Tag: Wheatear

Spring (Gentian) time in the hills

by on May.25, 2013, under Birdwatching, North Pennines, Northumberland

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 🙂

Spring Gentian,Gentiana verna,Upper Teesdale,macro photography tuition,flower photography tuition,www.northernexperienceimages.co.uk

Spring Gentian,Gentiana verna,macro photography tuition,flower photography tuition,Upper Teesdale,www.northernexperienceimages.co.uk

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.

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Watching the drama unfold

by on May.09, 2013, under Birdwatching, North Pennines, Northumberland

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 🙂

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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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Lightning strikes twice

by on May.11, 2012, under Birdwatching, Druridge Bay, Harwood, Northumberland

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

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Druridge Bay 01/05/2012

by on May.03, 2012, under Birdwatching, Druridge Bay, Northumberland

We often find ourselves, usually when we’re at the British Bird Fair, explaining that Northumberland isn’t a particularly rainy county, in fact it’s very much the opposite.  It is sometimes cold and windy though…but all you need to do is wrap up warm 😉

I collected Philip and Pauline from Outchester and we headed south towards Druridge Bay for a day’s birdwatching on the coast of southeast Northumberland.  A brief search around Woodhorn for the Great Grey Shrike that had been there until the day before proved fruitless, and we continued to follow the road up the coast.  With a bitterly cold northerly wind I guessed where our regular Little Owl would be sunning itself – and it performed like the star that it is; peering inquisitively at us and then craning it’s neck to look at something on the ground far below.  Our lunch stop, overlooking the North Sea, was as spectacular as ever with rolling surf and plenty of ‘white horses’.  Cresswell produced some of the best birds of the day, with a pair of Great Crested Grebes, Hooded Crow, 5 Northern Wheatears, 5 Avocets and 2 Little Ringed Plovers being the highlights.  East Chevington provided very close views of a  Roe Deer, a female Marsh Harrier, Skylarks singing on the breeze and a mixed flock of Swallow, House Martin, Sand Martin and Swift.

With clients from the town of my birth and an enthusiasm for cetaceans like my own, as well as a keen eye for the locations used in popular television series, it seemed that the day was over very quickly and I dropped them back at Outchester in the early evening, stopping for a few minutes to look at Pauline’s hydrophone.  Gadget geek?  No, not me 😉

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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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Go(at) on, make my day

by on Aug.18, 2011, under Birdwatching, Kielder, Northumberland

Yesterday saw something we haven’t done before; a mid-August Kielder Safari.

Andrew, Nick (on his 3rd trip with NEWT), Stephen and Georgina all arrived at our starting point within minutes of each other.  Under a deep blue sky, with some big fluffy white clouds, conditions looked perfect and we set off for the western reaches of Northumberland.

Common Buzzards were seen en route, a good sign that conditions were right for raptors.  The thing that makes our Kielder Safaris so special is the access we’ve been granted by the Forestry Commission, allowing us to take our clients on a drive along remote tracks that are not open to vehicle access by the general public.  With so little disturbance, the wildlife along the tracks is often very approachable.  A family party of Common Crossbills perched obligingly in trees just ahead of us, and kept flying down to the track to eat grit, Siskins, Chaffinches and a Spotted Flycatcher were all watched as they went about their business close by and a Sparrowhawk twisted, turned and swooped through the trees just a few metres away, hot on the tail of a flock of Siskins and Chaffinches.  Perhaps one of the most extraordinary moments of the trip was something I’ve never seen before, in over 40 years of birdwatching;  as we watched a juvenile Common Buzzard soaring above a remote steep-sided valley, Andrew noticed a second bird further along the valley.  The juvenile flew in that direction and the second bird, an adult buzzard, flew up towards it, rolled on it’s back in mid-air and passed prey up to the juvenile.  I’ve seen that happen so many times as courtship behaviour in all of our harrier species, but I’ve never seen a food pass between Common Buzzards, and to see it executed so gracefully by this broad-winged raptor was breathtaking.  We continued on our way with Wheatear, Stonechat, Kestrel, Raven, Pochard, Tufted Duck and Mandarin all joining the day list.

Perhaps the best of the day though came near the end; as we drove across the Forest Drive, a large mammal crossed the track ahead of us.  Looking like a dark Roe Deer on steroids, the nanny Wild Goat was soon followed by a billy goat and 2 kids.  We’ve seen Wild Goats with clients on our trips before, but never at such close quarters.

We’ll be visiting Kielder again on 31st August and 2nd September, so give us a call on 07908 119535 to find out how you can share the experience of the border forests, and the unknown quantity of those remote tracks, with us.

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Like a different world

by on Jun.09, 2011, under Birdwatching, North Pennines, Photography

I had 2 days in the North Pennines late last week; a one-to-one photography day and a birdwatching trip.  Separated by just 48hrs, the days could hardly have been any different.

The photography day took place in gales that were so strong, I had to choose the direction of the car carefully when parked so that we could open the doors, and plan the route as we went along so that Michael would be in a position to get shots from his side of our mobile hide, with as little interference as possible from the weather.  As well as serving up Black Grouse, Red Grouse, Golden Plover, Curlew and Short-eared Owl I had a stint as photographer’s assistant, holding my Cubelite in place so that it acted as a diffuser and windshield as Michael enjoyed having some of the area’s flora in front of his macro lens.

2 days later and I collected Mandy, Sara and Stevan from Jesmond and headed west again.  As we crossed the remote moorland roads and walked in Upper Teesdale, we found Snipe, Curlew, Meadow Pipit, Skylark and Wheatear all displaying.  We had excellent views of 2 Greyhens and a Blackcock was dozing in the afternoon sunshine.  Common Sandpipers were flitting about across the water and the Mountain Pansies were glorious in the sunlight.  All too soon, it was time to head back towards civilisation.

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Border patrol

by on May.19, 2011, under Birdwatching, Kielder, Northumberland

After a day on the coast, yesterday brought something completely different as I headed towards Whitelee Farm and Byrness to collect John and Natalie, and then Bert, for a Kielder Safari.

As we drove along a remote track through the forest, we came across some of the wildlife that makes Kielder such a special place; Roe Deer trotted across the track ahead of us, family parties of Common Crossbills were adorning the tops of spuce trees like christmas decorations, a Red Squirrel eyeballed us from halfway up a tree, a Common Buzzard tolerated a closer approach than usual, but not for long,  and a pair of Wheatears watched as we passed by.

North of the border we were entertained by several pairs of Whinchat (surely one of the most attractive birds we have in Britain), including a male who started singing from his perch just a few metres away, a Dipper that was whizzing up and down the stream where we sat to have our lunch, a Red Grouse playing hide-and-seek with us in the heather and the elegant beauty of a male Hen Harrier, still retaining his grace as he battled into the howling gale that made our hot soup at lunchtime all the better.

Whether it’s the remoteness, the landscape, the species that you rarely, if ever, find elsewhere or just the lack of other people; our inland locations – Kielder, the Cheviot Valleys and the North Pennines always produce memorable birdwatching experiences, for our clients and for ourselves as well!

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Comfort zone

by on May.03, 2011, under Birdwatching, Cheviot Valleys, Druridge Bay, Northumberland, Southeast Northumberland

I’ve been a general naturalist since an early age, but birdwatching has been the thing that has always gripped my imagination.  As a wildlife guide though, is that really enough?  That’s a question that seems to arise occasionally on internet forums.  I decided at an early stage of NEWT that I needed a much broader and deeper knowledge, so I spend a lot of time studying things that once upon a time (I’m ashamed to admit) I would have ignored, or even not noticed.  Every day that I spend with clients, I make an effort to learn from them, whilst imparting my own knowledge, skills and understanding of what we encounter.

On Thursday I led an afternoon of guided birdwatching around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland.  The blazing sunshine when I collected Karen from Newbiggin made it almost impossible to see anything in the bay but, as each small gull flew by, we checked for the identification features that would provide us with a Mediterranean Gull.  All proved to be Black-headed Gulls, and we headed north up the coast.  As we stood by the River Coquet, discussing how to separate Carrion Crow, Rook and Jackdaw in flight, I saw the tell-tale ghostly wings of a Med Gull as it drifted down towards the water’s edge.  Jet black hood, pristine white wingtips and, as perfect as if it was scripted, sitting next to an adult Black-headed Gull allowing easy comparison.  Some of our favourite birds followed; Marsh Harrier, Nuthatch, Heron and at least 17 Whimbrel.  During the afternoon I learned a feature of Wood Sorrel that will ensure I never misidentify it (again…).  Karen, you were right 🙂

Friday was something very different as we were headed inland to the Cheviots for a day searching for summer visitors.  After a few hours with a spectacular roll-call of the wildlife of the valleys, including Brown Hare, Roe Deer, Whinchat, Tree Pipit, Wheatear, Spotted Flycatcher, Red Grouse, Curlew and Lapwings (with chicks), we followed the track up a steep sided valley in search of a bird that Sue hadn’t seen before (and really wanted to).  As the sky darkened, the wind strengthened and chilled, and the first drops of icy rain began to fall, I spotted 2 distant birds flying down the valley.  I didn’t have any doubt about the identification so, when they eventually settled on the tops of the heather, I aimed the ‘scope in their direction and Sue enjoyed her first views of the ‘Mountain Blackbird’.  Ring Ouzels may often be seen on passage in the spring and autumn, but high in a remote valley, where you think the elements could give you a good working over at any time and the habitat supports so few species, is simply the right place to see them.  Another lesson learned; memorable sightings make you forget about the weather 🙂

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