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Mulling things over, a wild goose chase and some garden ticks

by on Dec.07, 2010, under Birdwatching, Family and friends, Northumberland

Most of the last week has been spent working on various admin type things ready for 2011, and clearing snow and ice.

On Friday we both went along to Choppington First School to help with clearing the car park so that school could re-open yesterday.  As a business that values sustainability we’re committed to supporting our local community, and this certainly fitted the bill, as well as providing good exercise.  Along with the Head, the caretaker and one of the teachers we’d made good progress when 2 contractors turned up, having been engaged by Northumberland County Council, to clear the car park.  So, we then watched the entertaining spectacle of a JCB and a snow plough racing around the car park, clearing it completely in 20 minutes.

Saturday saw us clearing the 2.5′ wall of ice and snow that was blocking Martin’s car on the drive.  Mulled wine and a mince pie afterwards seemed like an appropriate reward 😉

Of course, we’ve still managed to fit in some birdwatching 🙂

Sunday was Goose Count day.  The East Chevington access road was a treacherous sheet of ice and compacted snow, so we parked near the main road and walked up to the pools.  With most of the North Pool frozen, goose numbers were lower than we would expect for December.  Highlights of the walk were at least 15 Woodcock, and 3 Barn Owls  that drifted along the hedgerows just after dawn.

Monday is Martin’s ‘office day’, and the vantage point of the office window allowed him to add 2 more species to the garden list; Woodcock and Tree Sparrow.  It’s still white-over outside, but maybe there’s a thaw on the way…

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Walking the Wansbeck

by on Nov.21, 2010, under Birdwatching, Family and friends, Northumberland, Southeast Northumberland

We’d planned to do some survey work this morning, but the prospect of walking along the beach from Cresswell to East Chevington into a stiff northerly with heavy rain and temperatures only hovering just above freezing wasn’t too tempting.

Instead we opted for some southeast Northumberland birdwatching with a walk along the River Wansbeck near Morpeth.  Our local river is a real gem in some parts and we walk several of them regularly.  In the gloom and wet of this morning we still enjoyed the Mallards and Moorhens on the river, the flocks of Coal Tits and Long-tailed Tits in the trees and, best of all, the iridescent electric blue of a Kingfisher as it perched on a tree overhanging the water.  An afternoon spent working (on the Northeast Cetacean Project and a business plan that we’ve been preparing) will be followed (we hope!) by a relaxing Sunday evening and then a busy week ahead; finalising and submitting the business plan, bringing the Northeast Cetacean Project database up to date, drafting a couple of articles that Martin’s writing and meeting up with some old friends (and new ones) as we put together next year’s itinerary for NEWT.  Oh, there’ll be a few blog posts as well 🙂

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Going batty at Bamburgh

by on Nov.01, 2010, under Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland

Saturday saw our annual Halloween bat walk, again at the excellent location of Bamburgh Castle.  Bookings had been slow until the end of last week but we eventually had 24 participants booked on the walk.  As we set off just after 5pm, the sky darkened and the first drops of cold rain began to fall.  With Chris’s excellent commentary about the history of the castle and it’s surroundings, and the two of us filling in with wildlife info, we were soon round at the base of the Miller’s Nick – a route into the castle that isn’t open to the public.  Once inside the castle walls, Chris regaled everyone with a series of ghostly tales about the castle.  Then, as we walked around the eastern edge of the castle grounds, the first Common Pipistrelle of the evening was spotted.  As well as listening to them using our bat detectors, everyone managed to see them as they raced and swooped along the walls.  Then it was time to head inside for pumpkin soup, homemade bread…and a walk along an unlit tunnel beneath the castle.

We’re adding more family events to our calendar for 2011 so keep checking to see what we can do for your family.

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To intervene in nature…or not?

by on Oct.29, 2010, under Birdwatching, Farne Islands, Northumberland, Southeast Northumberland

We were watching Autumnwatch yesterday evening and one discussion between the presenters, concerning intervention when you’re filming/photographing an animal in distress, was particularly pertinent to the mini-safari that Martin led earlier yesterday evening…but back to that later in this post.

The half-term week was busy, as expected, and included some fantastic wildlife watching; Salmon leaping up a weir on the River Coquet, Starlings massing and swirling above a coastal reedbed before dropping to roost, 2000+ Pink-footed Geese filling the sky overhead, as they left their feeding sites and headed for the overnight safety of the water, and Grey Seals around the Farne Islands as they approach the height of their breeding season.

Yesterday brought an evening mini-safari in southeast Northumberland.  Damp gloomy conditions and increasingly glowering clouds weren’t making things look too promising.  Our walk along the River Blyth produced a Nuthatch, and a Kingfisher called as it flew along the swollen, muddy river.  Two birdwatching gems, but quality rather than quantity was the order of the evening.  A Sparrowhawk provided some entertainment as it swooped repeatedly down towards the trees, flushing flocks of Woodpigeon with each descent, before finally vanishing into the canopy.  We continued our walk and, as we rounded a bend in the path, we found the reason for the Sparrowhawk’s disappearance; flapping lamely in the undergrowth was a Woodpigeon with a nasty head wound.  The predator had presumably flushed as we approached.  We’ve seen similar before and the question from clients is always “what are we going to do?”.  The answer may seem quite cold and heartless but we do nothing.  The pigeon was mortally wounded and would provide a meal either for the hawk or possibly a Red Fox would come along and make off with it.  Nature really is ‘red in tooth and claw’ and we shouldn’t interfere in the everyday life (and death) of our wildlife where we can avoid doing so.

Our next destination was what is rapidly becoming our favourite Badger sett.  As we watched quietly (and we really have to congratulate the 6-year old in our group for remaining so very quiet) over the open area close to the sett, a Red Fox crossed the track ahead of us, we could hear scuffling in the undergrowth and then two stripy black-and-white faces appeared out of the gloom.  After a withering stare in our direction the two cubs trotted along the hillside and were joined by a third before vanishing into the night.  The final leg of the trip was a search for owls.  Local knowledge paid off, as the ghostly figure of a Barn Owl floated through the beam of our headlights just where we expected it to.  There was still time for more wildlife though and the application of our bat detector revealed a Common Pipistrelle feeding on the rich bounty of moths.  After the recent frosts it was good to find bats still active, and our final event for this October is a Bat Walk at Bamburgh Castle tomorrow evening.  Give us a call on 01670 827465 to book your place for what should be an evening of family fun.

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British Birdwatching Fair 2010

by on Aug.25, 2010, under Birdwatching, Family and friends, North Pennines, North Sea, Northumberland, Northumberland Coast

We’ve been away for a few days, as part of the Birdwatching Northumberland consortium at the British Birdwatching Fair 2010.

Thursday started very early for Martin, with a North Pennines Prestige Tour for clients who were staying at Wallfoot in Carlisle.  Managing to avoid the worst of the weather, avian highlights included Merlin, Goldcrest, Nuthatch, Red Grouse, Black Grouse, Whinchat and Wheatear.  The long drive down the M6 didn’t, unfortunately, miss the heavy rain.  However, a late arrival at the White Lion in Whissendine, and a few beers in the bar with such luminaries as Ipin set Martin up nicely for an early start on Friday.

Sarah was at work (in her ‘proper’ job) so, apart from attending a couple of lectures, Martin was on the Birdwatching Northumberland stand for all of the first day.

Saturday we planned to work ‘split’ shifts, but with Martin again spending most of his time on the stand; apart from another couple of lectures and one or two chats with clients, colleagues, suppliers, competitors and collaborators (both old and new).

Another excellent curry at the White Lion, and a ‘few’ beers, on Sataurday night was followed by the dawning of the final day of Bird Fair 2010.  One of us was a bit ‘under the weather’ but perked up in time to give his talk ‘The North Sea – a new birding frontier’ at 3.30pm.  What could have been a bit of a graveyard shift managed to generate a lot of interest, with 134 bird fair attendees making their way to the lecture marquee to enjoy a brief history of the Northumberland pelagics.  There were a few questions at the end of the lecture, then Martin was stopped and asked some more, for the next 10 minutes, as he headed back to the stand – where other people who had been in the lecture were waiting to ask more questions.

After three days at the Bird Fair we’d made a lot of new contacts, renewed some old acquaintances and we’ll shortly be entering exciting partnerships with some big names in the birding world.  Just a few very busy weeks to come first…

A final night in the midlands was followed by the journey north on Monday, and then a Prestige Tour yesterday.  Beginning with  an actively feeding Dipper was a good start then, with a particular request for wading birds, it was good to strike a rich vein on the coast; Green and Common Sandpipers, Greenshank, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Curlew, Whimbrel, Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Dunlin and Ruff.  What seemed to go down better than all of the other birds though were the always impressive Grey Herons.

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The (h)edge of reason

by on Jan.14, 2010, under Birdwatching, Photography, Southeast Northumberland

We’re well into warm(er) weather now, although there was a fresh covering of snow this morning and as Martin sat through a 2hr meeting at Matfen Hall yesterday morning there was steady snowfall throughout.

As well as the flocks of birds that are visiting gardens so that they can find enough food to survive we’ve been finding reasonable flocks of farmland birds.  One flock we’ve been watching has lots of Linnets, Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers and at least 12 Bramblings.  They’ve found a wheat field that hadn’t been harvested so there was a substantial food source above the snowline even at the weekend when there was still a lot of snow on the ground.

Patience was the key to watching them.  Standing motionless meant that they were willing to approach to within the minimum focusing distance of our 500mm lens.  Well worth the discomfort of standing in one place in sub-zero temperatures 🙂

Mixed flock in a hedge, a warming winter birdwatching sight

Mixed flock in a hedge, a warming winter birdwatching sight

Brambling and Reed Buntings

Brambling and Reed Buntings

5 of the Bramblings

5 of the Bramblings



Reed Bunting

Reed Bunting

Reed Bunting

Reed Bunting





Of course, with so many birds concentrated in one small area it was inevitable that ours weren’t the only eyes watching them.  Through the camera lens there was a rush of wings as everything took off, a blur across the viewfinder and then an opportunity for a morbid portrait.

Who ended up on the menu?

Who ended up on the menu?

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Sloe and steady

by on Dec.31, 2009, under Birdwatching, Lee Moor Farm

After the completion of the thaw yesterday we woke this morning…to a fresh covering of snow 🙂 Now, I make no secret of the fact that I love wintry weather.  I’m invigorated by it, my photography is inspired when we’re in the grip of bone-chilling temperatures and a blanket of snow on the ground fills me with joy.  I struggle to understand the media apoplexy that greets snowfall each winter.  Well, that’s the usual response if that snowfall is anywhere other than Northumberland…

I often wonder what the national media thinks lies between Leeds and Edinburgh?  Today was no exception.  The national weather forecast on the BBC was concerned with snowfall in the northeast of Scotland.  And that was it as far as snowfall was concerned…my only problem was that as we drove up the A1 just north of Morpeth there was a good couple of inches of freshly-fallen snow on the road and we were in a blizzard that brought near white-out conditions.  Sarah took this shot using my ‘phone.

Nowhere other than Scotland eh?

Nowhere other than Scotland eh?

The lorry that you can see ahead of us spent most of his journey veering across the carriageway as he lost traction.  The cars I could see in our rear view mirror were having similar problems.  And us?  We were in a proper vehicle 🙂  No problems, just a steady drive to make sure we were a safe distance behind the lorry.  That’s the thing about wintry conditions, as long as people understand that things are different there probably isn’t a need for the panic and the mayhem.

We arrived at Lee Moor, and the covering of snow on the ground wasn’t managing to lighten the gloomy conditions a great deal; 09:30 and the sky was as darker than it had been at 8am.  Our small group assembled and we set off around the farm trails.  The birdwatching was good; a big mixed flock of Yellowhammers, Reed Buntings and Tree Sparrows allowed a close approach, Kestrels and Buzzards passed overhead, a solitary Lapwing sat motionless in a snowy field and a covey of Grey Partridges flushed from a well-managed headland.  Throughout the frozen woodland Brown Hares were regularly encountered and voles appeared from, then disappeared back into, their snow-holes.  The covering of snow also made it easy to follow the tracks of Roe Deer and Red Fox.  Back at the farm, Ian provided a delicious lunch of home-made soup, warm bread and mince pies.  Then he produced a bottle of Sloe gin.  It was a shame Martin was driving as he had 2003, 2004 and 2009 vintages! Sarah enjoyed it…and reminded us that we had a bottle in our drinks cabinet at home…

Lee Moor Farm

Lee Moor Farm

In the bleak midwinter

In the bleak midwinter

An 'interesting' footpath

An 'interesting' footpath

Ian Brown, a wooly hat and one of them old-fashioned film camera thingies

Ian, a wooly hat and one of them old-fashioned film camera thingies

That’s it for 2009.  Have an enjoyable Old Year’s Night and see you in 2010 🙂

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A change in the weather

by on Dec.29, 2009, under Birdwatching, Choppington Woods, Family and friends

The feeders in our garden have been busier in the last couple of days than at any time during this winter.  No less than 6 Blackbirds have taken up residence, 3 or 4 Robins are posturing and defending territories, a steady stream of Blue, Great and Coal Tits, along with our 2 regular Willow Tits, are emptying the feeders rapidly and a flock of 8 Long-tailed Tits are putting in daily appearances.  Chaffinch numbers are way down on previous winters, but Greenfinches are now almost ever-present during daylight hours and three pairs of Bullfinches are never far away.  It’s interesting that, even on a very short-distance scale, there’s such a noticeable movement of birds from their ‘normal’ habitat (Choppington Woods) to the gardens around the edge of the woods whenever the weather turns colder.  Birdwatching doesn’t get any easier than sitting in the kitchen, glass of port in one hand and a slice of Christmas cake in the other 🙂

First thing this morning everything was frozen solid again.  However, by lunchtime when Martin took Dad to the railway station there was a noticeable thaw – even though the thermometer was showing the temperature having only just crept above freezing.  Then it started to rain and most of the remaining patches of ice and snow vanished.  The birds were still around in the numbers of recent days though and, if the weather forecasts are anything to go by, we’re in for some more very hard winter weather at the end of this year and the start of the new one.  Wrap up warm.

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A traditional Christmas

by on Dec.24, 2009, under Choppington Woods

One of our favourite events at this time of year is the Friends of Choppington Woods Christmas Walk. 

First today though, we had the little task of finishing our grocery shopping.  We took delivery of a fantastic goose yesterday, and most of our shopping had been completed a couple of weeks ago but there were a few things outstanding.  Sainsbury’s opened at 06:00, so by 07:15 we were standing in their carpark listening to Robins and Blackbirds singing, and Redwings flying over.  Soon we were on our way home with the more perishable ingredients for the next few days…but no Mince Pies as they had sold out of them already!

After a warming bacon and egg sandwich, we gathered for the walk, missing a few of our regular attendees; ill-health, the treacherous conditions underfoot and a recent family bereavement for one committee member had all taken a toll.

The two of us, Glen Graham (FOCW Secretary since the group formed), Barry Wilson (NCC Woodland Management Officer) and Heather O’Neill (Northumberland Wildlife Trust) set out from the main entrance to the reserve, with the aim of combining our walk with a good look at all of the improvements that have been made to the reserve this year.  We raised £10k in grant funding, but we’ve got a lot more value from it than would normally be achievable with that amount of money.

A stunning viewpoint, woodland ride clearances, forest tracks and multi-user path surfacing, boardwalk and pond-dipping platform, hibernacula for reptiles and amphibians, wildflower meadows and an education pack for the local primary schools all add up to the most successful year for the reserve since it was designated in 2003.

The pond was frozen solid…although none of us risked venturing onto the ice.  A set of animal tracks across the frozen surface generated much discussion before we concluded that they had been left by a Red Fox.  Evidence of some of our other mammalian neighbors was in evidence too. (and we had a Pygmy Shrew Sorex minutus on our patio this morning , but that’s another story…).

Much of the vegetation on the reserve was still encased in ice and snow as well (although the thaw started during our walk), but the white fruits of Common Snowberry Symphoricarpos albus stood out amongst the bare branches.

After our journey through the woods we arrived at Glen’s house, where Karen had prepared a delicious chili and there was a pan of mulled wine heating on the stove.  Inspired by this we warmed another bottle ourselves once we were back at home, ready for the arrival of Martin’s dad, and one of us (the one with a PhD in Medicinal Chemistry) hit on the bright idea of ‘enhancing the oranginess’ with a good shot of Cointreau…

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Shifting sands

by on Nov.23, 2009, under Birdwatching, Druridge Bay, Northumberland

The sharp wind, and even sharper pellets of icy rain were stinging the backs of our necks as we walked along the beach from Cresswell to East Chevington yesterday. Once every month, between September and April, we walk this section of the Northumberland coast. Purposeful birdwatching; the waders and wildfowl that we encounter are logged a part of the WeBS (Wetland Bird Survey) totals. The beach is an extraordinary landscape, rarely the same from one month to the next. Yesterday was a first for us, after several years of walking this stretch; the sand was so high at one point that we could see inland, over the top of the dunes. It opened up a whole new view. Some months the sand is so low that almost the entire journey is over exposed rocks, sometimes there are no rocks, sometimes the sand is very level, sometimes it’s steeply shelving, sometimes there are tank blocks visible like a row of sinister teeth. When you combine that with the variability of the sea, it’s almost a different walk each month. The only downside is that nice sunny mornings mean that there is a lot of disturbance, and wader numbers are low. Sanderling is the species most affected. These cute white waders, playing ‘chicken’ with the edge of the surf, with their clockwork toy leg action are sometimes present in good numbers and sometimes not so. Yesterday was a poor day, with only three of them along the 3.2 miles of our count area. One was colour-ringed though, so we have a good chance of being able to find out where it was ringed, and where it’s been seen since then. Maybe it’ll still be there next month. who knows? That’s one of the joys of survey work.

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