As I drove to Peth Head Cottage on Thursday afternoon, the rain was hammering against the car windscreen. Friday’s forecast was good though so, after a meal at The Travellers Rest in Slaley, I reminded Derek and Deirdre that we would have an early start the next morning.
19/04/2013 05:00…the incessant ringing of the alarm pierced the depths of my sleep and I jumped out of bed, showered and opened my bedroom window. The dawn chorus, mainly Blackbirds, Robins and Song Thrushes, was deafening, and the last remnants of rain were pattering down as we set off across the moors to a Black Grouse lek. Roe Deer were watching us from a roadside field and a Tawny Owl flew across in front of us, no doubt heading for a secluded daytime roosting site. First lek site, no birds, second lek site two Greyhens and a distant altercation between two Blackcock along a drystone wall as Curlew, Snipe, Oystercatcher and Lapwing displayed nearby and a Common Buzzard lumbered its way across the horizon. A third site produced the goods though as, adjacent to a field filled with summer-plumaged Golden Plover, two Blackcock were strutting their stuff for the benefit of three Greyhens…who watched them with what appeared to be complete indifference
After returning to Peth Head for a delicious, and very filling, breakfast (accompanied by Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Siskins, Robins, Dunnocks and a Reed Bunting on the feeders just outside the dining room window) we set out again. By now, the sun was up, bathing the moors in sublime warm tones, and Derek spotted the tell-tale white flash of a displaying Blackcock. This bird was strutting around next to two Greyhens, head down, tail up, pausing occasionally to stand bolt upright before jumping in the air and singing. Just beyond the lekking lothario, a Short-eared Owl was quartering the moor. Backwards and forwards on long narrow wings, the owl flew closer to our position, until eventually binoculars were put down when the field of view was completely filled with yellow-eyed menace as the owl flew over the bonnet of the car before veering away just inches from the windscreen.
Deeper into the North Pennines AONB, over moorland liberally sprinkled with pairs of Red Grouse, flocks of Golden Plover flying around and giving their plaintive call, with a Dunlin easily picked out in one flock by it’s small size, and farmland with Brown Hares chasing each other, Derek’s sharp eyes picked out a bird on telegraph wires…and we had our first Ring Ouzel of the trip. Singing it’s simple song, this could well have been the bird that I watched with Sarah in late March. A pair of Ring Ouzels followed soon after, staying just ahead of the car as we traversed a narrow road high above Weardale. Deirdre spotted several displaying Blackcock and we passed from Weardale into Upper Teesdale. Walking the remote moors produced close views of Red Grouse, Golden Plover, Wheatear, Skylark and Meadow Pipit before a completely unexpected find; for a second I wasn’t sure what I was watching, as a large brown and white bird drifted over the moor with deep lazy wingbeats, but as I lifted my binoculars I could barely contain my excitement as I let Derek and Deirdre know that there was an Osprey flying by! We watched the bird as it hovered and then dived into a nearby reservoir, but it’s departure route took it out of sight so we didn’t see if it was successful in its hunt. A pair of Goosander were feeding along the reservoir edge and, as they eventually crossed the open water, they picked up a Tufted Duck for company.
I had a hunch that Black Grouse would be lekking late afternoon, so we returned to a site that had held just one resting Blackcock earlier in the day. Sure enough, ‘the boys’ had gathered for a bit of a barney; 15 of them had turned up – seven obvious pairs of combatants and one bird sitting off to one side holding his wings, head and tail in the typical display posture but just standing still and watching the series of duels that were taking place in front of him. A couple of them broke out into physical fights, and all of the birds were calling as the lek reached a crescendo before, as if someone had flicked a switch, they suddenly lowered their undertail coverts, lifted their heads, folded their wings back in and started nonchalantly pottering around the gladiatorial arena as if nothing had happened. Just as exciting though, was what was going on above the lek. In my field of view I could see a Curlew drop almost vertically before heading skyward again. I raised my binoculars to follow it’s path and as it dropped again it was harassing, with the assistance of a flock of Black-headed Gulls, a male Goshawk! Open moorland may not be typical habitat for this fearsome inhabitant of our upland forests, but it isn’t the first time we’ve seen one out of context in late April.
Back across the moors to Hexhamshire we saw more Red Grouse, more Black Grouse and, after a quick stop back at Peth Head we headed out to eat at the Dipton Mill Inn. We followed that with a drive into Slaley Forest for Woodcock and Tawny Owls then, before retiring to bed, I stood in the dark outside the cottage and listened as at least four Tawny Owls called from close by. A superb end to an excellent day
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…
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
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
One of my favourite locations, at a time of year when it isn’t often visited, and returning clients (always a pleasure!) made for an excellent day’s birdwatching in southwest Northumberland and north west County Durham yesterday.
I collected Reg and Val from their home in Newcastle and, as we headed west along the Tyne valley, the clear blue sky promised a good day. Starting with a walk along the River Allen, we soon encountered a mixed flock that included Nuthatch, Coal Tit, Great Tit, Blackbird and Robin. The river produced some stunning Grey Wagtails and a brood of Goosanders, shepherded by mum as they scoured the river, heads held below the surface as the current carried them along. Common Buzzards were calling from high against the azure sky and we could have been forgiven for thinking it was a nice Spring day – other than that the only birds singing were Robins.
Once we were out on the moors. we started to encounter Red Grouse. Always a stunning bird, whether you’re looking at the handsome males or the intricately patterned females, the sunlight really brought out the best in this moorland specialist. Black Grouse proved slightly more difficult, unsurprising as there was a ‘stiff’ breeze racing across the fells of the North Pennines AONB After a lot of effort, we did find three young Blackcocks sheltering between clumps of rush, and they were very obliging for Reg’s camera. As we crossed one (very) minor road, we came across my own personal highlight of the day. Two Ravens appeared over a nearby ridge and headed towards a plantation at the top of the ridge ahead of us. As they soared higher, a third Raven came into view and began tumbling. The two closer birds responded with a breathtaking display of aerobatics and, as they plunged towards the ground before swooping up again, their deep croaking calls carried on the breeze to where we were sitting. A special bird in a special place, and simply awe-inspiring
I collected Ruth and Margaret from The Swan for their second trip with us; this time a half-day Beginner’s Birdwatching trip around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland. After scouring some bushes where we could hear a roving tit flock, and enjoying excellent views of a flock of Tree Sparrows in the beautiful sunshine, we visited Hadston Scaurs in search of the Yellow-browed Warbler that had been seen there earlier in the morning. We were unlucky, although we could hear the flock of Goldcrests that it had been with but they were deep in the hedge and we only had occasional brief views as they hurried about. Reed Buntings, Dunnocks, Blackbirds and Bullfinches all performed well, Robins were calling from what seemed to be every bush, Linnets and Skylarks were moving south overhead and skeins of Pink-footed Geese passed over.
We had a session looking at shapes of ducks, and how to use that skill to separate similar species, and finished at Cresswell with a species that Margaret was really keen to see on this trip, Eider; our county bird, and a real stunner
October ended with a Prestige Tour around Druridge Bay and Southeast Northumberland. I collected Christine and Mark from Stannington and we headed across to the coast. Flocks of Linnets. Lapwings and Grey Partridges were close to the road and we settled to check one of our regular Otter sites. All of the assembled Mallard, Teal, Wigeon, Gadwall and Coot were concentrated in one area of the pool and clearly nervous about one particular corner. We weren’t fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of any predators, but the behaviour of the waterfowl was typical of the type of indication you get that there’s an Otter about. Our lunch spot for the day was beside the River Coquet and, along with the Cormorants and Grey Herons that were patrolling the water’s edge, an Atlantic Salmon provided some spectacular entertainment as it launched itself vertically out of the water, three times in rapid succession, just a few metres away from us.
As we walked along the River Wansbeck after lunch, via a detour around the north edge of Ashington to enjoy the spectacle of 90+ Waxwings gorging themselves on Rowan berries, skeins of Pink-footed Geese passed overhead and, as the sun sank towards the horizon, it was time to seek out the wildlife that occupies that magical time of day. As we settled into position near one of our favourite badger-watching spots there was an incredible commotion from the trees on the other side of the stream. Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Wrens, Robins and Magpies were all alarming loudly. The mobbing was too intense, and too stationary, to be the mild alarm that a Red Fox or Badger often triggers and shortly after one Tawny Owl flew through the trees opposite, a second bird finally got fed up with the mobbing and flew from it’s perch. An unwelcome sighting was a Grey Squirrel, in a woodland that until recently still held Red Squirrels. Our first Badger of the evening was a big adult, trotting across the top of the clearing. Then, after a few minutes of near silence, two Badger cubs came crashing through the undergrowth. They crossed the stream beneath a fallen tree, paused briefly rising on their haunches like stripy black-and-white meerkats, and then headed uphill behind us. Our fourth Badger of the evening followed the same route before we headed back to the Landrover and civilisation.
I dropped Christine and Mark back at Stannington and there was time for one last piece of magic as a Barn Owl floated lazily from a fence post as I drove back towards the A1.
Throughout the late autumn and winter we’ll be scheduling most of our trips to finish in darkness. Druridge Bay and Lindisfarne are both excellent locations through the winter, and as darkness descends, so give us a call on 01670 827465 to find out how we can bring that experience to you.
The sun is shining and the temperature is just about perfect. Robins seem to be in every bush, the high-pitched calls from a group of Goldcrests are a reminder that we’re well into the autumn and the flight calls of Skylarks can be heard high overhead. The scent of windfall apples permeates the air around the patio, the final few sloes are just ripening and there, sitting in the dappled shade beneath the apple tree, is a long-predicted garden visitor. I move away, careful not to disturb it. In the house, I swap the 500mm lens on my camera for a much more sensible 105mm macro. Back outside and it’s gone A slow, systematic search through the fallen leaves and fruit and there it is, sunning itself. Steadily stalking, I get a few images with it resting on a leaf. Then it drops to the ground and starts feeding and, although not a classical portrait, I get the shot that I was after. Dappled sunlight, autumnal colours…and an entertaining diversion from domestic duties
Arriving in IJmuiden the next morning, it was still raining We were collected from the ferry terminal by Lin, a local guide who we had been introduced to by the ORCA wildlife officers from the ferry. As we headed north Egyptian Geese were around the grass verges near the port, Cormorants were perched atop most of the lampposts, Common Buzzards were on roadside fences and we saw one lingering Spoonbill. Our destination was the reserve of Zwanenwater, where Lin is a volunteer. As we walked through the reserve the high pitched ‘seep’ of Redwings was a constant backdrop, Song Thrushes were flushing from every patch of cover, every bush seemed to hold several Robins and a Common Redstart flicked up from the path in front of us. We were then taken on a tour of the off-limits areas of the reserve by Fred, another of the volunteers.
Stonechats were seen along the track and there was an impressive spread of Grass of Parnassus.Despite the rain we managed an impressive haul of raptors; Common Buzzard, Marsh Harrier, Hen Harrier, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk and Osprey were all seen well but, most impressive of all, the real highlight for both of us was the views we had of Northern Goshawk. The birds quartering the dunes in search of rabbits and small birds came as a bit of a surprise, but not as much as the two birds that were perched on dead trees overhanging the lake. Fred explained that they sit there and watch the ducks, before swooping down and taking them off the water. We didn’t see that, but we did manage some distant images of one of the birds. All too soon we were on the ferry again and heading back to Northumberland, making plans to return to Holland in the spring.
Over the last few days there has been a distinct change; now, when I open our patio door, I can hear Song Thrush, Greenfinch, Chaffinch and Robin all singing. Last Saturday, even in the bitter cold and howling gale that was battering the Northumberland coast, our Druridge Bay Safari was enriched with birdsong.
Opportunities to get out and really take it all in have been limited. I spent two full days last week getting my Outdoor First Aid certification. While I was still teaching I had some First Aid training, but that was a picnic compared to an intensive two days where the trainers spend most of their time during casualty scenarios doing everything they can to get inside your head and see how you perform with your stress levels heading heavenwards. It was curiously enjoyable though, and of course my wish is that I don’t need to put any of it into practice before I’m due to renew my certification in three years time.
Another project which has kept me in the house has been choosing and processing the images that will grace the Birdwatching Northumberland stand at the British Bird Fair. Finally we selected seven images of species that typify Northumberland birdwatching; inland, coastal and covering different times of the year. And the species we chose? Well, you’ll just have to come along and see us at Rutland Water between 20th and 22nd August.
Now it’s another stunning Northumberland morning; clear blue skies, a gentle breeze, cold enough to freeze the wotsits off a brass monkey…and I’m heading out for a day of birdwatching with clients.