I collected Luke and Louise from alnwick, then Alison and Neil from Kingston Park and we headed west at the start of a day searching for raptors around Kielder and the Scottish Borders…
We stopped at the southern end of Kielder Water and the ‘chip chip’ calls of Common Crossbill drew our attention to these impressive bulky finches as they passed overhead. With Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Chaffinch and Blackbird singing all around us we were soon watching Common Buzzards in every direction as Raven and Carrion Crow flew by. Then Luke spotted a large raptor circling in front of the trees…and there was a Goshawk 🙂 We watched as it soared higher and higher until it was just a tiny speck, even through binoculars, against the clouds. Kestrel and Sparrowhawk on the drive to and from Kielder added to the raptor total for the day and we crossed the border into Scotland for the afternoon.
Our picnic spot brought more raptors; first more Common Buzzards, then the shrill alarm calls of a Merlin drew our attention to a pair of displaying Peregrines as Ravens flew along the ridges above us, Wild Goats foraged amongst the scattered trees on the valley sides, and even more Buzzards rose on the stiff breeze. Out on the open moorland Luke was quick off the draw again, this time with a stunning male Hen Harrier. As he gave directions to the bird, it was clear that the rest of us were watching a second male harrier as it quartered the skyline. A flash of blue was a male Merlin racing across the fells, a Red Grouse flushed from the roadside puddle where it was having a droink as we passed, and the air seemed to be filled with Emperor Moths 🙂 A low-flying Common Buzzard passed just over the car as we headed back into Northumberland and finished the day with Common Sandpiper and a fly-by Mandarin.
Quantity on a Kielder Safari isn’t the game we play, but the day list is usually dripping with quality 🙂
I love the Northumberland coast, and my obsession with the North Sea and it’s wildlife is well documented, but I always look forward to the drive west – away from the sea and into forests and remote moorland…
I collected Jeanette and Simon for their second trip with NEWT, following the Otter mini-Safari on Sunday, and we headed across through Alnwick, Rothbury, Thropton, Elsdon and Otterburn. As we approached the dam at the southern end of Kielder Water I could see a bird ahead of us flying towards the reservoir. It was flying directly away from us but it’s a fairly distinctive bird from any angle…and the Osprey hovered over the water, plunged, surfaced with a large fish and flew along the dam wall, pursued by an angry mob of Common Gulls as 6 Roe Deer grazed just outside the cover of woodland beside the North Tyne 🙂 With occasional breaks in the cloud, and brief interludes of warm sunshine, it seemed a good time to find a suitable spot to sit and look over the forest…which worked just as planned with Common Buzzard, Sparrowhawk and Goshawk all making it on to the day list as a flock of Redwing called overhead 🙂
The drive from forest to moorland produced excellent views of a Dipper as it submerged in a fast-flowing stream, and then the moors produced another excellent crop of birds. Ravens, big impressive and noisy flew overhead, pairs of Common Buzzard seemed to be everywhere we looked, Red Grouse played hide-and-seek with us as they emerged from cover only to vanish again within a few seconds and three more raptors made it seven species for the day. Kestrel is still a regular bird on many of our tours but the other two were real scarcities; a pair of Merlin were calling noisily just behind us as a male Hen Harrier ghosted across the moor below us. Then he started skydancing 🙂 That would be a treat enough, but the bird that had prompted his display came into view…not the female harrier we’d expected, but a second male! The two tussled briefly in the air just above the heather before both drifting out of sight. Wild Goats were remarkably confiding close to the road as we headed back towards lower ground and trees.
Back down in the forest and a female Common Crossbill was a nice find as the high-pitched songs of Goldcrest and Treecreeper pierced the air, Goldeneye displayed out on the water as a drake Mandarin sat quietly behind the bankside vegetation and Grey Wagtails bobbed along the muddy edge. Another wildlife-filled day out with clients who were great company 🙂
There’s a lot of very impressive wildlife in and around Kielder, particularly if you extend your visit across the border into Scotland, and we always hope for bright clear weather with a bit of warmth and a breeze…
I collected Brian from Bellingham and we headed up the valley in just the sort of weather conditions that I was hoping for 🙂 Our day followed the typical pattern of one of our Kielder Safaris; some time in Kielder, some time over the border into the hills and moors of southwest Scotland, some more time back in Kielder. With the descending silvery cadence of Willow Warbler dripping from what seemed like every tree, the swee-wee-wee-wee-wee of Common Sandpiper around the water’s edge and Siskin, Chaffinch and Goldcrest all singing enthusiastically, the aural backdrop to the day was a canvas on which the raptors danced. Common Buzzards soared and mewed as Wild Goats trotted along a narrow valley with Hen Harriers, ringtail females and ghostly pale males, patrolling the fells above, Sparrowhawk soared just over a small plantation and then, the big three; Osprey, the stunning ‘fish eagle’ hovering over the water before plunging, unsuccessfully, in search of fish, Goshawk, the ‘phantom of the forest’ rising from a nesting plantation that we’ve been watching for a few years now before soaring up on a thermal to take station high over his mate and their nest and, the most surprising find of the day, dwarfing the Common Buzzards it was sharing a thermal with, a Golden Eagle casting it’s majestic shadow over the hills. One day it may be a common sight, but it still won’t lose the magic of a chance encounter 🙂
Dull, overcast, drizzly, misty, cold, miserable…the sort of day that makes Kielder a place where you really have to work for your wildlife sightings.
I collected David from Byrness and we headed into the border forests. After his coastal holiday with us in 2013, and a Farne Deeps pelagic trip in September last year, I was looking forward to meeting up with him again. One look at the weather told me this wasn’t likely to be a good Goshawk day, but it’s always worth trying 🙂 The ‘phantom of the forest’ did remain elusive, but another Kielder speciality put in an appearance with a flock of 15 Common Crossbill chipping away noisily around the forest drive. A Roe Deer crossed the track ahead of us, and we headed across the border. A tumbling Raven was demonstrating its prowess, Red Grouse popped up and down in the heather and, probably the highlight of the day, a pair of Hen Harriers soared over the moor; the female unobtrusive and low over the heather, her mate an enigmatic ghostly grey against the dark background. Common Buzzards circled against the sky and, above one of our favourite Goshawk sites, a Peregrine soared over a clearing between plantations, all muscular menace and effortless grace.
Even the days that don’t look promising still hold excellent wildlife 🙂
One of the best bits of being outside and searching for wildlife is the how everything around you ties together to create an experience; the landscape, the wildlife and the weather all come together to produce whatever they may…
I collected Paul and Jeanette from their holiday accommodation in Warkworth and we started out down the coast towards Druridge Bay. Originally the plan had been Harwood and then the coast, but weather conditions suggested it would be better to reverse that. Then there was a sudden change from the poor conditions and it was looking like a glorious morning after all so we reverted to Plan A. The Northumbrian weather responded by throwing everything it could at us; sunshine, azure blue skies, fluffy white clouds, torrential rain and brutal biting winds all came, went and came again 🙂 There was no sign of any Goshawk activity in the good spells but you could hardly blame them 🙂 Eventually we retreated back down to the coastal plain…and had the same sequence of changeable weather all over again! Feeding stations were a hive of bird activity, with Chaffinches, Long-tailed Tit, Great Tit, Coal Tit and a very bright male Siskin all entertaining us, but Red Squirrels weren’t to be seen. Some of our coastal ponds have been producing regular Otter sightings over the last few months…but the most notable thing was that the howling gale was generating waves that you could have surfed on! Tree Sparrows and Goldfinches were clinging on to branches as the wind buffeted them and, as Curlew, Lapwing and a nice mini-murmuration of Starlings were tossed about on the breeze, Tufted Duck, Goldeneye; Mallard, Wigeon, Teal, Shelduck and Slavonian, Red-necked, Great Crested and Little Grebe struggled in the waves.
Our final destination for the day was one of our favourite Badger setts. There was rustling in the scrub on the valley sides, but no stripy black-and-white head appeared, at least not before it was too dark to see. What did come along though was a Red Fox. Unusually obliging, this one trotted along just above the sett before stopping and fixing us with a stare. It didn’t bolt, as foxes so often do, but watched us, and some passing dog walkers, before continuing with its exploration of the hillside. Often underrated, undervalued, frequently despised…but a thoroughly engaging animal if you take time to watch the almost feline grace of this wild canine.
Saturday saw a much more relaxed start, at a much more civilised hour, for the second day of our Black Grouse Bonanza guided holiday. After another filling breakfast at Peth Head we set out for a day around Kielder and the Borders. With beautiful blue sky, fluffy white clouds and a nice breeze, it looked very much like a ‘Raptor Day’.
After a drive up the North Tyne valley, the first thing that struck us when we arrived at the dam end of Kielder Water was the number of Willow Warblers that were singing. Swallows were zipping back and forth and there was a real springtime feel in the air. As always, flocks of Chaffinches seemed to be everywhere, and we made our way to NEWT’s favourite raptor watchpoint. In our quite exposed position we were at the mercy of what turned out to be a bitingly cold westerly wind so hats, gloves, fleece jackets and windproof layers were required. There was an extraordinary difference between being in the sunshine and being under the layers of cloud that were scudding across from the west, and that had an effect on the birds too. After a couple of hours of occasional sightings of Common Buzzard, and one Goshawk that shadowed a buzzard over a distant plantation, midday was approaching when it all kicked off; first one pair of Common Buzzards appeared opposite our watchpoint, then a second pair appeared alongside them, and a third pair over an adjacent plantation were probably responding to the flurry of activity. Six buzzards in the air at the same time was only a start though, as the harsh croaking of a pair of Ravens drew our attention and these big, impressive ‘honorary raptors’ materialised from the background of the trees below our eyeline, breaking the skyline and soaring across the valley and disappearing over the trees to the northwest as another four Ravens rose into view away to the east. The buzzard activity drew the attention of a male Goshawk, who circled with one bird before gliding away over a distant plantation.
Before crossing the border into Scotland we sat by a small stream and watched two Dippers as they bobbed up and down on mid-stream rocks and dived into the crystal clear, and presumably icy cold, water. During our lunch break a Common Buzzard soared along a ridge just above our position, and as we crossed the moors a Raven was flying over a nest site, a Kestrel was hanging in the wind, Wild Goats were grazing contentedly, and a single Red Grouse raised its head above the shelter of the heather and into the breeze as we passed.
A stop at the Bakethin reserve on the way back down the North Tyne brought excellent views of an Osprey as it circled over the water, Common Sandpipers were displaying noisily, Oystercatchers had a noisy exchange during changeover at a nest, Teal were displaying, Goldeneye and Cormorant were diving, Chiffchaffs seemed to be in every tree and a Green Woodpecker was persistently yaffling. Each time it called we all scanned the ground in the direction the calls were coming from, more in hope than expectation. Eventually Derek managed to locate the bird…perched at the top of a tree, yaffling away like a Blackbird would sing from an exposed perch! The sky beyond the woodpecker held our 5th raptor for the day, a soaring Sparrowhawk, and we headed back to Peth Head.
The holiday was to produce a final bit of magic, as a night-time drive along a narrow country lane produced excellent views of two young Badgers, running across just a few metres ahead of us, a third Badger along the roadside and a Roe Deer running along the verge towards us before springing over a wall and away across the fields.
With such lovely clients, an excellent accommodation base and a whole series of stunning wildlife experiences during the holiday, I’m excited about next year’s Black Grouse Bonanza already 🙂 We’ll be announcing 2014 holiday dates shortly, but please get in touch if you would like to be kept informed of the details of what we have on offer next year.
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 🙂
There are times when you can visit the same location on successive days and see exactly the same wildlife, other times something you saw the day before has moved on but there’s compensation in the form of something unexpected…
I collected Julie and David from The Swan and we set off for day of bespoke birdwatching, combining the best of our uplands with the post-industrial birdwatching wonders of southeast Northumberland. As we headed inland towards the Cheviot valleys the spectacular scenery (not for the first time) elicited a number of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the passenger seats of the car. Crossing the ford where the Harthope Burn becomes the Wooler Water we enjoyed very close views of those two riverine specialists, Dipper and Grey Wagtail. I’m enthusiastic about most, if not all, birds but male Grey Wagtails are truly stunning birds, and one that often holds our clients entranced for extended periods of time. We continued along the valley, and set off to walk up a narrow valley leading up into the hills from the main valley. Red Grouse were cackling all around us, flying from one side of the valley to the other and occasionally perching in full view, imperiously staring at us as we followed the burn their territories. A female Ring Ouzel flew down the valley, over our heads and away to a distant clump of trees, a pair of Sparrowhawks displayed ahead of us, and we stopped for lunch. Our post-lunch walk was another spectacular one. This time in a steep-sided valley, with Peregrines, Kestrels, Common Buzzards and Ravens soaring overhead, Mistle Thrushes carrying food to hungry nestlings and the song of a male Ring Ouzel carrying on the strengthening breeze. An icy April shower added to the wild, remote feel of the valley and we headed back downhill into glorious sunshine. Our assemblage of raptors (including the honorary member – the Raven) didn’t feature the Osprey I’d seen the day before, but we did have a real bonus bird…one of the things about birding in narrow steep-sided valleys is that birds appear very unexpectedly, and on this occasion it was the enigmatic ‘Phantom of the Forest’ as a male Goshawk broke the skyline in front of us and beat his way powerfully across the moors.
The second half of the day was spent on the Northumberland coast, finishing close to home around Druridge Bay. The Common Eiders we found were greatly appreciated and the tour of NEWT’s ‘local patch’ produced a number of highlights with Marsh Harrier, Little Ringed Plover, Avocet, Pintail and Red-breasted Merganser all going down particularly well but, perhaps, the bird of the day was a Short-eared Owl that perched on a roadside fencepost and watched us just as intently as we were watching it; piercing yellow eyes holding us all enthralled as we completed a long day of birdwatching that seemed to be over too soon. Isn’t that always the way 😉
Delivering a birding package for the first time with a new partner is always a mixture of excitement and worry; will the experience we deliver to our clients blend well with the standards of service, accommodation and food that are provided? Our exclusive Doxford Hall birding break on Thursday and Friday didn’t hold too many worries though – I’ve attended conferences and other events there before and, having known David Hunter since he was at Matfen Hall, I knew that the entire Doxford experience would be a memorable one for all the right reasons.
I arrived first thing Thursday morning to collect Paul and Sue, who had won their exclusive birding break in a competition that ourselves and Doxford Hall ran recently in Birdwatch magazine. Our original plan of Druridge Bay on Thursday, Lindisfarne on Friday, had been altered following a ‘phone call during the week from Sue – there was one species they particularly wanted to see, and our recent blog posts had revealed that now might be a good time…so, after a day of hectic communication with the Forestry Commission to arrange access through Kielder, and check where along our route there would be any forestry activity, our first trip headed inland. We started at Harwood in near-perfect weather conditions; warm, sunny and with a good breeze. Common Buzzards, Common Crossbills, Siskins and a very vocal Raven were all seen but no Goshawk so we continued west. Once we were in Kielder another Raven entertained us, tumbling and cronking over a remote farmhouse in the warm afternoon sunshine before soaring heavenwards and then dropping back out of the sky alongside its mate. We stopped to scan over another plantation, where I’ve watched Goshawks previously, and I soon spotted a bird just above the trees. He quickly got into a thermal and rose until we lost sight of him. I suggested that we just needed to wait for a Common Buzzard to drift over the Gos’ territory, and we began a patient vigil. Eventually a Common Buzzard did appear, we all lifted our binoculars to focus on it…and a distant speck in the binoculars above the buzzard grew rapidly larger as the Goshawk dropped out of the sky. The intruder thought better of hanging around and quickly folded it’s wings back and crossed the valley like an arrow. Having shepherded the buzzard away, the Phantom of the Forest rose quickly again to resume his sentinel watch. More Common Crossbills and Common Buzzards followed as we travelled down the valley back towards civilisation, and 2 pairs of Mandarin brought a touch of stunning colour to the afternoon.
Dinner at Doxford Hall on Thursday evening was exceptional (outstanding food and outstanding levels of service throughout the 2 days), and having clients with such an enthusiasm for birding, and fantastic sense of humour, made it even better. After dinner conversation did reveal that there was an obvious gap in their life-lists though…
Friday’s plan was simple; head to the coast and then bird our way down it to finish in Druridge Bay late afternoon. We started at Harkess Rocks, in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, with a very nice flock of 79 Purple Sandpipers. In the heavy swell a flock of Common Scoters proved elusive, Common Eiders dived through the surf, small rafts of Common Guillemot and Razorbill bobbed about, Gannets soared effortlessly, Sandwich Terns were feeding just offshore and Long-tailed Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers in breeding finery were a reminder that our winter visitors are about to pack their bags and head north. Red-throated Divers, including one bird with a very red tinge to it’s throat, were typically elusive, diving just as we got onto them. I’d got another species in mind though and, when I found one, it was sitting obligingly next to a Red-throated Diver. Soon, Paul and Sue were admiring the elegant structure, neat contrasty plumage and white flank patch of their first Black-throated Diver. 2 days, 2 lifers 🙂
We headed south and, after watching an adult Mediterranean Gull, and two 2nd calendar year birds, winter and spring came together with flocks of Greylag and Pink-footed Geese, and a Short-eared Owl, being characteristic of the last 5 months of our coastal trips, Green Sandpiper and Whimbrel on passage and a male Marsh Harrier drifting over a coastal reedbed.
In beautiful afternoon light, with the sound of the roaring surf of the North Sea crashing into the east coast, the Short-eared Owl quartering a nearby reedbed and a pair of Great Crested Grebes displaying on the pool in front of us, a couple of comments by Sue – two of many memorable ones during the trip 😉 – summed things up nicely “chilled-out birding” and “we like the view from Martin’s office” 🙂
After our first ever Harwood Safari on Saturday, our second came quickly 0n it’s heels. I’d driven through some patchy, but dense, fog on the way to collect Judith and Kevin but as headed towards Harwood we found ourselves in some extraordinarily good weather. The view from the Gibbet was better than on Saturday, and a male Goshawk was seen briefly as he passed along the top of the plantation in the distance.
Crossbills and Siskins were again in evidence as we drove the forest tracks and a Grey Wagtail was catching flies on the surface of a ditch as we watched a Common Buzzard soaring overhead, and a pair of Common Toads, the male clasped tightly to the female’s back, crossed the track ahead of us. We stopped to watch over the plantation where we’d had 2 Goshawks on Saturday, and soon a Common Buzzard soared into view. Almost immediately the male Goshawk rose out of the trees and began displaying high overhead, before finding a thermal that was obviously to his liking and ascending rapidly out of sight, presumably to keep a close eye on his territory.
The second half our our day was spent around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland. As we checked rivers and pools, the assembled birdlife wasn’t disturbed by anything other than more birds; Black-headed Gulls were harassing a Grey Heron, Goldeneye, Mallards, and Teal were following other Goldeneye, Mallards and Teal, full of the joys of spring, and Canada Geese were busy showing that even Canada Geese don’t like Canada Geese 🙂 As we left Druridge Bay behind and headed towards Blaydon, the countryside was bathed in an almost sublime light. 10 hour working days have never seemed so attractive 😉