On Saturday I was in the Kielder area with Sarah, collecting our new mountain bikes from Ian at The Bike Place. The weather was glorious; blue skies, sunshine – everything you would want on a day there with clients.
Skip forward to Sunday morning…
I collected Jon and Alison, Jill and Steve & Laura and Nicola from Hexham and we headed north towards the Border Forests. The weather was somewhat different; overcast, not even a slight breeze and the air was damp and bitterly cold. In those conditions the forest is an ethereal place, remote, other-worldly and an experience in itself. Mistle Thrushes and Chaffinches seemed to be everywhere that we looked, Common Buzzards were sitting hunched on tree-tops and telegraph poles, Roe Deer crossed the track ahead of us and the only Common Crossbills of the day were a group of four that flew by as we were trying to locate a very vocal Raven. Then, a very nice policeman stopped and showed us his Badger and Red Squirrel A Green Woodpecker yaffled from the wooded slopes below us and Goldcrests, Blue Tits, Great Tits and Robins could all be heard.
Heading towards the border a Dipper sat on a rock at the water’s edge, bobbing up and down before heading upstream in a whirr of wing beats. Red Grouse was found soon after heading up onto the moors around Newcastleton and the next addition to the trip list was probably the highlight of the day (apart from the Badger…). The next grouse was well hidden, with only it’s head visible but, as I stopped the car to let everyone have a good look at it, it raised itself from the heather and revealed it’s true identity; a stunning male Black Grouse, resplendent in the day’s only real attempt at sunshine. He wasn’t alone though, as two more Blackcock appeared from amongst the heather and eventually a total of five flew across the road and settled again.
After a picnic stop in one of my favourite places, we went in search of Wild Goats. It didn’t take too long to find one and, as is often the case, once you’ve found one you soon find more. This prompted the following exchange in the back of the car “That goat’s got a baby” “You’re kidding me”…
Heading back towards Northumberland a flock of Fieldfares were on telegraph wires and two Great Spotted Woodpeckers were perched at the top of a small tree by the road. A walk to the hide at Bakethin produced Goldeneye, Mallard, Tufted Duck and Pochard and one of Northumberland’s more exotic inhabitants rounded off the day as we watched at least five Mandarins, including three gaudy drakes and two subtly beautiful ducks in a tributary of the north Tyne.
The weather was an experience, we had some excellent wildlife to enjoy, and we hardly saw another person all day…but what really made the day for me was having six clients who all got on so well with each other, were really enthusiastic about birdwatching and wildlife and provided a steady level of entertainment throughout the day
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.
After Tuesday’s snow, sleet and general murk, and Wednesday’s icy breeze, I prepared for Thursday’s Kielder Safari by loading as many layers of technical clothing as I could into the back of the car…but, as I headed north to Felton to collect Lindsay and Abbie, I was glad that I’d included sunglasses in my kit list for the day
We drove west through Rothbury, Elsdon and Otterburn, in absolutely stunning light that really showed Northumberland at it’s best, along roads where the verges were still snow-covered and the temperature was sub-zero, past flocks of Fieldfares and Redwings gathering pre-migration, to collect Victoria and Paul from Bellingham before heading along the forest tracks towards Hawkhope. Only a few hundred yards from the public road we were soon watching a stunning male Common Crossbill. More Crossbills followed, then some outrageously bright Siskins. Common Buzzards were soaring over the plantations (it turned out to be a excellent raptor day – although the ‘Phantom of the Forest’ eluded us), Chaffinches seemed to be along every step of the way, Great Spotted Woodpeckers played their usual game of hide-and-seek and even the humble Meadow Pipits were subjected to great scrutiny. As Lindsay commented as we watched one pipit, elevated above it’s usual status of LBJ by the superb light, ”it’s nice to have views in the field, of a feature that you’ve read about in a field guide”. He was referring to the long hind-claw of the pipit and, with our subject perched just a few metres away and very obliging, this led on to a discussion of pipit identification. When we finally returned to the C200 we’d been off-road for over two and a half hours – a new longevity record for that 10 mile section of our route, and an excellent measure of just how many birds we’d stopped and studied.
Up over the border our lunch break, after watching a pair of Curlews as they called on a bit of high moorland, was accompanied by a pair of Ravens chasing off a Kestrel that had strayed over their nest site, a territorial skirmish involving 2 pairs of Common Buzzards, Pied Wagtails flycatching over the stream and 3 Goosanders looking resplendent. Our post-lunch walk produced more Common Buzzards, another Kestrel, a Peregrine powering it’s way down the valley and a small group of Wild Goats including a tiny kid. As we returned to the car a pair of Ravens appeared along the ridge, soared up against the sky and then began tumbling and calling.
Our final section of the trip was the Forest Drive between Kielder and Byrness; currently closed to the public because of forestry activity, and the state of the road surface, we’d been given permission by the Forestry Commission to use the track, which we had to ourselves for the afternoon. A Raven soared close to a Common Buzzard, a pair of Stonechats were next to the road at Kielderhead and we came across an excellent mixed flock of finches; Common Crossbills, Siskins and Lesser Redpolls (which we’d earlier heard but not seen) in one small area of spruce, pine and birch.
We dropped Victoria and Paul back in Bellingham, and headed east towards the coastal plain as the light faded at the end of a 12 hour Safari Day. 12 hour days as a birdwatching guide, in some extraordinary landscapes with stunning wildlife, leave you feeling energised…don’t think I would have said the same while I was a teacher
The most memorable wildlife on a tour with clients can come in many forms; it may be the common, the uncommon, the localised, or just the way that it fits in its habitat, and the landscape and weather blend it in to the experience.
I arrived at Hexham railway station to find Steve and Jill already there, and a few minutes later Catherine arrived on the train from Windermere (via a few changes!). We headed northwest along the North Tyne valley for a day birdwatching around Kielder and the borders and, just before Bellingham we left the road and headed along the forest tracks. A fine drizzle was falling as we found our first Crossbills of the day. By the time we returned to the C200 (and civilisation!) 2 hours later, we’d had lots of sightings of small groups and family parties. Perching on the tops of small spruce trees, flying over and giving that distinctive ‘chip, chip’ call, Crossbills are always a delight to watch. The stunning luminosity of the males carmine red rump is incredibly striking, particularly in the gloom and drizzle of the border forests when everything else seems to be monochrome. Kestrels and Common Buzzards were soaring around, Curlews and Lapwings were sitting in fields between the sheep, Skylarks and Meadow Pipits flushed from the track sides and Siskins almost rivalled the Crossbills with some stunning adult males demonstrating how a quite common bird can still take your breath away when you look closely at it.
By early afternoon the cloud level had dropped to somewhere below the altitude we were at and, as we crossed a remote moorland road with the icy cold wind whistling eerily around us, driving waves of rain horizontally across the fells, Steve spotted a grouse at the roadside. From our position I couldn’t see the bird, but Catherine, sitting in the back of the car, was able to photograph what I assumed would be a Red Grouse. Then it flew…revealing the white wing-bars of an adult Blackcock! That’s a species we’ve watched and photographed with clients in the North Pennines, but not one that we’ve ever recorded on a Kielder Safari. Important lesson, that one; expect the unexpected
One of our commonest species provided one of the highlights of the day; hundreds of male Chaffinches were swarming around feeding stations and, at one point, we had 3 sitting on the roof of the car, 2 on the wing mirrors and 2 in the boot! With Blue, Great and Coal Tits, Greenfinches, more Siskins, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Nuthatches the feeders were a blur of activity.
As we headed back down the valley at the end of the day, a flock of Redwings and Fieldfares flew from a nearby field and filled the air above us, a pair of Mandarins flew upriver, calling, and we left Kielder behind to return to the bustling metropolis of Hexham
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.
The autumn regularly produces excellent birdwatching experiences, and our Friday afternoon Lindisfarne mini-safari was no exception.
I collected Pat and Ian from Glororum and we headed north towards Holy Island. With the tide falling, the newly exposed mud provided a veritable banquet for the massed waders and wildfowl. As far as the eye could see the shoreline was lined with Pale-bellied and Dark-bellied Brent Geese, Barnacle Geese were arriving and the mud was a hive of activity with Wigeon, Teal, Bar-tailed Godwits, Curlews, Redshanks, Oystercatchers, Knot, Dunlin and Grey Plover all tucking in. 2 Carrion Crows were administering a warm welcome to a Peregrine, and a Little Egret flew in, landing beside another egret that was stalking around the edges of a pool on the mudflats. As the afternoon wore on, we relocated to Bamburgh, and the rocks there produced excellent views of the waders we’d seen earlier as well as a few Purple Sandpipers.
Then came one of those real experience moments. Despite the strong offshore winds 3 Fieldfares were battling against the headwind, low over the waves. They crossed the beach, flew by us and as they dropped towards the shelter of the coastal fields they were intercepted by 2 Sparrowhawks. The final act of the encounter happened out of sight, but you can’t help thinking that it was a cruel end to a herculean effort.
I love Holy Island, but it can be a bit crowded sometimes…
I collected Mike and Maggie from St Cuthbert’s House on Tuesday morning and we began birdwatching our way north. In the shadow of Bamburgh Castle we watched Bar-tailed Godwits, Knot, Turnstones, Purple Sandpipers, Eider and Gannets in a bitingly cold northwesterly wind. We crossed onto Holy Island just before the rising tide covered the causeway…and found that the car park was empty! For the next 5 hours we practically had the island to ourselves, and enjoyed swirling flocks of Knot and Bar-tailed Godwit, Oystercatchers, Shags, Gannets plunge-diving, Red-breasted Mergansers, Grey Seals, Fieldfares, Redwings, Curlew, Teal, Black-tailed Godwits, Grey Plover, Kestrels, Peregrine and then, as the tide began to recede, flocks of Pink-footed Geese and Pale-bellied Brent Geese took to the air, heading for the newly exposed mud and the feast it brings.
Deliberately stranding yourself on Holy Island always carries risks as a birdwatcher; what if something really good turns up on the mainland? As an experience with clients though, particularly when one of them is a very keen wildlife and landscape photographer, it really is something special.
On Saturday I had the pleasure of guiding a visit to Kielder (I still can’t bring myself to write Kielder Water and Forest Park…) for a group of Landscape Architecture students from the University of Michigan.
After collecting the group from Saughy Rigg (which will be the base for our ‘Autumn Colours’ photography holiday and ‘Winter Wonderland’ birdwatching holiday later this year) we headed up the North Tyne valley and began our tour of Kielder at the dam wall. With a stiff breeze blowing down the valley, we had a walk that would blow away any cobwebs. As I described the 2 extraordinary achievements that were the planting of the forest and the creation of the reservoir we watched Oystercatchers and Chaffinches and saw Crossbills and Siskins flying overhead. Coal Tits and Goldcrests were calling from the trees and the students enjoyed looking at some of the sculptures around the lake.
I devised a route back to Saughy Rigg that took in some open heather moorland, so that the group would have a good idea of what the Kielder area would have been like prior to the planting. Over that moorland we watched Curlews mobbing a Common Buzzard, and Lapwings were engaging in their apparently chaotic display flight.
After returning the group to Saughy Rigg, I drove eastwards, back towards southeast Northumberland, still birdwatching; just a few miles from home a flock of 150 Fieldfares were a reminder that winter is only just behind us, contrasting with the Chiffchaff that was singing in our garden.
Our Kielder Safaris this year will again include driving along tracks that are ‘off-limits’ to the public. With excellent views of Goshawk, Roe Deer and Red Fox along those tracks last year, and a real sense that you’re in a wilderness, it’s a very different wildlife experience. We’ve got a few spaces left, so give us a call and join us on a Safari through the forest.
After a Druridge mini-safari on Tuesday, which included a visit to the Common Crane near Eshott, yesterday was something completely different with a Kielder Safari.
After collecting Ruth and Diana from Stannington we took the scenic route up through Knowesgate to Bellingham, in the wilds of west Northumberland. That’s the point where we deviate from the public roads and follow a track that’s off-limits to the public. Along the way we saw a few Buzzards, but a superb male Goshawk, and an incredibly skittish Red Fox, were the highlights of the drive through the forest. Around the reservoir there were Crossbills and Siskins everywhere. Lunch just over the border in Scotland was followed by more birdwatching and the spectacle of a Common Buzzard catching, dismembering and consuming a vole. With lots of other buzzards up in the air whenever the sun came out, there was plenty to see. A stunning drake Mandarin brought a splash of garish colour to the afternoon and a long-distance ‘scope view of last year’s Osprey nest revealed a small white blob – probably the head of one of the pair that have returned to the site. As we headed back towards civilisation a large flock of Fieldfares and Redwings near Bellingham was a reminder that the winter is only just behind us.
After the changeable weather during the Birdwatching Northumberland press trip culminated in excellent conditions on Monday, I hoped that we would get more of the same on Tuesday for a Lindisfarne Safari that I was leading. It looked good; at home we had a heavy frost and clear blue skies. Yet just a few miles down the road, as I headed to Gosforth to collect our client, there was a bank of thick fog. Not to worry, conditions might be better on Holy Island…they weren’t, in fact the fog was even thicker. As we stood on the Heugh it was eerie. A bitingly cold southeasterly wind and visibility down to just a few metres. Oystercatchers, Redshanks and Herring Gulls could all be heard through the mist and we continued our journey around the island. Song Thrushes lifted from each clump of grass as we walked towards the harbour and slightly improved visibility allowed us to look closely at Teal, Bar-tailed Godwits and Curlew. Lichens and mosses came under great scrutiny (remarkable structures when viewed under a hand lens). Off the island we found Pale-bellied Brent Geese, small groups of Whooper Swans, a field with lots of Greylag and Pink-footed Geese (and a ‘Canalag’ hybrid), several Kestrels, an incredibly obliging Common Buzzard, a mixed thrush flock (Redwing, Fieldfare, Mistle Thrush, Song Thrush and Blackbird), plenty of waders and, finally, as the mist returned and brought steady rainfall with it, Common Scoter, Shag and Eider on the sea. As we drove back down the A1 the worsening weather made it seem likely that we’d had better conditions than back at home. There’s always something to see, whatever the weather.