Snow on Monday, glorious weather on Tuesday…and torrential rain on Wednesday When I arrived to collect David and Janet for their Prestige Tour in the Cheviot Valleys we quickly decided to head towards the Northumberland coast instead as that would offer the chance of plenty of birdwatching with the prospect of being able to shelter from the worst of the weather.
Starting at Stag Rocks, we watched flocks of Eider and Common Scoter as they rolled up and over the substantial waves and a Grey Seal swam just beyond the breaking surf. One thing that was immediately obvious was that there was a movement of Gannets; birds were flying over the rocks and more could be seen offshore. Heading down the coast, the intensity of the rain increased and we had our second seawatch of the day, this time just south of Cresswell. An almost continuous passage of Gannets was evident as they headed north, flocks of Kittiwakes and Guillemots were passing by, the occasional Fulmar arced up above the clifftops and a single Manx Shearwater easily outpaced the Gannets. Avocets sat tight as the rain hammered down around them and, when the deluge finally ceased and blue sky and sunshine replaced the gloom, we watched a male Marsh Harrier as he quartered a nearby field before soaring heavenwards. A Great Crested Grebe sailed by serenely, a Whimbrel flew north, five Brown Hares were engaged in some half-hearted chasing and Swifts, Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins all took advantage of the feast of insects that had been stirred to activity by the improvement in the weather.
Even in poor weather, Northumberland can produce some excellent birdwatching
It’s a rare day when a trip features a limited number of birds and other wildlife, but even the days with lots to see often have a few things that really stand out; sometimes by being scarce, sometimes it’s an intriguing behaviour, and sometimes it can be something that’s quite common but rarely seen. An outstanding day would produce all of those…
I collected Helen and Chris from Church Point for an afternoon of birdwatching and other wildlife around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland in near-perfect weather. Before we headed up the coast though, we spent some time studying the Mediterranean Gulls on the beach and in the car park. Cormorants were feeding just offshore and a very long-billed Dunlin was pottering about on the sand. Working our way along the reserves that line Druridge Bay, one of NEWT’s favourite winter visitors provided some entertainment; a small herd of Whooper Swans had chosen a pool as a stop-off point – provoking a furious reaction from the resident pair of Mute Swans. Teal, Goldeneye, Wigeon, Shoveler, Mallard and Gadwall drakes were all looking good, following their exit from eclipse plumage, Long-tailed Tits flew past, one by one, a Goldcrest was flicking around in a bush nearby, a chirping Tree Sparrow allowed us to approach incredibly close and a Guillemot was hanging around at the base of the weir on the River Coquet. Flocks of Curlew, Golden Plover and Lapwing filled the air, and a Jack Snipe provided lots of entertainment as it bobbed up and down on the edge of a reedbed, as nearby Common Snipe seemed more interested in disputing possession of feeding areas than actually feeding.
As the end of the trip approached, much too soon with such good company, we were in a small wooded valley, searching for Badgers. We could hear the sound of them blundering through the undergrowth, but a barking dog nearby seemed to spook them and all went quiet. For most of the time that we were there we were under the baleful glare of a feathered sentinel, as a Tawny Owl stared at us from the fork between a branch and tree trunk. Wildlife, watching the wildlife-watchers
In near-perfect conditions we arrived at Seahouses yesterday evening for our 3hr coastal cruise on Ocean Explorer. As well as some of our ‘regulars’ we had Andy, Jan and Sam on board, on their final evening in Northumberland.
Soon after heading south down the coast towards Dunstanburgh we came across a couple of Harbour Porpoises. Typically shy, they surfaced a few times and then vanished into the depths. Gannets featured throughout the evening, passing both north and south, and one or two were seen diving. Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills were bobbing about on the water and a mixed flock of Arctic and Common Terns and Kittiwakes had found something to hold their interest. We stopped to see if anything else would come along, and were soon joined by a Fulmar, stunning in the beautiful light.
We gradually headed north, and approached the Farne Islands as the sun began to set. Grey Seals poked their heads out of the water and came off the rocks to investigate our boat, Cormorants and Shags perched sentinel-like on the rocky islets, Turnstones prodded and poked their way around the edge of the mass of Seals and Sam punched the air in elation as his first Curlew flew by The setting sun provided an opportunity to experiment with an aspect of photography that I’ve never really been able to get to grips with, and one which I’ve always been fairly ambivalent about. Excellent light, excellent location, all the ingredients were there to convince me…
As I got home on Tuesday night after our evening pelagic the rain was still hammering down. With a forecast of more rain for Wednesday, and a planned Farne Islands safari, I started thinking about a contingency plan as I dried off all of my camera equipment.
Wednesday dawned…with more heavy rainfall. I needed an idea of what was happening further north and a quick text to William was soon answered; the rain in Seahouses was light and sea conditions were fine so boats were sailing I collected Louise and Martin from Warkworth and we headed north along some decidedly damp roads. A morning birdwatching on the Northumberland coast, including Grey Seal, Roe Deer, Swallow nestlings, Shelduck, Eider, Curlew, Oystercatcher, Redshank and a very obliging Whitethroat, was followed by a lunch break just north of Bamburgh Castle, and then it was time to board Glad Tidings for the sailing across to the islands. With a bit of swell on the sea, a chilly wind kicking spray from the bow, and another oppressive sky the islands were incredibly atmospheric. Puffins were sitting in huge rafts just off the islands, Guillemots and Razorbills were flying back to the cliff ledges with fish, Gannets were soaring majestically by the boat, Grey Seals lazed in the surf and Kittiwakes called incessantly from their precipitous nest sites. As we landed on Inner Farne the aerial bombardment from the Arctic Terns was much reduced from the level of recent weeks, and there were plenty of young terns trying out their wings in short flights across the boardwalk. Sandwich Terns were carrying food back to quite large chicks and the island seemed to be awash with Puffins. Every flat area next to the sheer cliff faces was covered in them and hundreds were flying around the island. Louise, like many of our clients when seeing Puffins for the first time said “Aren’t they small”. Everyone expects them to be bigger than they actually are. Kittiwake chicks were almost too big for the nest ledges, and Razorbills and Guillemots were watched at close quarters too. With the poor weather the number of visitors to the island was quite low, making for quite a different experience to our trips earlier this year when all of the boats were full.
Most of our Farne Islands trips this year have been on Glad Tidings 1, and Bobby and Billy always keep their passengers entertained. Now, as I look out of my office window while I’m typing this on a fine, dry, sunny afternoon, Bobby’s words, as he delivered us safely back to Seahouses come to mind “Aye, it’s improved. Now it’s like a fine autumn day rather than a bad winter one”.
Wednesday was a trip that I’d been looking forward to for some time. Syd is a regular client, and always very entertaining, and this time around his son Gavin was booked with him as well, for a Farne Islands safari.
With plenty of comments on Twitter in the weeks leading up to the trip, we were all praying for good sea conditions for the day. The forecast suggested that the afternoon could be a bit wet so I thought about visiting Staple Island instead of Inner Farne, before satisfying myself that it would stay dry for us in the afternoon and sticking with my original plan of walking along the dunes at Newton in the morning, and catching the 1pm boat to Inner Farne. The morning walk produced lots of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits as well as Common Blue Butterflies and Northern Marsh, Pyramidal and Bee Orchids. The tern colony was a hive of activity, with the Arctic Terns bringing food to their chicks and some Little Terns engaging in some late season breeding activity. While we were there, the terns kept lifting from the dunes in a ‘dread’ but the source of their concern wasn’t immediately obvious. Myself and the wardens commented that it was what we would expect if a Peregrine was passing over, but scanning the sky overhead didn’t produce the menacing shape of that particular predator. Eventually we did spot a raptor, although not an expected one, as a Marsh Harrier flew south along the fields inland from the terns. After having our lunch stop in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, we took the short drive to Seahouses. Approaching Monk’s House Pool, Syd and Gavin had the bird of the day as a Hobby flew north over the roadside fields.
We boarded Glad Tidings IV for the journey across to the islands and sat next to local birder TC, who had watched all of the hirundines in Seahouses start alarming…just a few minutes before the Hobby was between Seahouses and Bamburgh. After the sailing around the islands, with their Grey Seals, Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins, Kittiwakes, Fulmars, Shags and Common, Sandwich and Arctic Terns, we landed on Inner Farne and Gavin concentrated on photographing Puffins. We were ‘treated’ (if that’s the right word…) to an example of just how cruel nature can be as a Kittiwake chick wandered away from it’s nest and towards the edge of the ledge. It turned back from the edge, made it’s way unsteadily back to the nest, and was promptly tossed over the edge of the cliff by the adult! As it landed on the next ledge down, it was attacked and killed by 2 juvenile Shags in front of a group of horrified onlookers.
After nearly 2 hours on Inner Farne, we boarded Glad Tidings for the journey back to the mainland…and the first few drops of rain fell as we reached the top of the steps on the harbour
Our Farne Islands Safari last Wednesday continued the theme of returning clients; Christina was on her third successive day out with us (and fifth in total), Barry and Maureen were back again after an Otter Safari in 2010 and Rob and Lesley were with us for the first time (but have another trip booked for September).
I’ve visited the Farne Islands countless times over the years, and it’s still as magical an experience as it was the first time. As the boat pulls out of Seahouses harbour, and you can see the islands on the horizon, the pulse starts to quicken. Soon you’re sailing through rafts of Shags, Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills, birds are racing by with beaks filled with fish and then the characteristic smell of a seabird colony hits you, Grey Seals are bobbing up and down in the water and the nesting cliffs tower overhead. Once you’re on the islands the real experience is the aggressive nest defence by the Arctic Terns. It always amazes me how many visitors to the islands seem either unprepared, or simply unaware, of what’s waiting for them once they get off the boat
What made Wednesday so special though was the weather. The sea was mirror-calm and once we were on the islands conditions were stunning. It was a real privilege to be there with a group of clients, to experience the delights of a seabird colony with them, and to be able to appreciate the wider landscape of Northumberland from that offshore position. It was interesting to see everyone taking their own approach to enjoying the experience; having a good walk around and looking at everything…finding a quiet place to sit and savouring the whole experience from that spot…concentrating one that one seabird species that’s missing from the photo archive.
Whether I’m leading a ‘normal’ Safari Day, or working with photography clients, we always hope for the sort of weather that last week delivered
Monday was an all-day Farne Islands Safari with Mike and Maggie, who I was really happy to meet up with again after their two trips with us last October.
All-day trips to the islands always face one particular hurdle – landing on Staple Island. Big tides and any appreciable swell make getting on to the island an interesting proposition and, after our boatman had looked at the swell and decided it wasn’t safe, we had a tour around the outer islands before returning to Staple as the tide fell. This time all were able to disembark safely, although a number of passengers were struggling to follow the very clear instructions they had been given by Billy and Bobby about how to get off the boat and on to the island!
Staple is always a popular island with our clients. You can get on with your photography without the constant aerial bombardment from the Arctic Terns that make Inner Farne such an exciting place to visit Mike has the same camera that I use so we went through the custom settings to make photographing birds in flight a (slightly) easier proposition, and I settled to spotting approaching photo opportunities while Mike concentrated on the scene through his viewfinder, with Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes, Shags and Fulmars all performing well. Inner Farne in the afternoon was a different proposition altogether; early June is the time when the Arctic Terns are at their most defensive and aggressive - pity the visitors who turned up without hats Judging wind speed and direction, and the position of the Sun, led us to the right spot to photograph Puffins as they arrived back from their fishing expeditions and Mike was able to put his newly learned techniques into practice. After a day,which seemed much too short, we were on our way back to the mainland, and discussing Mike and Maggie’s next trip north and what we’d do next time. When the company of our clients is as enjoyable as the wildlife, it’s always a good day
Our Marine Wildlife Festival pelagic trip should have taken place on Saturday, but the poor weather led to several ‘phone calls and e-mails, and a re-scheduling to Sunday instead.
We lost a few participants who couldn’t make the rearranged date, but we gathered a few extras on Saturday/Sunday too, and arrived at Seahouses Harbour full of enthusiasm for our first pelagic trip this year. In the extremely capable hands of John, onboard Glad Tidings V, we headed across to the Farne Islands and the Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins, Shags, terns, Kittiwakes, Fulmars and Grey Seals. After a journey through the islands we sailed south and then east before heading back north along the coast. Harbour Porpoises provided the cetacean interest, lots of Gannets were soaring majestically by and three Manx Shearwaters flew north. The number of positive comments by text, e-mail and ‘phone, since Sunday evening has been great and it’s always good to see how much people appreciate the marine environment of the North Sea, even if it sometimes seems impenetrable.
Bird of the day though, was the one that was only seen by a couple of very lucky participants. We were a couple of miles south of the islands when someone asked the question “Martin, which Storm-petrel is it likely to be that we saw back there?”…
Thursday was another day for returning clients, as I collected Louise from her holiday accommodation at Brockmill farmhouse for a bespoke photography trip to the Farne Islands. We began, as most of our Farne Islands trips do, with a visit to a mainland tern colony. As happens so often, the Little Tern colony had been washed out by a very high tide – with all 42 pairs having abandoned their nests. The 250 pairs of Arctic Terns was also a long way below the number that had been there, with the tides having washed away the majority of that colony as well. Lots of the Arctic Terns were displaying, so they may well manage to re-lay.
The Farne Islands, once we arrived on Inner Farne following our journey on Glad Tidings, were as spectacular as ever. Guillemots, Puffins, Razorbills, Shags, Kittiwakes and the terns offered up many photographic opportunities and it was great to enjoy all of that with a client whose views on photo agencies, camera equipment and manufacturers are always entertaining. As we stood above lighthouse cliff on Inner Farne, the weather began to change – and not for the better…
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”