Tag: Hen Harrier

Moorland magic; Bespoke birdwatching 16/06/2014

by on Jun.18, 2014, under Cheviot Valleys, Hen Harrier, Kielder, Northumberland

Heading up the coast to Embleton to collect Pete and Janet for their fourth day out with NEWT (plus a couple of days with their local natural history society on a Northumberland  visit in 2009), I had a mixture of anticipation and trepidation.  It’s always a pleasure to have them on a tour, but this time we were heading to an area that I know quite well myself, but haven’t covered in any great depth with clients…

We headed inland, skirting the edge of the Cheviot massif, passing through Kielder and across into the Scottish borders in ever-improving weather 🙂  Common Buzzards were soaring against the blue sky, Skylarks were singing as they ascended heavenwards, Meadow Pipits parachuted down at the end of their display flights, Red Grouse popped their heads up above the heather, Grey Wagtails were flitting from rock to rock in the shallow streams, Whinchat were carrying food back to their nests, recently fledged Wheatears scolded us as we disturbed their afternoon nap, Wild Goats grazed steadily on the hillsides high above the valley bottom and then, in the warmth of the mid-afternoon, came one of those moments you dream of (well, I do – other naturalists may have other dreams!)…

Floating across the hillside on agile wings, passing over a Cuckoo perched on a small sapling, carrying food back to his mate and their hungry brood, the male Hen Harrier drifted by before depositing the prey at the nest.  He quickly found more food for himself and settled on a prominent rock in the heather.  As we watched him through the ‘scope, a familiar chattering call rattled down the fell.  Something had disturbed the female harrier, and she had left the nest and was soaring above it.  Then, the likely source of her displeasure appeared.  Racing on swept back wings, a Merlin flew straight at the harrier.  She twisted and turned to avoid the assault by the smallest of our falcons, and flew towards the ground.  The Merlin wasn’t going to give up though, and the dogfight continued; the otherwise elegant harrier looking cumbersome as the annoying gadfly buzzed around her.  Eventually the smaller bird broke off and settled in a nearby tree, as the male harrier left his perch and soared high over our heads against the blue sky.  When I look back in years to come, this really will be an experience that’s fixed firmly in my memory 🙂

 

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Kettling; Kielder Safari 23/04/2014

by on Apr.25, 2014, under Birdwatching, Kielder, Northumberland

The alarm went off at 06:00 on Wednesday, and my heart sank as I looked out of the window…heavy mist, not ideal for any of our tours, but particularly not good for a day in Kielder.  I drove to Kingston Park to collect Steph and we headed west in much more promising conditions; low cloud in some valleys, but some sunshine too.  We collected Paul and Trish from Wark, and then Ivan from Tower Knowe and headed into the forest.  It was a bit cool and misty for any raptors to be up and about, but two Common Crossbill flew by and the air around us was filled with the descending silvery cadence of Willow Warblers as Woodpigeons, Stock Doves and Carrion Crows caused a brief quickening of the heart rate as they flew between plantations.

A walk to the Bakethin reserve produced lots of Siskin, and Goldeneye, Tufted Duck, Teal, Oystercatcher, Cormorant and Common Sandpiper were around the water’s edge.  As we got back to the car park, which provided good views of Treecreepers, Paul spotted a raptor high overhead, and binoculars resolved it into the impressive shape of an Osprey.

Over the border into Scotland we were soon encountering Common Buzzards, lots of them, and a remarkable number of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits.  We reached our picnic spot and, as soup, sandwiches and carrot cake were consumed, raptors began to appear above the skyline.  First Common Buzzards, then a female Hen Harrier, followed soon after by a skydancing grey male 🙂  Then more Common Buzzards, and more Common Buzzards At one point we had between four and six birds behind us, while higher up the valley at least ten were kettling in one thermal along with a Peregrine 🙂  Absolute heaven for any birdwatcher who enjoys raptors…and who doesn’t?  Along the stream Reed Buntings were pretending to be Dippers, but we did eventually find the genuine article, which obligingly bobbed up and down on a rock before diving into the fast flowing water, and Wheatears were perched on old stone walls.  On the hillsides high above the valley bottom, Wild Goats were grazing as we enjoyed close views of Common Buzzards both perched and flying, and Red Grouse were found as we crossed the moors back towards England.

We finished the trip with an uncountable number of Chaffinches and a real Northumberland speciality as a Red Squirrel ran around on the ground before deciding to hang upside down on a peanut cage, and it was time to reverse the route and drop everyone off.

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More five star birdwatching; Northumberland coast 24/02/14

by on Feb.25, 2014, under Birdwatching, Northumberland, Northumberland Coast

Yesterday continued to lay to rest the myth that February is a quiet month…

Starting in the north of the county, overlooking the iconic landscape of Holy Island, brought the expected waders and wildfowl, and three lifers for Paul and Katie, who were back for another day out with us, following a trip in 2009; Common Scoter, Long-tailed Duck and Twite. A Peregrine muscled its way menacingly through the air above a flock of Dunlin, Grey Seals were ‘bottling’ at high tide and Bar-tailed Godwits, Redshank and Curlew were probing the soft exposed mud as the tide began to drop.  Eider, Shelduck, Red-throated Divers, Wigeon and Teal were all at or near the water’s edge and the songs of Skylark and Yellowhammer reverberated in the warm sunshine.  Perhaps the highlight of the morning was a bird that is always breathtaking; sailing elegantly into the stiff breeze, a male Hen Harrier was tracking along a hedgerow heading inland 🙂

The afternoon brought Paul and Katie’s fourth lifer of the day, a Red-necked Grebe, with Little, Great Crested and Slavonian Grebes all close by for comparison.  Two Avocets were rather unseasonal, a pair of Pintail exuded elegance, drake Goldeneye looked very smart in their contrasty breeding plumage, Red-breasted Mergansers looked quite, well, comical as they always do and two Brown Hares were sitting motionless in a nearby field.  With 30 minutes until sunset a small flock of Starlings flying in from the north led to me suggesting that we go and see where they’d gone, and to check if there was going to a significant murmuration…

What followed was, quite simply, one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever witnessed.  Initially the Starlings were about a mile south of where I expected them to roost, and there were a lot of them.  Soon two other large flocks merged with them and they moved slowly north, eventually passing directly overhead with the sound of wingbeats like a gentle breeze rustling through a forest.  The murmuration drifted away to the south again, then back north.  Almost an hour had passed when the activity levels within the flock were ramped up.  Twisting and turning with more urgency, the density of birds in different parts of our view coalesced to form writhing shapes from the previously uniform oval.  With light levels fading, the birds vanished from sight, only to betray their presence in a series of shapes that resembled a slug, then a snail, then a car.  We soon lost them in the gloom again, only for the finale to the evenings proceedings to take us all by surprise as the flock compacted over the reedbed where they were going to roost, forming a dense arrowhead as they funneled into the reeds.  With the first birds down in the reedbed, the rest of the flock wheeled slightly higher, then repeated the maneuver, a second arrowhead driving into the reeds.  A third, then a fourth, cohort entered the roost and all was quiet.  Fade to black…

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Beyond belief

by on May.30, 2012, under Birdwatching, Hen Harrier, North Pennines, Northumberland

Earlier this year I blogged about a North Pennines trip on which we found a pair of Hen Harriers, a species that is very close to the hearts of both owners of NEWT as we spent a lot of time monitoring a nest site in North Tynedale from 2006-2008 (and since then, even though there hasn’t been a subsequent successful nesting attempt at the site).  During the three years where we had successful nesting attempts, that one site and the surrounding area had an adult female shot, an incubating adult female ‘abandoned’ a nest overnight, a nest was robbed, unleashed dogs were allowed to run straight through a nest site, a number of empty nests were located.  And that’s just the persecution/disturbance that we know about.

The sighting in the North Pennines was astonishing, as the area where the birds were is a heartland of illegal raptor persecution.  First the female, and then the ghostly, sublimely beautiful, male dropped down into the heather close to a small burn.  After a brief discussion with our clients on the day, a ‘phone call was made to alert a local raptor worker, with vast experience of monitoring harrier nests.  He was astonished too, and couldn’t remember how long it was since a potential breeding pair had been recorded in that area.  24hrs later there was no sign of either bird at the site, and the breeding attempt had presumably gone the same way as so many others.  Now we’re in a position where there is only one nesting pair in England, and the main contributory factor in that is illegal persecution.

Yet, with illegal persecution still rife and affecting many birds of prey, DEFRA commissioned, and has now thankfully scrapped, a study into the effect of Common Buzzard predation on Common Pheasant populations.  Methods proposed included destroying nests and capturing Common Buzzards and taking them into captivity for falconry.  That’s right, £375,000 of taxpayer’s money was going to be spent deliberately suppressing the population of a native species, that is still recovering after centuries of persecution, in order to protect a non-native, artificially reared and introduced gamebird.  You couldn’t make it up, it’s so far-fetched and ridiculous.  This would have just been the thin end of a very big wedge though.  Sparrowhawks next? then Peregrines and all of our rarer raptors?

What’s really needed is the full force of the law to be brought to bear on those individuals, and estates, that persist in the barbaric, outdated, illegal practice of raptor persecution.  Perhaps DEFRA could fund a study into what happens if raptor populations are left unhindered?

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Nothing to grouse about

by on Mar.29, 2012, under Birdwatching, North Pennines, Northumberland

On a beautiful spring day, with raptors soaring against an azure sky, and birdsong carrying on the breeze, just being in the landscape is an experience.

As I collected Peter and Margaret from Barnard Castle for a day of birdwatching around the North Pennines AONB, the temperature gauge on the car hit 18C, and we set off in search of one species in particular.  Our lunch stop, overlooking a Black Grouse lek site, was accompanied by Curlew, Common Snipe, Meadow Pipit and Golden Plover all singing.  As we went deeper into the hills, a Black Grouse stared at us imperiously from a rushy field.  As we enjoyed very close views of the handsome bird, two cyclists came along the road and he flushed…along with another 3 Blackcock.  As Margaret kept a close eye on the birds as they landed and began making their way uphill, Curlew and Golden Plover  landed nearby and began calling.  Then Margaret found another 3 Blackcock, flying by and landing much closer, and watched them before asking “you saw where they landed, can you see them now?”.  I couldn’t but, having watched exactly what they did, Margaret described where they were, and what they were doing.  Incredibly, they were only a few metres from where they’d landed, but had managed to position themselves amongst the rushes and stopped moving so that, unless you happened to be watching them when they did that, you couldn’t see where they were.

As the day continued and we headed across into Upper Teesdale, we found some very close Black Grouse, Common Snipe drumming overhead, Wheatears flitting along dry stone walls, Red Grouse cackling in the heather, a Short-eared Owl quartering grassland in stunning late-afternoon light and 2 Hen Harriers.  That last sighting was exciting, and yet sobering at the same time; it’s been a long time since they bred successfully in that vast area of prime habitat.

Fittingly, our last sighting of the day was of 2 more Black Grouse, picking their way through sun-dappled woodland in the early evening.

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Hopes for 2012

by on Dec.31, 2011, under Birdwatching, Family and friends, Northumberland

In no particular order of priority, here a few things we’d love to see happening in 2012;

1) An increase in the English breeding population of Hen Harriers.  One of the most contentious wildlife issues we have – but perhaps 2012 will see, at least, the beginning of the abandonment of entrenched attitudes and finally some positive news for the ‘grey males and ringtails’.

2) The stunning cetaceans that spend time in our offshore waters being able to go about their business without suffereing unnecessary disturbance.  There are some excellent codes of conduct for cetacean watching and NEWT use these to inform and plan our offshore activities, and to advise the skippers and boat owners who we work with.  Martin will continue to raise issues of cetacean disturbance at meetings of the PAW Marine Wildlife Enforcement Working Group, but hopes that won’t be too often.

3) The continued excellent promotion of Northumberland as a holiday destination.  Our county really is beautiful and you can ‘get away from it all’ without having to try too hard.  Whatever your interests – birdwatching, wildlife, photography, history and culture are just a few examples where the county excels – you’ll find something that will make you come back again and again.

4) The recognition by the Government that all 127 recommended Marine Conservation Zones (rMCZ’s) need to be designated in order to achieve a coherent ecological network that will protect our seas for everyone and for the future.

5) Health, wealth and happiness for our family, friends and clients 🙂

Happy New Year everyone 🙂

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Northern England Raptor Conference 2012

by on Nov.21, 2011, under Birdwatching

Yesterday was the annual conference of the Northern England Raptor Forum; this year organised by the Durham Bird Club and the Durham Upland Bird Study Group.  As we drove south, the lovely late-autumn sunshine at home was replaced by cold, gloomy fog to the south of the Tyne, and we arrived at the Gala Theatre in Durham ready for the conference.

Birdwatching in our uplands is something that we really enjoy, and the raptor conference is always an opportunity to get inspiration for our field studies, consider new ideas and techniques, and do the odd bit of networking 😉

There was a good line-up of presenters this year, covering a wide range of topics, probably the best set of talks at any of the raptor conferences we’ve attended since 2006; ‘Changing raptor populations and the role of the RBBP’,  ‘Eagle research and conservation around the world’, ‘The national Hen Harrier Winter Roost Survey’, ‘The implications of climate change for the uplands’, ‘The work of the Northern England Raptor Forum’, ‘Monitoring raptor populations with the nest record scheme’, ‘The challenges of monitoring Short-eared Owls’ and, the concluding presentation of the conference, ‘Skydancer, a new start for Hen Harriers in Cumbria and Northumberland’.

The final talk was always likely to prove the most contentious.  We’ve been involved in Hen Harrier conservation for a few years now, and know the extraordinary issues involved with trying to conserve the species as a breeding bird in England.  During the North Tynedale nest  monitoring between 2006-2008 there were lots of discussions about community engagement and how important that would be to Hen Harrier conservation, and it’s great to see a project that is going to tackle that part of the issue.  It won’t be the whole answer to the problem, but it’s a part of it and we hope that the purposeful birdwatchers of the Northern England uplands will be optimistic and support the project in any way they can.  We wish Amanda, Blanaid and all of the team involved in ‘Skydancer’ every success with the project 🙂

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Bittern by the birdwatching bug

by on Oct.28, 2011, under Birdwatching, Druridge Bay, Northumberland, Southeast Northumberland

Clients often comment that what really appeals to them about birdwatching is that every day is different and there’s always something new to learn. I couldn’t agree more; I have lots of days out with clients, and a lot of time in the field on ‘non-client’ days, and still feel enthusiastic every morning when I wake up, knowing that I don’t know what the day will bring.

Thursday was Peter and Alison’s second day out with us, and this time we were birdwatching around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland.

The weather forecast had shown the edge of the rain staying south of Newcastle all day, so that should have been alright…

As it turned out, we had rain for a good chunk of the day, but the birdwatching was still excellent.  From Black-headed Gulls, and a lesson on moult and ageing, Mediterranean Gulls scavenging in the Church Point car park, 4 Short-eared Owls and a Hen Harrier quartering the ash lagoon bank, a Sparrowhawk hunting as a group of Starlings came swirling in to roost, a tiny Goldcrest flitting about in a windswept Willow, a skittish Water Rail apparently struggling to summon the courage to run across the gap between reedbeds, a thousand Pink-footed Geese flying in at dusk, 300 Barnacle Geese taking to the air together, all the way to the finale of the trip as a Bittern flew between the north and south pools at East Chevington as dark descended, it was another day of outstanding experiences.

And tomorrow…is another day 🙂

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Border patrol

by on May.19, 2011, under Birdwatching, Kielder, Northumberland

After a day on the coast, yesterday brought something completely different as I headed towards Whitelee Farm and Byrness to collect John and Natalie, and then Bert, for a Kielder Safari.

As we drove along a remote track through the forest, we came across some of the wildlife that makes Kielder such a special place; Roe Deer trotted across the track ahead of us, family parties of Common Crossbills were adorning the tops of spuce trees like christmas decorations, a Red Squirrel eyeballed us from halfway up a tree, a Common Buzzard tolerated a closer approach than usual, but not for long,  and a pair of Wheatears watched as we passed by.

North of the border we were entertained by several pairs of Whinchat (surely one of the most attractive birds we have in Britain), including a male who started singing from his perch just a few metres away, a Dipper that was whizzing up and down the stream where we sat to have our lunch, a Red Grouse playing hide-and-seek with us in the heather and the elegant beauty of a male Hen Harrier, still retaining his grace as he battled into the howling gale that made our hot soup at lunchtime all the better.

Whether it’s the remoteness, the landscape, the species that you rarely, if ever, find elsewhere or just the lack of other people; our inland locations – Kielder, the Cheviot Valleys and the North Pennines always produce memorable birdwatching experiences, for our clients and for ourselves as well!

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Crossing the border

by on Apr.29, 2011, under Birdwatching, Kielder, Northumberland

Along the edge of a precipitous bank in Kielder Forest, with a narrow stream below us, the “chip, chip” calls from the summit of the trees above prompt everyone to crane their necks.  Then the calls are coming from below and the source of the sound is down at the stream, hidden below an undercut bank.  A moment of magic as the birds pause at eye-level on the stream to treetop elevator; just a few feet away, illuminated in a spot of dappled light, the outrageously bright slash of red and black of a male Common Crossbill with his family.

2 hours later we’re in a secluded valley and, as we enjoy our lunch, overhead is the unmistakeable shape of a male Hen Harrier.  The ‘dove-coloured falcon’ or ‘blue hawk’ (to list just two of it’s local names) soars above us.  Surely the most beautiful and captivating of our raptors and still heavily, and illegally, persecuted, we’re privileged to witness that beauty and his effortless ascent against the clear blue sky.

One day, 2 different habitats, 2 very different birds, 2 birdwatching gems, 2 indelible memories….

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