In glorious sunshine I arrived in Longframlington to collect Lisa and Lucy ahead of a day searching for Otters, Red Squirrels and Kingfishers around Druridge Bay and the Northumberland coast. I was greeted by Ridley, Lisa’s cockerpoo, and it was quickly decided that he would be joining us on the trip 🙂
Our first Otter site had an obvious area of water that the Mallard, Teal, Gadwall, Tufted Duck and Little Grebe were all avoiding, and Greylag Geese left in a bit of a hurry, but no sign of the sinuous predator we were searching for. A change to our usual picnic spot brought a brief glimpse of a female Merlin as she chased Lapwing and Wigeon, and then a Bittern flew between reedbeds. Red Squirrels were next on our planned route for the day and I had 20mins dog-sitting while Lisa and Lucy checked the edge of the trees that I suggested. Sure enough, they returned with photographs of Red Squirrel and we were on our way to the next Otter site 🙂 Through binoculars I could see dark shapes twisting and turning at the water’s surface and, with the additional magnification of our telescope, those shapes resolved into two Otter cubs in a play-fight 🙂 We went along to where they were, but by that time they were out of the water and running around on boulders and through the dense undergrowth before quickly vanishing.
We headed to our final Otter site to finish the day, and the weather was starting to deteriorate. As the breeze whistled in our ears, the temperature dropped so our breath was condensing into lingering clouds, a cold damp mist took hold over the water and Red-breasted Merganser and Goldeneye were displaying, Starling arrived to roost, foregoing the elegant ballet of the murmuration in favour of quickly finding shelter, the eerie cries of Curlew echoed across the pool and Lapwing formed a tight panicked flock as a Sparrowhawk flew low over the reeds, a Bittern flew by in the gloom and Little Grebe scattered as an Otter swam across in front of us, tucked in to the reed edge and sheltered from the breeze 🙂
Thursday was a trip I’d been looking forward to for several months…Sue’s 5th trip with NEWT was a day searching for and identifying wading birds. Some, like the Curlew with it’s eerie cry and long downcurved beak are straightforward, but others can be a bit trickier…
A field full of Oystercatcher and Lapwing close to the coast started the trip, and 30+ Whooper Swan in the same fields were a nice find. Down on to the Aln Estuary anad more Oystercatcher and Lapwing, along with Redshank, Curlew and a lone Woodcock which dived into cover after a presumably challenging journey across the North Sea. Vast flocks of Woodpigeon, Jackdaw, Rook and Pink-footed Goose darkened the sky close to the horizon and we headed up the coast. Smaller waders were soon in our sights, with Dunlin alongside Sanderling and Ringed Plover while Turnstone were busy turning stones, kelp and anything else that they thought might conceal something to eat and the plaintive calls of Grey Plover carried across the beach on the strengthening breeze. Along the shoreline Redshank were probing the mud alongside Bar-tailed Godwit and a lone Pink-footed Goose flew northwards, calling constantly. A stream of Blackbirds heading westwards marked an obvious arrival of migrants and a second Woodcock flew ‘in-off’ as we had lunch. Knot alongside Dunlin allowed a nice comparison of two species that can be tricky at a distance and vast flocks of Golden Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit resembled Starling murmurations as they wheeled and turned distantly between Holy Island and the mainland. Just offshore from the mud where the waders were feasting Common Eider and Red-throated Diver were riding the swell, a Great Northern Diver flew north, flotillas of Shag were diving, flocks of Wigeon, Teal and Pale-bellied Brent Goose were disturbed by the rising tide and, as light levels began dropping, Sue spotted two Little Egrets as they left the mud and headed towards a nighttime roost.
Before the end of the day, Sue had already booked her next trip with us – Kielder next March. There’ll be fewer waders, and less mud 🙂
As I arrived at Church Point to collect Tom and Sue, the weather was slightly breezy but dry. The forecast suggested that it might be showery later during the afternoon and promised a bit of a contrast with Tom and Sue’s home country of Australia. Tom’s a Northumbrian so I was really looking forward to showing him parts of the coast that he wasn’t familiar with, hopefully with the weather showcasing Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland at its best…
Cormorants air-dried their wings in the stiffening breeze and a Coot took umbrage at a Moorhen that was doing nothing more sinister than just wandering along the water’s edge, Woodpigeons, Jackdaws, Greylag Geese and Canada Geese speckled the dark grey sky. A typically nervous Great Spotted Woodpecker watched us warily from behind a tree trunk, Tree Sparrows were chipping in the hedgerows, a Magpie was going back and forth presumably from it’s nest, Robins flicked across paths just ahead of us, Curlew, Redshank and Oystercatcher probed in the mud in conditions that were starting to resemble the winter and a Little Egret was a shockingly bright bundle of white feathers in an ever darkening vista of Northumberland’s coastal wildlife as Avocets, delicate visions in black and white, swept their heads from side to side through shallow water in seach of food.
Great Crested Grebes comported themselves with their usual elegance as more Cormorants stood hunched in the wind and then, as Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler must have been wondering if they were in the right place at the right time of year, the heavens unleashed hail, sleet and snow from an apocalyptic sky and a Water Rail scurried mouse-like between reedbeds as two Otter cubs appeared just beyond the grebes 🙂 Their first appearance was fleeting, just a few seconds before they vanished from sight behind a reedbed. Then they were back, and porpoising side by side, back and forth, before once again heading into the shelter of the reeds.
As Fulmars soared along the clifftops and Gannets rode the uplift just above the waves offshore, we ended the day with the clouds overhead breaking to reveal blue sky and sunshine in a remarkable area of glorious weather that was surrounded in every direction by leaden grey clouds and storms. Atmospheric wildlife watching…
October, mist, drizzle, winds off the sea…
I collected Bernard from Newbiggin and we headed north to begin a day birdwatching around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland. A very obliging Dipper was singing from a mid-stream rock, before it started feeding. If you’ve never seen a Dipper feeding, put it on your list of things that you really need to see! As Common Redshank and Curlew probed in gooey estuarine mud, we could see a wave of panic spreading towards us from the north. First, the air was filled with Greylag and Pink-footed Geese, Woodpigeon, Rook, Carrion Crow and Jackdaw. Then Wigeon, Mallard, Canada Geese and Curlew took flight and 20 Black-tailed Godwit passed overhead. A few minutes later the cause of all the consternation put in an appearance – a female Sparrowhawk, menacing and muscular as she followed the coast southwards. Then a sight, and sound, that always warms my heart as 20 Redwing and 6 Fieldfare, winter visitors from Scandinavia, flew over. More waders and wildfowl featured during the afternoon; Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Gadwall, Little Grebe, Common Snipe, Dunlin, Lapwing and Golden Plover resplendent in low autumn sunlight. A Water Rail wandered out of the reeds and our final new bird for the day was an elegant female Pintail, as the calls of Redwing and Fieldfare continued to cut through the afternoon air.
Last Thursday was Sue’s second Otter Safari with us this year, after an unsuccessful search in early July…a trip that was followed by five consecutive successful Otter Safaris for other clients! I was really looking forward to this trip – Sue is great company and pleasure to be out birdwatching with – but the added pressure of already having one Otter Safari not produce our target species had me planning, re-planning and then planning some more…
I’d got two sites lined up that I was confident would produce Otter sightings, but the one spanner in the works was the weather forecast. If it was accurate (and, as it turned out, it was) we’d got three hours of good weather, and four of poor, ahead of us. As I drove to Church Point, I was mulling over the options for the two sites, and decided to go with the one that’s been our most reliable this year during the good weather, and then head to the other one towards dusk. Then I thought about it again – would the reliable site, where I can usually predict to within a few metres where the Otter will first put in an appearance, be better in the poor weather just before dark? I decided to trust to my first instinct and we were soon watching over the water as the wind strengthened and the first drops of rain were carried towards us on the breeze. As Goldeneye and Cormorant dived in the ruffled water I noticed a dark shape in the corner of my field of vision. It might have been nothing, but I held my concentration on that spot and just over a minute later an Otter cub surfaced in front of us 🙂 Twisting, turning, porpoising, diving and feeding, it kept us entertained for 90 minutes before slipping out of sight as the next wave of raindrops stung our faces on the now howling wind.
We retreated to the car and sat eating lunch overlooking the North Sea, as a distant speck heading towards us over the waves revealed itself to be a Blackbird that paused for a few minutes on the cliff face before continuing its migration inland. Then a Wheatear came ‘in-off’, and soon after that three Redwings arrived, following what must have been an arduous sea crossing, as the rain intensified. As dusk approached, and the rain somehow became even heavier, we watched flocks of Teal and Wigeon, Common Snipe and Dunlin probing in soft mud, Curlew appearing as if from out of nowhere, Starlings and Jackdaws heading to roost, and Blackbirds, Robins, Fieldfare and more Blackbirds, and more Blackbirds 🙂
After our Holy Island trip I had 2 days of Outdoor First Aid training, to renew my OFA certificate for another 3 years. The course was delivered by Dave Jones at Inspirational Training and was a lot of fun – even the outdoor casualty scenarios on the second day in a brutally cold, howling easterly wind! A very pleasant surprise was finding myself on the same training course as one of my former pupils, Tom Hopper.
What came next was something of a departure from my routine work, as I guided a TV research team along Hadrian’s Wall for five days. After visiting numerous archaeological sites, museums, cafes, castles and pubs during the week there was one highlight that stood out above all others; The team were looking around the Housesteads Roman Fort while I sat in the car, re-arranging our activities for the following day. I was just starting to think that they’d been gone for quite a while when my mobile started ringing; “Martin, it’s Nic. We’re walking to Steel Rigg.” I drove to Steel Rigg, made sure I was well wrapped up and started walking towards Housesteads to meet up with them on the path above Sycamore Gap. With several inches of snow beside the path, a bitingly-cold easterly wind and frequent snow showers, it was a glorious afternoon to be walking along the Roman Wall with outstanding views over the North Pennines, Jackdaws tossed in the wind like black leaves, Curlews wandering aimlessly on snow-covered meadows and faint snatches of Meadow Pipit song carried on the breeze. whatever the weather, Northumberland’s still outstanding 🙂
Last weekend was the Big Garden Birdwatch and we followed tradition by sitting in our kitchen with a mug of coffee, and a bacon and tomato sandwich, having topped up all of the feeders the evening before. An hour later, we’d racked up a list of 21 species; Blackbird 3, Jackdaw 2, Collared Dove 2, Robin 3, Chaffinch 20, Great Tit 3, Coal Tit 3, Magpie 1, Blue Tit 2, Dunnock 1, Goldfinch 8, Jay 1, Bullfinch 1, House Sparrow 1, Greenfinch 1, Woodpigeon 2, Redwing 1, Tree Sparrow 1, Song Thrush 1, Sparrowhawk 1, Brambling 2. Quite a successful hour, although most species weren’t present in the numbers we would have expected and, as usual, several species that had been visiting the garden in recent days (Marsh Tit, Willow Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Siskin, Great Spotted Woodpecker) failed to appear during the 1 hour of the survey. Easy birding, and part of a huge national survey. If you didn’t do it this year, give it a go in 2014 🙂
As the air cools, a pall of pale ghostly mist hangs just above the ground in a wildflower meadow dropping away ahead of me. I’m on a woodland edge, standing on a soft cushion of fallen larch and pine needles. Standing still and blending in, the mist wraps me in its cooling blanket as a flock of Goldcrests move through the trees just behind my vantage point. Overhead Redwings, Rooks and Jackdaws head to roost as a Carrion Crow caws defiantly from the top of a tall larch and Wood Pigeons flutter up and down at tree-top height. The incessant screeching of Jays and chatter of Blackbirds betrays the presence of a Tawny Owl; stirring in preparation for its nocturnal foray, it soon tires of the harassment and heads deeper into the wood. A Woodcock appears at the same point where I emerged from the trees just a few minutes ago, having followed my route alongside the gurgling stream. Away over the fields I can see a Barn Owl, hunting close to the site where it raised this year’s young hoolets, and Roe Deer nervously make their way out into the open. As the light fades and I head for home, it’s hard to believe that I’m on the edge of the most densely populated area of Northumberland and walking through a mixed woodland where there were once three coal mines, including one of the first deep-shaft mines anywhere in the world. For now though, it’s just me and the wildlife…
Our 3rd Druridge Bay/southeast Northumberland trip in 5 days began with an old friend as our regular Little Owl sat sleepily in the sunshine, only opening an eye to check who we were before nodding off again. Further north, we watched a flock of 59 Pink-footed Geese as they headed south high overhead. 3 Grey Herons flew south past us, then north over Warkworth before heading south again. Incredibly. later in the afternoon, the same 3 herons flew south overhead at East Chevington, followed soon after by another 4, and we found another 3 sitting in a recently mown field near Hauxley. East Chevington also produced a good flock of Lapwing, with several Ruff scattered amongst them, and Cresswell held a flock of Dunlin with a Little Stint.
As sunset approached we settled to the waiting game of quiet observation by a small pool. Tawny Owls called nearby, a Buzzard was perched obligingly in the open, a Sparrowhawk was hedge-hopping to see what it could scare up for dinner, Jackdaws and Rooks were gathering noisily before going to roost and there was a notable level of panic and a high level of alertness in the assembled ducks. The cause of the panic didn’t show itself though, and we walked back to the car with Common Pipistrelles flying just above our heads before I returned Tamasin and Daniel to Newbiggin.
I’ve been a general naturalist since an early age, but birdwatching has been the thing that has always gripped my imagination. As a wildlife guide though, is that really enough? That’s a question that seems to arise occasionally on internet forums. I decided at an early stage of NEWT that I needed a much broader and deeper knowledge, so I spend a lot of time studying things that once upon a time (I’m ashamed to admit) I would have ignored, or even not noticed. Every day that I spend with clients, I make an effort to learn from them, whilst imparting my own knowledge, skills and understanding of what we encounter.
On Thursday I led an afternoon of guided birdwatching around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland. The blazing sunshine when I collected Karen from Newbiggin made it almost impossible to see anything in the bay but, as each small gull flew by, we checked for the identification features that would provide us with a Mediterranean Gull. All proved to be Black-headed Gulls, and we headed north up the coast. As we stood by the River Coquet, discussing how to separate Carrion Crow, Rook and Jackdaw in flight, I saw the tell-tale ghostly wings of a Med Gull as it drifted down towards the water’s edge. Jet black hood, pristine white wingtips and, as perfect as if it was scripted, sitting next to an adult Black-headed Gull allowing easy comparison. Some of our favourite birds followed; Marsh Harrier, Nuthatch, Heron and at least 17 Whimbrel. During the afternoon I learned a feature of Wood Sorrel that will ensure I never misidentify it (again…). Karen, you were right 🙂
Friday was something very different as we were headed inland to the Cheviots for a day searching for summer visitors. After a few hours with a spectacular roll-call of the wildlife of the valleys, including Brown Hare, Roe Deer, Whinchat, Tree Pipit, Wheatear, Spotted Flycatcher, Red Grouse, Curlew and Lapwings (with chicks), we followed the track up a steep sided valley in search of a bird that Sue hadn’t seen before (and really wanted to). As the sky darkened, the wind strengthened and chilled, and the first drops of icy rain began to fall, I spotted 2 distant birds flying down the valley. I didn’t have any doubt about the identification so, when they eventually settled on the tops of the heather, I aimed the ‘scope in their direction and Sue enjoyed her first views of the ‘Mountain Blackbird’. Ring Ouzels may often be seen on passage in the spring and autumn, but high in a remote valley, where you think the elements could give you a good working over at any time and the habitat supports so few species, is simply the right place to see them. Another lesson learned; memorable sightings make you forget about the weather 🙂