Our returning clients theme continued last week, when I collected Elaine and Sue for an Otter Safari, concentrating mainly around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland. We first met between Christmas and New Year 2008 when they joined myself and Sarah on a guided walk on Holy Island. On that day Elaine photographed this stunning Stonechat
and we also had a brief view of a Jack Snipe as it flushed ahead of us.
Last Wednesday we set off up the coast, stopping to check our favourite Little Owl site. Elaine spotted the bird, as it was mobbed by no less than six Magpies. It fixed it’s tormentors with what can only be described as a look of utter contempt and they gradually drifted away. Cresswell Pond produced a persistently-bobbing Jack Snipe, tucked in amongst the reeds and much more obliging than our 2008 bird on Holy Island, and plenty of Common Snipe like this one, again photographed by Elaine.
Curlew, Golden Plover, Lapwing, Dunlin, Redshank and Oystercatcher were all roosting around pool edges and the change out of eclipse plumage was very noticeable among the ducks, with drake Teal looking particularly good. As the warm autumn sunshine bathed the landscape around us, the air was suddenly filled with dragonflies and Elaine captured this portrait of a stunning Migrant Hawker.
There’s something captivating about dragonflies and, as myself and Sue concentrated on scanning reed edges for any indication that an Otter was lurking, Elaine returned to the spot where the dragonfly had been earlier. Within a matter of minutes the temperature fell slightly and insect activity ceased.I’m not sure we have any finer insect than Migrant Hawker, and you can see from Elaine’s photo what a stunner it is.
As sunset neared and we searched for any sign of our quarry, we watched a Starling murmuration developing as a herd of Whooper Swans flew between distant fields. Just before it got dark the Whoopers appeared overhead, giving their eerie call and dropping into their overnight roost site. After a really enjoyable day out, we returned to our starting point and I looked forward (with good reason!) to seeing Elaine’s images from the day, which I’m really happy to be able to post in our blog – thank you Elaine .
Returning clients have been a bit of a theme this year, and I was really looking forward on Wednesday to be collecting Carolyn and Brian for a day of birdwatching in and around Kielder. The weather was looking less than promising but, as I collected them from their holiday cottage in Cresswell with it’s stunning view out over the North Sea and Druridge Bay, we agreed that we’d make the best of the weather, whatever it was doing.
On the edge of the border forests a Roe Deer watched us with great interest and a Common Buzzard was perched at the top of a spruce tree that seemed barely able to support it’s weight. As if that perch wasn’t precarious enough, the bird was hanging it’s wings out like a Cormorant, presumably trying to dry them during a lull in the rain.
As with many of our trips there was a species that was particularly sought after. On this occasion it was our old favourite, the Dipper. With several bits of excellent river, that could be viewed from the car if the showers returned, it wasn’t too long before we found one, then another. With Sand Martins zipping in and out of nest holes, Common Sandpipers, Reed Buntings, Stonechats, Whinchats, Pied Wagtails, Oystercatchers, and Goosanders (another lifer for Carolyn and Brian) the rivers were a real hive of activity. Curlew were flying up the valley and we headed across the border. Red Grouse were a third lifer for the day, some majestic Wild Goats watched imperiously as we had a post-lunch walk, and a Peregrine was perched on a rock on the moorland high above us. It launched from it’s vantage point and flew directly over our heads before dropping to the ground and furtively creeping around before disappearing into a nearby gulley.
As we made our way back east, we found ourselves in a patch of sunshine with a handsome male Siskin and a Spotted Flycatcher just ahead of us, and we continued our journey back to Cresswell.
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
Yesterday saw something we haven’t done before; a mid-August Kielder Safari.
Andrew, Nick (on his 3rd trip with NEWT), Stephen and Georgina all arrived at our starting point within minutes of each other. Under a deep blue sky, with some big fluffy white clouds, conditions looked perfect and we set off for the western reaches of Northumberland.
Common Buzzards were seen en route, a good sign that conditions were right for raptors. The thing that makes our Kielder Safaris so special is the access we’ve been granted by the Forestry Commission, allowing us to take our clients on a drive along remote tracks that are not open to vehicle access by the general public. With so little disturbance, the wildlife along the tracks is often very approachable. A family party of Common Crossbills perched obligingly in trees just ahead of us, and kept flying down to the track to eat grit, Siskins, Chaffinches and a Spotted Flycatcher were all watched as they went about their business close by and a Sparrowhawk twisted, turned and swooped through the trees just a few metres away, hot on the tail of a flock of Siskins and Chaffinches. Perhaps one of the most extraordinary moments of the trip was something I’ve never seen before, in over 40 years of birdwatching; as we watched a juvenile Common Buzzard soaring above a remote steep-sided valley, Andrew noticed a second bird further along the valley. The juvenile flew in that direction and the second bird, an adult buzzard, flew up towards it, rolled on it’s back in mid-air and passed prey up to the juvenile. I’ve seen that happen so many times as courtship behaviour in all of our harrier species, but I’ve never seen a food pass between Common Buzzards, and to see it executed so gracefully by this broad-winged raptor was breathtaking. We continued on our way with Wheatear, Stonechat, Kestrel, Raven, Pochard, Tufted Duck and Mandarin all joining the day list.
Perhaps the best of the day though came near the end; as we drove across the Forest Drive, a large mammal crossed the track ahead of us. Looking like a dark Roe Deer on steroids, the nanny Wild Goat was soon followed by a billy goat and 2 kids. We’ve seen Wild Goats with clients on our trips before, but never at such close quarters.
We’ll be visiting Kielder again on 31st August and 2nd September, so give us a call on 07908 119535 to find out how you can share the experience of the border forests, and the unknown quantity of those remote tracks, with us.
As the rain hammered down while I packed the car ready for Sunday’s Otter Safari I was filled with optimism; the weather forecast (really, I should stop believing these…) suggested that the afternoon and evening would be dry and bright.
When I arrived at Church Point Marc and Marika were already there, and we were joined by Becky and Jim soon after. The trip was a present for one of each couple, and we set off for an afternoon of birdwatching combined with searching for Otters. First stop was one of our Little Owl sites, and Becky’s sharp eyes picked out a juvenile bird that was doing a very passable impression of a stone. Our next stop, beside the River Coquet, produced Common Terns fishing, flyby Curlews (and a discussion of separation from Whimbrel), 4 Common Sandpipers and some impressive thunderstorms away to the north and west of us.
A heavy shower as we reached the NWT reserve at East Chevington kept us in the car for a few minutes, during which time we were entertained by a family party of Stonechats. As the rain eased we walked to the hide overlooking the north pool. Amongst the throng of Common, Sandwich and Arctic Terns and Lapwings were 3 adult Knot, still in breeding plumage. Suddenly the entire roosting flock lifted, and the unmistakeable figure of a Spoonbill flew across our field of vision. It seemed intent on landing, but the constant harrassment from the terns meant that we were treated to several flypasts, including one where it was just 20m away from us. As if this wasn’t spectacular enough, 2 Little Egrets appeared, while the Spoonbill was still circling, and were subjected to the same treatment. Eventually a semblance of calm returned and we watched a juvenile Marsh Harrier as it pranced comically in the wet grass, presumably eating worms that had been brought to the surface by the rain, and a second juvenile harrier harrassed by crows. Another creature to benefit from the rain was a very young Hedgehog busily eating worms and, in a real ‘aahh’ moment, pausing briefly to sniff the air.
Our picnic stop, overlooking the southern end of Druridge Bay, produced rafts of Eiders and Common Scoters, the piping calls baby Guillemots rising from the waves below, Gannets and Sandwich Terns plunging into the sea, at least 3 Arctic Skuas and the majestic lumbering menace of a Pomarine Skua passing south just offshore.
Changeable, showery weather often produces good sunsets, and this was no exception; as a band of steel grey cloud drifted along the horizon, sunlight shone through a narrow gap, fading from gold to orange to red to pink. And there, in the reflection of the dramatic sky, was the main event – an Otter, twisting and turning, creating panic among the waterfowl, perched imperiously on a boulder and then vanishing into the deepening shadows of the water’s edge. Clouds of Noctule Bats and Common Pipistrelles swirled overhead, occasionally passing within a few feet of us, a female Tawny Owl called from the nearby trees, and the scene faded to darkness…
After a couple of days in the office (although I’m not complaining; I spent those two days finalising details for two new projects and taking bookings for group photography trips and a Northumberland birdwatching holiday) it was good to get out with clients this morning. Our three clients became just one though, due to the Icelandic volcano, and I collected Ellen from Newbiggin by the Sea for a tour of southeast Northumberland and Druridge Bay. We started with a search for Mediterranean Gulls. None of the nice, ghostly white-winged adults were around but there was a 2nd year bird amongst the Black-headed Gulls. It made a good identification subject, as the lack of obvious white wings meant that it was possible to focus on structure rather than just plumage, although the obvious wing-bar ensured that a discussion of wing topography was easy to relate to what we could see flying in front of us.
Under deep blue skies with fluffy white clouds this was a beautiful morning, although the bitingly cold, howling northwesterly meant that hats and gloves were in order. At Cresswell we admired our bird of the day; a stunning male Black-headed Wagtail. I’d never seen one before, and as Ellen is from the southwestern US it was a lifer for her as well. The geographical connection to where I spent 6 months in 1999/2000 focused conversation on two of my favourite topics; birdwatching and Mexican food. Summer visitors were evident, with Swallow and Sand Martin flying over all the coastal pools, Willow Warblers singing their silvery, descending cadence sheltered from the wind, a nervous Common Sandpiper just a few metres away from us and, best of all one of the best looking ducks to have ever dabbled around Druridge Pools, Garganey, was another lifer for Ellen. A pair of Stonechats perched in a bare hawthorn were a welcome sight, after a winter that will have surely decimated their population. The three hours passed incredibly quickly and I dropped a happy birdwatcher in Morpeth to continue the next leg of her journey through Northumberland.