Snow on Monday, glorious weather on Tuesday…and torrential rain on Wednesday When I arrived to collect David and Janet for their Prestige Tour in the Cheviot Valleys we quickly decided to head towards the Northumberland coast instead as that would offer the chance of plenty of birdwatching with the prospect of being able to shelter from the worst of the weather.
Starting at Stag Rocks, we watched flocks of Eider and Common Scoter as they rolled up and over the substantial waves and a Grey Seal swam just beyond the breaking surf. One thing that was immediately obvious was that there was a movement of Gannets; birds were flying over the rocks and more could be seen offshore. Heading down the coast, the intensity of the rain increased and we had our second seawatch of the day, this time just south of Cresswell. An almost continuous passage of Gannets was evident as they headed north, flocks of Kittiwakes and Guillemots were passing by, the occasional Fulmar arced up above the clifftops and a single Manx Shearwater easily outpaced the Gannets. Avocets sat tight as the rain hammered down around them and, when the deluge finally ceased and blue sky and sunshine replaced the gloom, we watched a male Marsh Harrier as he quartered a nearby field before soaring heavenwards. A Great Crested Grebe sailed by serenely, a Whimbrel flew north, five Brown Hares were engaged in some half-hearted chasing and Swifts, Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins all took advantage of the feast of insects that had been stirred to activity by the improvement in the weather.
Even in poor weather, Northumberland can produce some excellent birdwatching
I collected Andreas ahead of a day of birdwatching in the North Pennines with two things in mind; Andreas’ target list for the day (Red Grouse, Black Grouse, Ring Ouzel) and the weather forecast (sleet and snow showers, temps as low as 7C)…
Glorious and breezy weather accompanied our journey southwest and we were soon at the first of our regular Black Grouse sites. We arrived there just ahead of the first of the day’s snow showers – which saw the temperature plummet all the way down to 1C! We soon found our first Red Grouse of the day, as Curlews displayed overhead, and a third of Andreas’ target list had been achieved. An unexpected find by Andreas was a Woodcock, tucked into the vegetation as we made our way across from Allendale to Weardale.
Soon after the Woodcock we came across a displaying Common Snipe, and then our first Black Grouse of the day; a male sitting on a drystone wall, iridescent blue in the sunshine, followed by this bird, half-heartedly displaying while another one fed close by. Two out of three…
Brilliant sunshine was followed by snow, was followed by brilliant sunshine, was followed by snow, and that pattern continued throughout the rest of the day.
As we headed for our regular lunch spot, Andreas spotted a female Ring Ouzel, and completed his target list for the day As the sunshine bathed the landscape around us, a very confiding Lapwing allowed some easy photography.
After watching two Blackcock lekking, with seven other birds pottering about nearby, we headed northeast. The heaviest snow of the day accompanied our journey out of the hills, a reminder that conditions on high ground can be poor at any time…but the reward for braving our remotest landscapes is some really high quality birdwatching.
Towards the end of a day in the North Pennines with Tony and Caroline, I suggested that we should head back to a Black Grouse lek where we’d watched two Blackcock pottering about in the early afternoon…
Everything had been performing well. Red Grouse and Black Grouse playing hide-and-seek-and-run-away-a-bit, Curlew, Redshank, Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Golden Plover and Snipe all displaying, Skylark and Meadow Pipit singing as they ascended skywards, a Wheatear on a midstream rock doing a credible impersonation of a Dipper and the mystery bird of last week’s trip revealed to be a Starling…with a pale crescent on it’s breast!
Now, we were overlooking a lek site that we regularly visit on our North Pennines trips. Two hours earlier there had been just two Blackcock visible, now there were nine, or ten, or five, or two…every scan produced a different total as birds stopped feeding, sat down in the long vegetation and simply vanished. A few minutes later they all stood up, started feeding and wandered about for a little while before repeating the process. After another cycle of ‘feed-hide-reappear’, a minor skirmish developed in amongst the feeding birds. Two Blackcock squared up to each other; wings spread, tails raised, leaping into the air and lashing out at each other. All of the other birds suddenly became very alert, and then the fight stopped and they took flight to the nearby area of low vegetation where we’re used to seeing them display. Other birds, previously unseen, arrived and soon there were 14 of them; arranged in pairs they began the dance that characterises the early mornings of the North Pennines, each bird facing one adversary, strutting around, leaping and cooing (although the wind was carrying that evocative song away from our ears). Four pairs stopped, and adopted a much more relaxed posture, then two more pairs followed suit. Soon only two birds were still displaying…and, bizarrely, the other 12 were standing in the exact positions where they’d been when they gave up, like an odd game of musical statues. Finally one of the remaining combatants pulled his wings in, lowered his tail and raised his head. The final lekking bird stopped soon after, and we assumed that he was the afternoon’s winner. As the gladiatorial contest ended, all of the other birds came out of the trance that they appeared to be in and began feeding. The defeated bird from the final pairing made a half-hearted attempt at resuming the battle, but soon desisted when the reigning champion headed menacingly in his direction.
Sometimes a wildlife experience is just breathtaking, and watching the lek, from the trigger that kicked it all off to the final mystifying tableau, has crashed into my all-time Top 5
As I collected Jenny and Rob for a day in the North Pennines, the weather looked promising, although a little breezy, and we were quickly in the hills. The song of Lapwing, Curlew, Snipe, Redshank, Golden Plover and Oystercatcher carried on the breeze as we found our first Black Grouse of the day – a Blackcock and two Greyhens. Red Grouse seemed to be filling every available bit of moorland and we had an ‘is it or isn’t it?’ moment with an upright, backlit, black bird on an old barn that seemed to show a pale crescent on the throat/breast. It flew out of sight and we were left wondering (I’ve been back and do know what it is, but you’ll have to wait for my next blog post…).
Our afternoon finished with eight Blackcocks lekking, but probably the stars of the day were one of our smaller moorland birds, as we came across a succession of Wheatears. Strikingly handsome male, and subtly beautiful female, Northern Wheatears are always a pleasure to see, but the real surprise was a group of six birds together. Big, upright, and flushed underneath with pinky-orange, these birds were Greenland Wheatears. Migration doesn’t happen only on the coast
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
Sunday saw the two of us heading southwest into the North Pennines to carry out some recce work for a press trip that Martin was leading. As soon as we were up above the level of the Tyne valley there was snow laying, which got deeper as we gained altitude. Lapwings, Curlew and Oystercatcher were all displaying, Common Kestrels were hovering over the few clear areas of vegetation and Common Buzzards soared by. With a white landscape, Red Grouse and Black Grouse were easy to find and a few Red Grouse were close enough to make it worthwhile getting the camera out.
The highlight of the day came just over the border in County Durham with a stunning male Ring Ouzel, close to a nest site, being harrassed by a Mistle Thrush. The ‘Mountain Blackbird’ just seemed to be in exactly the right place in the wintry hills in deep snow.
After our Holy Island trip I had 2 days of Outdoor First Aid training, to renew my OFA certificate for another 3 years. The course was delivered by Dave Jones at Inspirational Training and was a lot of fun – even the outdoor casualty scenarios on the second day in a brutally cold, howling easterly wind! A very pleasant surprise was finding myself on the same training course as one of my former pupils, Tom Hopper.
What came next was something of a departure from my routine work, as I guided a TV research team along Hadrian’s Wall for five days. After visiting numerous archaeological sites, museums, cafes, castles and pubs during the week there was one highlight that stood out above all others; The team were looking around the Housesteads Roman Fort while I sat in the car, re-arranging our activities for the following day. I was just starting to think that they’d been gone for quite a while when my mobile started ringing; “Martin, it’s Nic. We’re walking to Steel Rigg.” I drove to Steel Rigg, made sure I was well wrapped up and started walking towards Housesteads to meet up with them on the path above Sycamore Gap. With several inches of snow beside the path, a bitingly-cold easterly wind and frequent snow showers, it was a glorious afternoon to be walking along the Roman Wall with outstanding views over the North Pennines, Jackdaws tossed in the wind like black leaves, Curlews wandering aimlessly on snow-covered meadows and faint snatches of Meadow Pipit song carried on the breeze. whatever the weather, Northumberland’s still outstanding
As we walked home from The Swan on Friday night, serenaded by the tremulous song of a Tawny Owl, the air was damp and chilly. With a Lindisfarne mini-safari on Saturday morning I was hoping that the weather would be fine, and the forecast suggested it would be…
So, when the alarm went off and I looked out of the window, I was quite surprised that there was a good covering of snow. A few minutes later the snow started again, and I wondered what conditions would be like in the north of the county. It turned out that we were near the northern edge of the snow, and as soon as I was through Morpeth and on the A1 there was just an occasional light flurry, and no snow on the ground.
I collected Emily and Warren from St Cuthbert’s House and we headed straight for Holy Island so that we would be on the island for a couple of hours before the tide encroached onto the causeway. Dark-bellied Brent Geese were roosting and bathing in the Rocket Pools, Curlews were feeding in the fields by the Crooked Lonnen and a lone Fieldfare hopped along the track ahead of us. We could see that the weather was doing something ‘interesting’ out beyond the Farne Islands, and the icy wind coming in off the sea made it a day to really appreciate the resilience of our wintering birds. As we left the island, flocks of Lapwings were being blown on the breeze, Pale-bellied Brent Geese and Bar-tailed Godwits were working their way along the edge of the incoming tide and Eider and Long-tailed Duck were in the South Low, competing for the title of ‘most attractive duck of the day’. Kestrels were a regular feature of the morning, and we enjoyed good views of nine very obliging Roe Deer.
Driving back down the coast, I could see that the ‘interesting’ weather seemed to be over Bamburgh Castle and Seahouses, so it was no surprise that snow started to fall as we passed Budle Bay. Then it got heavier…and heavier. Eventually, as we reached Stag Rocks, there was an incredible blizzard coming in off the North Sea, reducing visibility to only as far as the shore. Emily jumped out of the car as soon as we’d stopped, revelling in the snowfall; I’m not the only one who enjoys the winter and really loves snow As the blizzard passed over us and made its way inland, the Farne Islands gradually faded into view and we made our way back to Seahouses.
With the cessation of the rain that plagued Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday dawned cold and breezy; almost ideal for a day out on the birdwatching paradise that is the Northumberland Coast in the Winter.
As I collected Ele and Lisa from their holiday cottage in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, the icy northerly wind cut through the multiple layers that I’d put on before leaving the house. We started our day’s birdwatching at Budle Bay, where the wind somehow seemed even icier, and Oystercatchers, Redshank and Curlew were probing the oozing mud as a distant Peregrine flushed flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plover. Eiders were surfing the top of the impressive swell on the open coast and we headed south towards Druridge Bay. Mediterranean Gulls drifted overhead, ghostly pale, as Oystercatchers, Curlew, Turnstone, Redshank and Sanderling worked along the edge of the surf. Among all the immaculate ducks, two species really stood out; Goosander sleek and menacing, and Red-breasted Merganser drakes all trying to out do each other in their attempts to attract the ladies. A flock of Pink-footed Geese fed in a nearby field
As daylight faded a flock of Waxwings were in the distant tree tops and two species that are always a pleasure to see put in an appearance. Short-eared Owl and Barn Owl drifted along the edges of the reedbeds; death on silent wings. Here are a couple of pictures of them from earlier this year (in better light and a gentler breeze!).
Having lived on, or near, the Northumberland coast for 15 years (apart from my 6 month sojourn to Texas and Arizona) it’s a location I return to time and again with my camera/binoculars/telescope/camcorder/sound recording gear (delete as applicable depending on my mood and/or aim for the day). The coast is my favorite location for one-to-one photography tuition with clients too (although the North Pennines AONB runs it pretty close!).
I drove down to Wallsend to collect Mac for his day of photography tuition, and we set off along the coast of southeast Northumberland and Druridge Bay. I’ve always seen dilapidated farm buildings as ideal locations for Little Owl and Barn Owl, but one group of buildings made an ideal location to explore the reciprocal relationship between shutter speed and aperture, before we headed north and Mac added immeasurably to my knowledge of the opencast mining operations of the area. Next stop was on the top of the dunes overlooking the north of Druridge Bay and, as well as the impressive scene looking across the rolling surf out to sea, a high-tide wader roost was building up on the rocks below us. Redshank, Turnstone, Oystercatcher and Curlew were all arriving as the surf lapped at their feet. Then they all scattered. Sadly this didn’t herald the arrival of a Peregrine or other predator…but, instead, a jogger. As luck would have it, I was due at a meeting with a Lead Adviser from Natural England a few days later, to discuss coastal activities and wildlife disturbance. The conclusion of a brief discussion at that meeting was that jogging through a high-tide wader roost in a SSSI is mindless stupidity, sheer ignorance and possibly an offence. People really should know better.
Boats at Boulmer and Holy Island came under the focus of Mac’s camera before we arrived at our final location for the day. Breaking surf, rock pools and the Northumberland coast’s stunning edifice of Bamburgh Castle provided our last shoot before the sun dipped behind the dunes and out of sight, and we headed back south. The light wasn’t the best, although it was a good day to experiment with exposure settings, so here’s a shot of Bamburgh Castle in the sort of conditions that I really enjoy.