I love the Northumberland coast, and my obsession with the North Sea and it’s wildlife is well documented, but I always look forward to the drive west – away from the sea and into forests and remote moorland…
I collected Jeanette and Simon for their second trip with NEWT, following the Otter mini-Safari on Sunday, and we headed across through Alnwick, Rothbury, Thropton, Elsdon and Otterburn. As we approached the dam at the southern end of Kielder Water I could see a bird ahead of us flying towards the reservoir. It was flying directly away from us but it’s a fairly distinctive bird from any angle…and the Osprey hovered over the water, plunged, surfaced with a large fish and flew along the dam wall, pursued by an angry mob of Common Gulls as 6 Roe Deer grazed just outside the cover of woodland beside the North Tyne With occasional breaks in the cloud, and brief interludes of warm sunshine, it seemed a good time to find a suitable spot to sit and look over the forest…which worked just as planned with Common Buzzard, Sparrowhawk and Goshawk all making it on to the day list as a flock of Redwing called overhead
The drive from forest to moorland produced excellent views of a Dipper as it submerged in a fast-flowing stream, and then the moors produced another excellent crop of birds. Ravens, big impressive and noisy flew overhead, pairs of Common Buzzard seemed to be everywhere we looked, Red Grouse played hide-and-seek with us as they emerged from cover only to vanish again within a few seconds and three more raptors made it seven species for the day. Kestrel is still a regular bird on many of our tours but the other two were real scarcities; a pair of Merlin were calling noisily just behind us as a male Hen Harrier ghosted across the moor below us. Then he started skydancing That would be a treat enough, but the bird that had prompted his display came into view…not the female harrier we’d expected, but a second male! The two tussled briefly in the air just above the heather before both drifting out of sight. Wild Goats were remarkably confiding close to the road as we headed back towards lower ground and trees.
Back down in the forest and a female Common Crossbill was a nice find as the high-pitched songs of Goldcrest and Treecreeper pierced the air, Goldeneye displayed out on the water as a drake Mandarin sat quietly behind the bankside vegetation and Grey Wagtails bobbed along the muddy edge. Another wildlife-filled day out with clients who were great company
Our Winter Wonderland holiday started on Sunday evening with Ben and Diane, and David, arriving at the Bamburgh Castle Inn.
Day One 22/02/16. Our first full day was around Lindisfarne and the North Northumberland coast and everything that makes the area so good in the winter put in an appearance. Purple Sandpiper, Oystercatcher, Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Common Redshank, Turnstone, Grey Plover, Golden Plover, Dunlin and Knot represented wading birds, Common Scoter, Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, Long-tailed Duck and Slavonian Grebe were just offshore, Grey Seal and at least 16 Roe Deer provided some mammal interest and there were lots and lots of geese. Pale-bellied Brent, Dark-bellied Brent, Pink-footed, Greylag and Barnacle filled the air, the fields and the mudflats as Skylarks sang and fought, heralding the arrival of spring
Day Two 23/02/16. Our second day was spent around NEWT’s local patch, Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland. One of our favourite mammals was soon on the trip list as an Otter cub appeared from its hideaway in a pile of boulders and spent a little while feeding close by The long-staying Long-billed Dowitcher joined the trip list too, feeding alongside Knot, Common Redshank and Bar-tailed Godwit and unexpected birds included Marsh Tit and Treecreeper. As the afternoon light faded, we watched a family group of Whooper Swans and a pair of Dippers sat almost motionless on a mid-stream rock as the water rushed around them and a Barn Owl was a welcome addition to the trip list just before an incredibly brief sleety shower reminded us that this is the winter
24/02/16. Departure day dawned bright, cold and encased in frost at the end of the holiday. Just the way the winter should be!
I collected Gill and Stuart from The Swan, ahead of a day in search of photographable Otters, and the most noticeable thing was the gentle breeze and lack of rain/sleet/hail/snow Always a good start…
After a morning of Treecreepers, Moorhen, Little Grebe, Long-tailed Tits, mirror-calm water, two separate incidents where Mallards, Mute Swans and Black-headed Gulls all gave an indication that they’d spotted a predator and lots of entertaining discussion about the ethics of wildlife photography (and the brilliance of the Nikon D810) we had lunch overlooking the remarkably calm North Sea, with a flock of Eider offshore and Fulmars arcing along the cliff tops. I’d seen two Otter cubs on Thursday, when I was getting in some recce work before the arrival of Storm Gertrude, so I’d already decided where we’d be spending the afternoon. Goldeneye and Little Grebe were sitting quietly on the water, a lone Little Egret was stalking through the shallows and Cormorants, those briefly convincing Otter lookalikes, were busy eating their way through plenty of small fish. Then, the change in behaviour I was looking for; Redshank scattered and Cormorants took off as if they’d rather be anywhere other than where they’d been feeding. Looking like a rock moving slowly through the shallow water the adult Otter was hunting, head and tail submerged and it’s impressive muscular torso above the water line Then, much closer to us, an Otter cub diving persistently, crunching it’s prey each time it surfaced. Closer and closer, until it obligingly got out of the water in front of us. A second cub was slightly more distant, and we’d got three separate Otters in view as a Kingfisher treated us to repeated fly-bys on what seemed to be a regular feeding circuit.
As Black-headed and Herring Gulls passed overhead in the rapidly deepening gloom of dusk and a strengthening cold breeze brought persistent drizzle we headed back to the car after nearly three hours with the Otters. You just don’t notice the cold and wet when you’re enjoying yourself
The alarm went off at 06:00 on Wednesday, and my heart sank as I looked out of the window…heavy mist, not ideal for any of our tours, but particularly not good for a day in Kielder. I drove to Kingston Park to collect Steph and we headed west in much more promising conditions; low cloud in some valleys, but some sunshine too. We collected Paul and Trish from Wark, and then Ivan from Tower Knowe and headed into the forest. It was a bit cool and misty for any raptors to be up and about, but two Common Crossbill flew by and the air around us was filled with the descending silvery cadence of Willow Warblers as Woodpigeons, Stock Doves and Carrion Crows caused a brief quickening of the heart rate as they flew between plantations.
A walk to the Bakethin reserve produced lots of Siskin, and Goldeneye, Tufted Duck, Teal, Oystercatcher, Cormorant and Common Sandpiper were around the water’s edge. As we got back to the car park, which provided good views of Treecreepers, Paul spotted a raptor high overhead, and binoculars resolved it into the impressive shape of an Osprey.
Over the border into Scotland we were soon encountering Common Buzzards, lots of them, and a remarkable number of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits. We reached our picnic spot and, as soup, sandwiches and carrot cake were consumed, raptors began to appear above the skyline. First Common Buzzards, then a female Hen Harrier, followed soon after by a skydancing grey male Then more Common Buzzards, and more Common Buzzards. At one point we had between four and six birds behind us, while higher up the valley at least ten were kettling in one thermal along with a Peregrine Absolute heaven for any birdwatcher who enjoys raptors…and who doesn’t? Along the stream Reed Buntings were pretending to be Dippers, but we did eventually find the genuine article, which obligingly bobbed up and down on a rock before diving into the fast flowing water, and Wheatears were perched on old stone walls. On the hillsides high above the valley bottom, Wild Goats were grazing as we enjoyed close views of Common Buzzards both perched and flying, and Red Grouse were found as we crossed the moors back towards England.
We finished the trip with an uncountable number of Chaffinches and a real Northumberland speciality as a Red Squirrel ran around on the ground before deciding to hang upside down on a peanut cage, and it was time to reverse the route and drop everyone off.
I’m easily distracted and always have been, but also quite obsessive. Maybe an odd combination, but it seems to work for me. With an office window that looks over several allotments and gardens, as well as the 76ha of mixed woodland that is Choppington Woods Local Nature Reserve, I’m quite keen on keeping a close eye on what turns up in the garden…
With the shaded areas of the garden still carrying a light veneer of frost, and a stiff southeasterly breeze cutting to the bone as I filled the feeders yesterday morning, a Common Buzzard soared overhead as the Coal Tits perched just a few feet above me, providing encouragement for me to hurry up and fill the feeders. As soon as I was back inside, the tree was a mass of excitement. Chaffinches were dropping in from every direction and I settled to checking through the birds on the feeders, and on the ground below them, hoping that the Bramblings we’ve had for the last few couple of months would be still around. What I found instead were visitors that were even more unusual in the context of our feeding station – 3 Lesser Redpolls were picking at fallen seed on the ground and a Goldcrest was hurrying around the edges of the shrubbery nearby. The Redpolls were just another episode in what has been an unusual winter in our garden; our first garden record of Marsh Tit, second record of Tree Sparrow (2 birds which have been with us every day for a few months now), third record of Nuthatch, the return of Willow Tit after nearly a two year absence, regular sightings of Brambling and occasional Treecreeper have made this a winter where we really couldn’t predict what would be on the feeders whenever we checked them.
As I sat down to write this, I glanced out of the window and my eye immediately fell on seven bulky finches in our neighbour’s Silver Birch trees. As one of the birds was hanging upside down while feeding, lifting my binoculars only confirmed what I already knew; another infrequent visitor had put in an appearance this winter. I opened the window, and heard the metallic ‘chip-chip’ as the flock of Common Crossbills flew into the pines behind our house. Now, what was I meant to be doing ?
I collected Brian from Newbiggin on Saturday for a one-to-one photography afternoon around southeast Northumberland. It was good to find a photographer with the mantra of ‘wait, watch, wait some more’ and we settled among the trees in a dappled woodland. Nuthatch, Treecreeper and Great Spotted Woodpecker all entertained us, Jays were chasing through the trees and Redwings passed overhead, their ‘seee’ calls still resonate deep inside me, nearly 40 years since I first heard them over our school field and then found a bundle of soft feathers where one had fallen prey to the local Kestrel.
We had a brief spell of reasonable light, but the afternoon was mainly characterised by drizzle and gloom; not ideal for photography, but an atmospheric background for the birds that were moving about pre-roost. Then, more calls from the skies as we sat close to a small pond. First, Pink-footed Geese, yapping distantly before coming into view like a distant swirl of smoke as they headed to roost. Then a group of 8 Whooper Swans, heading north. As they vanished into the gloom, the rain increased and brought dusk forward.
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.
…the clever title I’d thought of for this blog post
Just at the moment the pace of life and work is starting to really accelerate. Last week I had a day of meetings, a day in the office, a day distributing leaflets (and getting the graphics applied to our new vehicle), a day in the North Pennines AONB, and a day out with my camera close to the office.
The North Pennines day was interesting; giving a talk, and a guided walk, as part of the Know Your North Pennines training programme. Birdwatching in hail, snow and howling wind all featured during the day. The bit in the snow came while I was still on my journey to the training session; leaving home in plenty of time had given me the opportunity to check out some potential sites for Black Grouse photography. I really wish I’d had my camera with me as I found a field with 6 adult Blackcocks in it. We’ll be checking the site over the next few weeks, but it has the potential to produce even better photo opportunities than the sites where I photographed the birds pictured in this blog post from last year.
The morning spent close to home in southeast Northumberland had one focus; get a photograph of a Treecreeper. Not any photograph though; the one I was picturing in my mind was with the bird vertical on a tree trunk, with a dark background. I even knew exactly where I was going to get the shot – we’ve been baiting an area in some local woodland for quite a while now, and the effort we’ve put into choosing the location and baiting it regularly is starting to pay off. With some exciting wildlife and landscape photography holidays coming up later this year, our clients can benefit from the work we’re doing year-round as well.
Red Squirrels were visiting our feeding station;
Nuthatches are always entertaining, active and vocal;
and the target for the morning put in an appearance For whatever reason, it’s a species that I’ve struggled to capture to my satisfaction previously. I’m fairly happy with this shot…but the shadows could have been lessened using a reflector. At least that gives me an excuse to spend another morning at the feeding station
We just had an all too infrequent ocurrence; both of us at home and able to go out and about together for a whole weekend
On Saturday we decided to concentrate on our local area. Southeast Northumberland offers some excellent wildlife and birdwatching opportunities and, with bookings for the rest of this year coming thick and fast, we’re checking over our Safari Day routes whenever we get the chance so that we hit the ground running once the season gets properly underway.
If our morning excursion is the shape of things to come then it’s going to be an excellent Spring Little Owl, Roe Deer (including a handsome buck with velvet antlers, who watched us between the trees as we trained our binoculars on him), Red Squirrel, point-blank views of Treecreeper, Nuthatch and Great Spotted Woodpecker and lots of fresh Otter spraint all combined into a memorable morning.
As dusk approached we were out and about again. We monitor a few Badger setts regularly and the activity around the sett we checked on Saturday evening was exactly what we’d expect in early March. Another successful outing
Yesterday we were doing something completely different (although birdwatching featured again, of course). We set out for the southwestern border of Northumberland, and beyond, as we pre-walked the route that Martin will be leading for the North Pennines AONB ‘Know Your North Pennines’ course on Wednesday. Journeying to Upper Teesdale gave us the chance to check out some of our favourite Black Grouse sites en route (you’ll be pleased to know that the species hasn’t vanished from Northern England!) and enjoy the sight of Lapwings displaying and flocks of Golden Plover in the fields. Our photography holiday in late October ‘Autumn Colours’ is based in the North Pennines and we finished the day with a visit to one of the area’s gems.