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…
As a chemist I’ve found fireworks fascinating for some time. While I was still teaching, I developed a series of demonstration experiments that illustrated how different colours are produced by varying the chemicals in the mix and managed, during one particularly spectacular demo, to set fire to a pile of homework and the surface of my desk. Every year there are information campaigns about domestic pets and fireworks, but never really anything about the effect on wildlife…
I met up with Pete and Georgie at Church Point and we set off (in their car, but that’s a whole other story…) around Southeast Northumberland and Druridge Bay. Perhaps my own favourite moment of the day came quite early as a Merlin chased a Common Snipe through the dunes at Cresswell. An elusive Brambling played hide and seek with us nearby and the Coots, Moorhens, Mallards, Teal, Wigeon, Gadwall, Tufted Duck and Shoveler at each pond we visited seemed unconcerned and not indicating the presence of the sinuous predator that enlivens so many of our trips on the coast.
As dusk approached things started to look a bit more interesting; Whooper Swans were clearly alert and agitated, all staring into the same reedbed. We’ve seen it so many times before…and then ‘whoosh’, ‘whoosh’, ‘whoosh’, ‘bang’, ‘bang’, ‘bang’, ‘bang’, ‘bang’, as a fireworks display on a nearby beach scattered everything! Ducks, geese, swans all took to the air and we finished the trip with not very much wildlife in view at all.
As we headed back to the car a figure appeared out of the dark “Dr Kitching. Slight change of plan, Sarah’s poorly so I’ve come to collect you”. The hero of the day was a man whose knowledge of the Northumberland coast is second to none, and whose blog is really worth checking out. Cheers Ipin, you’re a star
Sunday was a Prestige Otter Safari for Chris and Sophie. It was Chris’ birthday and, as I collected them from Berwick in some pretty horrible conditions, I was hoping that we would drive south into better weather. Sure enough, we did pass out from under the rain clouds, but the day stayed quite gloomy and windy. I’d already had an excellent start to the day’s birdwatching, with a flock of 14 Waxwings flying alongside the road as I approached Berwick. I’m often asked what my favourite bird is, and usually reply that it’s impossible to have a favourite…but Waxwings have a special place at the top of my list
Down in southeast Northumberland we found an adult Mediterranean Gull, and Chris proved to be remarkably eagle-eyed – picking out a sleeping Jack Snipe in an area of cut reeds. On the water the usual suspects (Mallard, Teal, Wigeon, Tufted Duck, Shoveler, Gadwall) were joined by some less regular species; Scaup, Pintail and a pair of Long-tailed Ducks. Some surprising entertainment was provided by a Merlin which spent several minutes harassing a Magpie, and then there was a sudden movement of Goldeneye, Coot and Moorhen away from a reedbed. They stared intently at the reeds for a few minutes before drifting back towards the edge, then repeated the whole process twice more! There was something in the reeds that was causing concern, but it didn’t reveal itself (not an unusual occurrence in strong winds – and who could blame anything for staying sheltered?). We moved on to another pool…and had a repeat performance, this time with Pochard, Goldeneye, Teal, Tufted Duck and Whooper Swan being a bit on edge. Sometimes wildlife can be frustrating…
Given the low temperatures and high wind, it seemed a little over-optimistic to get the bat detector out. However, just to confirm that you can’t ever predict wildlife, we had at least two or three Common Pipistrelles, including some frenzied feeding activity around a streetlight, before heading back up the coast.
The dark nights seem to creep up on us very quickly, and it was already 3.30pm when I collected Ruth and David for a mini-safari on the Northumberland coast. It was an entertaining afternoon with clients, who came to university in Newcastle at about the same time as myself and Sarah and decided to not leave the area after graduation – and who would?
The air around Druridge Bay was filled with noisy flocks of Pink-footed and Greylag Geese, one of the wildlife spectacles that everyone should enjoy at least once, and duck numbers are growing on all of the coastal pools, with several drakes starting to show their finery.
Often, there’s a lot of wildlife activity as daylight fades; Little Grebes were catching tiny fish as Teal and Mallard stared intently at a reedbed that we’ve watched an Otter emerge from several times in the last few months. Moorhens came crashing out of the reeds in all directions but the cause of their alarm remained hidden. Bats flitted close overhead and, as everything settled to a state that looked much more relaxed, and the light faded to the point where it’s a struggle to be certain that you’re seeing genuine movement, rather than that your eyes are playing tricks on you, we headed back to Newbiggin, pausing to admire a beautiful Barn Owl, perched at the roadside.
Monday’s Otter Safari featured a quite surreal evening, as mist developed over the pools, close to the Northumberland coast, really playing tricks on the eyes. As Coots scattered and Mallards and Mute Swans all stared in the same direction, our quarry remained hidden from view. Roe Deer were bounding around the poolside vegetation, and a magnificent Long-eared Owl ghosted silently by. As darkness approached we headed back towards Church Point to drop Erin and Adrian off before taking Christina and Sean back to their respective holiday accommodations. Along the road we came across 2 Barn Owls and then a Tawny Owl, sitting on prey in the middle of the road before flying to a nearby fence post and glaring balefully at us.
Three owl species in little over an hour, and Tuesday’s trip was a bespoke photography outing for Christina to photograph Short-Eared Owls. I’ll blog about that one tomorrow
With a forecast for heavy rain today, we had one more client than expected yesterday for our Druridge Bay/southeast Northumberland tour.
I c0llected Annie from High Weldon, Brian from Bedlington and then David from Warkworth before our first stop at one of our favourite birdwatching spots beside the River Coquet. The first thing that was apparent was that there was a not inconsiderable wind-chill factor in play. Thankfully our local area has plenty of reserves with north-facing hides, so plotting a route that would keep us out of the wind wherever possible was quite straightforward.
It wasn’t a day for passerines, although Blue Tit and Goldcrest could be heard calling from deep inside coastal hedgerows, and we found ourselves in the middle of a big swirling flock of Starlings as we ate lunch overlooking the sea, so waders and wildfowl provided the main focus of the day. Bar-tailed Godwit, Ruff, Dunlin and some very nice flocks of Golden Plover, Curlew, Knot and Lapwing were feeding, roosting and, at Cresswell, taking to the air in a panic as a Peregrine exuded menace as it passed over. ‘Scope-filling views of Common Snipe always go down well, and there was an excellent array of wildfowl and waterbirds to enjoy; Gadwall, Mallard, Teal, Wigeon,Pochard, Goldeneye, Tufted Duck, Pintail, Little Grebe, Coot, Moorhen, and Pink-footed, Greylag and Barnacle Geese were all well appreciated, especially with a lot of the drake ducks out of eclipse plumage and looking quite stunning. especially when the sun broke through the clouds.
When the autumn really starts to feel autumnal, I’m always optimistic
Thursday afternoon found me leading an afternoon of birdwatching, and searching for Otters around our local area; Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland.
I collected Ruth and Margaret from the Swan at Choppington and we drove the short distance to Newbiggin to collect Mike and Maggie (for their second trip with us this week), Ben and Siobhan. A ghostly white Mediterranean Gull drifted by the car before we headed north. The River Coquet produced one of my own favourite wildlife experiences as we watched Salmon leaping, and Cormorants, Grey Herons and Goosanders fishing. Lapwings, Redshank, Curlew and a Greenshank all flew by and, after enjoying our lunch by the river, we headed down the bay. East Chevington produced lots of Knot, Dunlin, Ruff, Lapwing, Curlew, Golden Plover, Pintail, Goldeneye, Tufted Duck, Pochard, Gadwall, Mallard, Teal and Wigeon and our next stop was Cresswell. Along the hedge leading down to the hide there were at least 8 Goldcrests, and from the hide there was another nice wader roost. As well as the species we’d already seen at East Chevington there was a single Black-tailed Godwit, plenty of Turnstone and 2 Purple Sandpipers. As the sun began falling towards the horizon, we settled into position to search for Otters. Flocks of Pink-footed Geese filled the sky to the north and a Daubenton’s Bat moved back and forth over the water. All of the signs were there; ducks, Coots and Swans moving en masse from one spot to another, nervously moving back before reversing direction again and, successive groups of birds across the water exploding into the air in a state of panic. The only thing that didn’t happen, was the Otter coming out into view! Still, with a success rate of 75% on Otter Safaris since mid-April, we’re always optimistic whenever we go in search of them.
Friday was our fourth Druridge Bay/southeast Northumberland safari of the week, and it was a real pleasure to meet up with Lawrie and Linda, 2 of our returning clients from last year.
We started with a specific request; Brown Hare. In the strong wind, persistent drizzle and biting cold they were keeping their heads down…all except for one which raised it’s ears, and then it’s head, above the stubble before demonstrating a remarkable vanishing act.
In Newbiggin Bay, with a big menacing sea breaking in the background, a flock of Pale-bellied Brent Geese flew north as we watched the Turnstones, Ringed Plover, Redshanks and Sanderling on the edge of the surf.
Fields of Curlew, and fighting cock Pheasants, provided additional entertainment as we drove down the coast. I’d decided on East Chevington as our final destination of the trip and, as we arrived and began walking down to the North Pool, it looked as though the weather might get the better of us. The wind was strengthening and the first few drops of rain began to fall as a juvenile Merlin raced across the fenceline in front of us looking, in the fading light, like an oversized hirundine. The evening roost on the pool was building and hundreds of Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed, Herring, Black-headed and Common Gulls were sitting in the shallow water with Sandwich Terns, Lapwings, Knot, Teal, Mallard, Wigeon, Shoveler, Coot, Moorhen and Canada and Greylag Geese. Then Pink-footed Geese and more Greylag Geese began arriving, and the 4 Snow Geese that we saw last Sunday flew in to join the throng. A wave of panic spread through the roost, and many of the birds lifted into the air as a Bittern flew from one reedbed to another. Eventually, even the silhouettes began to merge into the darkness and the birds began to settle as we left the hide and braved the driving rain. With the footpaths and roads now covered in puddles the walk to the car, and the drive back to Alnwick, featured lots of Common Frogs and Common Toads, as well as a Tawny Owl that was perched on a fence post next to a line of trees.
It was a great experience to enjoy some pretty awful weather, and some superb wildlife, with Lawrie and Linda. I’ll never get fed up with what we do, and the weather is all a par tof the tapestry of that.
Thanks for the chocolates
October ended with a Prestige Tour around Druridge Bay and Southeast Northumberland. I collected Christine and Mark from Stannington and we headed across to the coast. Flocks of Linnets. Lapwings and Grey Partridges were close to the road and we settled to check one of our regular Otter sites. All of the assembled Mallard, Teal, Wigeon, Gadwall and Coot were concentrated in one area of the pool and clearly nervous about one particular corner. We weren’t fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of any predators, but the behaviour of the waterfowl was typical of the type of indication you get that there’s an Otter about. Our lunch spot for the day was beside the River Coquet and, along with the Cormorants and Grey Herons that were patrolling the water’s edge, an Atlantic Salmon provided some spectacular entertainment as it launched itself vertically out of the water, three times in rapid succession, just a few metres away from us.
As we walked along the River Wansbeck after lunch, via a detour around the north edge of Ashington to enjoy the spectacle of 90+ Waxwings gorging themselves on Rowan berries, skeins of Pink-footed Geese passed overhead and, as the sun sank towards the horizon, it was time to seek out the wildlife that occupies that magical time of day. As we settled into position near one of our favourite badger-watching spots there was an incredible commotion from the trees on the other side of the stream. Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Wrens, Robins and Magpies were all alarming loudly. The mobbing was too intense, and too stationary, to be the mild alarm that a Red Fox or Badger often triggers and shortly after one Tawny Owl flew through the trees opposite, a second bird finally got fed up with the mobbing and flew from it’s perch. An unwelcome sighting was a Grey Squirrel, in a woodland that until recently still held Red Squirrels. Our first Badger of the evening was a big adult, trotting across the top of the clearing. Then, after a few minutes of near silence, two Badger cubs came crashing through the undergrowth. They crossed the stream beneath a fallen tree, paused briefly rising on their haunches like stripy black-and-white meerkats, and then headed uphill behind us. Our fourth Badger of the evening followed the same route before we headed back to the Landrover and civilisation.
I dropped Christine and Mark back at Stannington and there was time for one last piece of magic as a Barn Owl floated lazily from a fence post as I drove back towards the A1.
Throughout the late autumn and winter we’ll be scheduling most of our trips to finish in darkness. Druridge Bay and Lindisfarne are both excellent locations through the winter, and as darkness descends, so give us a call on 01670 827465 to find out how we can bring that experience to you.
Our second day out with the winners of last year’s Birdwatching Northumberland competition, was a day in Druridge Bay. It provided a real contrast with our earlier trip to the Harthope Valley.
After collecting Jean and Andy from the Bamburgh Castle Inn we headed down to Embleton to collect Helen, our third client on this trip, pausing for a few minutes to watch a very obliging Brown Hare in a field near Chatton. As we toured our usual sites the weather was more like the caribbean than Northumberland Tufted Ducks, Shovelers, Herons, Mute Swans, Lapwings and Coots were around the coastal pools, Sedge, Reed and Willow Warblers, Whitethroats and Reed Buntings were singing from hedgerows, sedges, reeds and willows and Fulmars were arcing gracefully along the cliffs at Cresswell. On a woodland walk along the River Blyth we heard more than we saw (as you would expect in mid-May) with Nuthatch, Chiffchaff and Great Spotted Woodpecker all being particularly vocal. Eventually the two days of the Birdwatching Northumberland prize were over and I returned all of our clients to their respective holiday accommodation.
The day wasn’t finished for NEWT though; as dusk approached we were out on the coast, at separate locations, checking for Otters. I did have one brief sighting, and on the journey home we began the process of redeveloping our Otter Safaris to make them an even better experience than they already are.