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
One of my favourite locations, at a time of year when it isn’t often visited, and returning clients (always a pleasure!) made for an excellent day’s birdwatching in southwest Northumberland and north west County Durham yesterday.
I collected Reg and Val from their home in Newcastle and, as we headed west along the Tyne valley, the clear blue sky promised a good day. Starting with a walk along the River Allen, we soon encountered a mixed flock that included Nuthatch, Coal Tit, Great Tit, Blackbird and Robin. The river produced some stunning Grey Wagtails and a brood of Goosanders, shepherded by mum as they scoured the river, heads held below the surface as the current carried them along. Common Buzzards were calling from high against the azure sky and we could have been forgiven for thinking it was a nice Spring day – other than that the only birds singing were Robins.
Once we were out on the moors. we started to encounter Red Grouse. Always a stunning bird, whether you’re looking at the handsome males or the intricately patterned females, the sunlight really brought out the best in this moorland specialist. Black Grouse proved slightly more difficult, unsurprising as there was a ‘stiff’ breeze racing across the fells of the North Pennines AONB After a lot of effort, we did find three young Blackcocks sheltering between clumps of rush, and they were very obliging for Reg’s camera. As we crossed one (very) minor road, we came across my own personal highlight of the day. Two Ravens appeared over a nearby ridge and headed towards a plantation at the top of the ridge ahead of us. As they soared higher, a third Raven came into view and began tumbling. The two closer birds responded with a breathtaking display of aerobatics and, as they plunged towards the ground before swooping up again, their deep croaking calls carried on the breeze to where we were sitting. A special bird in a special place, and simply awe-inspiring
Returning clients have been a bit of a theme this year, and I was really looking forward on Wednesday to be collecting Carolyn and Brian for a day of birdwatching in and around Kielder. The weather was looking less than promising but, as I collected them from their holiday cottage in Cresswell with it’s stunning view out over the North Sea and Druridge Bay, we agreed that we’d make the best of the weather, whatever it was doing.
On the edge of the border forests a Roe Deer watched us with great interest and a Common Buzzard was perched at the top of a spruce tree that seemed barely able to support it’s weight. As if that perch wasn’t precarious enough, the bird was hanging it’s wings out like a Cormorant, presumably trying to dry them during a lull in the rain.
As with many of our trips there was a species that was particularly sought after. On this occasion it was our old favourite, the Dipper. With several bits of excellent river, that could be viewed from the car if the showers returned, it wasn’t too long before we found one, then another. With Sand Martins zipping in and out of nest holes, Common Sandpipers, Reed Buntings, Stonechats, Whinchats, Pied Wagtails, Oystercatchers, and Goosanders (another lifer for Carolyn and Brian) the rivers were a real hive of activity. Curlew were flying up the valley and we headed across the border. Red Grouse were a third lifer for the day, some majestic Wild Goats watched imperiously as we had a post-lunch walk, and a Peregrine was perched on a rock on the moorland high above us. It launched from it’s vantage point and flew directly over our heads before dropping to the ground and furtively creeping around before disappearing into a nearby gulley.
As we made our way back east, we found ourselves in a patch of sunshine with a handsome male Siskin and a Spotted Flycatcher just ahead of us, and we continued our journey back to Cresswell.
“Is Sarah keeping you organised and under control?” – that was a question I was actually asked by a client who I took out, for their second trip, recently. Now, I’m the first to admit that organisation isn’t really one of my strengths, but the other owner of NEWT encourages me ;-)
With four clients, and three separate pick-up locations, for our Kielder Safari last Friday, there was plenty of opportunity for the plan to not go smoothly. However, with Neil collected from his accommodation at The Swan, and Ken and Paddy collected from Low Hauxley, we pulled into the car park at The Pheasant Inn in Kielder at 10:00 – exactly the time I’d said I would be there to collect Roger, our fourth participant for the day.
As we drove through the forest, home of Roe Deer, Red Squirrel and Goshawk, on rough tracks we stopped to watch a Great Spotted Woodpecker perched at the top of a very flimsy spruce, Common Buzzards soared over nearby plantations, Meadow Pipits flitted across the track ahead of us, Chaffinches were singing from what seemed like every tree and a flock of 20 or so Common Crossbills moved through the trackside trees, pausing to nibble at cones, and constantly giving their ‘chip, chip’ calls. As we continued, a mixed flock of Common Crossbills and Siskins suddenly erupted from the trees. These two colourful denizens of the dark forests often seem outrageously bright against the dark green foliage, and are always well appreciated by our clients.
Other moorland and upland specialities followed as we headed through the afternoon; Red Grouse, picking their way through the heather, Goosander flying upstream in remote narrow valleys, Ravens – tumbling, cronking and having a real battle with Carrion Crows - and one of my personal favourites, Wild (Feral) Goats. The collective noun for them is a ‘trip’, coincidentally the same as for one of our favourite birds, the Dotterel – a mountain and moorland specialist that we’ve yet to find on a NEWT Safari
With shared interests including photography, fly fishing and, of course, a deep love of Northumberland there was plenty of discussion amongst everyone during the day. Vast forest, small world…
After a day on the coast, heading inland to Kielder seems other-worldly, but it always produces something memorable.
In rather misty conditions I drove across to Otterburn Hall to collect Anne and Peter for a day of birdwatching around Kielder and the Border forests. As we travelled through the forest the temperature gauge on the car hit the heady heights of 7C! Common Buzzards were uncharacteristically obliging, remaining perched in the open, and Crossbills and Siskins were once again shining like jewels in the cloudy, gloomy edges of the forest. After Thursday’s Skylark/Merlin encounter, Kielder provided another predator-prey experience. We’d been watching displaying Common Snipe, and listened to one singing from it’s perch on a tree stump in the middle of a clear-fell area. A Sparrowhawk soared into view, circling high over a nearby plantation, before switching to a much more direct flight mode…and chasing one of the displaying Snipe. As they vanished out of sight over a plantation the hawk was still in hot pursuit…and the eventual outcome wasn’t for our eyes. Anne spotted the only Red Squirrel of the day as we continued along our route out onto the ‘main’ road
As we continued across the border and into a remote valley, we enjoyed our picnic lunch with Ravens and Common Buzzards soaring along the ridges high above us. A Dipper sat motionless on a mid-stream rock and a pair of Goosanders flew upstream into the head of the valley. I may be a cold-weather person, and I’m certainly an evening person…but Springtime in the hills has a magic all of it’s own, and I feel privileged sharing it with our clients.
Whenever we have a trip with clients who have been given gift vouchers, I always wonder what they expect. Some will have chosen gift vouchers when asked what they would like, some will have been given them by our existing clients, and for some it must be a complete mystery tour. When we get an enquiry we always try to determine exactly what our clients want, but at the start of a trip I’ll always enquire “is there anything you’re particularly keen to see while you’re in Northumberland?” Then, the pressure is on to try and deliver that experience…
I collected Patrick and Bronwyn from Amble yesterday morning for a day of birdwatching around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland. As we set off it was a beautiful morning; sunny, calm and dry and I soon determined that one bird they would love to see was Bittern – they’ve visited sites where Bitterns breed and Bitterns overwinter but not, so far, anywhere where the aforementioned birds were obliging enough to come into view for them. An hour into the trip and it was already windy, bitterly cold and spotting with rain but the birding was good. 2 Bewick’s Swans in a roadside field were very obliging, nibbling on the vegetation as we studied them, 12 Goosanders sailed majestically across a lake, Patrick’s sharp eyes picked out an immaculate male Sparrowhawk on a fence post and the air was filled with skeins of geese (Canada, Greylag, Pink-footed, White-fronted and Bean), a Skylark battled into the wind and Wigeon, Teal, Tufted Duck, Gadwall, Pochard, Mallard and Great-crested Grebe were picked out from the flock on the water.
A brief visit to Newbiggin to track down a Mediterranean Gull (or four) was followed by lunch overlooking the North Sea. Heading up through the bay, Red-breasted Mergansers were displaying and a Short-eared Owl (the first of three for the afternoon) perched on a roadside fence-post. Reedbeds were illuminated by that beautiful winter afternoon light (I wax lyrical about it frequently, but it really is a breathtaking backdrop to the wildlife and part of the experience). As the afternoon light began to fade, Venus appeared overhead, a herd of Whooper Swans trumpeted their arrival for the evening roost and a Grey Heron shot out of one reedbed, flew across in front of us, landed just out of sight and flushed a Bittern that flew almost the reverse of the route taken by the heron, along the near edge of the pool directly in front of us and dropped into a reedbed and out of sight! Wildlife may be unpredictable, but those days when it seems to perform to order leave me, and our clients, with a big grin After that what more was there to do than spend the evening relaxing back at home with a glass of good red wine. Cheers
Just as I arrived at Harkess Rocks to collect Andy and Helen for an afternoon of birdwatching around the Holy Island of Lindisfarne and the North Northumberland coast, the first drops of sleety rain began splattering on the windscreen. We haven’t really had any sort of winter yet, apart from an hour of snow on December 16th, but yesterday afternoon did feel positively chilly. Undaunted by the easterly wind and icy showers we enjoyed the wader and wildfowl spectacle that is the Northumberland coast in the winter. Curlews singing as they flew by must have a joie de vivre that lets them vent that emotional haunting call wherever they may be. Other wading birds entertained as they probed, prodded and buried their bills face-deep in the mud; Grey Plovers, Bar-tailed Godwits, Redshanks and Oystercatchers were all making the most of the exposed mud at low tide. A big flock of Yellowhammers, Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Goldfinches, Tree Sparrows, House Sparrows and Reed Buntings held our attention for a good while and wildfowl were well represented with Shelduck, Eider, Mallard, Teal, Wigeon, Goosander and Pintail. As we watched a very obliging Dark-bellied Brent Goose, it was a sobering thought that our wintering birds are generally here because conditions in the areas where they breed are too harsh at this time of the year. Mammals were braving the cold too; 7 Roe Deer, a Brown Hare and 5 Common Seals made a not too shabby mammal list for the afternoon.
I often reflect on my decision to return to Northumberland from Arizona, and as we watched that lone Brent Goose, with the biting wind driving waves of showery rain, were my thoughts of the warmth and sunshine of Tucson? No, what I was thinking was that this is the weather I came home for…and the reason that good outdoor clothing is a necessity
After a planned break from days out with clients, and regular exercise and ice-pack treatment for my knee, we had a mini-Safari on Wednesday afternoon. Southeast Northumberland is our local patch, so I was getting back into the swing of things with something comfortingly familiar.
I collected Alastair and Zoe from Church Point and we set out on an exploration of the River Wansbeck. Stunning Red-breasted Mergansers and Goldeneye, and subtly attractive Little Grebes (amazing how many people still think of them as Dabchicks – a far nicer name!), were diving along the edge of the river. A handsome drake Goosander flew upstream and the first of the afternoon’s 4 Sparrowhawks drifted high overhead. A flock of Long-tailed Tits, those noisy endearing pink and white fluffballs, made their way in procession from one side of the river to the other and Mallards began dropping out of the sky and following each other through the vegetation, quacking noisily. As daylight faded a flock of Teal drifted backwards and forwards between a reedbed and open water, roosting Pheasants (my vote for most underrated bird in Britain) flushed from a Hawthorn hedge as we made our way back to the car in the dark, and it was time to return Zoe and Alastair to Newbiggin.
Last week was our Winter Wonderland birdwatching holiday, although as I arrived at Saughy Rigg I wondered if Windy Wonderland would be a better name for it
The original itinerary involved the Solway coast on Tuesday and the North Pennines on Wednesday, but a quick discussion with our guests on arrival meant that our coastal day was switched to Northumberland to avoid the poor weather in the west.
The plan worked well, at least until mid-afternoon when the weather caught up with us and we had a couple of hours of dodging the showers. The waders and wildfowl that winter here featured throughout the day and Greylag, Pink-footed, Pale-bellied Brent, Barnacle and Eurasian White-fronted Geese were all enjoying the mild weather on the Northumberland coast. 3 splendid drake Goosanders were blown across Druridge Pools before battling their way back against the wind, and a Roe Deer was grazing in the gap between 2 reed beds. As so often seems to happen, some of the best wildlife of the day saved its appearance until the light began to fade. First a Short-eared Owl, with a strikingly white face, quartering backwards and forwards along the margins of a field, then 2 Water Rails, those small, secretive denizens of the reeds, stepped gingerly into view; prodding and poking and squealing like piglets as they vanished back into the gloom. Then, as flocks of geese descended to roost, a Bittern flew from the reeds and headed south.
Wednesday brought another breezy morning, and we headed into the hills. Remarkable numbers of Red Grouse chuckled at us as we watched from the comfort of the car, and 7 Black Grouse were the first of no less than 75 that we found during the day. The weather closed in all around us and, after a quick check of a lough wher Teal, Wigeon and Lapwing were roosting and Goldeneye were feeding, we finished the day at one of our favourite evening venues. An unidentified raptor flew low across the heather moorland and out of sight over a ridge, Red Grouse burst from cover before settling again a short distance away and a lone Short-eared Owl battled into a brutal headwind as the evening faded to darkness.
Winter Wonderland is one (in fact, two) of the holidays on our itinerary for 2012, so give us a call on 01670 827465 for more details or to book your place.
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.