It’s been a cold windy spring, and a few of our summer visitors seemed a bit tardy; we found our first Sand Martin and Chiffchaff later than we would have expected, but the day has been coming when things would start to happen…
I collected Jan and Peter from Church Point and we set out to spend the day exploring Druridge Bay. It was, unsurprisingly, cold and very windy again but that didn’t impact on our day birdwatching. Skylarks soared and sang, Marsh Harriers drifted over reedbeds and fields close to the coast and an impressive range of waders performed obligingly; Oystercatcher, Curlew, Ringed Plover, Avocet, Turnstone, Dunlin, Sanderling and Black-tailed Godwit – the latter three species resplendent in breeding plumage – demonstrated why this is such a popular group of species with birdwatchers. The godwit in particular stood out; clothed in chestnut and a vision of elegance to rival the Little Egret that was stalking along the water’s edge nearby. Moorhen and Coot crept furtively along the edge of reedbeds, Stonechat and Meadow Pipit flicked their tails nervously at the tops of bushes in the dunes and an eye-catching fly-catching adult Little Gull was easily picked out from amongst Black-headed Gulls. Seawatching over lunchtime is a regular feature of our Druridge Bay trips and Eider, Gannet, Manx Shearwater and Common Guillemot could all be seen offshore as Fulmars soared and arced along the clifftops a few metres way from us. Wheatears and a Whinchat flitted from tussock to tussock, strikingly beautiful as they always are at this time of the year, and then a sign that the summer is nearly here; hundreds of Sand Martins were flycatching above every pool on the coast as a group of six House Martins flew in, battling against the strengthening breeze with the imperative to head north driving them on. Then, a Swift, and another, then six more. Eight of these scythe-winged masters of the air flew by us, rocking from side-to-side into the wind as they headed to join the feast above the water.
I love those days when we concentrate on looking for a single species, but a day birdwatching with clients and just enjoying, and marvelling, at everything that comes along is pretty much as good as it gets for a birdwatching guide As Jan and Peter headed across to Bellingham, and I took the shorter journey back to the office, I was wondering if perhaps the summer weather was on the way…
Friday and Saturday saw a two day bespoke safari for Fran and Georgia, arranged by their mum back in early December.
I collected the girls from The Swan and we headed towards Druridge Bay. We weren’t too far along the road when Georgia asked if we’d seen any Otters recently. I told them about Thursday’s sightings, and there was an obvious raising of excitement levels in the car…and, with typical wildlife unpredictability, we managed to get right through Friday without an Otter sighting Dippers zipping back and forth along the River Blyth were entertaining, a drake Garganey on the Wansbeck was stunning, Little Egrets and Avocets were elegant, but of the sinuous stealthy predator there was no sign. We returned to The Swan and I started revising our plans for Saturday…
Saturday 05:00 and I stumble sleepily to the bathroom. There’s one thing I really don’t want to hear, and that’s a howling gale. This wasn’t looking promising; our plan for the day was a Seal Cruise around the Farne Islands, and then more time searching for Otters, and neither of those would be helped by the hoolie that I could hear whistling through the trees in our garden. We arrived in Seahouses for our sailing on Glad Tidings V, and the sea was looking ever so slightly lumpy. We did manage to sail though, and were rewarded with Cormorant, Shag, Guillemot, Eider, Kittiwake and the two stars of the morning – Puffin and Grey Seal. Back on dry land we resumed the search for Otters, and the wind strengthened so that we could hear an eerie whistling around trees, bridges and us! With a wind chill factor taking temperatures down to bone-chilling, and a hail storm pinging ice off our heads, we were having to suffer for our wildlife…and still no Otters. Sarah was out and about checking other locations and sending regular texts to let me know where she’d checked. Our final backup plan was an 06:00 start on Sunday, but I don’t think anyone was really too keen on that idea.
18:30 and the wind shifted from west to southwest and weakened slightly, the sun came out and I started to feel more optimistic. I had one decision left to make though, and that was which of our two options for sunset to go for…
Our last couple of evening pelagics each year tend to finish in near darkness as we arrive back at Royal Quays. We have such long daylight hours during the middle of the summer up here, that it comes as a bit of a shock when it starts getting dark by 10pm Yesterday was our final evening pelagic for this year, and conditions weren’t as good as they’d beeen on most of the previous sailings; a reasonable amount of swell, choppy surface and occasional whitecaps don’t make for easy observation. We knew where both White-beaked and Bottlenose Dolphins had been seen on Tuesday though, so that would give us a fighting chance. Guillemots were rising and falling with the swell, Kittiwakes, Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls were following us throughout the evening and Gannets soared majestically on the breeze. A Grey Seal was bottling as we sailed by and, just off Lynemouth, we began making our way south. Then a call from Hector “Martin, over there!”. Three White-beaked Dolphins, then five With a very small calf among them, this was another opportunity to study how their behaviour differs from dolphins without young calves, and our observations will be included in the next report of our White-beaked Dolphin research off Northumberland, and add more to the collective knowledge about these beautiful animals
That may be the end of our evening pelagics for 2014, but we’ve still got a few spaces on our Farne Deeps trips, which are our best trips for encountering White-beaked Dolphin and other marine mammals, on 12th and 28th August from Royal Quays, and our birdwatching-focused trips from Royal Quays on 23rd August, 6th September and 13th September. Our Whale and Dolphin Cruise from Seahouses on 30th August is an excellent introduction to offshore wildlife for all the family too Give us a call on 01670 827465 for more details, or have a look at our North Sea pelagic page.
Our penultimate evening pelagic had near perfect conditions, calm seas, good visibility – and recent sightings of White-beaked Dolphins in our regular search area…
Puffins, Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Gannets and Fulmars were expected, but we had a real surprise in the shape of three Harbour Porpoises. In proper porpoise style they didn’t approach the boat, but they didn’t beat a hasty retreat either so everyone managed to see them. We began making our way back south, closer to the shore, but there was still no sign of any dolphins. An interesting sunset over St Mary’s generated a rainbow over the mouth of the Tyne and a remarkable ethereal atmosphere with the quite flat water.
Then, as we approached the mouth of the river, Allan spotted something splashing between the piers. Might be Harbour Porpoise? Might be Sea Trout or Salmon? No, neither of those, as two White-beaked Dolphins breached at the entrance to the Tyne and then swam across in front of us and back again before heading offshore, as daylight faded to black
Puffins, Guillemots, Gannets, Fulmars, Manx Shearwaters and Kittiwakes came and went in the gloom of a strange eerie evening of long rolling swell, and thickening mist.
We’ve still got a few spaces on our Farne Deeps trips, which are our best trips for encountering White-beaked Dolphin and other marine mammals, on 12th and 28th August from Royal Quays, and our birdwatching-focused trips from Royal Quays on 23rd August, 6th September and 13th September. Our Whale and Dolphin Cruise from Seahouses on 30th August is an excellent introduction to offshore wildlife for all the family too Give us a call on 01670 827465 for more details, or have a look at our North Sea pelagic page.
Our rearranged Farne Islands photography workshop was a second day out with NEWT for Bryan, and a chance for him to take on the challenge of Puffins in flight We sailed across to the islands on Glad Tidings IV (returning at the end of the afternoon on St Cuthbert III), and amidst the chaos of Arctic, Sandwich and Common Terns, Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills and Shags we worked on camera settings for action photography, but also on the elusive, almost instinctive skills that need to be developed to capture flight photographs of such a fast moving target. At one point we swapped cameras, with Bryan taking on the physical challenge of the substantial lump of kit that is a Nikon D300s and 70-200mm f2.8 lens As he settled into a smooth panning action, aided by the weight of my camera/lens, and began taking the shot at just the right time, he switched back to his camera with Puffin after Puffin captured through the lens, and I grabbed a couple of shots myself
Saturday afternoon was our Farne Islands Beginners Photography workshop. I picked Peter up from Eshott as I headed north, and we met up with Doug at Seahouses harbour. This was Peter’s fourth trip this week (on his birthday, following his North Pennines trip on Friday – his wedding anniversary!). Doug had been out with me before too, on our Coastal Dawn photography workshop in March, although the weather was a bit more amenable this time round Settings for wildlife and action photography are very different to the settings for extracting a landscape image from the gloom of an early spring morning, so I ran through the settings on Doug’s camera with my recommendations for how to improve his chances of catching ‘the moment’.
Perhaps the greatest skill a photographer needs on Inner Farne is the ability to tune out the chaos that surrounds them. Common and Arctic Terns form an angry buzzing cloud around the heads of visitors to the island, the harsh calls of Sandwich Terns cut through you as they fly to and from their colony, Puffins shoot by with beakfuls of sandeels, so close that you can feel the rush of air from their wingbeats and the clifftops are covered in Shags, Kittiwakes, Razorbills and Guillemots as Fulmars soar by on stiff outstretched wings. Around the Puffin burrows, groups of Black-headed Gulls sit and wait for the return of what should, on the face of it, be an easy meal. It doesn’t always work out that way though, and the melee provides excellent photo opportunities. That chaos is the Farne Islands strength as a location for our photography workshops though. The wildlife is approachable and obliging, so it’s a great place to concentrate on learning, and practicing, new photography techniques.
We’ve still got a few spaces available for our Farne Islands photography workshop this Saturday (July 5th), so give us a call on 01670 827465 if you’d like to come along
Even when you can see inclement weather ahead of you, there’s usually a light at the end of the tunnel
I collected Stephen from home in North Shields, and then Peter from his holiday cottage at Eshott, and we headed north towards the Northumberland coast and the Farne Islands, our destination for the afternoon. The first half of the day was planned to be a walk along the coast from High Newton, but the deteriorating weather made that an unwelcoming prospect and instead we had a ‘car as a hide’ morning of birdwatching. A Spoonbill in Budle Bay was an unexpected find and the eerie calls of Grey Seals carried through the mist and drizzle across the low-tide mudflats.
Then the light at the end of the tunnel appeared, well not so much a light as an incandescent ball of wildlife magic. We were eating lunch, and looking forward to the journey across to the islands, when Peter said “They look like dolphins off the end of the rocks”. I lifted my binoculars and the view was filled with Bottlenose Dolphins We watched as they passed close to the shore, then they settled and began feeding between Bamburgh Castle and Inner Farne. A quick text to William meant that, by the time we arrived at the harbour, all of his skippers knew where the dolphins were and our journey across to the islands included several minutes with them bow-riding our boat. I’ve been studying this group of dolphins for the last three months, and some inital findings are in MARINElife’s press release. Following a cruise around the islands, we landed on Inner Farne. One of the wardens mentioned that the Bridled Tern had been seen, and a quick sacn soon revealed it’s location in amongst the roosting Arctic, Common and Sandwich Terns. Here are a few pictures of this stunning seabird from last year on Inner Farne
After an hour amongst the Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Fulmars, Shags and terns, we crossed back to the mainland and headed south. Miserable morning, magical afternoon
Whenever I head out for a day guiding clients, I have a plan. Occasionally we deviate from that plan…
I was heading to collect Liz and Mark from the Lord Crewe in Bamburgh, for their Farne Islands prestige tour, and I thought I knew what we’d be doing throughout the day – a walk along the coast in the morning, picnic lunch overlooking the Farne Islands and then the 13:00 sailing on Glad Tidings. Simple, straightforward and a routine we’ve followed so many times with almost military precision.
However, just before I arrived in Bamburgh, Alan P. played a wild card “Hi Martin, the dolphins are in Newbiggin Bay”. This introduced another option for the morning…a drive south to try and catch up with the pod of Bottlenose Dolphins that have been hanging around the north east coast since late March. I presented the options to Liz and Mark and they didn’t hesitate to decide on a wild dolphin chase Alan was sending texts to keep me up-to-date with the location of the pod, so the latest information I had as we reached southeast Northumberland was that they’d headed south. A day earlier I’d tracked them down the coast at the same time of day, so I thought they may well have repeated their movements. It isn’t always that simple though, so I headed for a viewpoint that would give us the widest possible spread of coastline in view. That strategy proved the best one as, away to the north, but further offshore than they’d been earlier in the morning, we could see a dark dorsal fin breaking the surface close behind a small fishing boat Having located the pod distantly, we headed for a much closer viewpoint, and enjoyed prolonged views of ~16 Bottlenose Dolphins as they surfaced, breached, and charged through what was presumably a large shoal of Mackerel. As the pod headed north, it was time for us to do the same so that I could get the day back on track.
Lunch was followed by a trip to Inner Farne in a stiff cold breeze. The cliffs were echoing with the onomatopaeic calls of Kittiwake, Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills were coming off the clifftops like guided missiles as they headed out to fish, Gannets soared effortlessly by on the breeze, Fulmars arced around the cliff faces on stiff wings, Grey Seals were hauled out, soaking up the rays, and Cormorant and Shag seemed to be causing confusion amongst some passengers on the boat. As we waited to land at the Inner Farne jetty, a call stood out from the general background mayhem of a seabird breeding colony; ‘choo-it, choo-it’, so distinctive, and a ghostly pale Roseate Tern flew just above our heads before landing with the Arctic, Sandwich and Common Terns roosting near the jetty. On the island we ducked to avoid the attention of some rather agitated Arctic Terns, and concentrated on Liz’s aim for the afternoon – getting a good photograph of a Puffin There were plenty of obliging models to choose from, and we watched as birds returning to their burrows with beaks filled with sandeel were mobbed by Black-headed Gulls. After the chaos of the island, we finished the afternoon relaxing in the dunes at Bamburgh, eating carrot cake as Meadow Pipits and Skylarks sang and displayed in the sky around us
Seeing a familiar location, in unfamiliar conditions, can be like visiting somewhere for the first time. Over the years nearly all of our trips to the Farne Islands have been in glorious weather. I could never be blase about the islands, but sometimes I hope for a new experience…
I arrived at Seahouses Harbour just after 11:30 to meet up with Melanie and Gustavo. Melanie is a journalist from Germany, currently writing a piece about Northumberland, and I’d been asked to be her guide to the Northumberland coast (Farne Islands, Bamburgh Castle, Holy Island). We hit a snag straight away – they’d been delayed in Alnwick and didn’t arrive in Seahouses in time for our sailing around the islands! A quick change of our booking, and a drive to Bamburgh for the quickest tour of the castle imaginable (thanks to Chris and his staff) and we were back in Seahouses for the 13:30 sailing. The earlier sailing had gone out in fine weather, but this one was cold, densely overcast and drizzly; very, very drizzly. The sea was mirror calm all around the islands, disturbed only by the patter of raindrops, revealing huge rafts of Puffins, Guillemots andRazorbills. Kittiwakes shrieked from the cliff faces, Fulmars glided effortlessly overhead and Grey Seals watched warily as we passed by. Common, Arctic andSandwich Terns were fishing, Shags and Cormorants were standing, sentinel like, on the rocks and Gannets passed by on their way to and from distant feeding grounds.
It really did feel like a completely different experience to usual, and Holy Island in the rain, although it’s a very special place too, was going to struggle to match that strange other-worldliness of a seabird colony in the gloom