Tag: Short-eared Owl

Black Grouse Bonanza Day 1; Nothing to grouse about

by on Apr.22, 2013, under Birdwatching, North Pennines, Northumberland

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 🙂

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A hunch pays off

by on Dec.06, 2012, under Birdwatching, Northumberland, Red Squirrel, Southeast Northumberland

Days out with a specific target in mind for our clients can be very good, or very frustrating and, as I drove across the snow and ice coated roads towards Elsdon to collect George, Tam, Ken and Kath, I had a good feeling about the day ahead.

One of NEWT’s all-time favourites was in our sights for the day;  Red Squirrel is becoming more and more difficult to see.  One of our most reliable sites over the last five years has seen the arrival of Grey Squirrels and a diminishing population of Reds, and that’s a pattern repeated in many places.

After a drive through snowy wastelands, the car was loaded with an arsenal of camera equipment and we headed towards southeast Northumberland.  I’d got two ‘new’ sites in mind and the first of these produced sightings of at least two Red Squirrels and a nice flock of Redwings, Song Thrushes and Mistle Thrushes.  Good for viewing, not so good for photography with dense foliage on many of the trees and the squirrels in a position where they were heavily backlit.  I was confident that the second site I planned to visit would offer better photo opportunities…and it did.  In excellent light, we watched at least five Red Squirrels; camera shutters were firing at a machine-gun rate and George and Kath took over 500 shots between them.  I went back the next day and had a bit of luck myself…

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There was a degree of reluctance to leave the squirrels behind, but the light began to fade and we headed onto the coast in search of more wildlife.  Owls were high on the wishlist and two Short-eared Owls performed for the cameras just like this one from last year.

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A Common Snipe was unusually bold, feeding along the water’s edge well away from cover, Pink-footed Geese were grazing a nearby field, Whooper Swans whooped as they arrived to roost and a small murmuration of Starlings soon thought better of flying around in the bitter cold and quickly headed instead for the warmth of the roost.  Then it was time for us to head back in the dark through the frozen hinterland of Northumberland.

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Winter birdwatching

by on Nov.30, 2012, under Bamburgh Castle, Birdwatching, Druridge Bay, Northumberland, Northumberland Coast

With the cessation of the rain that plagued Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday dawned cold and breezy; almost ideal for a day out on the birdwatching paradise that is the Northumberland Coast in the Winter.

As I collected Ele and Lisa from their holiday cottage in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, the icy northerly wind cut through the multiple layers that I’d put on before leaving the house.  We started our day’s birdwatching at Budle Bay, where the wind somehow seemed even icier, and Oystercatchers, Redshank and Curlew were probing the oozing mud as a distant Peregrine flushed flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plover. Eiders were surfing the top of the impressive swell on the open coast and we headed south towards Druridge Bay. Mediterranean Gulls drifted overhead, ghostly pale, as Oystercatchers, Curlew, Turnstone, Redshank and Sanderling worked along the edge of the surf.  Among all the immaculate ducks, two species really stood out; Goosander sleek and menacing, and Red-breasted Merganser drakes all trying to out do each other in their attempts to attract the ladies. A flock of Pink-footed Geese fed in a nearby field

As daylight faded a flock of Waxwings were in the distant tree tops and two species that are always a pleasure to see put in an appearance.  Short-eared Owl and Barn Owl drifted along the edges of the reedbeds; death on silent wings.  Here are a couple of pictures of them from earlier this year (in better light and a gentler breeze!).

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Little Gems

by on Jul.10, 2012, under Birdwatching, Northumberland, Northumberland Coast

No, not a blog in praise of lettuce…

At this time of the year, I tend to be out with clients on several consecutive days.  Client-free days give me a chance to catch up with paperwork, ‘phone calls, admin tasks etc. but that isn’t what I most enjoy about work 🙂  So, at 6pm the evening before an office day last week, I was really happy to get a  ‘phone call from one of the accommodation providers who we work closely with “We’ve got some guests staying.  They’ve just had two full days on the Farne Islands but they’d like another wildlife activity for tomorrow.  Can you do anything for them?”

So, that’s how I found myself with an unexpected birdwatching mini-safari.  I collected Henk and Marianne from Seahouses…and the rain started (bit of a theme throughout Britain so far this summer).  Decision time; head towards Holy Island, or head south from Seahouses and focus our efforts on the mid Northumberland coast?  I quickly weighed up the two options and we headed south…and out of the rain 🙂 The morning seemed to fly by and, just short of four hours later, I was returning them after a morning that produced Short-eared Owl quartering a rough field, Bar-tailed Godwit heading south high overhead, Little Terns back at their mainland colony, two stunning adult Little Gulls roosting among the Arctic Terns on the beach, an abundance of Meadow Pipits and Skylarks, and more Pyramidal Orchids than I’ve ever seen before (as well as Bee and Northern Marsh Orchids).

That still left me an afternoon for office work though 😉

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Caught short

by on Jun.22, 2012, under Birdwatching, North Pennines, Northumberland, Photography

Tuesday was Christina’s second day out with us this week, and we had a very specific target for our afternoon and evening of birdwatching and photography, luckily I’d already spent a lot of time this year checking out breeding locations for the species concerned…

As the stunning weather illuminated the North Pennines AONB in beautiful light, Mountain Pansies and Cotton Grass were gently swaying in the breeze, Curlews and Lapwings were calling as they traversed the fellsides, Skylarks were singing from high overhead, Ring Ouzels and Mistle Thrushes flitted from tree to boulder to grassy slope and back again, a lone Woodcock (presumably with a faulty body clock) was roding in bright sunshine and there, on a fence post not 50 metres away was our quarry; stretching, posturing and delivering a haughty stare with piercing yellow eyes, the Short-eared Owl sat obligingly as Christina rattled off frame after frame of pin sharp owl portraits.  The owl was just one small part of the whole experience, but it was the part that the afternoon had been structured to deliver and it slotted into its appointed place in the vast landscape and soundscape.  Our wildlife doesn’t always perform to plan (and it would be rather dull and predictable if it did!), but when everything comes together perfectly it feels sublime.

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North Pennines – Busman’s Holiday

by on May.04, 2012, under Birdwatching, North Pennines

We’ve got a busy few weeks coming up, giving talks locally, exhibiting at the Scottish Bird Fair and delivering the bird identification training courses for the North Pennines WildWatch programme.  Once that’s out of the way, we’ll be into our busy period for trips out with clients, and then delivering more training courses – this time on offshore wildlife survey techniques for MARINElife/North East Cetacean Project and our local Wildlife Trusts.

With all of that in mind we had a weekend in the North Pennines, staying at Saughy Rigg Farm and making an early start on Saturday to visit a Black Grouse lek.  Armed with our new Telinga Pro8W and Stereo DATmic…we sat in the car with the heaters on as the temperature hit 3C and it started snowing 🙂  We could see the grouse – they were sitting huddled in clumps of rush, looking decidely miserable – but they weren’t performing (at least not early on Saturday morning).  A ghostly-pale Short-eared Owl braved the elements, quartering the grassland in search of prey, and the mic picked up the sound of drumming Snipe, calling Curlew and cackling Red Grouse, but once the Blackcock started lekking they were upwind of us and the wind tunnel effect of trying to record them led to a change of tactic and concentrating on photography.

Over the course of the two days, we had excellent views of Red Grouse, Black Grouse, Golden Plover, Curlew, Common Snipe, Redshank, Curlew, Brown Hare, Roe Deer and Rabbit.  The maze of little roads throughout the area offer lots of photographic opportunities so we made the most of them 🙂

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Greyhens, Allendale, Northumberland 28/04/2012

 
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Brown Hare, Weardale 28/04/2012

 
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Golden Plover, Upper Teesdale 28/04/2012

 
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Black Grouse, Weardale 28/04/2012

 
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lekking Blackcocks, Upper Teesdale 28/04/2012

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Substitute

by on Apr.23, 2012, under Birdwatching, Cheviot Valleys, Druridge Bay, Northumberland

There are times when you can visit the same location on successive days and see exactly the same wildlife, other times something you saw the day before has moved on but there’s compensation in the form of something unexpected…

I collected Julie and David from The Swan and we set off for day of bespoke birdwatching, combining the best of our uplands with the post-industrial birdwatching wonders of southeast Northumberland.  As we headed inland towards the Cheviot valleys the spectacular scenery (not for the first time) elicited a number of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the passenger seats of the car. Crossing the ford where the Harthope Burn becomes the Wooler Water we enjoyed very close views of those two riverine specialists, Dipper and Grey Wagtail.  I’m enthusiastic about most, if not all, birds but male Grey Wagtails are truly stunning birds, and one that often holds our clients entranced for extended periods of time.  We continued along the valley, and set off to walk up a narrow valley leading up into the hills from the main valley.  Red Grouse were cackling all around us, flying from one side of the valley to the other and occasionally perching in full view, imperiously staring at us as we followed the burn their territories.  A female Ring Ouzel flew down the valley, over our heads and away to a distant clump of trees, a pair of Sparrowhawks displayed ahead of us, and we stopped for lunch.  Our post-lunch walk was another spectacular one.  This time in a steep-sided valley, with Peregrines, Kestrels, Common Buzzards and Ravens soaring overhead, Mistle Thrushes carrying food to hungry nestlings and the song of a male Ring Ouzel carrying on the strengthening breeze.  An icy April shower added to the wild, remote feel of the valley and we headed back downhill into glorious sunshine.  Our assemblage of raptors (including the honorary member – the Raven) didn’t feature the Osprey I’d seen the day before, but we did have a real bonus bird…one of the things about birding in narrow steep-sided valleys is that birds appear very unexpectedly, and on this occasion it was the enigmatic ‘Phantom of the Forest’ as a male Goshawk broke the skyline in front of us and beat his way powerfully across the moors.

The second half of the day was spent on the Northumberland coast, finishing close to home around Druridge Bay.  The Common Eiders we found were greatly appreciated and the tour of NEWT’s ‘local patch’ produced a number of highlights with Marsh Harrier, Little Ringed Plover, Avocet, Pintail and Red-breasted Merganser all going down particularly well but, perhaps, the bird of the day was a Short-eared Owl that perched on a roadside fencepost and watched us just as intently as we were watching it; piercing yellow eyes holding us all enthralled as we completed a long day of birdwatching that seemed to be over too soon.  Isn’t that always the way 😉

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Birding with a touch of luxury

by on Mar.31, 2012, under Bamburgh Castle, Birdwatching, Druridge Bay, Kielder, Northumberland

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” 🙂

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Nothing to grouse about

by on Mar.29, 2012, under Birdwatching, North Pennines, Northumberland

On a beautiful spring day, with raptors soaring against an azure sky, and birdsong carrying on the breeze, just being in the landscape is an experience.

As I collected Peter and Margaret from Barnard Castle for a day of birdwatching around the North Pennines AONB, the temperature gauge on the car hit 18C, and we set off in search of one species in particular.  Our lunch stop, overlooking a Black Grouse lek site, was accompanied by Curlew, Common Snipe, Meadow Pipit and Golden Plover all singing.  As we went deeper into the hills, a Black Grouse stared at us imperiously from a rushy field.  As we enjoyed very close views of the handsome bird, two cyclists came along the road and he flushed…along with another 3 Blackcock.  As Margaret kept a close eye on the birds as they landed and began making their way uphill, Curlew and Golden Plover  landed nearby and began calling.  Then Margaret found another 3 Blackcock, flying by and landing much closer, and watched them before asking “you saw where they landed, can you see them now?”.  I couldn’t but, having watched exactly what they did, Margaret described where they were, and what they were doing.  Incredibly, they were only a few metres from where they’d landed, but had managed to position themselves amongst the rushes and stopped moving so that, unless you happened to be watching them when they did that, you couldn’t see where they were.

As the day continued and we headed across into Upper Teesdale, we found some very close Black Grouse, Common Snipe drumming overhead, Wheatears flitting along dry stone walls, Red Grouse cackling in the heather, a Short-eared Owl quartering grassland in stunning late-afternoon light and 2 Hen Harriers.  That last sighting was exciting, and yet sobering at the same time; it’s been a long time since they bred successfully in that vast area of prime habitat.

Fittingly, our last sighting of the day was of 2 more Black Grouse, picking their way through sun-dappled woodland in the early evening.

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Sing when you’re winning

by on Mar.26, 2012, under Birdwatching, Druridge Bay, Northumberland

My own highlight of many trips involves those ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ moments, and they come in many guises…

A Chiffchaff was singing as I collected Alec and Margaret from Waren Mill and we headed south down the coast toward Druridge Bay with a day of birdwatching ahead of us.  In quite stunning weather we enjoyed fields of Curlew, rafts of Puffins on the sea, and clouds of them swirling over Coquet Island, Fulmars shearing along the cliff-tops, plenty of wildfowl, including a red-head Smew – thanks Gill 🙂 – and Bean, Canada, White-fronted, Greylag and Pink-footed Geese and 2 Short-eared Owls. It’s always a pleasure to take out clients who really appreciate Northumberland, and even more so when it’s their first visit to our beautiful county and they’ve already vowed to return regularly.

One of those special moments was provided by a bird once described by a good birding friend as “Annoying.  They never stop singing, they’re really, really annoying”.  The object of his ire?  None other than the humble Skylark.  I have to say that I don’t find them annoying at all.  I’ve hidden in rocky crags, monitoring Hen Harrier nest sites, with Skylarks singing directly overhead, I’ve walked around Holy Island in the summer with several birds singing from so high that they were just dots in the sky and I’ve marvelled at their song as it carries on the breeze.  One thing we saw on Thursday was the thing that Chris found particularly annoying; as we drove from Cresswell towards Druridge Pools, we stopped to check the roadside fields  and several Skylarks were singing nearby.  Suddenly, one of the birds was zig-zagging as it tried to avoid the unwelcome attention of a Merlin.  As the falcon chased close on it’s tail, the Skylark continued singing.  It might seem a strange thing to do, but it has been shown that Merlins chase non-singing, or poorly singing, Skylarks for longer periods than they chase Skylarks that sing well and they’re more likely to catch non-singing Skylarks.  As the birds rose higher and out of sight, we didn’t see the outcome of the chase, but the experience of watching a small bird filled with bravado as a predator closes in on it was one of those moments…

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