We started June with three trips in the first four days of the month, all focused around our ‘local patch’; Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland.
On Friday morning I collected Gary and Claire from their holiday base in Proctor Steads, and we headed down the coast. Even though we’ve lived close to Druridge Bay for nearly 12 years, the wildlife of this post-industrial landscape is still as special as it always was. Whether it’s Tree Sparrows feeding young, ghostly pale Roseate Terns on their nest boxes on Coquet Island, a Cuckoo flying low over a coastal reedbed, dense flocks of hirundines and Swifts hawking insects low over a lake, Reed and Sedge Warblers singing from adjacent reedbeds allowing easy comparison of their song, Fulmars soaring along a cliff edge within a few metres of us as we eat our lunch or Blue-tailed Damselflies drifting along footpaths and tracks before settling on the grasses and apparently vanishing, there’s always something going on, always something to watch and the day always seems to end too soon.
Saturday was an afternoon/evening Otter Safari and I collected Lesley and Kevin from Church Point before heading north. After an afternoon spent birdwatching, with my own personal highlight being a very yellow Yellow Wagtail, and searching for Otters, we settled into position for an evening session at one of our favourite ponds. As a pair of Roe Deer grazed poolside vegetation, looking resplendent in the sublime light from a sunset that looked like a fire burning on the horizon, and a Long-eared Owl drifted back and forth over the reedbeds, our quarry made his appearance. Gliding menacingly through the water, the Otter managed to sneak up on 2 Mallards, who noticed him when he was just a few feet away and took flight. Exploring the rest of the pool he was pursued by an ever-expanding flock of Black-headed Gulls before finally vanishing into the sanctuary of the reeds.
Our third excursion around Druridge Bay was a Prestige Tour for Pete and Rachel. Sedge and Willow Warblers and Reed Buntings all sang from obligingly open locations, although Reed Warblers remained hidden deep in reedbeds, a Roe Deer put in an uncharacteristic daytime appearance and a Mute Swan had a remarkable hissy fit. The cause of his slightly embarrasing temper tantrum couldn’t be seen, but as he kept charging at a reedbed it seemed likely that a predator he saw as a threat to his cygnets was lurking out of our sight, but not his. Later in the day an even more impressive display of annoyance was demonstrated by two cock Pheasants as they spent a good 20 minutes posturing and fighting. Our clients frequently comment about how relaxing a day out with us is…and those Pheasants could really have done with chilling out too
As I collected Jason and Jane for a bespoke day of birdwatching in the beautiful Cheviot valleys, the first few raindrops pattered against the windscreeen of the car. As we headed south from Melkington the rain stopped and visibility improved, so I was sure were in for an excellent day.
The day featured all of the species we would expect; Roe Deer, Brown Hare, Raven, Dipper,Grey Wagtail, Common Sandpiper, Tree Pipit, Redstart and Red Grouse amongst many but a few of the regulars put on a really special performance.
Cuckoos were calling along the valley but frustratingly staying out of view, until a handsome male flew across the track ahead of us and then perched in full view. A pair of Whinchat provided another highlight as they flitted along a stream, dashing from rock to rock like Grey Wagtails, tails flicking as they sallied across the adjacent hillside.
Soon after I collected them, Jason had mentioned that he’d never seen a Ring Ouzel. No pressure there, then As we started our first walk of the day, I could hear a Ring Ouzel singing, and soon located him at the top of a distant tree. More followed, including a pair sitting together on a fence, but probably the best of the seven that we found was a singing male; high in a narrow gully his song reverberated beautifully off the surrounding rock carrying over a distance at which he was just a black speck through our binoculars, his song was as clear as if he was just along the hillside. As the wind and rain finally arrived, and we discussed sustainability and conservation (I really should write a book…), his song continued, although he shifted the side of the gully he was on to shelter from the rain. A remote valley exposed to the elements, a real mountain specialist putting on a performance for us, stimulating insightful thoughts from Jason and Jane…another memorable day at ‘the office’
Trips with existing clients are always a pleasure, not only because it’s very gratifying to get a booking from someone we’ve taken out before, but also because we already have shared memories. I had 3 things vivid in my mind from when I took Pete and Janet out in September 2008 – it rained, we saw 11 adult Mediterranean Gulls on the beach at Newbiggin and Janet found an Otter.
I collected Pete and Janet from their holiday cottage in Embleton, and we headed across to Sharperton to collect David and Mary. They’re all members of the same Natural History Society, who were our first group booking, back in 2009, and we always enjoy catching up with them, and the other members of their group, at the Bird Fair each August. Tuesday was a bespoke trip, combining Harwood and Druridge Bay, and the weather forecast suggested that it wouldn’t rain…
As we approached Harwood a Roe Deer crossed the track, walked into the trees and then stopped to watch us. This was the first of 11 that we saw on our journey through the forest (well, it was about 11, and if I say 11, it’ll help the punchline to this post!).
Harwood again produced memorable sightings; Roe Deer, Tree Pipit, at least 3 Cuckoos, Siskins, plenty of Crossbills, more Roe Deer and a mouth-wateringly attractive male Common Redstart. A list of species can never really do justice to just how good encounters with wildlife can be though; as 2 Roe Deer bounded across the clearfell area beside the track, 2 Cuckoos were engaged in a frantic chase, calling frequently and mobbed by Meadow Pipits every time they left the safety of the trees, while the male Redstart flicked along the edge of a nearby plantation, red tail shivering as he perched on a tree stump, black face contrasting with his white forehead and supercilium, the subtle grey of his crown and mantle and the orangy-red of his breast.
As we tucked in to our picnic lunch, overlooking a very calm North Sea, the first drops of icy rain began to patter down. Then, a comment from Janet to set the pulse racing “I’m sure I just saw a fin”. With such calm water the sudden appearance of black shapes at the surface stood out, and Janet had found yet another exciting mammal on a NEWT safari. This time it wasn’t the sleek, sinuous predator of our lakes and rivers, but another sleek, sinuous predator. We watched for several minutes as the pod of Bottlenose Dolphins moved slowly south. At least 6 animals, including a very small calf, they surfaced lazily every 30seconds or thereabouts as I texted observers further south to let them know what was coming.
Avocet, Garganey (2 handsome drakes), Common Sandpiper, Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, clouds of Swifts, Swallows and martins, and weather best described as changeable, all contributed to an excellent afternoon around Druridge before I completed our circular route, dropping Pete and Janet, and then David and Mary. See you at the BirdFair
So, it rained, we saw 11(ish) Roe Deer in Harwood and Janet found some Bottlenose Dolphins…
I’ve always maintained that, whatever the weather (with the possible exception of a howling gale), it’s always possible to have a really good day birdwatching in Northumberland. Yesterday’s forecast didn’t promise too much in the way of good weather though and, as it turned out, we had to contend with drizzly rain for the whole day.
I collected Reg and Val from Newcastle and we set off towards the Harthope Valley. This is one of NEWT’s favourite locations; spectacular scenery, excellent birdwatching and the all important absence of crowds. A holiday group from another birdwatching company were in the valley as well, though. Just before we reached the turning for Langleeford, a Brown Hare was sitting in a roadside field. As we’re in June, and all of the trees are in leaf, a lot of our birding was done by ear. Grasshopper Warbler was a nice find, Oystercatchers were chasing each other up and down the valley, a Cuckoo flew past, pursued by Meadow Pipits, the shivering trill of a Wood Warbler could be heard over the running water and Grey Wagtail, Common Sandpiper and Dipper were all along the water’s edge. Willow Warblers were singing from all around, Siskin and Redpoll were picked up on call and then eventually gave excellent views, Snipe were displaying over a recently planted area on the opposite side of the valley, Curlews were singing their haunting song (so much more appropriate on windswept, remote moorland than on the coast) and then I heard it; a call that is familiar in the winter, but not in the Cheviot valleys in June. I was still trying to convince myself that I’d misheard the call, when the bird appeared in front of us – unmistakeable really, there was a Twite. I looked, looked away, looked again; no, I wasn’t imagining it. It’s a species that’s suspected to breed in tiny numbers in Northumberland, although there seems to be a lack of confirmed records for the breeding season. Perhaps it was passing through, or maybe, just maybe, there is a breeding site in the Cheviots.
After the excitement of such an unexpected find, we had one major target species left for the day. Ring Ouzel is another bird that you may find on coastal headlands in the autumn, and there are sporadic wintering records as well, but the place to see them is surely the remote upland valleys where they breed. As we made our way up a steep-sided valley we had excellent views of a recently fledged Dipper, and I could hear an ouzel singing. We continued and then the bird appeared overhead, flying from one side of the valley to the other, singing as it crossed. It dropped out of sight, still singing, before retracing it’s route over the valley again. This time we knew where it had landed so we crept along a track towards it. Patience and persistence paid off (as they so often do) and we enjoyed prolonged views of the bird as it sang from a clump of heather on the skyline. The rain was becoming colder and more persistent so we headed back to the car and then down the A697 back to civilisation.
4am, and the insistent ringing of the alarm prises me out of bed. Stagger down the stairs, get dressed, find binoculars/hat/gloves and head out into the chill early morning Southeast Northumberland air. The Dawn Chorus is in full flow; Blackbirds are leading the way, and dominating the soundscape around our house, Chiffchaffs are singing from the churchyard and I make a mental note to do this again tomorrow to get some sound recordings.
Walking along the River Wansbeck I can see a pointed snout sticking out of the water distantly. Closer inspection reveals a Grey Seal. A Grey Heron flies by, croaking and screeching as a pair of Carrion Crows harrass it until it turns through 180 and heads away from the annoyance. I move on as well, heading towards Druridge Bay. With ethereal mist rising from a coastal pool, Sedge Warblers are singing from the bushes around me, and I’m concentrating on the mimicry that they employ, when a group of Rabbits suddenly scatter and Lapwings, Black-headed Gulls and Common Terns begin circling and alarming. A movement in the grass reveals itself as a Red Fox; wary, immaculate and healthy – this isn’t the urban scrounger so familiar to many people, but rather what a recent client described as “that’ll be one of those rural foxes then”.
Then, one of those moments that take me back the best part of four decades; a Cuckoo starts calling. My first Cuckoo, all those years ago, was on an early morning birdwatching cycle ride to a site several miles from home. With nobody else anywhere to be seen, and all of the sounds of the early morning to myself, that haunting sound carried from nearby trees before the pointy-winged long-tailed shape of the bird raced across my field of view. I stand and marvel at the bird. It’s fascinating breeding ecology and migration still grip me the way that birdwatching did when I was a little lad. Perhaps I need to start setting the alarm for very early every morning
Yesterday was the first of two days out with the winners of last year’s Birdwatching Northumberland prize draw. After collecting Andy and Jean from the Bamburgh Castle Inn our destination was the Harthope Valley in the Cheviots. It’s one of our favourite locations; stunning landscape, interesting geology and, of course, excellent wildlife. As we reached the start of the valley we stopped to check on a Dipper nest, and there was one of the adults sitting on a rock in the river, so close that we didn’t need binoculars. Further upstream we watched a pair of Grey Wagtails, eventually locating their nest in the tangled exposed roots of a riverside tree, before setting off in search of Ring Ouzels. It wasn’t too long before we heard a singing male, but he remained stubbornly out of sight. As we climbed higher up the valley the song seemed to be coming from somewhere else and careful scanning of the area revealed our quarry, perched on the remnants of a dry stone wall. A pair of Red Grouse, with at least 7 chicks, were very obliging and a pair of Whinchat were flitting around in the heather. After lunch we were treated to more Grey Wagtails, including a bird singing and displaying high overhead, and these were a real highlight of the day, a singing Dipper, Tree Pipit, Redstart, Cuckoo, a plethora of Willow Warblers and the shivering trill of a Wood Warbler. Andy was keen to take a photograph of a Green Tiger Beetle and, eventually, one sat still for long enough to allow him to get close to it.
The non-bird highlight of the day though came as we walked back to the Land Rover; a pair of Slow Worms locked in a mating embrace. A remarkable end to an excellent day captured on camera by Andy, who kindly sent me the images to add to our blog.