Tuesday was my third consecutive 03:30 alarm call and, bleary eyed, I cleared the snow off the car ahead of a trip to the North Pennines with one specific aim – to watch Black Grouse lekking…
I collected Sylvia and Stephen from Corbridge and we headed westwards. The first rays of sunlight illuminated the tops of the hills and the landscape was bathed in a sublime light that made it look like a completely different area to the one I’d visited three times in the previous week. As we drove along, I could see a cluster of black dots standing out against the pale frosted grass, and there were the Black Grouse 🙂 At least 2o Blackcock and 5 Greyhens were concentrated in the small lekking arena, that will have hosted the gladitorial battles of their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and who knows how many generations of their ancestors. We watched as they displayed and then rested, vanishing into the vegetation, then fought again. The scenario was repeated time and again as Sylvia and Stephen came up with a list of intriguing questions about the breeding ecology of these extraordinary birds. Lapwing, Skylark, Curlew, Redshank, Oystercatcher and Meadow Pipit were all displaying as 2 Skylarks sat obligingly at the roadside, a couple of Woodcock were bobbing along through the long grass, a Brown Hare raced by and a Dipper fought against the breeze, passing over the car as it cut a corner in it’s route along a river.
Flurries of snow passed by horizontally on the stiff breeze and Red Grouse were dotted along the moors as we came across a group of at least 6 Wheatears. A walk to look for Spring Gentians was successful although the walk back to the car into a headwind was challenging, before we headed back towards Corbridge and the lush green landscape of the valley bottoms, a world away from the stunning bleak beauty of the hills.
I collected Adrian and Ruth from Seahouses for the first of their two days out with us this week; a Cheviots-plus Bespoke tour…
We started at Bamburgh, with Oystercatcher, Redshank and Purple Sandpiper along the edge of the breaking surf, Common Eider, Common Scoter, Red-throated Diver and a lone Puffin surfing the waves just beyond and distant Gannets breaking the horizon above a sea that had been whipped into a mass of whitecaps by a stiff northerly breeze.
Heading inland, it was starting to look cloudier and the forecast deterioration in the weather seemed to be on its way. You can’t necessarily trust the forecast though, and the spectacular landscape of the Cheviot valleys was bathed in sunlight. The triumvirate of nervously bobbing riverside dwellers all put in very obliging appearances; Dipper, Grey Wagtail and Common Sandpiper have so much in common, and are always great to watch. Sand Martins and Swallows, always a sign that things are changing, were hawking insects overhead as a Raven flew by, the eerie cries of Curlew revealed their presence as they displayed high over the valley, Red Grouse chuckled from the surrounding heather, Chiffchaffs were singing their relentlessly onomatopaeic song from every clump of trees and Ruth spotted a stunning male Ring Ouzel hopping around on a fellside that was dripping with Mistle Thrushes and Wheatears. Lunch was accompanied by 3 Common Buzzards high overhead, tussling and skydiving as partnerships and territories for the breeding season start to take shape.
Continuing along our planned loop for the day brought us to the coast of Druridge Bay and Avocet, Shorelark, Ringed Plover, Kestrel, Sanderling, a raft of at least 9 Red-throated Divers and then, as we headed back to the car at the end of the day, a Short-eared Owl quartering rough fields with deep slow wingbeats 🙂
Thursday was to be a day of two mini-safaris, and I arrived at Holy Island to collect David and Larraine for the first of those.
Lindisfarne offers remarkable birdwatching during the winter months, but in the height of summer it’s chief features of interest lie in the flowers and invertebrates resplendent in the Northumbrian sunshine. Marsh Helleborine, Common Spotted Orchid, Common Restharrow, Viper’s Bugloss and Cottongrass were all in bloom, and an accompanying cast of butterflies included Meadow Brown, Small Heath, Dark Green Fritillary, Ringlet and Common Blue. An unexpected find was a juvenile Wheatear, and the morning had passed by almost in an instant. Time to head home, for a few hours in the office before our second mini-safari.
It’s been a cold windy spring, and a few of our summer visitors seemed a bit tardy; we found our first Sand Martin and Chiffchaff later than we would have expected, but the day has been coming when things would start to happen…
I collected Jan and Peter from Church Point and we set out to spend the day exploring Druridge Bay. It was, unsurprisingly, cold and very windy again but that didn’t impact on our day birdwatching. Skylarks soared and sang, Marsh Harriers drifted over reedbeds and fields close to the coast and an impressive range of waders performed obligingly; Oystercatcher, Curlew, Ringed Plover, Avocet, Turnstone, Dunlin, Sanderling and Black-tailed Godwit – the latter three species resplendent in breeding plumage – demonstrated why this is such a popular group of species with birdwatchers. The godwit in particular stood out; clothed in chestnut and a vision of elegance to rival the Little Egret that was stalking along the water’s edge nearby. Moorhen and Coot crept furtively along the edge of reedbeds, Stonechat and Meadow Pipit flicked their tails nervously at the tops of bushes in the dunes and an eye-catching fly-catching adult Little Gull was easily picked out from amongst Black-headed Gulls. Seawatching over lunchtime is a regular feature of our Druridge Bay trips and Eider, Gannet, Manx Shearwater and Common Guillemot could all be seen offshore as Fulmars soared and arced along the clifftops a few metres way from us. Wheatears and a Whinchat flitted from tussock to tussock, strikingly beautiful as they always are at this time of the year, and then a sign that the summer is nearly here; hundreds of Sand Martins were flycatching above every pool on the coast as a group of six House Martins flew in, battling against the strengthening breeze with the imperative to head north driving them on. Then, a Swift, and another, then six more. Eight of these scythe-winged masters of the air flew by us, rocking from side-to-side into the wind as they headed to join the feast above the water.
I love those days when we concentrate on looking for a single species, but a day birdwatching with clients and just enjoying, and marvelling, at everything that comes along is pretty much as good as it gets for a birdwatching guide 🙂 As Jan and Peter headed across to Bellingham, and I took the shorter journey back to the office, I was wondering if perhaps the summer weather was on the way…
Last Thursday was Sue’s second Otter Safari with us this year, after an unsuccessful search in early July…a trip that was followed by five consecutive successful Otter Safaris for other clients! I was really looking forward to this trip – Sue is great company and pleasure to be out birdwatching with – but the added pressure of already having one Otter Safari not produce our target species had me planning, re-planning and then planning some more…
I’d got two sites lined up that I was confident would produce Otter sightings, but the one spanner in the works was the weather forecast. If it was accurate (and, as it turned out, it was) we’d got three hours of good weather, and four of poor, ahead of us. As I drove to Church Point, I was mulling over the options for the two sites, and decided to go with the one that’s been our most reliable this year during the good weather, and then head to the other one towards dusk. Then I thought about it again – would the reliable site, where I can usually predict to within a few metres where the Otter will first put in an appearance, be better in the poor weather just before dark? I decided to trust to my first instinct and we were soon watching over the water as the wind strengthened and the first drops of rain were carried towards us on the breeze. As Goldeneye and Cormorant dived in the ruffled water I noticed a dark shape in the corner of my field of vision. It might have been nothing, but I held my concentration on that spot and just over a minute later an Otter cub surfaced in front of us 🙂 Twisting, turning, porpoising, diving and feeding, it kept us entertained for 90 minutes before slipping out of sight as the next wave of raindrops stung our faces on the now howling wind.
We retreated to the car and sat eating lunch overlooking the North Sea, as a distant speck heading towards us over the waves revealed itself to be a Blackbird that paused for a few minutes on the cliff face before continuing its migration inland. Then a Wheatear came ‘in-off’, and soon after that three Redwings arrived, following what must have been an arduous sea crossing, as the rain intensified. As dusk approached, and the rain somehow became even heavier, we watched flocks of Teal and Wigeon, Common Snipe and Dunlin probing in soft mud, Curlew appearing as if from out of nowhere, Starlings and Jackdaws heading to roost, and Blackbirds, Robins, Fieldfare and more Blackbirds, and more Blackbirds 🙂
Heading up the coast to Embleton to collect Pete and Janet for their fourth day out with NEWT (plus a couple of days with their local natural history society on a Northumberland visit in 2009), I had a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. It’s always a pleasure to have them on a tour, but this time we were heading to an area that I know quite well myself, but haven’t covered in any great depth with clients…
We headed inland, skirting the edge of the Cheviot massif, passing through Kielder and across into the Scottish borders in ever-improving weather 🙂 Common Buzzards were soaring against the blue sky, Skylarks were singing as they ascended heavenwards, Meadow Pipits parachuted down at the end of their display flights, Red Grouse popped their heads up above the heather, Grey Wagtails were flitting from rock to rock in the shallow streams, Whinchat were carrying food back to their nests, recently fledged Wheatears scolded us as we disturbed their afternoon nap, Wild Goats grazed steadily on the hillsides high above the valley bottom and then, in the warmth of the mid-afternoon, came one of those moments you dream of (well, I do – other naturalists may have other dreams!)…
Floating across the hillside on agile wings, passing over a Cuckoo perched on a small sapling, carrying food back to his mate and their hungry brood, the male Hen Harrier drifted by before depositing the prey at the nest. He quickly found more food for himself and settled on a prominent rock in the heather. As we watched him through the ‘scope, a familiar chattering call rattled down the fell. Something had disturbed the female harrier, and she had left the nest and was soaring above it. Then, the likely source of her displeasure appeared. Racing on swept back wings, a Merlin flew straight at the harrier. She twisted and turned to avoid the assault by the smallest of our falcons, and flew towards the ground. The Merlin wasn’t going to give up though, and the dogfight continued; the otherwise elegant harrier looking cumbersome as the annoying gadfly buzzed around her. Eventually the smaller bird broke off and settled in a nearby tree, as the male harrier left his perch and soared high over our heads against the blue sky. When I look back in years to come, this really will be an experience that’s fixed firmly in my memory 🙂
The deep ominous rumble of thunder was all around us now. There was a light at the end of the tunnel though, but could we make the most of it?
I’d collected Stephen from home in North Shields and we headed up the coast for an afternoon and evening birdwatching around Druridge Bay. The early part of the trip was in fine weather and we watched Whitethroats and Sedge Warblers singing from the bushes, Wheatears flitting from ground to fencepost and back and House Martins andSwallows twisting and turning in pursuit of the bountiful harvest brought about by warm damp conditions. Part way through the afternoon things began to change; away to the north the sky was darkening and we could hear the deep rumble of distant thunder. Another storm was looming to the southwest, and gradually we were encircled by a menacing gloom. The rain began hammering against the car, but there was one ray of hope. At the centre of the storm was a break in the clouds; blue sky and sunshine of sorts. I could see which way it was heading and knew that we had one excellent option.
Down the coast to a Barn Owl breeding site, with the rain relentlessly challenging the efficiency of the windscreen wipers on the car, we positioned ourselves so the owl’s regular hunting area was in view. I was fairly sure that the break in the weather would be over us in about ten minutes, and that we’d have a window of opportunity for about another ten minutes prior to the next downpour. As the rain eased to just a few drops, we concentrated our attention on the dunes and, within a couple of minutes of the rain stopping, the Barn Owl appeared. Quartering , hovering, diving out of sight into the grass before lifting again, carrying a vole back to the nest then resuming the hunt only to abandon as the next edge of the storm hit with a vengeance and we headed off with flashes of lightning illuminating the darkened landscape.
The ‘quality over quantity’ birdwatching in the North Pennines has been the predominant feature of our days out with clients in the last two months, and a ‘phone enquiry on Tuesday saw me collecting David and Margaret on Wednesday morning for a day birdwatching in the hills.
Red Grouse was the first of the upland specialities we encountered and, after a few single birds scattered across the moors we came across a pair with a brood of 10 chicks. The adults watched us carefully as their offspring wandered about, completely unconcerned by our presence. Lapwing and Curlew seemed to be everywhere and one Lapwing provided our only sighting of Snipe for the day, as it chased one over the road in front of us. Oystercatcher, Redshank and Golden Plover were noisily displaying, Kestrels were stationary in the strong breeze and our first three Black Grouse were all seen distantly. I was sure that we’d get much closer views of Blackcock and, sure enough, at the same spot where I photographed a displaying bird earlier this month, we came across what were probably the same two birds from that trip.
A walk at Cow Green reservoir brought a non-avian highlight as Spring Gentians were in bloom. If you’ve never seen one, this is what they look like 🙂
After our walk we watched a small group of Blackcock as they engaged in their, slightly comical, lekking behaviour before heading back north east after another excellent day in the hills.
Towards the end of a day in the North Pennines with Tony and Caroline, I suggested that we should head back to a Black Grouse lek where we’d watched two Blackcock pottering about in the early afternoon…
Everything had been performing well. Red Grouse and Black Grouse playing hide-and-seek-and-run-away-a-bit, Curlew, Redshank, Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Golden Plover and Snipe all displaying, Skylark and Meadow Pipit singing as they ascended skywards, a Wheatear on a midstream rock doing a credible impersonation of a Dipper and the mystery bird of last week’s trip revealed to be a Starling…with a pale crescent on it’s breast!
Now, we were overlooking a lek site that we regularly visit on our North Pennines trips. Two hours earlier there had been just two Blackcock visible, now there were nine, or ten, or five, or two…every scan produced a different total as birds stopped feeding, sat down in the long vegetation and simply vanished. A few minutes later they all stood up, started feeding and wandered about for a little while before repeating the process. After another cycle of ‘feed-hide-reappear’, a minor skirmish developed in amongst the feeding birds. Two Blackcock squared up to each other; wings spread, tails raised, leaping into the air and lashing out at each other. All of the other birds suddenly became very alert, and then the fight stopped and they took flight to the nearby area of low vegetation where we’re used to seeing them display. Other birds, previously unseen, arrived and soon there were 14 of them; arranged in pairs they began the dance that characterises the early mornings of the North Pennines, each bird facing one adversary, strutting around, leaping and cooing (although the wind was carrying that evocative song away from our ears). Four pairs stopped, and adopted a much more relaxed posture, then two more pairs followed suit. Soon only two birds were still displaying…and, bizarrely, the other 12 were standing in the exact positions where they’d been when they gave up, like an odd game of musical statues. Finally one of the remaining combatants pulled his wings in, lowered his tail and raised his head. The final lekking bird stopped soon after, and we assumed that he was the afternoon’s winner. As the gladiatorial contest ended, all of the other birds came out of the trance that they appeared to be in and began feeding. The defeated bird from the final pairing made a half-hearted attempt at resuming the battle, but soon desisted when the reigning champion headed menacingly in his direction.
Sometimes a wildlife experience is just breathtaking, and watching the lek, from the trigger that kicked it all off to the final mystifying tableau, has crashed into my all-time Top 5 🙂
As I drove to Peth Head Cottage on Thursday afternoon, the rain was hammering against the car windscreen. Friday’s forecast was good though so, after a meal at The Travellers Rest in Slaley, I reminded Derek and Deirdre that we would have an early start the next morning.
19/04/2013 05:00…the incessant ringing of the alarm pierced the depths of my sleep and I jumped out of bed, showered and opened my bedroom window. The dawn chorus, mainly Blackbirds, Robins and Song Thrushes, was deafening, and the last remnants of rain were pattering down as we set off across the moors to a Black Grouse lek. Roe Deer were watching us from a roadside field and a Tawny Owl flew across in front of us, no doubt heading for a secluded daytime roosting site. First lek site, no birds, second lek site two Greyhens and a distant altercation between two Blackcock along a drystone wall as Curlew, Snipe, Oystercatcher and Lapwing displayed nearby and a Common Buzzard lumbered its way across the horizon. A third site produced the goods though as, adjacent to a field filled with summer-plumaged Golden Plover, two Blackcock were strutting their stuff for the benefit of three Greyhens…who watched them with what appeared to be complete indifference 🙂
After returning to Peth Head for a delicious, and very filling, breakfast (accompanied by Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Siskins, Robins, Dunnocks and a Reed Bunting on the feeders just outside the dining room window) we set out again. By now, the sun was up, bathing the moors in sublime warm tones, and Derek spotted the tell-tale white flash of a displaying Blackcock. This bird was strutting around next to two Greyhens, head down, tail up, pausing occasionally to stand bolt upright before jumping in the air and singing. Just beyond the lekking lothario, a Short-eared Owl was quartering the moor. Backwards and forwards on long narrow wings, the owl flew closer to our position, until eventually binoculars were put down when the field of view was completely filled with yellow-eyed menace as the owl flew over the bonnet of the car before veering away just inches from the windscreen.
Deeper into the North Pennines AONB, over moorland liberally sprinkled with pairs of Red Grouse, flocks of Golden Plover flying around and giving their plaintive call, with a Dunlin easily picked out in one flock by it’s small size, and farmland with Brown Hares chasing each other, Derek’s sharp eyes picked out a bird on telegraph wires…and we had our first Ring Ouzel of the trip. Singing it’s simple song, this could well have been the bird that I watched with Sarah in late March. A pair of Ring Ouzels followed soon after, staying just ahead of the car as we traversed a narrow road high above Weardale. Deirdre spotted several displaying Blackcock and we passed from Weardale into Upper Teesdale. Walking the remote moors produced close views of Red Grouse, Golden Plover, Wheatear, Skylark and Meadow Pipit before a completely unexpected find; for a second I wasn’t sure what I was watching, as a large brown and white bird drifted over the moor with deep lazy wingbeats, but as I lifted my binoculars I could barely contain my excitement as I let Derek and Deirdre know that there was an Osprey flying by! We watched the bird as it hovered and then dived into a nearby reservoir, but it’s departure route took it out of sight so we didn’t see if it was successful in its hunt. A pair of Goosander were feeding along the reservoir edge and, as they eventually crossed the open water, they picked up a Tufted Duck for company.
I had a hunch that Black Grouse would be lekking late afternoon, so we returned to a site that had held just one resting Blackcock earlier in the day. Sure enough, ‘the boys’ had gathered for a bit of a barney; 15 of them had turned up – seven obvious pairs of combatants and one bird sitting off to one side holding his wings, head and tail in the typical display posture but just standing still and watching the series of duels that were taking place in front of him. A couple of them broke out into physical fights, and all of the birds were calling as the lek reached a crescendo before, as if someone had flicked a switch, they suddenly lowered their undertail coverts, lifted their heads, folded their wings back in and started nonchalantly pottering around the gladiatorial arena as if nothing had happened. Just as exciting though, was what was going on above the lek. In my field of view I could see a Curlew drop almost vertically before heading skyward again. I raised my binoculars to follow it’s path and as it dropped again it was harassing, with the assistance of a flock of Black-headed Gulls, a male Goshawk! Open moorland may not be typical habitat for this fearsome inhabitant of our upland forests, but it isn’t the first time we’ve seen one out of context in late April.
Back across the moors to Hexhamshire we saw more Red Grouse, more Black Grouse and, after a quick stop back at Peth Head we headed out to eat at the Dipton Mill Inn. We followed that with a drive into Slaley Forest for Woodcock and Tawny Owls then, before retiring to bed, I stood in the dark outside the cottage and listened as at least four Tawny Owls called from close by. A superb end to an excellent day 🙂