m the lead astronomer there most Wednesday evenings and a couple of Saturdays every month too. Do get in touch if you want to learn more about the universe and how to photograph the night sky 🙂
Here’s the Milky Way from the Holy Island causeway last September.
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.
Day 1. 19/02/17. I arrived at the Bamburgh Castle Inn for the start of our Winter Wonderland holiday, then met up with with Christine, John, Linda and Rosie in the bar and outlined the plan for the next two days while we enjoyed a fantastic meal.
Day 2. 20/02/17. Our first full day was targeting Lindisfarne and the North Northumberland coast. Stopping at Budle Bay on our way north we soon found a Spotted Redshank amongst the Common Redshank, Wigeon, Teal, Shoveler, Mallard, Oystercatcher, Shelduck and Curlew as Pink-footed and Greylag Geese and Lapwing swirled distantly against a leaden grey sky on a stiff breeze and Red-breasted Mergansers looked even more comical than usual with their tufts blown to odd angles. A heavy misty drizzle took hold, yet cleared within minutes, leaving a beautiful azure sky draped in fluffy white cloud. A Kestrel perched obligingly as we stopped along a hedgerow that was heaving with Chaffinches. As the receding tide cleared the Holy Island causeway, waders dropped in to feed along the edge of the recently exposed mud. Knot, Dunlin, Curlew, Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Turnstone and Bar-tailed Godwit were all close to the road and easily observable by using the car as a nice, sheltered, warm hide as Pale-bellied Brent Geese flew over us 🙂 Over on the island we found a mixed flock of Dark-bellied Brent Geese, Curlew and Lapwing. As an unseen threat spooked them and they lifted from the field, it was obvious that the number of birds present was far greater than we thought. Grey Seals were hauled out on the now visible sandbars and we headed back across to the mainland. Lunch overlooking the vast expanse of mud produced more geese and ducks, including Pintail, and a distant Little Stint in amongst a flock of Dunlin and Knot. A Merlin had spooked the Chaffinch flock as we headed back south and a quick stop at Bamburgh produced Purple Sandpiper, Turnstone, Ringed Plover and Eider but nothing on the sea in what the wind had whipped up into a frothing mess of whitecaps. The stiffening breeze was making viewing conditions awkward but the final stop of the afternoon brought Song Thrush, Long-tailed Tit, Greenfinch and Goldcrest before we headed back to Seahouses. Dinner was accompanied by a discussion of the plan for Tuesday, and a target list was quickly developed…
Day 3. 21/02/17. Tuesday saw us heading south towards Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland. Our first target for the day was a species that’s scarce and often only offers fleeting views…Willow Tit is a regular visitor to the NEWT garden feeding station but I’d got a different site in mind and we enjoyed prolonged views of at least two of these gorgeous little birds, as well as a detailed discussion about how to separate them from Marsh Tit. Reed Bunting, Common Snipe and Common Buzzard joined the day list as an impressive flock of Lapwing and Golden Plover swirled against the sky as we headed off in search of our next target for the day. This one proved fairly straightforward and we had great views of both male and female Brambling. Little Grebe, Goldeneye and Common and Black-headed Gulls accompanied our lunch stop before we had excellent views of some very obliging Common Snipe, Bar-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Ruff, Tree Sparrow and Little Egret. Shorelark was the one target for the day that eluded us, as we had several flight views of a vocal flock of Twite while Ringed Plover were displaying on the beach, Sanderling were scurrying back and forth and a flock of Common Scoter were offshore with Red-throated Divers and Guillemot just beyond the breaking surf. A handsome male Stonechat flushed from bush to bush ahead of us as we walked along the path and the long-staying Pacific Diver eventually gave great views close to a Slavonian Grebe. There was one target species still remaining on the list for the day though, and I was sure that the last hour of daylight would bring that one for us. Scanning the edges of reedbeds through the telescope revealed a dark shape that hadn’t been there a few minutes earlier during my last scan of the reedbed, and that dark shape stretched and began loping along, still partly obscured by the reeds. Within a minute everyone had located the Otter as it moved quickly around the edge of the pool and then it vanished, only to appear in the water a few minutes later 🙂 We watched as it swam towards us before losing it from sight behind the near vegetation. After a few minutes of calm all of the Mute Swans were suddenly staring towards the bank right in front of us, and the Otter passed by just a few metres away 🙂 A great finish to our final full day in the field.
Day 4. 22/02/17. Departure day dawned dry, bright and with an icily cold breeze as we gathered for breakfast before all heading off our separate ways.
We’ll be adding 2017 and 2018 dates to our holiday page shortly but please do get in touch if you’ve got any questions about what we offer. Our short break holidays have a maximum of 6 participants, and a relaxed pace, and we’re always happy to create something bespoke too 🙂
Watching wildlife tends to involve also having to spend some time waiting for it to appear, and conversations are occasionally slightly surreal…
I collected Jo and Crawford from Eshott ahead of a day searching for Otters around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland. Heavy overnight rain had cleared but the roads were liberally strewn with deep puddles as we headed to the coast. Crawford has spent a lot of time watching and photographing Otters in Shetland and it was great to compare observations, and discuss photography, as we scanned the water looking for any sign of the elusive predator. Little Grebe, Goldeneye and Mute Swan all appeared unmolested, then I noticed three Mallard swimming slightly faster than all of the other ducks…and there was an Otter twisting and turning, surfacing to crunch whatever it had just caught before submerging again 🙂 We watched it for a little while but it was moving away from us so we moved along to a section of bank closer to where we’d last seen it. Better views there, and then another shift of position saw us on the water’s edge, with the Otter performing around 20m in front of Crawford’s camera. Our encounter lasted nearly an hour, and included several ‘porpoising’ dives with the Otter leaping almost completely clear of the water and diving near vertically.
The cold and damp of the afternoon brought views of a very obliging White-fronted Goose and, approaching dusk, Lapwing and Curlew called as Starlings hurried to roost and a Barn Owl ghosted by. Wildlife presenters featured in a very entertaining discussion which led on to game shows and the revelation that Keith Chegwin – that’s right the cherub-faced star of Multi-coloured Swap Shop, Cheggers Plays Pop and Saturday Superstore – had once presented a game show naked. Now two of us thought this unlikely, but a quick search on Google confirmed that Crawford wasn’t imagining it and that Cheggers had indeed hosted a one-off show called Naked Jungle, wearing nothing other than a hat! Every day’s an education…
Sunday was a second day out for Edward and Isabel, although this time a bespoke trip. I collected them from Greycroft and we headed south. Brambling was the first target on our list for the day and an impressive flock was alongside Nuthatch, Chaffinch, Coal Tit and a male Siskin. Red Squirrel was another target species for the day, and we enjoyed prolonged views of one, as another male Brambling called from a treetop nearby and Goldfinches plundered a feeding station. Long-tailed Tits fed just above our heads and Fulmar found themselves in range of Edward’s camera as we had lunch overlooking the North Sea. Twite, Pied Wagtail and Sanderling on the beach were our first post-lunch stop and then we headed further north to our last site for the day, with a brief glimpse of a Stoat as it ran across the road in front of us.
Dusk often brings the best of the day and, as Whooper Swans swam across the reflection of the setting Sun, a Kingfisher dived from the reeds, a Water Rail flew between reedbeds, Grey Herons squabbled over prime feeding spots and the assembled wildfowl followed the progress of a Red Fox as it trotted along the bank. Once it was too dark to see anything in front of us we headed back to Alnwick.
Another great day out with clients who were really good company. It’s never really any other way 🙂
I collected Roger and Jackie from The Swan and then Edward and Isabel from Church Point and we headed off in search of Otters around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland. After watching Little Grebe, Cormorant and Goldeneye all fishing unmolested by sinuous predators we moved on to our second site for the day and the sky was filled with Pink-footed and Greylag Geese and a vocal White-fronted Goose flew by. Fulmars soared along the clifftops as we had our lunch and Pacific Diver added a touch of rare to the day’s proceedings. By mid-afternoon we were at the site where I suspected we needed to be at dusk…
In the cold wind Starlings were going straight to roost without putting on a murmurating display and, as light faded and the reflection of the setting sun cast a beautiful glow on the water, Edward spotted an adult Otter 🙂 We watched it fishing as it gradually made it’s way towards a flock of Mallard, Tufted Duck, Coot, Wigeon and Teal and then it was lost from sight…before a flock of Lapwings taking panicked flight right in front of us betrayed the presence of an Otter out of the water! After a few minutes of unsuccessful chasing it went into the water and started feeding. This was a second Otter though, this time a cub that we lost sight of in the deepening gloom of dusk. With a fairly cloudless sky Venus, Mars, the Moon and Orion were all looking mightily impressive as we made our way back to the car after another successful Otter search 🙂
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 🙂