Saturday saw a much more relaxed start, at a much more civilised hour, for the second day of our Black Grouse Bonanza guided holiday. After another filling breakfast at Peth Head we set out for a day around Kielder and the Borders. With beautiful blue sky, fluffy white clouds and a nice breeze, it looked very much like a ‘Raptor Day’.
After a drive up the North Tyne valley, the first thing that struck us when we arrived at the dam end of Kielder Water was the number of Willow Warblers that were singing. Swallows were zipping back and forth and there was a real springtime feel in the air. As always, flocks of Chaffinches seemed to be everywhere, and we made our way to NEWT’s favourite raptor watchpoint. In our quite exposed position we were at the mercy of what turned out to be a bitingly cold westerly wind so hats, gloves, fleece jackets and windproof layers were required. There was an extraordinary difference between being in the sunshine and being under the layers of cloud that were scudding across from the west, and that had an effect on the birds too. After a couple of hours of occasional sightings of Common Buzzard, and one Goshawk that shadowed a buzzard over a distant plantation, midday was approaching when it all kicked off; first one pair of Common Buzzards appeared opposite our watchpoint, then a second pair appeared alongside them, and a third pair over an adjacent plantation were probably responding to the flurry of activity. Six buzzards in the air at the same time was only a start though, as the harsh croaking of a pair of Ravens drew our attention and these big, impressive ‘honorary raptors’ materialised from the background of the trees below our eyeline, breaking the skyline and soaring across the valley and disappearing over the trees to the northwest as another four Ravens rose into view away to the east. The buzzard activity drew the attention of a male Goshawk, who circled with one bird before gliding away over a distant plantation.
Before crossing the border into Scotland we sat by a small stream and watched two Dippers as they bobbed up and down on mid-stream rocks and dived into the crystal clear, and presumably icy cold, water. During our lunch break a Common Buzzard soared along a ridge just above our position, and as we crossed the moors a Raven was flying over a nest site, a Kestrel was hanging in the wind, Wild Goats were grazing contentedly, and a single Red Grouse raised its head above the shelter of the heather and into the breeze as we passed.
A stop at the Bakethin reserve on the way back down the North Tyne brought excellent views of an Osprey as it circled over the water, Common Sandpipers were displaying noisily, Oystercatchers had a noisy exchange during changeover at a nest, Teal were displaying, Goldeneye and Cormorant were diving, Chiffchaffs seemed to be in every tree and a Green Woodpecker was persistently yaffling. Each time it called we all scanned the ground in the direction the calls were coming from, more in hope than expectation. Eventually Derek managed to locate the bird…perched at the top of a tree, yaffling away like a Blackbird would sing from an exposed perch! The sky beyond the woodpecker held our 5th raptor for the day, a soaring Sparrowhawk, and we headed back to Peth Head.
The holiday was to produce a final bit of magic, as a night-time drive along a narrow country lane produced excellent views of two young Badgers, running across just a few metres ahead of us, a third Badger along the roadside and a Roe Deer running along the verge towards us before springing over a wall and away across the fields.
With such lovely clients, an excellent accommodation base and a whole series of stunning wildlife experiences during the holiday, I’m excited about next year’s Black Grouse Bonanza already We’ll be announcing 2014 holiday dates shortly, but please get in touch if you would like to be kept informed of the details of what we have on offer next year.
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
There are times when you can visit the same location on successive days and see exactly the same wildlife, other times something you saw the day before has moved on but there’s compensation in the form of something unexpected…
I collected Julie and David from The Swan and we set off for day of bespoke birdwatching, combining the best of our uplands with the post-industrial birdwatching wonders of southeast Northumberland. As we headed inland towards the Cheviot valleys the spectacular scenery (not for the first time) elicited a number of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the passenger seats of the car. Crossing the ford where the Harthope Burn becomes the Wooler Water we enjoyed very close views of those two riverine specialists, Dipper and Grey Wagtail. I’m enthusiastic about most, if not all, birds but male Grey Wagtails are truly stunning birds, and one that often holds our clients entranced for extended periods of time. We continued along the valley, and set off to walk up a narrow valley leading up into the hills from the main valley. Red Grouse were cackling all around us, flying from one side of the valley to the other and occasionally perching in full view, imperiously staring at us as we followed the burn their territories. A female Ring Ouzel flew down the valley, over our heads and away to a distant clump of trees, a pair of Sparrowhawks displayed ahead of us, and we stopped for lunch. Our post-lunch walk was another spectacular one. This time in a steep-sided valley, with Peregrines, Kestrels, Common Buzzards and Ravens soaring overhead, Mistle Thrushes carrying food to hungry nestlings and the song of a male Ring Ouzel carrying on the strengthening breeze. An icy April shower added to the wild, remote feel of the valley and we headed back downhill into glorious sunshine. Our assemblage of raptors (including the honorary member – the Raven) didn’t feature the Osprey I’d seen the day before, but we did have a real bonus bird…one of the things about birding in narrow steep-sided valleys is that birds appear very unexpectedly, and on this occasion it was the enigmatic ‘Phantom of the Forest’ as a male Goshawk broke the skyline in front of us and beat his way powerfully across the moors.
The second half of the day was spent on the Northumberland coast, finishing close to home around Druridge Bay. The Common Eiders we found were greatly appreciated and the tour of NEWT’s ‘local patch’ produced a number of highlights with Marsh Harrier, Little Ringed Plover, Avocet, Pintail and Red-breasted Merganser all going down particularly well but, perhaps, the bird of the day was a Short-eared Owl that perched on a roadside fencepost and watched us just as intently as we were watching it; piercing yellow eyes holding us all enthralled as we completed a long day of birdwatching that seemed to be over too soon. Isn’t that always the way
After a day on the coast, heading inland to Kielder seems other-worldly, but it always produces something memorable.
In rather misty conditions I drove across to Otterburn Hall to collect Anne and Peter for a day of birdwatching around Kielder and the Border forests. As we travelled through the forest the temperature gauge on the car hit the heady heights of 7C! Common Buzzards were uncharacteristically obliging, remaining perched in the open, and Crossbills and Siskins were once again shining like jewels in the cloudy, gloomy edges of the forest. After Thursday’s Skylark/Merlin encounter, Kielder provided another predator-prey experience. We’d been watching displaying Common Snipe, and listened to one singing from it’s perch on a tree stump in the middle of a clear-fell area. A Sparrowhawk soared into view, circling high over a nearby plantation, before switching to a much more direct flight mode…and chasing one of the displaying Snipe. As they vanished out of sight over a plantation the hawk was still in hot pursuit…and the eventual outcome wasn’t for our eyes. Anne spotted the only Red Squirrel of the day as we continued along our route out onto the ‘main’ road
As we continued across the border and into a remote valley, we enjoyed our picnic lunch with Ravens and Common Buzzards soaring along the ridges high above us. A Dipper sat motionless on a mid-stream rock and a pair of Goosanders flew upstream into the head of the valley. I may be a cold-weather person, and I’m certainly an evening person…but Springtime in the hills has a magic all of it’s own, and I feel privileged sharing it with our clients.
Whenever we have a trip with clients who have been given gift vouchers, I always wonder what they expect. Some will have chosen gift vouchers when asked what they would like, some will have been given them by our existing clients, and for some it must be a complete mystery tour. When we get an enquiry we always try to determine exactly what our clients want, but at the start of a trip I’ll always enquire “is there anything you’re particularly keen to see while you’re in Northumberland?” Then, the pressure is on to try and deliver that experience…
I collected Patrick and Bronwyn from Amble yesterday morning for a day of birdwatching around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland. As we set off it was a beautiful morning; sunny, calm and dry and I soon determined that one bird they would love to see was Bittern – they’ve visited sites where Bitterns breed and Bitterns overwinter but not, so far, anywhere where the aforementioned birds were obliging enough to come into view for them. An hour into the trip and it was already windy, bitterly cold and spotting with rain but the birding was good. 2 Bewick’s Swans in a roadside field were very obliging, nibbling on the vegetation as we studied them, 12 Goosanders sailed majestically across a lake, Patrick’s sharp eyes picked out an immaculate male Sparrowhawk on a fence post and the air was filled with skeins of geese (Canada, Greylag, Pink-footed, White-fronted and Bean), a Skylark battled into the wind and Wigeon, Teal, Tufted Duck, Gadwall, Pochard, Mallard and Great-crested Grebe were picked out from the flock on the water.
A brief visit to Newbiggin to track down a Mediterranean Gull (or four) was followed by lunch overlooking the North Sea. Heading up through the bay, Red-breasted Mergansers were displaying and a Short-eared Owl (the first of three for the afternoon) perched on a roadside fence-post. Reedbeds were illuminated by that beautiful winter afternoon light (I wax lyrical about it frequently, but it really is a breathtaking backdrop to the wildlife and part of the experience). As the afternoon light began to fade, Venus appeared overhead, a herd of Whooper Swans trumpeted their arrival for the evening roost and a Grey Heron shot out of one reedbed, flew across in front of us, landed just out of sight and flushed a Bittern that flew almost the reverse of the route taken by the heron, along the near edge of the pool directly in front of us and dropped into a reedbed and out of sight! Wildlife may be unpredictable, but those days when it seems to perform to order leave me, and our clients, with a big grin After that what more was there to do than spend the evening relaxing back at home with a glass of good red wine. Cheers
Standing on the Heugh on Holy Island with Jill and Steve, we’re all scanning towards Guile Point. Cormorants, Shags, Red-breasted Mergansers and Eider are all bobbing about on the water, Pale-bellied and Dark-bellied Brent Geese, Bar-tailed Godwits, Grey Plover, Curlew and Oystercatchers are flying by, Common and Grey Seals are splashing in the surf as the tide falls…and I’m focused on the sea with one species in mind. Then 2 distant white dots, gradually narrowing the gap toward us, and I know I’ve achieved that primary target. Soon, I’ve got 2 very happy clients watching an immaculate drake Long-tailed Duck. Outrageously attractive, he waved that eponymous tail in the air before taking off and vanishing out of sight around the headland.
At the other end of the day we watched a flock of 20 Slavonian Grebes and a similar number of Common Scoter, another 6 Long-tailed Ducks, an elusive Black-throated Diver and 3 equally elusive Red-throated Divers and 2 Harbour Porpoises as the light faded to the point where even the impressive assembly of optical equipment wasn’t offering an advantage any more.
Sandwiched in between though, was a veritable feast of raptors; we’d already had a couple of Common Buzzards (and I’d had 2 on the drive to Hauxley before collecting Jill and Steve), 2 Sparrowhawks and several Kestrels by lunchtime, but the best was yet to come. First a Merlin perched on a post in front of us for 10 minutes, then we found 2 Peregrines sitting on boulders at low tide. Soon a wave of panic spread through the assembled waders, and the Barnacle, Greylag, Pink-footed and White-fronted Geese, as the 2 Peregrines swooped back and forth. Then, our second Merlin of the day began harrassing one of the Peregrines. As chaos raged across the mudflats, one of the Peregrines made a kill; an unfortunate Redshank. It took it’s prize to a rock and began plucking it…and 2 more Peregrines arrived! All 3 tussled over the spoils of the hunt, before 2 of them conceded and sat a little distance away. A dry, cold wintry day and spectacular drama played out by some excellent wildlife. The Northumberland coast in the winter – there’s nothing better
After a planned break from days out with clients, and regular exercise and ice-pack treatment for my knee, we had a mini-Safari on Wednesday afternoon. Southeast Northumberland is our local patch, so I was getting back into the swing of things with something comfortingly familiar.
I collected Alastair and Zoe from Church Point and we set out on an exploration of the River Wansbeck. Stunning Red-breasted Mergansers and Goldeneye, and subtly attractive Little Grebes (amazing how many people still think of them as Dabchicks – a far nicer name!), were diving along the edge of the river. A handsome drake Goosander flew upstream and the first of the afternoon’s 4 Sparrowhawks drifted high overhead. A flock of Long-tailed Tits, those noisy endearing pink and white fluffballs, made their way in procession from one side of the river to the other and Mallards began dropping out of the sky and following each other through the vegetation, quacking noisily. As daylight faded a flock of Teal drifted backwards and forwards between a reedbed and open water, roosting Pheasants (my vote for most underrated bird in Britain) flushed from a Hawthorn hedge as we made our way back to the car in the dark, and it was time to return Zoe and Alastair to Newbiggin.
Clients often comment that what really appeals to them about birdwatching is that every day is different and there’s always something new to learn. I couldn’t agree more; I have lots of days out with clients, and a lot of time in the field on ‘non-client’ days, and still feel enthusiastic every morning when I wake up, knowing that I don’t know what the day will bring.
Thursday was Peter and Alison’s second day out with us, and this time we were birdwatching around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland.
The weather forecast had shown the edge of the rain staying south of Newcastle all day, so that should have been alright…
As it turned out, we had rain for a good chunk of the day, but the birdwatching was still excellent. From Black-headed Gulls, and a lesson on moult and ageing, Mediterranean Gulls scavenging in the Church Point car park, 4 Short-eared Owls and a Hen Harrier quartering the ash lagoon bank, a Sparrowhawk hunting as a group of Starlings came swirling in to roost, a tiny Goldcrest flitting about in a windswept Willow, a skittish Water Rail apparently struggling to summon the courage to run across the gap between reedbeds, a thousand Pink-footed Geese flying in at dusk, 300 Barnacle Geese taking to the air together, all the way to the finale of the trip as a Bittern flew between the north and south pools at East Chevington as dark descended, it was another day of outstanding experiences.
And tomorrow…is another day
The autumn regularly produces excellent birdwatching experiences, and our Friday afternoon Lindisfarne mini-safari was no exception.
I collected Pat and Ian from Glororum and we headed north towards Holy Island. With the tide falling, the newly exposed mud provided a veritable banquet for the massed waders and wildfowl. As far as the eye could see the shoreline was lined with Pale-bellied and Dark-bellied Brent Geese, Barnacle Geese were arriving and the mud was a hive of activity with Wigeon, Teal, Bar-tailed Godwits, Curlews, Redshanks, Oystercatchers, Knot, Dunlin and Grey Plover all tucking in. 2 Carrion Crows were administering a warm welcome to a Peregrine, and a Little Egret flew in, landing beside another egret that was stalking around the edges of a pool on the mudflats. As the afternoon wore on, we relocated to Bamburgh, and the rocks there produced excellent views of the waders we’d seen earlier as well as a few Purple Sandpipers.
Then came one of those real experience moments. Despite the strong offshore winds 3 Fieldfares were battling against the headwind, low over the waves. They crossed the beach, flew by us and as they dropped towards the shelter of the coastal fields they were intercepted by 2 Sparrowhawks. The final act of the encounter happened out of sight, but you can’t help thinking that it was a cruel end to a herculean effort.