As I pulled into the car park at The Swan, Peter and Elizabeth were sitting in the bright sunshine. There was still a cold edge to the breeze though, and we set out to explore Druridge Bay, south east Northumberland and the Northumberland coast.
Masses of frogspawn was evidence that our amphibians were getting on with business as usual, regardless of the weather, and a newt rose to the surface of a small pond to take a gulp of air before sinking out of sight back into the murky depths. Chaffinches, Robins, Song Thrushes and Blackbirds were singing, and a Chiffchaff was a welcome sound – we’d normally expect to start hearing them in mid-March, but this was our first this year. A flock of Redwings were blown by like scraps of paper on the strengthening breeze and, just south of Cresswell, Fulmars glided effortlessly by, riding the updraft of the wind seemingly perilously close to the cliffs.
Another amphibian joined the day list, as a Common Toad walked along the path towards us, realised we were there, then retreated to the edge of the path and tucked all of it’s legs in so that it resembled a stone and waited for us to pass by. A Greylag Goose was incubating and I mentioned that the same site usually held a pair of Mute Swans…and one appeared, but we didn’t see where from. The mystery was solved a few minutes later as it’s mate walked out of a reedbed, straight over the incubating Greylag and paddled across the water. Incredibly the Greylag barely gave the swan a second glance, but just sat tight on it’s nest.
A Brown Hare sat haughtily in a roadside field, and a Sparrowhawk flew just ahead of the car for over 100m, before perching on a hedgerow and staring menacingly at us as we drove by. By early evening the wind had really stiffened again and it started raining. This didn’t dissuade a sub-adult male Marsh Harrier from hunting over a reedbed close to our position, and he eventually dropped into the reeds and onto prey; judging by the squealing he may have caught a Water Rail. Sand Martin, Swallow and House Martin in one flock were additions to the year list, 18 Red-breasted Mergansers were displaying, a few Goldeneye were busy feeding and, as we finished our day, along one of NEWT’s favourite rivers, a dark shape moving slowly along the water’s edge caused some excitement. Was this our quarry, the sinuous predator that terrorises fish, birds and small mammals? No, it was a Moorhen…
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
Days out with a specific target in mind for our clients can be very good, or very frustrating and, as I drove across the snow and ice coated roads towards Elsdon to collect George, Tam, Ken and Kath, I had a good feeling about the day ahead.
One of NEWT’s all-time favourites was in our sights for the day; Red Squirrel is becoming more and more difficult to see. One of our most reliable sites over the last five years has seen the arrival of Grey Squirrels and a diminishing population of Reds, and that’s a pattern repeated in many places.
After a drive through snowy wastelands, the car was loaded with an arsenal of camera equipment and we headed towards southeast Northumberland. I’d got two ‘new’ sites in mind and the first of these produced sightings of at least two Red Squirrels and a nice flock of Redwings, Song Thrushes and Mistle Thrushes. Good for viewing, not so good for photography with dense foliage on many of the trees and the squirrels in a position where they were heavily backlit. I was confident that the second site I planned to visit would offer better photo opportunities…and it did. In excellent light, we watched at least five Red Squirrels; camera shutters were firing at a machine-gun rate and George and Kath took over 500 shots between them. I went back the next day and had a bit of luck myself…
There was a degree of reluctance to leave the squirrels behind, but the light began to fade and we headed onto the coast in search of more wildlife. Owls were high on the wishlist and two Short-eared Owls performed for the cameras just like this one from last year.
A Common Snipe was unusually bold, feeding along the water’s edge well away from cover, Pink-footed Geese were grazing a nearby field, Whooper Swans whooped as they arrived to roost and a small murmuration of Starlings soon thought better of flying around in the bitter cold and quickly headed instead for the warmth of the roost. Then it was time for us to head back in the dark through the frozen hinterland of Northumberland.
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…
After Tuesday’s snow, sleet and general murk, and Wednesday’s icy breeze, I prepared for Thursday’s Kielder Safari by loading as many layers of technical clothing as I could into the back of the car…but, as I headed north to Felton to collect Lindsay and Abbie, I was glad that I’d included sunglasses in my kit list for the day
We drove west through Rothbury, Elsdon and Otterburn, in absolutely stunning light that really showed Northumberland at it’s best, along roads where the verges were still snow-covered and the temperature was sub-zero, past flocks of Fieldfares and Redwings gathering pre-migration, to collect Victoria and Paul from Bellingham before heading along the forest tracks towards Hawkhope. Only a few hundred yards from the public road we were soon watching a stunning male Common Crossbill. More Crossbills followed, then some outrageously bright Siskins. Common Buzzards were soaring over the plantations (it turned out to be a excellent raptor day – although the ‘Phantom of the Forest’ eluded us), Chaffinches seemed to be along every step of the way, Great Spotted Woodpeckers played their usual game of hide-and-seek and even the humble Meadow Pipits were subjected to great scrutiny. As Lindsay commented as we watched one pipit, elevated above it’s usual status of LBJ by the superb light, ”it’s nice to have views in the field, of a feature that you’ve read about in a field guide”. He was referring to the long hind-claw of the pipit and, with our subject perched just a few metres away and very obliging, this led on to a discussion of pipit identification. When we finally returned to the C200 we’d been off-road for over two and a half hours – a new longevity record for that 10 mile section of our route, and an excellent measure of just how many birds we’d stopped and studied.
Up over the border our lunch break, after watching a pair of Curlews as they called on a bit of high moorland, was accompanied by a pair of Ravens chasing off a Kestrel that had strayed over their nest site, a territorial skirmish involving 2 pairs of Common Buzzards, Pied Wagtails flycatching over the stream and 3 Goosanders looking resplendent. Our post-lunch walk produced more Common Buzzards, another Kestrel, a Peregrine powering it’s way down the valley and a small group of Wild Goats including a tiny kid. As we returned to the car a pair of Ravens appeared along the ridge, soared up against the sky and then began tumbling and calling.
Our final section of the trip was the Forest Drive between Kielder and Byrness; currently closed to the public because of forestry activity, and the state of the road surface, we’d been given permission by the Forestry Commission to use the track, which we had to ourselves for the afternoon. A Raven soared close to a Common Buzzard, a pair of Stonechats were next to the road at Kielderhead and we came across an excellent mixed flock of finches; Common Crossbills, Siskins and Lesser Redpolls (which we’d earlier heard but not seen) in one small area of spruce, pine and birch.
We dropped Victoria and Paul back in Bellingham, and headed east towards the coastal plain as the light faded at the end of a 12 hour Safari Day. 12 hour days as a birdwatching guide, in some extraordinary landscapes with stunning wildlife, leave you feeling energised…don’t think I would have said the same while I was a teacher
The most memorable wildlife on a tour with clients can come in many forms; it may be the common, the uncommon, the localised, or just the way that it fits in its habitat, and the landscape and weather blend it in to the experience.
I arrived at Hexham railway station to find Steve and Jill already there, and a few minutes later Catherine arrived on the train from Windermere (via a few changes!). We headed northwest along the North Tyne valley for a day birdwatching around Kielder and the borders and, just before Bellingham we left the road and headed along the forest tracks. A fine drizzle was falling as we found our first Crossbills of the day. By the time we returned to the C200 (and civilisation!) 2 hours later, we’d had lots of sightings of small groups and family parties. Perching on the tops of small spruce trees, flying over and giving that distinctive ‘chip, chip’ call, Crossbills are always a delight to watch. The stunning luminosity of the males carmine red rump is incredibly striking, particularly in the gloom and drizzle of the border forests when everything else seems to be monochrome. Kestrels and Common Buzzards were soaring around, Curlews and Lapwings were sitting in fields between the sheep, Skylarks and Meadow Pipits flushed from the track sides and Siskins almost rivalled the Crossbills with some stunning adult males demonstrating how a quite common bird can still take your breath away when you look closely at it.
By early afternoon the cloud level had dropped to somewhere below the altitude we were at and, as we crossed a remote moorland road with the icy cold wind whistling eerily around us, driving waves of rain horizontally across the fells, Steve spotted a grouse at the roadside. From our position I couldn’t see the bird, but Catherine, sitting in the back of the car, was able to photograph what I assumed would be a Red Grouse. Then it flew…revealing the white wing-bars of an adult Blackcock! That’s a species we’ve watched and photographed with clients in the North Pennines, but not one that we’ve ever recorded on a Kielder Safari. Important lesson, that one; expect the unexpected
One of our commonest species provided one of the highlights of the day; hundreds of male Chaffinches were swarming around feeding stations and, at one point, we had 3 sitting on the roof of the car, 2 on the wing mirrors and 2 in the boot! With Blue, Great and Coal Tits, Greenfinches, more Siskins, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Nuthatches the feeders were a blur of activity.
As we headed back down the valley at the end of the day, a flock of Redwings and Fieldfares flew from a nearby field and filled the air above us, a pair of Mandarins flew upriver, calling, and we left Kielder behind to return to the bustling metropolis of Hexham
Yesterday was a twice-postponed bespoke photography trip to look at the techniques involved in capturing autumn colours at their finest. I collected Norman from his home in Throckley and we headed towards the Northumberland coast.
Landscape photography tuition is something I really enjoy delivering. Just a few simple camera settings can make a huge difference, although not as big a difference as some nice light…
Autumn colour is a transient, and unpredictable, thing but we managed to get lots of trees in oranges, reds and yellows for Norman to try out a range of new techniques. At our first site, we enjoyed views of a Red Squirrel, and a young Common Buzzard, as we searched for the best viewpoint along the river, and for a brief spell there was enough sunlight to lift the colours from pastel shades of the riverbank. As we neared the finish of our day, at Howick Gardens, a thick blanket of cloud cover put paid to thoughts of a glorious sunset. Redwings called as they passed overhead on their way to roost, and we headed off ourselves as daylight faded.
The last 2 days were spent running 2 Prestige Tours for Peter and Alison, and the Northumberland coast delivered plenty of birdwatching gems.
On Wednesday we were covering Holy Island and the Northumberland coast, and planned to spend the morning on Holy Island and then come off at lunchtime just before the tide covered the causeway (remember – the crossing times are published for a reason, don’t drive into the North Sea, it won’t end well!). A thorough check around the village, and the Heugh, produced 2 Black Redstarts, Blackcaps, lots of Blackbirds, Fieldfares, Redwings and an intriguing Chiffchaff (almost sandy brown above, very unlike our breeding birds). Grey Seals and Pale-bellied Brent Geese were out on the mud, Dark-bellied Brent Geese, Wigeon and Teal were roosting on the Rocket Field and a Woodcock was flying circuits of the village. As well as an almost continuous wave of thrushes leaving the island, the distinctive flight calls of Skylarks and Lesser Redpolls could be picked out.
Once we were off the island, I’d decided to head north to Goswick. Another Black Redstart and a Yellow-browed Warbler were around Coastgurad Cottage, and we made our way through the dunes. The adult drake Black Scoter was still present, although less than easy to see with a line of rolling surf impeding the view. As the tide rose, flocks of Bar-tailed Godwit, Knot, Dunlin and Grey Plover rose from the exposed sandbar, shuffling along to the next ‘dry’ spot. A Short-eared Owl was seen coming in-off, harrassed by Herring Gulls before finally finding sanctuary on the Snook, and then the bird of the day (well, I think so anyway) appeared just behind us. Tracking south along the coast a juvenile Rough-legged Buzzard was given a bit of a going over by the local corvids.
Heading back towards Seahouses we stopped off at Harkess Rocks, where Purple Sandpipers, Turnstones, Redshank and Oystercatchers were all flitting from rock to rock and Eider were bobbing about just offshore as daylight faded and it was time to return Peter and Alison to their holiday accommodation.
I collected Brian from Newbiggin on Saturday for a one-to-one photography afternoon around southeast Northumberland. It was good to find a photographer with the mantra of ‘wait, watch, wait some more’ and we settled among the trees in a dappled woodland. Nuthatch, Treecreeper and Great Spotted Woodpecker all entertained us, Jays were chasing through the trees and Redwings passed overhead, their ‘seee’ calls still resonate deep inside me, nearly 40 years since I first heard them over our school field and then found a bundle of soft feathers where one had fallen prey to the local Kestrel.
We had a brief spell of reasonable light, but the afternoon was mainly characterised by drizzle and gloom; not ideal for photography, but an atmospheric background for the birds that were moving about pre-roost. Then, more calls from the skies as we sat close to a small pond. First, Pink-footed Geese, yapping distantly before coming into view like a distant swirl of smoke as they headed to roost. Then a group of 8 Whooper Swans, heading north. As they vanished into the gloom, the rain increased and brought dusk forward.
It’s hard to believe that we posted on the blog back in January about the big freeze last winter and here we are again in a similar position already before the end of November (although at least at the moment it isn’t so prolonged).
I went in to Newcastle last Wednesday for a seminar about the IMCORE project, and there was a bit of light snowfall. When I came out of the Ridley Building an hour later the world was white, and it’s just gone on from that point. After Sarah got home from work on Thursday evening the next time we used either of the cars was when we dug her car out of the snow this morning so she could go to work. We’ve made the most of the last few days though; walking the 2 miles there (and 2 miles back) each day to visit a friend who’s now in a residential care home, doing most of the admin in 3 days that we would usually do through the winter (including adding all of our 2011 trips to the website) and finalising a couple of projects that we’ve been working on.
Birdwatching in our little part of southeast Northumberland has been interesting for the last few days. We’ve got an ever-expanding flock of Coal, Great and Blue Tits, Dunnocks and Wrens are now ever present around the feeding station and a very optimistic pair of Collared Doves were mating at the top of the Apple tree earlier this morning. Two pairs of Bullfinches are regular visitors but other finches are in short supply; there’s just a single pair of Chaffinches, we’ve only had one visit from Goldfinches in the last few days and, particularly worrying, we haven’t seen any Greenfinches around the feeders at all. A Sparrowhawk is still regularly patrolling over Choppington Woods and a flock of 50-60 Redwings flies out from the woods each morning.
Now, after a morning of blue skies, it’s just started snowing again.