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
Friday was a safari on the North Northumberland coast for Kathryn and Linda. As I collected them from the Lindisfarne Inn, the biting wind carried a flurry of snow, and I guessed this could well be a day for birdwatching from the warmth and comfort of the car.
Over the next few hours we had close views of Bar-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Redshank and Oystercatcher as they probed in the mud, seemingly oblivious to the breeze, a Peregrine shot by, menace on pointed wings, and a Brown Hare sat majestically in the middle of a field. From the car park at Stag Rock we could see the MV Danio, still stranded near the Longstone lighthouse, as Common Scoter and Eider rode up and over the impressive swell and Gannets battled into the breeze. Black-headed Gulls and Rooks were almost perched on the car, and the South Low below the Holy Island Causeway offered impressive views of Eider, Long-tailed Duck and Scaup.
Our lunch stop was the Bamburgh Castle Inn, which gave us a good view of the extent of the swell rolling from the south east…and the approaching snow, which got to us just before we got back to the car
Our returning clients theme continued last week, when I collected Elaine and Sue for an Otter Safari, concentrating mainly around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland. We first met between Christmas and New Year 2008 when they joined myself and Sarah on a guided walk on Holy Island. On that day Elaine photographed this stunning Stonechat
and we also had a brief view of a Jack Snipe as it flushed ahead of us.
Last Wednesday we set off up the coast, stopping to check our favourite Little Owl site. Elaine spotted the bird, as it was mobbed by no less than six Magpies. It fixed it’s tormentors with what can only be described as a look of utter contempt and they gradually drifted away. Cresswell Pond produced a persistently-bobbing Jack Snipe, tucked in amongst the reeds and much more obliging than our 2008 bird on Holy Island, and plenty of Common Snipe like this one, again photographed by Elaine.
Curlew, Golden Plover, Lapwing, Dunlin, Redshank and Oystercatcher were all roosting around pool edges and the change out of eclipse plumage was very noticeable among the ducks, with drake Teal looking particularly good. As the warm autumn sunshine bathed the landscape around us, the air was suddenly filled with dragonflies and Elaine captured this portrait of a stunning Migrant Hawker.
There’s something captivating about dragonflies and, as myself and Sue concentrated on scanning reed edges for any indication that an Otter was lurking, Elaine returned to the spot where the dragonfly had been earlier. Within a matter of minutes the temperature fell slightly and insect activity ceased.I’m not sure we have any finer insect than Migrant Hawker, and you can see from Elaine’s photo what a stunner it is.
As sunset neared and we searched for any sign of our quarry, we watched a Starling murmuration developing as a herd of Whooper Swans flew between distant fields. Just before it got dark the Whoopers appeared overhead, giving their eerie call and dropping into their overnight roost site. After a really enjoyable day out, we returned to our starting point and I looked forward (with good reason!) to seeing Elaine’s images from the day, which I’m really happy to be able to post in our blog – thank you Elaine .
It’s a rare day when a trip features a limited number of birds and other wildlife, but even the days with lots to see often have a few things that really stand out; sometimes by being scarce, sometimes it’s an intriguing behaviour, and sometimes it can be something that’s quite common but rarely seen. An outstanding day would produce all of those…
I collected Helen and Chris from Church Point for an afternoon of birdwatching and other wildlife around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland in near-perfect weather. Before we headed up the coast though, we spent some time studying the Mediterranean Gulls on the beach and in the car park. Cormorants were feeding just offshore and a very long-billed Dunlin was pottering about on the sand. Working our way along the reserves that line Druridge Bay, one of NEWT’s favourite winter visitors provided some entertainment; a small herd of Whooper Swans had chosen a pool as a stop-off point – provoking a furious reaction from the resident pair of Mute Swans. Teal, Goldeneye, Wigeon, Shoveler, Mallard and Gadwall drakes were all looking good, following their exit from eclipse plumage, Long-tailed Tits flew past, one by one, a Goldcrest was flicking around in a bush nearby, a chirping Tree Sparrow allowed us to approach incredibly close and a Guillemot was hanging around at the base of the weir on the River Coquet. Flocks of Curlew, Golden Plover and Lapwing filled the air, and a Jack Snipe provided lots of entertainment as it bobbed up and down on the edge of a reedbed, as nearby Common Snipe seemed more interested in disputing possession of feeding areas than actually feeding.
As the end of the trip approached, much too soon with such good company, we were in a small wooded valley, searching for Badgers. We could hear the sound of them blundering through the undergrowth, but a barking dog nearby seemed to spook them and all went quiet. For most of the time that we were there we were under the baleful glare of a feathered sentinel, as a Tawny Owl stared at us from the fork between a branch and tree trunk. Wildlife, watching the wildlife-watchers
Friday was a trip that I’d been looking forward to for quite some time. Emily had been on the bird ID course that I ran as part of North Pennines WildWatch and had then booked herself and her dad, Steve, onto an Otter Safari.
I arrived at Church Point to collect them, and we set off up the coast. With bright sunshine and a northerly wind, I predicted that our regular Little Owl would be sunning itself on the edge of its nest hole. Sure enough, it was sitting in full view soaking up the rays Waders featured throughout the afternoon, as they have done for over a month now, with Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Common Redshank, Common Snipe, Lapwing and very close views of Dunlin and Ringed Plover. Wigeon, Teal, Shoveler, Gadwall, Tufted Duck, Pochard and Mallard were all paddling around, Little and Great Crested Grebes were, as always, much admired, restless flocks of Greylag and Pink-footed Geese swirled from field to pool and back again, and several skeins of Pink-footed Geese passed south high overhead, their presence betrayed by their high-pitched calls. A Grey Seal was loitering with intent in the Coquet Estuary, and a Grey Heron sat motionless by the water’s edge.
We ended the day by a moonlit river, under a starry sky. A Grey Heron stalked through the riverside vegetation, and a group of Mallards stared intently into the shadows of the overhanging trees on the opposite bank, then scattered soon after the wake from an, otherwise unseen, animal caught our attention. Darkness, and the chill night air, settled on the river as we made our way back to the car.
As darkness descends it seems like a whole different world appears, and in the remnants of the daylight you need to be alert as the creatures that frequent the shadowy hours make an appearance.
With Lawrie and Linda, Mike and Mary & Pat and Janice all safely in the car, we set off for an afternoon and evening around Druridge Bay and south east Northumberland on an Otter Safari. One of the best things, about any wildlife that we go looking for, is that it’s in a series of superb wildlife-filled locations so there’s always something to look at. At this time of the year, that’s often passage waders like Dunlin and Ruff, large roosting and feeding flocks of Lapwing, Golden Plover and Curlew and gatherings of Linnets and Goldfinches in newly harvested fields.
Invariably, the part of the trip that I get really excited about is that bit that takes place in the half-light. As we walked along a riverbank, a Water Vole put in a very brief appearance and a Grey Heron, stalking through the shallows, took flight in alarm as Mallards hurried nervously away from the vegetation at the water’s edge. Something was unsettling them, and Lawrie soon picked up the menacing figure of an Otter as it crossed the river. Two more brief sightings, as Daubenton’s Bats skimmed the water surface below us, and then it was too dark to make out any detail and we headed back, under a clear sky.
Wading birds seem to hold a fascination for so many birdwatchers, from beginners all the way to birders with decades of experience, and Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland at this time of year is often very productive.
I collected Reg and Val (for their second trip within a week) and Nick from Church Point and we started with one of our favourite birds, and one that always impresses, Mediterranean Gull. With the strong breeze driving sand across our field of vision, there was a real wild feel to the experience of watching the birds as they withstood the elements.
Heading north along the coast we witnessed one of the oddest pieces of fieldcraft that I’ve seen with clients. Checking out a small subsidence pond, we were enjoying the sight of Dunlin, Ringed Plovers, Common Redshank and a juvenile Curlew Sandpiper all probing and prodding through the mud at the water’s edge. Another birdwatcher made his way stealthily to the wall along the roadside, and settled to watch the birds from a crouched position. Good fieldcraft, the birds continued feeding appearing completely unconcerned by his presence. Then, when he was ready to leave, he popped up like a jack-in-the-box flushing all of the birds! As the flock eventually settled back down, there was no sign of the Curlew Sandpiper. It’s an important lesson that fieldcraft skills should always be applied when retreating from your position as well as when approaching it
Cresswell Pond continued the wader theme, with some very obliging Common Snipe, Dunlin, Ruff and both Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits (standing alongside one another and allowing excellent comparison of the differences between these species).
At East Chevington, Reg spotted a distant bird perched on a fence post and commented that it didn’t look quite right for a Crow. Tucked down against the wind, the view through our telescope soon revealed that the bird was a juvenile Marsh Harrier. It remained perched for several minutes, regularly turning it’s head to reveal a lovely orange/cream crown contrasting with the uniform dark-brown of the rest of it’s plumage. Hundreds of Lapwings and Starlings were flying back and forth, twisting and turning against the very stiff breeze, Cormorants sat motionless and we headed back to Newbiggin at the end of our day.
Sometimes, just one animal or bird can make a trip a special experience for our clients. Other times it’s the scenery. Maybe a combination of the weather, Northumberland’s stunning skies and the ‘atmosphere’. Occasionally, it’s a little bit of each.
I collected Keith and Anne from their home in the Tyne valley, and headed east towards Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland. As we scoured the woods for Red Squirrels, the high winds made it impossible to pick out any movement that might have been our quarry. Dragonflies hawked around the edges of the trees and some rather late tadpoles were wriggling around in shallow ponds. A quick stop at Church Point, produced the hoped-for Mediterranean Gulls; beautiful ghostly pale adults hanging in the breeze over our heads.
Then we were on our way up the coast in search of mud, glorious mud. Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Redshank, (Grey) Red Knot and an immaculate Curlew Sandpiper were all found at very close range and then noisy skeins of Greylag and Canada Geese filled the air around us. Alarmed by the sudden appearance of a juvenile Marsh Harrier, the geese lifted from where they were feeding and headed straight for the nearest pool…where they encountered an adult Marsh Harrier, hanging almost motionless above a reed bed, held in position by the wind. Small groups of Starlings started to appear, tossed around like leaves on the breeze, merging to form a murmuration. The late evening light made the haystacks in nearby fields seem to glow, the sky was quite breathtaking and, as dusk rapidly advanced and the wind strengthened, flocks of Golden Plover and Curlew arrived to roost as we headed west again.
As I drove through the rolling hills of rural Northumberland to the west of Morpeth, the weather was looking superb; blue sky, sunshine, a nice breeze. I collected Mark and Nicola and we headed back towards the coastal plain, for an afternoon of birdwatching around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland.
The conditions looked good for raptors, and it wasn’t too long before we had our first Common Buzzards of the afternoon. Then another raptor appeared, soaring just overhead. With long, thin wings, and a long narrow tail, it didn’t look like another buzzard, but it had the sun behind it so was a difficult to view silhouette. Eventually it moved away to the north and, as it engaged in some mid-air sparring with one of the buzzards, its identity was revealed; juvenile Marsh Harrier. As the two protagonists drifted further north, the orange crown of the harrier flashed in the sunlight as the bird soared in circles, contrasting with the rich dark chocolate brown of the rest of its plumage.
Reaching the coast, we stopped off at Newbiggin to look for Mediterranean Gulls and it didn’t take too long before we spotted our first as it flew across from the southern end of the bay and landed on the beach right in front of us. More followed, including a juvenile bird, and Nicola soon commented that, regardless of any plumage differences, the structure of the birds was noticeably different to the nearby Black-headed Gulls. Leaving the Meds behind we began our journey along the coastal road through Druridge Bay. A quick check of the Bewick Drift Flash produced 9 Ruff, 10 Dunlin and a Curlew Sandpiper and we spent a little while comparing the differences between the two sandpipers as well as having a very close view of just how different male and female Ruff are in terms of size.
Our picnic stop, overlooking the North Sea, produced a beach filled with Ringed Plovers, and a lone Sanderling, as well as soaring Fulmars and rafts of Eiders, bobbing in the gentle swell far below us. It was starting to turn colder, breezier, and the first drops of rain started to fall. Cresswell Pond was very productive, as it has been for a few weeks now, but a few species really stood out; a Spoonbill, which had been at East Chevington during the afternoon, flew in and made its way right round the edge of the pond, sweeping that extraordinary bill from side to side in search of food, Yellow Wagtails arrived to roost and sat along the base of the reeds, where they provoked a very aggressive response from the Common Snipe that were feeding there and a Barn Owl came out following a heavy shower and caught a vole in the dunes away to the north before carrying it within a few metres of where we were sitting.
The finale to the trip came beside a fast flowing river, downstream was dark, inky blackness, but upstream the water was lit by the eerie glow from a nearby town. Daubenton’s Bats were trawling the water surface, their presence betrayed by the expanding circles where they’d gaffed prey at the surface. Then, a ripple too big to be from a bat; and an Otter surfaced for a few moments before disappearing into the dark.
August is always a stressful month for NEWT. As well as leading our regular safari days, it’s British Birdwatching Fair month, and the week leading up to the Bird Fair is always frantic; checking that we’ve got everything for the stand, mounting a new series of limited edition prints for sale, liaising with all of the other Birdwatching Northumberland partners to make sure that everybody knows exactly which aspects of the project they’re responsible for, and making sure that we’ve got a supply of local beer for the 4pm ‘free bar’ on our stand
Then, after a busy three days, it’s all over and we head north…this year to the thankfully cooler temperatures of Northumberland. From leaving Rutland at 6pm on Sunday to arriving back in Northumberland just after 10pm, the temperature drop was an impressive 14C.
Yesterday was our first post-BirdFair trip, a day of birdwatching around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland. I collected Alex from Church Point, and we started with a good scan of the beach. 4 Mediterranean Gulls were close by and a small group of waders contained Oystercatcher, Common Redshank, Sanderling and Ringed Plover. Waders proved to be a theme for the day and we added Common Sandpiper, Spotted Redshank, Lapwing, Ruff, Dunlin, Knot, Curlew Sandpiper, Curlew, Greenshank, Black-tailed Godwit, Turnstone, Wood Sandpiper, Common Snipe, Golden Plover and Avocet to the day list as we made our way around NEWT’s local area. With an impressive supporting cast that included Water Rail, 3 Little Egrets and a Spoonbill it was a great day to be watching the edges of our local ponds, and a real education in just how much inward and outward movement of birds there is from the feeding and roosting wader flocks that grace southeast Northumberland at this time of the year. It was a great day too, to appreciate just how friendly and helpful local birdwatchers are in Northumberland – many thanks to Len and Gill for pointing us in the direction of the Wood Sandpiper, and Gill’s sharp eyes picked out the Spotted Redshank which then vanished without trace soon after being found and appreciated