As I drove to Peth Head Cottage on Thursday afternoon, the rain was hammering against the car windscreen. Friday’s forecast was good though so, after a meal at The Travellers Rest in Slaley, I reminded Derek and Deirdre that we would have an early start the next morning.
19/04/2013 05:00…the incessant ringing of the alarm pierced the depths of my sleep and I jumped out of bed, showered and opened my bedroom window. The dawn chorus, mainly Blackbirds, Robins and Song Thrushes, was deafening, and the last remnants of rain were pattering down as we set off across the moors to a Black Grouse lek. Roe Deer were watching us from a roadside field and a Tawny Owl flew across in front of us, no doubt heading for a secluded daytime roosting site. First lek site, no birds, second lek site two Greyhens and a distant altercation between two Blackcock along a drystone wall as Curlew, Snipe, Oystercatcher and Lapwing displayed nearby and a Common Buzzard lumbered its way across the horizon. A third site produced the goods though as, adjacent to a field filled with summer-plumaged Golden Plover, two Blackcock were strutting their stuff for the benefit of three Greyhens…who watched them with what appeared to be complete indifference
After returning to Peth Head for a delicious, and very filling, breakfast (accompanied by Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Siskins, Robins, Dunnocks and a Reed Bunting on the feeders just outside the dining room window) we set out again. By now, the sun was up, bathing the moors in sublime warm tones, and Derek spotted the tell-tale white flash of a displaying Blackcock. This bird was strutting around next to two Greyhens, head down, tail up, pausing occasionally to stand bolt upright before jumping in the air and singing. Just beyond the lekking lothario, a Short-eared Owl was quartering the moor. Backwards and forwards on long narrow wings, the owl flew closer to our position, until eventually binoculars were put down when the field of view was completely filled with yellow-eyed menace as the owl flew over the bonnet of the car before veering away just inches from the windscreen.
Deeper into the North Pennines AONB, over moorland liberally sprinkled with pairs of Red Grouse, flocks of Golden Plover flying around and giving their plaintive call, with a Dunlin easily picked out in one flock by it’s small size, and farmland with Brown Hares chasing each other, Derek’s sharp eyes picked out a bird on telegraph wires…and we had our first Ring Ouzel of the trip. Singing it’s simple song, this could well have been the bird that I watched with Sarah in late March. A pair of Ring Ouzels followed soon after, staying just ahead of the car as we traversed a narrow road high above Weardale. Deirdre spotted several displaying Blackcock and we passed from Weardale into Upper Teesdale. Walking the remote moors produced close views of Red Grouse, Golden Plover, Wheatear, Skylark and Meadow Pipit before a completely unexpected find; for a second I wasn’t sure what I was watching, as a large brown and white bird drifted over the moor with deep lazy wingbeats, but as I lifted my binoculars I could barely contain my excitement as I let Derek and Deirdre know that there was an Osprey flying by! We watched the bird as it hovered and then dived into a nearby reservoir, but it’s departure route took it out of sight so we didn’t see if it was successful in its hunt. A pair of Goosander were feeding along the reservoir edge and, as they eventually crossed the open water, they picked up a Tufted Duck for company.
I had a hunch that Black Grouse would be lekking late afternoon, so we returned to a site that had held just one resting Blackcock earlier in the day. Sure enough, ‘the boys’ had gathered for a bit of a barney; 15 of them had turned up – seven obvious pairs of combatants and one bird sitting off to one side holding his wings, head and tail in the typical display posture but just standing still and watching the series of duels that were taking place in front of him. A couple of them broke out into physical fights, and all of the birds were calling as the lek reached a crescendo before, as if someone had flicked a switch, they suddenly lowered their undertail coverts, lifted their heads, folded their wings back in and started nonchalantly pottering around the gladiatorial arena as if nothing had happened. Just as exciting though, was what was going on above the lek. In my field of view I could see a Curlew drop almost vertically before heading skyward again. I raised my binoculars to follow it’s path and as it dropped again it was harassing, with the assistance of a flock of Black-headed Gulls, a male Goshawk! Open moorland may not be typical habitat for this fearsome inhabitant of our upland forests, but it isn’t the first time we’ve seen one out of context in late April.
Back across the moors to Hexhamshire we saw more Red Grouse, more Black Grouse and, after a quick stop back at Peth Head we headed out to eat at the Dipton Mill Inn. We followed that with a drive into Slaley Forest for Woodcock and Tawny Owls then, before retiring to bed, I stood in the dark outside the cottage and listened as at least four Tawny Owls called from close by. A superb end to an excellent day
As I pulled into the car park at The Swan, Peter and Elizabeth were sitting in the bright sunshine. There was still a cold edge to the breeze though, and we set out to explore Druridge Bay, south east Northumberland and the Northumberland coast.
Masses of frogspawn was evidence that our amphibians were getting on with business as usual, regardless of the weather, and a newt rose to the surface of a small pond to take a gulp of air before sinking out of sight back into the murky depths. Chaffinches, Robins, Song Thrushes and Blackbirds were singing, and a Chiffchaff was a welcome sound – we’d normally expect to start hearing them in mid-March, but this was our first this year. A flock of Redwings were blown by like scraps of paper on the strengthening breeze and, just south of Cresswell, Fulmars glided effortlessly by, riding the updraft of the wind seemingly perilously close to the cliffs.
Another amphibian joined the day list, as a Common Toad walked along the path towards us, realised we were there, then retreated to the edge of the path and tucked all of it’s legs in so that it resembled a stone and waited for us to pass by. A Greylag Goose was incubating and I mentioned that the same site usually held a pair of Mute Swans…and one appeared, but we didn’t see where from. The mystery was solved a few minutes later as it’s mate walked out of a reedbed, straight over the incubating Greylag and paddled across the water. Incredibly the Greylag barely gave the swan a second glance, but just sat tight on it’s nest.
A Brown Hare sat haughtily in a roadside field, and a Sparrowhawk flew just ahead of the car for over 100m, before perching on a hedgerow and staring menacingly at us as we drove by. By early evening the wind had really stiffened again and it started raining. This didn’t dissuade a sub-adult male Marsh Harrier from hunting over a reedbed close to our position, and he eventually dropped into the reeds and onto prey; judging by the squealing he may have caught a Water Rail. Sand Martin, Swallow and House Martin in one flock were additions to the year list, 18 Red-breasted Mergansers were displaying, a few Goldeneye were busy feeding and, as we finished our day, along one of NEWT’s favourite rivers, a dark shape moving slowly along the water’s edge caused some excitement. Was this our quarry, the sinuous predator that terrorises fish, birds and small mammals? No, it was a Moorhen…
Last week’s Kielder Safari was at the back end of that period of wintry weather that seemed to have been around for quite some time, and the snow provided one of the highlights of the day.
I collected Lucy, Mark and ‘the Mums’, Pat and Alison, from their holiday cottage in Falstone and we set out to explore the border forests. Coal Tits, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Greenfinches and Chaffinches…and Chaffinches…and Chaffinches were seen in the forested areas and there seemed to be a small movement of Blackbirds, with four males in quick succession heading west along one steep sided valley.
Dipper was on the target list for the day, and a stop at one of our favourite spots just south of the Scottish border produced not one, but two birds; dipping, swimming, flying, calling – a whole range of Dipper behaviour Another riverside stop at a ‘staked out’ spot produced views of a gaudy drake Mandarin, looking so odd in the cold and gloom of the mid afternoon as he made his way along the edge of the water.
Wild Goats feature in most, if not all, of our Kielder trips and we had them on open moorland as well as a small group in amongst the trees along a forest track. Also out on the open moors, Red Grouse took a little bit of effort to find (as they often do in strong cold winds), and a Common Buzzard caused momentary panic as it looked particularly narrow-winged and pale.
As the afternoon wore on, and the skies were suddenly blue and the landscape bathed in sunlight, it was a great contrast to the start of the day. Just a few hours earlier we were standing on the edge of a steep forested valley, looking across to one of our most reliable sites for Goshawk, watching as a succession of snow storms moved along the valley, driven by the strong easterly wind, and the very edge of the snow just peppered our position. ‘The Mums’ retreated to the car (and who could blame them?) the Goshawks and Red Squirrels stayed in the shelter of trees (and who could blame them?) and comparisons were drawn with New Zealand, Canada, and the possibility of four seasons in one day. The forest and Kielder Water may be a man-made landscape, but it has the feel of a remote wilderness area, and some excellent wildlife too
Last weekend was the Big Garden Birdwatch and we followed tradition by sitting in our kitchen with a mug of coffee, and a bacon and tomato sandwich, having topped up all of the feeders the evening before. An hour later, we’d racked up a list of 21 species; Blackbird 3, Jackdaw 2, Collared Dove 2, Robin 3, Chaffinch 20, Great Tit 3, Coal Tit 3, Magpie 1, Blue Tit 2, Dunnock 1, Goldfinch 8, Jay 1, Bullfinch 1, House Sparrow 1, Greenfinch 1, Woodpigeon 2, Redwing 1, Tree Sparrow 1, Song Thrush 1, Sparrowhawk 1, Brambling 2. Quite a successful hour, although most species weren’t present in the numbers we would have expected and, as usual, several species that had been visiting the garden in recent days (Marsh Tit, Willow Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Siskin, Great Spotted Woodpecker) failed to appear during the 1 hour of the survey. Easy birding, and part of a huge national survey. If you didn’t do it this year, give it a go in 2014
As the air cools, a pall of pale ghostly mist hangs just above the ground in a wildflower meadow dropping away ahead of me. I’m on a woodland edge, standing on a soft cushion of fallen larch and pine needles. Standing still and blending in, the mist wraps me in its cooling blanket as a flock of Goldcrests move through the trees just behind my vantage point. Overhead Redwings, Rooks and Jackdaws head to roost as a Carrion Crow caws defiantly from the top of a tall larch and Wood Pigeons flutter up and down at tree-top height. The incessant screeching of Jays and chatter of Blackbirds betrays the presence of a Tawny Owl; stirring in preparation for its nocturnal foray, it soon tires of the harassment and heads deeper into the wood. A Woodcock appears at the same point where I emerged from the trees just a few minutes ago, having followed my route alongside the gurgling stream. Away over the fields I can see a Barn Owl, hunting close to the site where it raised this year’s young hoolets, and Roe Deer nervously make their way out into the open. As the light fades and I head for home, it’s hard to believe that I’m on the edge of the most densely populated area of Northumberland and walking through a mixed woodland where there were once three coal mines, including one of the first deep-shaft mines anywhere in the world. For now though, it’s just me and the wildlife…
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’ve had the first two bird ID sessions for the North Pennines WildWatch project already, and both have produced some excellent sightings during the ‘in the field’ bit of the course.
The first session, at Eggleston, produced one outstanding bird – at least for those in the group who weren’t impatiently hurrying back for their bread, cheese and soup…as a group of us watched a Song Thrush gathering food, I looked skywards (a good habit to get into, you never know what could be overhead) and there was an Osprey Bird of the day/month/year for those who were lucky enough to see it.
One of my favourite species rounded off the first session, and the second session around Muggleswick as well, as we watched Woodcock roding and chasing each other. The end of the first session produced another exciting bird that was missed by the group that headed straight back to the cars, as a few of us heard, and then saw, a Tawny Owl.
Both sessions concentrated on identifying birds by song and call, with paticipants getting to grips with Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Blackbird, Blackcap, Willow Warbler, and Chiffchaff amongst others, and the third session, at Lambley, will have the same focus. I changed approach between the first two sessions, and I’m busy restructuring the course for the third session based on the teaching/learning experiences gained during the first two. I knew there was a reason we bought a parabolic microphone (there’s a reason for everything, we just don’t always realise it at the time…)
The last 2 days were spent running 2 Prestige Tours for Peter and Alison, and the Northumberland coast delivered plenty of birdwatching gems.
On Wednesday we were covering Holy Island and the Northumberland coast, and planned to spend the morning on Holy Island and then come off at lunchtime just before the tide covered the causeway (remember – the crossing times are published for a reason, don’t drive into the North Sea, it won’t end well!). A thorough check around the village, and the Heugh, produced 2 Black Redstarts, Blackcaps, lots of Blackbirds, Fieldfares, Redwings and an intriguing Chiffchaff (almost sandy brown above, very unlike our breeding birds). Grey Seals and Pale-bellied Brent Geese were out on the mud, Dark-bellied Brent Geese, Wigeon and Teal were roosting on the Rocket Field and a Woodcock was flying circuits of the village. As well as an almost continuous wave of thrushes leaving the island, the distinctive flight calls of Skylarks and Lesser Redpolls could be picked out.
Once we were off the island, I’d decided to head north to Goswick. Another Black Redstart and a Yellow-browed Warbler were around Coastgurad Cottage, and we made our way through the dunes. The adult drake Black Scoter was still present, although less than easy to see with a line of rolling surf impeding the view. As the tide rose, flocks of Bar-tailed Godwit, Knot, Dunlin and Grey Plover rose from the exposed sandbar, shuffling along to the next ‘dry’ spot. A Short-eared Owl was seen coming in-off, harrassed by Herring Gulls before finally finding sanctuary on the Snook, and then the bird of the day (well, I think so anyway) appeared just behind us. Tracking south along the coast a juvenile Rough-legged Buzzard was given a bit of a going over by the local corvids.
Heading back towards Seahouses we stopped off at Harkess Rocks, where Purple Sandpipers, Turnstones, Redshank and Oystercatchers were all flitting from rock to rock and Eider were bobbing about just offshore as daylight faded and it was time to return Peter and Alison to their holiday accommodation.
I collected Ruth and Margaret from The Swan for their second trip with us; this time a half-day Beginner’s Birdwatching trip around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland. After scouring some bushes where we could hear a roving tit flock, and enjoying excellent views of a flock of Tree Sparrows in the beautiful sunshine, we visited Hadston Scaurs in search of the Yellow-browed Warbler that had been seen there earlier in the morning. We were unlucky, although we could hear the flock of Goldcrests that it had been with but they were deep in the hedge and we only had occasional brief views as they hurried about. Reed Buntings, Dunnocks, Blackbirds and Bullfinches all performed well, Robins were calling from what seemed to be every bush, Linnets and Skylarks were moving south overhead and skeins of Pink-footed Geese passed over.
We had a session looking at shapes of ducks, and how to use that skill to separate similar species, and finished at Cresswell with a species that Margaret was really keen to see on this trip, Eider; our county bird, and a real stunner
Early morning, and the ground underfoot varies from frozen crunchy to treacherously boggy. The sky overhead is a deep blue, the first rays of sunlight yet to bathe the fields, hedgerows and woodland in that magical golden glow. Clattering wings herald the departure of nearly 1000 Woodpigeons from their overnight roost, and a Blackbird rustles through the vegetation in the hedge bottom. A menacing shape carves through the air just above the treetops; the menacing flap-flap-glide of our local male Sparrowhawk, beating the bounds of his territory in search of the wintering flocks of Siskins, Redpolls, Crossbills, Chaffinches and Bramblings. The pungent scent of a Red Fox marks an area that I’ll want to stake out with my camera on another day, and as I head back towards home a Roe Deer springs across the path just a few metres ahead of me and disappears into the plantation just behind our house. An excellent way to prepare for the day ahead