As darkness descends it seems like a whole different world appears, and in the remnants of the daylight you need to be alert as the creatures that frequent the shadowy hours make an appearance.
With Lawrie and Linda, Mike and Mary & Pat and Janice all safely in the car, we set off for an afternoon and evening around Druridge Bay and south east Northumberland on an Otter Safari. One of the best things, about any wildlife that we go looking for, is that it’s in a series of superb wildlife-filled locations so there’s always something to look at. At this time of the year, that’s often passage waders like Dunlin and Ruff, large roosting and feeding flocks of Lapwing, Golden Plover and Curlew and gatherings of Linnets and Goldfinches in newly harvested fields.
Invariably, the part of the trip that I get really excited about is that bit that takes place in the half-light. As we walked along a riverbank, a Water Vole put in a very brief appearance and a Grey Heron, stalking through the shallows, took flight in alarm as Mallards hurried nervously away from the vegetation at the water’s edge. Something was unsettling them, and Lawrie soon picked up the menacing figure of an Otter as it crossed the river. Two more brief sightings, as Daubenton’s Bats skimmed the water surface below us, and then it was too dark to make out any detail and we headed back, under a clear sky.
Wading birds seem to hold a fascination for so many birdwatchers, from beginners all the way to birders with decades of experience, and Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland at this time of year is often very productive.
I collected Reg and Val (for their second trip within a week) and Nick from Church Point and we started with one of our favourite birds, and one that always impresses, Mediterranean Gull. With the strong breeze driving sand across our field of vision, there was a real wild feel to the experience of watching the birds as they withstood the elements.
Heading north along the coast we witnessed one of the oddest pieces of fieldcraft that I’ve seen with clients. Checking out a small subsidence pond, we were enjoying the sight of Dunlin, Ringed Plovers, Common Redshank and a juvenile Curlew Sandpiper all probing and prodding through the mud at the water’s edge. Another birdwatcher made his way stealthily to the wall along the roadside, and settled to watch the birds from a crouched position. Good fieldcraft, the birds continued feeding appearing completely unconcerned by his presence. Then, when he was ready to leave, he popped up like a jack-in-the-box flushing all of the birds! As the flock eventually settled back down, there was no sign of the Curlew Sandpiper. It’s an important lesson that fieldcraft skills should always be applied when retreating from your position as well as when approaching it
Cresswell Pond continued the wader theme, with some very obliging Common Snipe, Dunlin, Ruff and both Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits (standing alongside one another and allowing excellent comparison of the differences between these species).
At East Chevington, Reg spotted a distant bird perched on a fence post and commented that it didn’t look quite right for a Crow. Tucked down against the wind, the view through our telescope soon revealed that the bird was a juvenile Marsh Harrier. It remained perched for several minutes, regularly turning it’s head to reveal a lovely orange/cream crown contrasting with the uniform dark-brown of the rest of it’s plumage. Hundreds of Lapwings and Starlings were flying back and forth, twisting and turning against the very stiff breeze, Cormorants sat motionless and we headed back to Newbiggin at the end of our day.
As I drove through the rolling hills of rural Northumberland to the west of Morpeth, the weather was looking superb; blue sky, sunshine, a nice breeze. I collected Mark and Nicola and we headed back towards the coastal plain, for an afternoon of birdwatching around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland.
The conditions looked good for raptors, and it wasn’t too long before we had our first Common Buzzards of the afternoon. Then another raptor appeared, soaring just overhead. With long, thin wings, and a long narrow tail, it didn’t look like another buzzard, but it had the sun behind it so was a difficult to view silhouette. Eventually it moved away to the north and, as it engaged in some mid-air sparring with one of the buzzards, its identity was revealed; juvenile Marsh Harrier. As the two protagonists drifted further north, the orange crown of the harrier flashed in the sunlight as the bird soared in circles, contrasting with the rich dark chocolate brown of the rest of its plumage.
Reaching the coast, we stopped off at Newbiggin to look for Mediterranean Gulls and it didn’t take too long before we spotted our first as it flew across from the southern end of the bay and landed on the beach right in front of us. More followed, including a juvenile bird, and Nicola soon commented that, regardless of any plumage differences, the structure of the birds was noticeably different to the nearby Black-headed Gulls. Leaving the Meds behind we began our journey along the coastal road through Druridge Bay. A quick check of the Bewick Drift Flash produced 9 Ruff, 10 Dunlin and a Curlew Sandpiper and we spent a little while comparing the differences between the two sandpipers as well as having a very close view of just how different male and female Ruff are in terms of size.
Our picnic stop, overlooking the North Sea, produced a beach filled with Ringed Plovers, and a lone Sanderling, as well as soaring Fulmars and rafts of Eiders, bobbing in the gentle swell far below us. It was starting to turn colder, breezier, and the first drops of rain started to fall. Cresswell Pond was very productive, as it has been for a few weeks now, but a few species really stood out; a Spoonbill, which had been at East Chevington during the afternoon, flew in and made its way right round the edge of the pond, sweeping that extraordinary bill from side to side in search of food, Yellow Wagtails arrived to roost and sat along the base of the reeds, where they provoked a very aggressive response from the Common Snipe that were feeding there and a Barn Owl came out following a heavy shower and caught a vole in the dunes away to the north before carrying it within a few metres of where we were sitting.
The finale to the trip came beside a fast flowing river, downstream was dark, inky blackness, but upstream the water was lit by the eerie glow from a nearby town. Daubenton’s Bats were trawling the water surface, their presence betrayed by the expanding circles where they’d gaffed prey at the surface. Then, a ripple too big to be from a bat; and an Otter surfaced for a few moments before disappearing into the dark.
August is always a stressful month for NEWT. As well as leading our regular safari days, it’s British Birdwatching Fair month, and the week leading up to the Bird Fair is always frantic; checking that we’ve got everything for the stand, mounting a new series of limited edition prints for sale, liaising with all of the other Birdwatching Northumberland partners to make sure that everybody knows exactly which aspects of the project they’re responsible for, and making sure that we’ve got a supply of local beer for the 4pm ‘free bar’ on our stand
Then, after a busy three days, it’s all over and we head north…this year to the thankfully cooler temperatures of Northumberland. From leaving Rutland at 6pm on Sunday to arriving back in Northumberland just after 10pm, the temperature drop was an impressive 14C.
Yesterday was our first post-BirdFair trip, a day of birdwatching around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland. I collected Alex from Church Point, and we started with a good scan of the beach. 4 Mediterranean Gulls were close by and a small group of waders contained Oystercatcher, Common Redshank, Sanderling and Ringed Plover. Waders proved to be a theme for the day and we added Common Sandpiper, Spotted Redshank, Lapwing, Ruff, Dunlin, Knot, Curlew Sandpiper, Curlew, Greenshank, Black-tailed Godwit, Turnstone, Wood Sandpiper, Common Snipe, Golden Plover and Avocet to the day list as we made our way around NEWT’s local area. With an impressive supporting cast that included Water Rail, 3 Little Egrets and a Spoonbill it was a great day to be watching the edges of our local ponds, and a real education in just how much inward and outward movement of birds there is from the feeding and roosting wader flocks that grace southeast Northumberland at this time of the year. It was a great day too, to appreciate just how friendly and helpful local birdwatchers are in Northumberland – many thanks to Len and Gill for pointing us in the direction of the Wood Sandpiper, and Gill’s sharp eyes picked out the Spotted Redshank which then vanished without trace soon after being found and appreciated
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.
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.
Yesterday was the second of four Druridge Bay/Southeast Northumberland afternoon and evening trips this week, and I collected Natalie and Clive from Newton on the Moor just after lunch before heading south.
Starting with a short woodland walk, we enjoyed close views of those arboreal specialists Treecreeper, Nuthatch and Great Spotted Woodpecker, but this time Red Squirrel eluded us.
At East Chevington, we were watching a roosting flock of Lapwing, Ruff and Curlew, and checking through the mass of assembled ducks, when a distant call caught my attention. It was a minute or two before the birds appeared high in the sky to the north, but there they were; 29 Pink-footed Geese, the arrival that for me always heralds the end of the summer.
A flock of Dunlin, Redshank and Curlew at Cresswell contained a Little Stint, and a brief seawatch produced a small flock of Knot heading north.
A patient wait as the orange glow of the sunset illuminated the surface of a pond brought rewards as our attention was drawn to a scattering flock of Coot. Just a few metres from the ripples left by the rapidly departing birds, the menacing shape of an Otter was twisting, turning and diving. As it vanished in to the dark shadows of a reedbed, the final indication of it’s presence were the bright trails left by Mallards and Little Grebes as they made a frantic effort to be anywhere other than where the Otter was. Even more exciting for me, was the completely unexpected appearance of a mammal that I haven’t seen since childhood, as the twilight was punctuated by a loud ‘plop’ and a Water Vole swam cross in front of us Tawny Owls were calling and Common Pipistrelles flitted back and forth as the full moon, and cold wind, made the evening feel really autumnal.
I dropped Natalie and Clive back at Newton on the Moor, and decided to avoid the roadworks on the A1 on the route home and instead took the minor road from Shilbottle to Warkworth. I was still delayed though, but by a young Badger that trotted along the middle of the road ahead of me for a quarter of a mile before wandering into the verge and watching as I passed by. Expect the unexpected…
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.
We had back-to back birdwatching trips earlier this week, covering two of our favourite areas.
On Tuesday afternoon I collected Keith and Jen from home in Monkseaton and we headed northwards up the Northumberland coast. Our destination was the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, one of the birding hot-spots of the entire country. The strong winds were the only downside to the afternoon, but the birdwatching was good. After checking out a large group of Grey Seals we covered the area around the harbour and the Rocket Field. Bar-tailed Godwits, Common Redshank and lots of Ringed Plover were along the shoreline and a delightful charm of Goldfinches were around the Heugh. A distant group of Lapwings, Starlings and Golden Plover took to the air and the cause of their alarm was glimpsed briefly, although too briefly and too distant to make a positive ID. Holy Island birdwatching stalwart Ian Kerr put us on to a Little Stint and, as we headed back through the village, groups of Golden Plover passed overhead. Re-tracing our route back down the coast and checking the Budle Bay on the rising tide, we were just discussing the indications of the presence of predators when a huge number of birds lifted from the mud. As well as the gulls and waders, Jackdaws, Rooks and Woodpigeons joined the throng as they came out of adjacent fields and trees. This time the culprit was seen and identified; a Peregrine, that most majestic of raptors and one of the highlights of any birdwatching day on the Northumberland coast in the autumn and winter. A quick seawatch produced Sandwich Terns feeding, and Gannets soaring effortlessly on the breeze.
Wednesday was a full day out around Druridge Bay and Southeast Northumberland. I collected Jayne and Andrew from Seahouses, and then Hilary and John from Alnmouth, before beginning our tour of some of the best birdwatching spots in our local area. While we were watching Lapwings, Redshanks, Greenshanks, Ruff, Herons and Cormorants on the River Wansbeck I could hear a rough ’sreee’ call from high overhead. The strong breeze meant that it wasn’t straightforward to locate the bird, but eventually I picked it out. It was an unfamiliar call, but a familiar species; a juvenile Common Cuckoo. The walk back along the river produced a nice flock of Long-tailed Tits. After lunch we stopped off at Cresswell Pond. Hilary and John mentioned that they’d visited Cresswell once before – when they noticed a large group of birders and stopped, managing to see a Buff-breasted Sandpiper.With luck like that, we joked about what this visit could produce...
When we arrived at the hide, Jaybee mentioned that he’d had a juvenile Sandwich Tern. I scanned the pond but couldn’t see the tern anywhere and we settled to enjoying the quite remarkable views of Common Snipe that were available. After checking through the assembled ducks, gulls and waders I scanned across the pond again and spotted a tern dip-feeding near the causeway. The bird’s behaviour, combined with it’s very dark back, white rump and silver-grey wings caused me to get rather excited. White-winged Black Tern is a very special bird, and a personal highlight as it’s the third Chlidonias tern that I’ve found in Northumberland. Whiskered Tern is very rare and Black Tern is always a nice bird to see but White-winged Black Tern is such a beautiful species. Jaybee kindly sent me some images to useAs other birders began to arrive to enjoy the fruit of our good fortune we continued up the coast. Eiders and a Goosander, as well as some very obliging Grey Herons, were seen as we stopped by the River Coquet. A superb couple of day’s birdwatching, a beautiful rarity and clients who were excellent company.