With the cessation of the rain that plagued Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday dawned cold and breezy; almost ideal for a day out on the birdwatching paradise that is the Northumberland Coast in the Winter.
As I collected Ele and Lisa from their holiday cottage in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, the icy northerly wind cut through the multiple layers that I’d put on before leaving the house. We started our day’s birdwatching at Budle Bay, where the wind somehow seemed even icier, and Oystercatchers, Redshank and Curlew were probing the oozing mud as a distant Peregrine flushed flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plover. Eiders were surfing the top of the impressive swell on the open coast and we headed south towards Druridge Bay. Mediterranean Gulls drifted overhead, ghostly pale, as Oystercatchers, Curlew, Turnstone, Redshank and Sanderling worked along the edge of the surf. Among all the immaculate ducks, two species really stood out; Goosander sleek and menacing, and Red-breasted Merganser drakes all trying to out do each other in their attempts to attract the ladies. A flock of Pink-footed Geese fed in a nearby field
As daylight faded a flock of Waxwings were in the distant tree tops and two species that are always a pleasure to see put in an appearance. Short-eared Owl and Barn Owl drifted along the edges of the reedbeds; death on silent wings. Here are a couple of pictures of them from earlier this year (in better light and a gentler breeze!).
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
After another day on Holy Island on Sunday (carrying out some contract survey work), I collected Jakob and Nancy from Royal Quays early on Monday for a day of birdwatching around the NEWT ‘local patch’; southeast Northumberland and Druridge Bay.
We started with Mediterranean Gulls at Newbiggin. Gulls may not be everyone’s bird of choice, but I defy anyone to tell me that adult Med Gulls aren’t stunningly beautiful Sanderling, Redshank, Oystercatcher, Turnstone and Pied Wagtail were picking along the tideline as we watched the meds and we left them behind to continue our journey up the coast. Seawatching produced Guillemots, Razorbills, several Red-throated Divers, Fulmars using the breeze to soar incredibly close to the cliffsides and a possible ‘Northern’ Eider drifting south among the Common Eiders. A Peregrine made its way south with those powerful, menacing wingbeats, Rock Pipits in small flocks danced about on the wind, and we left the sea (although not too far away!) and continued our journey. Geese, which have characterised so much of our birding this winter are still around and we managed Greylag, Pink-footed, Canada, Barnacle, Taiga Bean and Eurasian White-fronted. Goldeneyes are still around in good numbers, Teal, Shoveler, Gadwall, Wigeon, Red-breasted Merganser and Mallard were all resplendent (as most ducks tend to be in the late winter) and 2 Common Snipe circled several times before deciding that the pond wasn’t to their liking and heading off again.
I returned Jakob and Nancy to the ferry terminal for their return journey to the Netherlands, and made the slightly shorter journey back to Scotland Gate myself.
Friday was our fourth Druridge Bay/southeast Northumberland safari of the week, and it was a real pleasure to meet up with Lawrie and Linda, 2 of our returning clients from last year.
We started with a specific request; Brown Hare. In the strong wind, persistent drizzle and biting cold they were keeping their heads down…all except for one which raised it’s ears, and then it’s head, above the stubble before demonstrating a remarkable vanishing act.
In Newbiggin Bay, with a big menacing sea breaking in the background, a flock of Pale-bellied Brent Geese flew north as we watched the Turnstones, Ringed Plover, Redshanks and Sanderling on the edge of the surf.
Fields of Curlew, and fighting cock Pheasants, provided additional entertainment as we drove down the coast. I’d decided on East Chevington as our final destination of the trip and, as we arrived and began walking down to the North Pool, it looked as though the weather might get the better of us. The wind was strengthening and the first few drops of rain began to fall as a juvenile Merlin raced across the fenceline in front of us looking, in the fading light, like an oversized hirundine. The evening roost on the pool was building and hundreds of Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed, Herring, Black-headed and Common Gulls were sitting in the shallow water with Sandwich Terns, Lapwings, Knot, Teal, Mallard, Wigeon, Shoveler, Coot, Moorhen and Canada and Greylag Geese. Then Pink-footed Geese and more Greylag Geese began arriving, and the 4 Snow Geese that we saw last Sunday flew in to join the throng. A wave of panic spread through the roost, and many of the birds lifted into the air as a Bittern flew from one reedbed to another. Eventually, even the silhouettes began to merge into the darkness and the birds began to settle as we left the hide and braved the driving rain. With the footpaths and roads now covered in puddles the walk to the car, and the drive back to Alnwick, featured lots of Common Frogs and Common Toads, as well as a Tawny Owl that was perched on a fence post next to a line of trees.
It was a great experience to enjoy some pretty awful weather, and some superb wildlife, with Lawrie and Linda. I’ll never get fed up with what we do, and the weather is all a par tof the tapestry of that.
Thanks for the chocolates
Being in the right place at the right time is so critical to everything we do; if we’re searching for Otters we need to be there when they rise from their slumber and become active, if Badgers are the target for the trip then arriving the correct length of time before sunset is important, and if we’re visiting Holy Island then timing is a real key to success.
I set off up the A1 with Jo on board, and collected Paul from Bamburgh. The plan for the day was a simple one; spend a few hours birdwatching on Holy Island, then leave as the tide was rising and check sites down the coast towards Bamburgh. From the top of the Heugh, we scanned across the sandflats whilst listening to the ghostly moaning of a group of Grey Seals. An Arctic Skua was harassing the roosting terns and gulls, Curlew and Bar-tailed Godwits were probing along the water’s edge, Grey Plover, many of them still in their incredibly beautiful breeding plumage, seemed to be everywhere that we looked and a Kestrel chased a Peregrine through the dunes around Snook House. Back on the mainland we found a Whimbrel in a group of Curlew, our second Peregrine of the day beat a menacing path along the shoreline and there was a real surprise in the shape of 5 Pale-bellied Brent Geese. Budle Bay produced a Little Egret, a flock of 150+ Grey Plover and a distant feeding frenzy of Gannets that could be seen above the breaking surf. Finally, as the tide begin to crash against the dunes in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, we watched as a flock of Knot, Turnstone, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Sanderling and Dunlin braved the onrushing waves for longer than the human visitors to the beach
Even though we live in southeast Northumberland, we’ll never tire of getting out and about searching for new experiences for our clients. Days out with clients are always exciting as well, because we never know exactly what we’ll see or what it will be doing.
Last Thursday we had a Southeast Northumberland/Druridge Bay safari with clients from a fairly wide geographical area; Jeff and Jean from Huddersfield, Lawrie and Linda from Glasgow and Yvonne from southwest Northumberland. Starting at Newbiggin we managed a brief view of a Mediterranean Gull on the beach, and a small flock of Sanderling. These little grey, white and black ‘clockwork toys’ are always entertaining as they scurry back and forth along the water’s edge. The River Wansbeck was our next destination. As expected there was a good sized flock of Lapwing roosting and Cormorants and Herons were doing what they do; standing with their wings out and just sort of standing respectively. All of a sudden a wave of panic spread through the Lapwings. We all scanned backwards, forwards, skywards but couldn’t see any cause. Perhaps it was just a false alarm? The birds settled but were up again within a minute, gradually settling back down with a great deal of conversation between them all. Greenshanks flew by calling and the Lapwings were becoming increasingly jittery. Even birds from distant streams were high in the air, forming the quite tight flocks that indicate the presence of a predator, something that creates anticipation wherever we’re birdwatching. Eventually we found a distant Peregrine, and a big female Sparrowhawk slid menacingly through the trees opposite our watchpoint. One or both of them was presumably the cause for concern. Even the Great Black-backed Gulls flushed and flew overhead, giving calls of consternation.
Among the coastal waders, perhaps the best were three Common Snipe, unusually confiding and just a few metres away from us. The fall of passerine migrants earlier in the week had left a few goodies behind. Spotted and Pied Flycatchers were quite elusive, sallying forth and then back into cover, Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs were picking their way through willows beside the path and, providing a visual feast to rival the gaudiest of birds from elsewhere in the world, six male Common Redstarts were along one short stretch of hedge. There really is little to rival the beauty of these birds.
At the conclusion of our journey up the coast a bird as lacking in colour as the Redstart is bathed in it was a final wonderful sighting. As we watched two Grey Herons perched in trees overhanging the River Coquet, a Little Egret flew by before returning and perching high in the treetops in a spot where we could watch it through the ‘scope. There can’t be many better places to be birdwatching than the Northumberland coast in September
Our monthly WeBS count should have been done a couple of weeks ago although, with weekends from mid-March through to mid-September fairly well occupied, this morning was the first chance I’d had to do the count. With today’s tide times, and a mid-morning meeting with a potential sponsor for NEWT, I left the house just after 6am and drove to Cresswell. Our usual method of covering the 3.75 miles of our survey section is to take 2 cars, leave one at East Chevington and then drive to Cresswell in the other, leaving us with a walk north along Druridge Bay. As a solo survey it’s a 7.5 mile round journey, and good exercise on the sand. As I headed north on a deserted beach, the southwesterly wind brought icy, stinging rain. Nearly 100 Common Eiders were just offshore, 5 Common Scoter were just beyond them and a summer-plumaged Red-throated Diver brought a splash of colour. A Sand eel had managed to become stranded almost 20m above the receding tideline so I did my good deed for the day and returned it to the sea, although it initially resisted my efforts to pick it up Sandwich Terns were flying backwards and forwards along the shore, giving their creaky, rasping call, and a summer-plumaged Sanderling was feeding alongside 2 Ringed Plovers.
With legs stretched and lungs filled with clean sea air I finished my walk and headed home. All the while I was thinking about my early birdwatching days when I would get up before dawn and cycle to what I’d identified as promising local birdwatching spots. Sometimes they produced the goods, sometimes they didn’t…but there was always that sense of having the world to yourself. Sometimes, birdwatching in Northumberland can feel like that in the middle of the day
The sharp wind, and even sharper pellets of icy rain were stinging the backs of our necks as we walked along the beach from Cresswell to East Chevington yesterday. Once every month, between September and April, we walk this section of the Northumberland coast. Purposeful birdwatching; the waders and wildfowl that we encounter are logged a part of the WeBS (Wetland Bird Survey) totals. The beach is an extraordinary landscape, rarely the same from one month to the next. Yesterday was a first for us, after several years of walking this stretch; the sand was so high at one point that we could see inland, over the top of the dunes. It opened up a whole new view. Some months the sand is so low that almost the entire journey is over exposed rocks, sometimes there are no rocks, sometimes the sand is very level, sometimes it’s steeply shelving, sometimes there are tank blocks visible like a row of sinister teeth. When you combine that with the variability of the sea, it’s almost a different walk each month. The only downside is that nice sunny mornings mean that there is a lot of disturbance, and wader numbers are low. Sanderling is the species most affected. These cute white waders, playing ‘chicken’ with the edge of the surf, with their clockwork toy leg action are sometimes present in good numbers and sometimes not so. Yesterday was a poor day, with only three of them along the 3.2 miles of our count area. One was colour-ringed though, so we have a good chance of being able to find out where it was ringed, and where it’s been seen since then. Maybe it’ll still be there next month. who knows? That’s one of the joys of survey work.