Snow on Monday, glorious weather on Tuesday…and torrential rain on Wednesday When I arrived to collect David and Janet for their Prestige Tour in the Cheviot Valleys we quickly decided to head towards the Northumberland coast instead as that would offer the chance of plenty of birdwatching with the prospect of being able to shelter from the worst of the weather.
Starting at Stag Rocks, we watched flocks of Eider and Common Scoter as they rolled up and over the substantial waves and a Grey Seal swam just beyond the breaking surf. One thing that was immediately obvious was that there was a movement of Gannets; birds were flying over the rocks and more could be seen offshore. Heading down the coast, the intensity of the rain increased and we had our second seawatch of the day, this time just south of Cresswell. An almost continuous passage of Gannets was evident as they headed north, flocks of Kittiwakes and Guillemots were passing by, the occasional Fulmar arced up above the clifftops and a single Manx Shearwater easily outpaced the Gannets. Avocets sat tight as the rain hammered down around them and, when the deluge finally ceased and blue sky and sunshine replaced the gloom, we watched a male Marsh Harrier as he quartered a nearby field before soaring heavenwards. A Great Crested Grebe sailed by serenely, a Whimbrel flew north, five Brown Hares were engaged in some half-hearted chasing and Swifts, Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins all took advantage of the feast of insects that had been stirred to activity by the improvement in the weather.
Even in poor weather, Northumberland can produce some excellent birdwatching
They’re the sort of words I always want hear at the start of a day out with clients “The sole reason for coming to Northumberland on this holiday was to see an Otter“. So, no pressure there, then…
I collected Ann and Glyn from their b&b in Seahouses and we set out on an exploration of the best birdwatching and otter spotting locations on the Northumberland coast around Druridge Bay. Avocet and Whimbrel were among the birdwatching highlights of the afternoon then, as dusk approached, it looked as though everything was going to go wrong; wave after wave of torrential rain battered down so the surface of the pond looked as if it were boiling and columns of mist were drifting across our field of view.
I was still confident though. The ducks, swans and other waterbirds were looking nervous, and that’s always a good sign. Then it happened, as Ann said “what’s that over there by the reeds?”, I got the end of the reedbed in view, steadied my binoculars, and an Otter surfaced before swimming along, allowing all of us to get it in focus, and vanishing into the reeds; Ann had managed to see her first wild Otter and she’d found it herself As the rain cleared a Long-eared Owl flew straight toward us and the Otter reappeared, this time trying to grab a Moorhen that was perched half-way up the reeds. It twisted and turned, sleek and sinuous, and once again sought the cover of the vegetation at the water’s edge. As the waterfowl settled and began to look much less worried, we left the hide and waded back to the car
I managed a good bonus bird myself on the drive back down the coast as a Little Owl flew from a roadside fencepost.
Trips with existing clients are always a pleasure, not only because it’s very gratifying to get a booking from someone we’ve taken out before, but also because we already have shared memories. I had 3 things vivid in my mind from when I took Pete and Janet out in September 2008 – it rained, we saw 11 adult Mediterranean Gulls on the beach at Newbiggin and Janet found an Otter.
I collected Pete and Janet from their holiday cottage in Embleton, and we headed across to Sharperton to collect David and Mary. They’re all members of the same Natural History Society, who were our first group booking, back in 2009, and we always enjoy catching up with them, and the other members of their group, at the Bird Fair each August. Tuesday was a bespoke trip, combining Harwood and Druridge Bay, and the weather forecast suggested that it wouldn’t rain…
As we approached Harwood a Roe Deer crossed the track, walked into the trees and then stopped to watch us. This was the first of 11 that we saw on our journey through the forest (well, it was about 11, and if I say 11, it’ll help the punchline to this post!).
Harwood again produced memorable sightings; Roe Deer, Tree Pipit, at least 3 Cuckoos, Siskins, plenty of Crossbills, more Roe Deer and a mouth-wateringly attractive male Common Redstart. A list of species can never really do justice to just how good encounters with wildlife can be though; as 2 Roe Deer bounded across the clearfell area beside the track, 2 Cuckoos were engaged in a frantic chase, calling frequently and mobbed by Meadow Pipits every time they left the safety of the trees, while the male Redstart flicked along the edge of a nearby plantation, red tail shivering as he perched on a tree stump, black face contrasting with his white forehead and supercilium, the subtle grey of his crown and mantle and the orangy-red of his breast.
As we tucked in to our picnic lunch, overlooking a very calm North Sea, the first drops of icy rain began to patter down. Then, a comment from Janet to set the pulse racing “I’m sure I just saw a fin”. With such calm water the sudden appearance of black shapes at the surface stood out, and Janet had found yet another exciting mammal on a NEWT safari. This time it wasn’t the sleek, sinuous predator of our lakes and rivers, but another sleek, sinuous predator. We watched for several minutes as the pod of Bottlenose Dolphins moved slowly south. At least 6 animals, including a very small calf, they surfaced lazily every 30seconds or thereabouts as I texted observers further south to let them know what was coming.
Avocet, Garganey (2 handsome drakes), Common Sandpiper, Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, clouds of Swifts, Swallows and martins, and weather best described as changeable, all contributed to an excellent afternoon around Druridge before I completed our circular route, dropping Pete and Janet, and then David and Mary. See you at the BirdFair
So, it rained, we saw 11(ish) Roe Deer in Harwood and Janet found some Bottlenose Dolphins…
Delivering a birding package for the first time with a new partner is always a mixture of excitement and worry; will the experience we deliver to our clients blend well with the standards of service, accommodation and food that are provided? Our exclusive Doxford Hall birding break on Thursday and Friday didn’t hold too many worries though – I’ve attended conferences and other events there before and, having known David Hunter since he was at Matfen Hall, I knew that the entire Doxford experience would be a memorable one for all the right reasons.
I arrived first thing Thursday morning to collect Paul and Sue, who had won their exclusive birding break in a competition that ourselves and Doxford Hall ran recently in Birdwatch magazine. Our original plan of Druridge Bay on Thursday, Lindisfarne on Friday, had been altered following a ‘phone call during the week from Sue – there was one species they particularly wanted to see, and our recent blog posts had revealed that now might be a good time…so, after a day of hectic communication with the Forestry Commission to arrange access through Kielder, and check where along our route there would be any forestry activity, our first trip headed inland. We started at Harwood in near-perfect weather conditions; warm, sunny and with a good breeze. Common Buzzards, Common Crossbills, Siskins and a very vocal Raven were all seen but no Goshawk so we continued west. Once we were in Kielder another Raven entertained us, tumbling and cronking over a remote farmhouse in the warm afternoon sunshine before soaring heavenwards and then dropping back out of the sky alongside its mate. We stopped to scan over another plantation, where I’ve watched Goshawks previously, and I soon spotted a bird just above the trees. He quickly got into a thermal and rose until we lost sight of him. I suggested that we just needed to wait for a Common Buzzard to drift over the Gos’ territory, and we began a patient vigil. Eventually a Common Buzzard did appear, we all lifted our binoculars to focus on it…and a distant speck in the binoculars above the buzzard grew rapidly larger as the Goshawk dropped out of the sky. The intruder thought better of hanging around and quickly folded it’s wings back and crossed the valley like an arrow. Having shepherded the buzzard away, the Phantom of the Forest rose quickly again to resume his sentinel watch. More Common Crossbills and Common Buzzards followed as we travelled down the valley back towards civilisation, and 2 pairs of Mandarin brought a touch of stunning colour to the afternoon.
Dinner at Doxford Hall on Thursday evening was exceptional (outstanding food and outstanding levels of service throughout the 2 days), and having clients with such an enthusiasm for birding, and fantastic sense of humour, made it even better. After dinner conversation did reveal that there was an obvious gap in their life-lists though…
Friday’s plan was simple; head to the coast and then bird our way down it to finish in Druridge Bay late afternoon. We started at Harkess Rocks, in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, with a very nice flock of 79 Purple Sandpipers. In the heavy swell a flock of Common Scoters proved elusive, Common Eiders dived through the surf, small rafts of Common Guillemot and Razorbill bobbed about, Gannets soared effortlessly, Sandwich Terns were feeding just offshore and Long-tailed Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers in breeding finery were a reminder that our winter visitors are about to pack their bags and head north. Red-throated Divers, including one bird with a very red tinge to it’s throat, were typically elusive, diving just as we got onto them. I’d got another species in mind though and, when I found one, it was sitting obligingly next to a Red-throated Diver. Soon, Paul and Sue were admiring the elegant structure, neat contrasty plumage and white flank patch of their first Black-throated Diver. 2 days, 2 lifers
We headed south and, after watching an adult Mediterranean Gull, and two 2nd calendar year birds, winter and spring came together with flocks of Greylag and Pink-footed Geese, and a Short-eared Owl, being characteristic of the last 5 months of our coastal trips, Green Sandpiper and Whimbrel on passage and a male Marsh Harrier drifting over a coastal reedbed.
In beautiful afternoon light, with the sound of the roaring surf of the North Sea crashing into the east coast, the Short-eared Owl quartering a nearby reedbed and a pair of Great Crested Grebes displaying on the pool in front of us, a couple of comments by Sue - two of many memorable ones during the trip – summed things up nicely “chilled-out birding” and “we like the view from Martin’s office”
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
In what appeared to be worsening weather, I drove north to Bamburgh to collect Lyndsey and Petter for their Lindisfarne Safari…and then things improved dramatically, with warm sunshine tempered by a cool southerly breeze We started in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, with Common Eider on the water, Turnstones on the rocks and Sandwich Terns and Gannets fishing just offshore. A stop at Budle Bay revealed a Greenshank amongst the masses of roosting Redshank and we continued to Holy Island itself. Waders continued to be the theme of the afternoon, with Ringed Plover, Golden Plover, Dunlin, Curlew and Lapwing all either roosting or feeding on the mudflats close by and Whimbrel calling as they passed through. As the tide fell, Grey Seals could be seen hauling themselves out of the water, ‘bottling’ in the afternoon warmth, swimming along with a remarkable turn of pace for such big animals, and splashing around like kids in a paddling pool.
Late August, sunny weather, masses of visitors on Holy Island…and the wildlife is still as good as ever
I had a feeling of deja vu just after the Bird Fair, when Alex and Richard joined us for a Prestige Tour on Richard’s birthday. My brief was the same as last year; birdwatching, photography and Otters, and I had no doubt that it was going to be a real pleasure. Last year the Otters eluded us, but we’ve found new sites since then, and changed the route, and timings, of our Otter Safaris to take that into account. A very obliging Grey Heron allowed consideration of composition…and why you shouldn’t set your camera to one of it’s pre-programmed modes A Common Snipe was a good subject to investigate why autofocus may sometimes be inferior to manual focus, and a very heavy shower produced a degree of contrast between sky and water that illustrated our discussions about camera metering systems.
Small groups of Whimbrel and Golden Plover were heading south, and we set ourselves close to one of our regular Otter sites as the day wore on. All of the wildfowl started heading in one direction…away from the Otter that was making its way menacingly across the water It vanished into the reeds, then reappeared before sliding away into the darkness again; leaving behind lots of terrified ducks, 2 very happy clients and a relieved guide
We’re just about at the point where our 3hr evening safaris will be starting before 6pm; early August and the evenings are drawing in already! Guided birdwatching, and a search for one of our favourite predators, always has an exciting atmosphere when it happens as darkness approaches.
On my way to collect Niki and Haydn from Warkworth, I stopped off for a few minutes beside the River Coquet – corvids and pigeons were swirling in the breeze, giving an autumnal feel to the evening.
With clients safely in our vehicle, we headed down the coast through the post-industrial landscape of Druridge Bay and the (only just) industrial heartland of southeast Northumberland. East Chevington was our first stop, producing sightings of 2 very obliging Common Snipe in the roost of Lapwings. A flock of Curlew heading south were travelling with 2 Whimbrel and a Bar-tailed Godwit and the 2 juvenile Marsh Harriers were much appreciated as they quartered the reedbeds, flushing Mallard, Gadwall and Teal.
We continued our journey through southeast Northumberland and, as the first drops of rain began to pepper the surface of the water, an obvious edginess among a flock of Gadwall heralded the arrival of the star of the show; gliding along, sleek, dark and menacing, the Otter showed well, although briefly, as it headed across the open water and into the reeds opposite. Then it was time for us to do the same, and depart into the deepening gloom of the evening.
I met with Geoff and Jenny, Roy and Lorraine & David and Linda on the Wednesday evening in the bar of the Bamburgh Castle Inn and, after introductions and drinks, we went upstairs to the conservatory for dinner. A steady stream of Gannets was heading north and I outlined the plan for the coming days; modified in light of the weather forecast!
An 06:30 start on Thursday morning appealed to three of the group, so we set off to walk around Seahouses Harbour and along to the golf course. Lorraine had dreamt the night before that we found a Bluethroat. Not just any Bluethroat though; a Fork-tailed Bluethroat (something that doesn’t exist…although we spent the rest of the holiday looking for one!). The heavy swell and breaking waves gave the sea an imposing look, and the strong, cold southeasterly wind and dark clouds all around added to the atmosphere. With high tide approaching, wading birds were concentrated onto just a few exposed rocks; among the Oystercatchers, Redshanks and Curlews were a single Ringed Plover and 5 summer-plumaged Knot, their peachy-orange underparts showing why, in some parts of the world, they’re known as Red Knot. A Whimbrel flew by and Linnets, Pied Wagtails, Rock Pipits and a reeling Grasshopper Warbler were all added to the day list and we headed back to the inn, and breakfast. No less than 6 Rock Pipits were outside the window during breakfast and an all too brief Hummingbird Hawkmoth whizzed by.
The main question was whether our all-day birdwatching trip to the Farne Islands with Glad Tidings would go ahead; the weather forecast wasn’t promising, and the sea looked foreboding. I was optimistic though – by our planned departure time the tide would be ebbing and should take off some of the swell. Sure enough, we boarded Glad Tidings III just after 10am and headed towards the islands. Gannets soared majestically above the swell, Puffins raced by on whirring wings and our passage wader list grew with the addition of Grey Plover and Purple Sandpiper. Grey Seals bobbed around, watching as we passed by on our way to Staple Island. Enjoyment of the breeding auks, Shags, Kittwakes and Oystercatchers was enhanced by the wild feeling of the islands, as waves smashed into the cliffs and fountained high above the birds. Transferring to Inner Farne at 1pm, we were the first group onto the island for the day. The Arctic Terns gave us their usual warm welcome and we spent the afternoon enjoying the fascinating bird behaviour that can be witnessed at close range. The group were keen to fix the separation criteria for Common and Arctic Terns firmly in mind, so we spent some time looking carefully at lots of birds and considering individual variation. We spent a lot of time watching Puffins as well; not an identification problem, but endearing and fascinating! With mobs of Black-headed Gulls waiting to rob the adult Puffins as they return with beaks filled with Sand eels, the Puffins have quickly developed strategies to deal with this; circling back out over the sea until the gulls have moved away from your burrow is an obvious one, but the one that is most fascinating involves a Puffin running into another bird’s burrow, waiting until the gulls have moved and then running to another burrow – sometimes visiting as many as 5 or 6 sanctuaries before reaching their own chick. In an increasingly heavy swell, the journey back to the mainland was quite an experience.
I collected Alan, Carole and Mitzi from Seahouses for their Holy Island mini-safari in the sweltering heat. Through the haze over the mudfalts, we could hear the eerie calls of Curlew and then a flock flew by. Amongst them we could hear the tittering whistle of a Whimbrel, and picked the bird out amongst it’s larger cousins. Golden Plover were back on the coast already as well; the moorland breeding season is a short one. After a tour of the sites along the North Northumberland coast, we had our final stop, at Harkess Rocks. As we scanned the raft of Eider and Common Scoter in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle one bird stood out from all the rest; the Black Scoter, first found in April, and still lingering off our coast. What I wouldn’t give for a nice Surf Scoter or King Eider as well:-)