On Saturday I was in the Kielder area with Sarah, collecting our new mountain bikes from Ian at The Bike Place. The weather was glorious; blue skies, sunshine – everything you would want on a day there with clients.
Skip forward to Sunday morning…
I collected Jon and Alison, Jill and Steve & Laura and Nicola from Hexham and we headed north towards the Border Forests. The weather was somewhat different; overcast, not even a slight breeze and the air was damp and bitterly cold. In those conditions the forest is an ethereal place, remote, other-worldly and an experience in itself. Mistle Thrushes and Chaffinches seemed to be everywhere that we looked, Common Buzzards were sitting hunched on tree-tops and telegraph poles, Roe Deer crossed the track ahead of us and the only Common Crossbills of the day were a group of four that flew by as we were trying to locate a very vocal Raven. Then, a very nice policeman stopped and showed us his Badger and Red Squirrel A Green Woodpecker yaffled from the wooded slopes below us and Goldcrests, Blue Tits, Great Tits and Robins could all be heard.
Heading towards the border a Dipper sat on a rock at the water’s edge, bobbing up and down before heading upstream in a whirr of wing beats. Red Grouse was found soon after heading up onto the moors around Newcastleton and the next addition to the trip list was probably the highlight of the day (apart from the Badger…). The next grouse was well hidden, with only it’s head visible but, as I stopped the car to let everyone have a good look at it, it raised itself from the heather and revealed it’s true identity; a stunning male Black Grouse, resplendent in the day’s only real attempt at sunshine. He wasn’t alone though, as two more Blackcock appeared from amongst the heather and eventually a total of five flew across the road and settled again.
After a picnic stop in one of my favourite places, we went in search of Wild Goats. It didn’t take too long to find one and, as is often the case, once you’ve found one you soon find more. This prompted the following exchange in the back of the car “That goat’s got a baby” “You’re kidding me”…
Heading back towards Northumberland a flock of Fieldfares were on telegraph wires and two Great Spotted Woodpeckers were perched at the top of a small tree by the road. A walk to the hide at Bakethin produced Goldeneye, Mallard, Tufted Duck and Pochard and one of Northumberland’s more exotic inhabitants rounded off the day as we watched at least five Mandarins, including three gaudy drakes and two subtly beautiful ducks in a tributary of the north Tyne.
The weather was an experience, we had some excellent wildlife to enjoy, and we hardly saw another person all day…but what really made the day for me was having six clients who all got on so well with each other, were really enthusiastic about birdwatching and wildlife and provided a steady level of entertainment throughout the day
Sunday was a Prestige Otter Safari for Chris and Sophie. It was Chris’ birthday and, as I collected them from Berwick in some pretty horrible conditions, I was hoping that we would drive south into better weather. Sure enough, we did pass out from under the rain clouds, but the day stayed quite gloomy and windy. I’d already had an excellent start to the day’s birdwatching, with a flock of 14 Waxwings flying alongside the road as I approached Berwick. I’m often asked what my favourite bird is, and usually reply that it’s impossible to have a favourite…but Waxwings have a special place at the top of my list
Down in southeast Northumberland we found an adult Mediterranean Gull, and Chris proved to be remarkably eagle-eyed – picking out a sleeping Jack Snipe in an area of cut reeds. On the water the usual suspects (Mallard, Teal, Wigeon, Tufted Duck, Shoveler, Gadwall) were joined by some less regular species; Scaup, Pintail and a pair of Long-tailed Ducks. Some surprising entertainment was provided by a Merlin which spent several minutes harassing a Magpie, and then there was a sudden movement of Goldeneye, Coot and Moorhen away from a reedbed. They stared intently at the reeds for a few minutes before drifting back towards the edge, then repeated the whole process twice more! There was something in the reeds that was causing concern, but it didn’t reveal itself (not an unusual occurrence in strong winds – and who could blame anything for staying sheltered?). We moved on to another pool…and had a repeat performance, this time with Pochard, Goldeneye, Teal, Tufted Duck and Whooper Swan being a bit on edge. Sometimes wildlife can be frustrating…
Given the low temperatures and high wind, it seemed a little over-optimistic to get the bat detector out. However, just to confirm that you can’t ever predict wildlife, we had at least two or three Common Pipistrelles, including some frenzied feeding activity around a streetlight, before heading back up the coast.
Friday was a trip that I’d been looking forward to for quite some time. Emily had been on the bird ID course that I ran as part of North Pennines WildWatch and had then booked herself and her dad, Steve, onto an Otter Safari.
I arrived at Church Point to collect them, and we set off up the coast. With bright sunshine and a northerly wind, I predicted that our regular Little Owl would be sunning itself on the edge of its nest hole. Sure enough, it was sitting in full view soaking up the rays Waders featured throughout the afternoon, as they have done for over a month now, with Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Common Redshank, Common Snipe, Lapwing and very close views of Dunlin and Ringed Plover. Wigeon, Teal, Shoveler, Gadwall, Tufted Duck, Pochard and Mallard were all paddling around, Little and Great Crested Grebes were, as always, much admired, restless flocks of Greylag and Pink-footed Geese swirled from field to pool and back again, and several skeins of Pink-footed Geese passed south high overhead, their presence betrayed by their high-pitched calls. A Grey Seal was loitering with intent in the Coquet Estuary, and a Grey Heron sat motionless by the water’s edge.
We ended the day by a moonlit river, under a starry sky. A Grey Heron stalked through the riverside vegetation, and a group of Mallards stared intently into the shadows of the overhanging trees on the opposite bank, then scattered soon after the wake from an, otherwise unseen, animal caught our attention. Darkness, and the chill night air, settled on the river as we made our way back to the car.
With a forecast for heavy rain today, we had one more client than expected yesterday for our Druridge Bay/southeast Northumberland tour.
I c0llected Annie from High Weldon, Brian from Bedlington and then David from Warkworth before our first stop at one of our favourite birdwatching spots beside the River Coquet. The first thing that was apparent was that there was a not inconsiderable wind-chill factor in play. Thankfully our local area has plenty of reserves with north-facing hides, so plotting a route that would keep us out of the wind wherever possible was quite straightforward.
It wasn’t a day for passerines, although Blue Tit and Goldcrest could be heard calling from deep inside coastal hedgerows, and we found ourselves in the middle of a big swirling flock of Starlings as we ate lunch overlooking the sea, so waders and wildfowl provided the main focus of the day. Bar-tailed Godwit, Ruff, Dunlin and some very nice flocks of Golden Plover, Curlew, Knot and Lapwing were feeding, roosting and, at Cresswell, taking to the air in a panic as a Peregrine exuded menace as it passed over. ‘Scope-filling views of Common Snipe always go down well, and there was an excellent array of wildfowl and waterbirds to enjoy; Gadwall, Mallard, Teal, Wigeon,Pochard, Goldeneye, Tufted Duck, Pintail, Little Grebe, Coot, Moorhen, and Pink-footed, Greylag and Barnacle Geese were all well appreciated, especially with a lot of the drake ducks out of eclipse plumage and looking quite stunning. especially when the sun broke through the clouds.
When the autumn really starts to feel autumnal, I’m always optimistic
Thursday afternoon found me leading an afternoon of birdwatching, and searching for Otters around our local area; Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland.
I collected Ruth and Margaret from the Swan at Choppington and we drove the short distance to Newbiggin to collect Mike and Maggie (for their second trip with us this week), Ben and Siobhan. A ghostly white Mediterranean Gull drifted by the car before we headed north. The River Coquet produced one of my own favourite wildlife experiences as we watched Salmon leaping, and Cormorants, Grey Herons and Goosanders fishing. Lapwings, Redshank, Curlew and a Greenshank all flew by and, after enjoying our lunch by the river, we headed down the bay. East Chevington produced lots of Knot, Dunlin, Ruff, Lapwing, Curlew, Golden Plover, Pintail, Goldeneye, Tufted Duck, Pochard, Gadwall, Mallard, Teal and Wigeon and our next stop was Cresswell. Along the hedge leading down to the hide there were at least 8 Goldcrests, and from the hide there was another nice wader roost. As well as the species we’d already seen at East Chevington there was a single Black-tailed Godwit, plenty of Turnstone and 2 Purple Sandpipers. As the sun began falling towards the horizon, we settled into position to search for Otters. Flocks of Pink-footed Geese filled the sky to the north and a Daubenton’s Bat moved back and forth over the water. All of the signs were there; ducks, Coots and Swans moving en masse from one spot to another, nervously moving back before reversing direction again and, successive groups of birds across the water exploding into the air in a state of panic. The only thing that didn’t happen, was the Otter coming out into view! Still, with a success rate of 75% on Otter Safaris since mid-April, we’re always optimistic whenever we go in search of them.
I collected Ian and Pauline from Rothbury for a Prestige Tour of Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland and headed towards the coast in what could only be described as a stiff breeze
Nuthatches, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tits and a Treecreeper were all watched as we sat amongst the trees and Pauline spotted our only Red Squirrel of the trip as it ran between patches of fern nearby.
Beside the River Coquet a Grey Heron sat impassively, Goosanders were sleeping along the riverbank and Curlew prodded around in the mud. The wader roost at East Chevington was a bit lacking in variety; lots of Lapwings, 20 Ruff, 30 Curlew and single Knot and Bar-tailed Godwit. An unfamiliar call heralded the arrival of 4 Snow Geese, accompanied by the 3 Bar-headed Geese that have been wandering around Druridge Bay this summer, and a juvenile Marsh Harrier was tossed around on the wind. A good selection of ducks was on offer; Mallard, Shoveler, Teal, Wigeon, Tufted Duck, Pochard, Gadwall and Pintail. Birdwatching can be tricky in strong wind, but there was plenty to see. As we drove towards Druridge Pools, I stopped the car so we could look at an unfamiliar shape flying from Cresswell towards Druridge. A (presumably) escaped Eagle Owl! Druridge produced another magical moment as well, with a juvenile Peregrine hunting Teal above the main pool.
As the final traces of daylight faded, a Tawny Owl serenaded us as the wind whipped around our ears.
Yesterday saw something we haven’t done before; a mid-August Kielder Safari.
Andrew, Nick (on his 3rd trip with NEWT), Stephen and Georgina all arrived at our starting point within minutes of each other. Under a deep blue sky, with some big fluffy white clouds, conditions looked perfect and we set off for the western reaches of Northumberland.
Common Buzzards were seen en route, a good sign that conditions were right for raptors. The thing that makes our Kielder Safaris so special is the access we’ve been granted by the Forestry Commission, allowing us to take our clients on a drive along remote tracks that are not open to vehicle access by the general public. With so little disturbance, the wildlife along the tracks is often very approachable. A family party of Common Crossbills perched obligingly in trees just ahead of us, and kept flying down to the track to eat grit, Siskins, Chaffinches and a Spotted Flycatcher were all watched as they went about their business close by and a Sparrowhawk twisted, turned and swooped through the trees just a few metres away, hot on the tail of a flock of Siskins and Chaffinches. Perhaps one of the most extraordinary moments of the trip was something I’ve never seen before, in over 40 years of birdwatching; as we watched a juvenile Common Buzzard soaring above a remote steep-sided valley, Andrew noticed a second bird further along the valley. The juvenile flew in that direction and the second bird, an adult buzzard, flew up towards it, rolled on it’s back in mid-air and passed prey up to the juvenile. I’ve seen that happen so many times as courtship behaviour in all of our harrier species, but I’ve never seen a food pass between Common Buzzards, and to see it executed so gracefully by this broad-winged raptor was breathtaking. We continued on our way with Wheatear, Stonechat, Kestrel, Raven, Pochard, Tufted Duck and Mandarin all joining the day list.
Perhaps the best of the day though came near the end; as we drove across the Forest Drive, a large mammal crossed the track ahead of us. Looking like a dark Roe Deer on steroids, the nanny Wild Goat was soon followed by a billy goat and 2 kids. We’ve seen Wild Goats with clients on our trips before, but never at such close quarters.
We’ll be visiting Kielder again on 31st August and 2nd September, so give us a call on 07908 119535 to find out how you can share the experience of the border forests, and the unknown quantity of those remote tracks, with us.
November is generally a quiet month for NEWT; the half-term rush in late October has come and gone, thoughts are turning to Christmas…and the weather can be a bit suspect. We had a Safari Day around Druridge Bay and Southeast Northumberland at the end of last week that could have succumbed to the elements but, as it turned out, a combination of excellent birdwatching sites that could be watched from the Land Rover, clients with a real interest in natural history (and expertise in wildlife sound recording)and a badger-watching spot where the trees sheltered us from the rain, made it an enjoyable afternoon. The flock of Waxwings in Ashington delighted yet again. Who could fail to be impressed by them? After a spell of birdwatching that was then characterised by ’lovely weather for ducks’ (Teal, Wigeon, Mallard, Gadwall, Goosander, Goldeneye and Pochard were all seen), and some good flocks of Lapwing, Golden Plover, Redshank and Pink-footed Goose, we headed inland to the steep, wooded hillside that has produced some excellent views of Badgers on our Safaris in recent months. Only one Badger came wandering along – perhaps the others that we’ve watched so often this year were indulging in that particularly human pastime of curling up somewhere nice and warm out of the wind and the rain.
Since then it’s been a busy week, mainly with planning and preparation for 2011 but also giving 2 presentations about the Northeast Cetacean Project. The first was to a group of postgrad students and lecturers at Newcastle University and then last night, to the Northumberland & Tyneside Bird Club. Both presentations produced some interesting questions, and some potentially excellent volunteers to assist with our ongoing survey work.
Now it’s Friday morning, the howling westerly winds are bringing waves of rain and then sunshine, there’s an intense rainbow visible from our office window and a flock of Redwings are being blown about like autumn leaves. No matter what the weather throws at us, Northumberland is still a superb county for wildlife and birdwatching; you just need to know how to enjoy it