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
Since we started NEWT we’ve always tried to innovate and keep our tours refreshed. Saturday gave me the opportunity to do something that really was innovative – our first Harwood Safari. We’ve walked the route 5 times during the last 3 winters, but driving it was something of an unknown quantity.
As a business we’re happy to support the Northumberland Wildlife Trust. As well as being a corporate member of the trust, we sponsor the under 13 and 13-18 age categories of the NWT Annual Photography competition. Saturday’s Harwood trip was the prize for last year’s 13-18 winner and his dad. When I collected them from Newbiggin it was worryingly misty, but as we headed inland the mist began to lift.
We started at the viewpoint near Winter’s Gibbet, where Skylark, Meadow Pipit, Crossbill, Siskin, Goldcrest, Lesser Redpoll and Chiffchaff were all calling or singing. As the mist over the forest lifted, it was time to break new ground as we headed off along tracks with no vehicle access to the public. More Crossbills and Siskins were in the trackside trees and Common Buzzards were soaring high overhead giving their mewing calls. Soon after lunch we stopped to check out a distant raptor over the plantation on the opposite side of a clearfell area. Within a minute we were watching 3 Common Buzzards…and a pair of Goshawks that had risen out of the trees to shepherd the buzzards away! As the buzzards moved on the Goshawks quickly melted back into the obscurity of the trees.
A stop to search for Adders didn’t produce any of these fearsome reptiles, but we did find a dozen Common Lizards, lazing in the sunshine and then scuttling out of sight.
Our first Harwood Safari, the air filled with raptors, trees filled with Crossbills…looks like a winner
A couple of months after I left my teaching career, I was sent a link to this webpage… and I ended up in a pub at 10:00 on a Tuesday morning, explaining my ideas to an interview panel.
A few weeks after that interview I found myself on an Enterprise Island residential weekend and when we were asked the question “how will you know when your business is a success?” almost everyone answered that the measure of that would be if their customers were happy.
We had our first Cheviots Safari of the year yesterday. I collected Sally and Tony from Morpeth and we headed northwest. On a day that was cold, windy and overcast, the quality of the birdwatching in the Northumberland hills more than made up for the weather; 3 Ring Ouzels perched obligingly in one tree, allowing us a prolonged opportunity to watch them, Curlews were displaying high over the heather moorland, male Red Grouse were as stunning as ever, Chaffinches, Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps, Robins, Redpolls, Meadow Pipits, Mistle Thrushes and Wrens were all singing and we had an unexpected bonus in the shape of a White Wagtail. A real highlight of the day, although it wasn’t a highlight so much as a constant backdrop, was the number of raptors; 14 Common Buzzards (including 7 in the air at the same time), 2 Kestrels chasing each other around and a Sparrowhawk would have been a good haul on a cold day, but as we watched a Peregrine go into a stooping dive we were amazed to see that the object of it’s ire was a Goshawk, beating it’s way steadily across the hillside. As the falcon repeatedly buzzed the ‘phantom of the forest’, buzzards were hanging in the wind high above it, and a kestrel was hovering against the hilltop. It was one of those moments that I really can’t do justice to in writing.
And the connection to the anecdote at the start of this post? My answer to the question was that I would consider NEWT a success if I was happy with what we’re doing. Of course, me being happy requires happy clients… and the reason we had Sally and Tony out with us yesterday was that Sally had been given a gift voucher by one of our previous clients. Happiness is infectious
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.
Monday was the second classroom session of the NHSN Lichens and Bryophytes course. On Sunday, while I was out with Sarah on a walk through three atlas tetrads in Harwood, we found some interesting colonies of Cladonias lichens on the upturned root edges of some windblown Spruce. As the lichens course is currently looking at Heath and Moorland, and specifically at Cladonias, this was a chance to put the classroom practice into a fieldwork context. The two most frequent species were C. macilenta (‘Devils Matches’), and C.sulphurina (‘Greater Sulphur-cup’). Unfortunately, the weather was a bit on the harsh side, so it wasn’t possible to take any photographs of the lichens in the field. Never mind, that’s just a reason to go back and have another look on a brighter day
The atlassing itself was a bit esoteric. During the entire 9 miles through the forest we only came across 6 different species;
Common Buzzard 3
Great Spotted Woodpecker 2
Common Crossbill 103
With temperatures hovering around freezing and 8″ of snow still covering over a mile of the footpaths and tracks, it was no great surprise that there were so few birds. Also unsurprising, throughout those 9 miles of beautiful, windswept, snow-covered Northumberland we didn’t encounter any other walkers. They don’t know what they were missing