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Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Summer Hols Pt.1 - Northumberland

What started off as a 4-night break based on Newcastle upon Tyne ended up having three nights on Speyside added to it and becoming our main summer holiday.

Sunday 4th July

Our approach to Newcastle on the A69 from the west was slowed by a major traffic jam. When we eventually got to the large roundabout at Denton there were armed police everywhere, a mass of police cars (including one on the island with a broken window) and a line of police crawling on the ground doing a finger-tip search. We'd arrived on the day and the place that Raoul Moat had shot the policeman.

Once past this area, we were soon checked in at our hotel. We'd managed to get four nights, at £9 per night for the room, at the Newcastle Silverlink Travelodge. We occasionally book cheap room at Travelodges, finding them to be clean and fairly comfortable. Our room at this particular one was the biggest we'd ever had in a Travelodge, and the hotel had the advantage over most Travelodges in having its own bar and restaurant.

Having sorted ourselves out, we set off through the nearby Tyne Tunnel to South Shields. I'd been there in the autumn of 2009 to see the Eastern Crowned Warbler that showed up on The Lees, and this is where we headed for. The wind along the coast path was so strong that it seemed like we were leaning into it at 30 degrees! - Not much chance of any decent birds! We did see Meadow Pipits (the first of hundreds seen during the holiday - regular cries of "it's a Pipit"), and also spotted a solitary Fulmar on the cliffs. A female Kestrel seemed to fly in from the sea!

Meadow Pipit


Having returned to our car, feeling extremely windswept, we set off a bit further south, stopping opposite Marsden Rock. This small island is a nature reserve, most noted for its cormorant colony.

Marsden Rock

Nesting Cormorants, plus Herring Gulls

It was now evening, and time to head back to our hotel. We ended up having dinner in the Scottish restaurant (McDonald's!) just over the road from the hotel, and then retired to our room to drink some Timothy Taylor's 'Landlord' (brought with us!) and study the maps and make plans for the following day.

Monday 5th July

Having had breakfast (which we'd brought with us - we were really doing this first part on the cheap!) and gone over the road to M&S to get in something for a picnic lunch, we set off northwards for the Northumberland coast, just south of Beadnell. My wife is a seaside lover - for walking rather than lounging on a beach. Our first target was the bird reserve on the beach above High Newton - something for both of us. As we walked from the car park to the reserve we saw several 5-spot Burnett (my book says that 5-spots are a southern species, but these were definitely 5-spots). A few Common Blues looked to be a very vibrant purple-blue in flight. There were also Fritillaries of some sort flying about, but I did not see one settle to check it out or photograph it. The wind was strong and gusty, whipping up the sand from the beach - not too promising for birding!

Five-spot Burnett

Common Blue

Our main objective was the Tern colony on Beadnell Bay beach. Here there are Common, Arctic, and Sandwich Terns, but the speciality is Little Tern. From the RSPB hut Arctic and Common were visible, but to suitably see Little Tern, quite a long walk was needed in order to get some distant views.

Arctic Tern

I was not going to miss out on the Little Terns as this would be a 'lifer' for me. I'm pleased to say that the walk was worth it. Only record shots were possible with my set-up. I did not attempt a close approach as these are a protected species (although where I was seeing them was not a nesting area).

Little Tern - 2 visible in upper image

On the way back to the car I took a few more shots of Meadow Pipits.

Meadow Pipit

Having had an ice-cream in the car park, and jar in the brew-pub at Low Newton, we had our picnic in the car park before setting off southwards for Craster, where we found a pair of female Eiders with a small nursery of youngsters. At this time of year, the males seem to head off on their own, and leave the females to get together and look after the youngsters in groups - sometimes of 20 to 30 birds!


We next stopped beside the river Coquet at Warkworth. I spotted a lone Common Sandpiper which then flew off to join a small group further downstream, making a total of seven birds altogether. It's the first time I have seen Common Sandpiper in groups.

Common Sandpiper - 4 of the group

I got back to the car and my wife pointed out a Curlew that was roaming around upstream. This one had a limp and seemed to have lost much of its left foot. In the first picture, below, you might just detect a trace of stripe on the crown of its head, giving me some initial doubts as to whether it might be a Whimbrel - I'm fairly sure that it's a Curlew, however.


From Craster, we went the short distance to Amble and parked in the harbour car park, which was conveniently situated outside a fish &d chip shop. A fish & chip supper was consumed with a view of the harbour where a female Eider was stretching and preening.

Eider (female)

After this it was back to Newcastle for a nightcap of Landlord before an early start the next day.

Tuesday 6th July

We had an early start because we headed back to Amble with the intention of catching the 10h00 boat to Coquet Island. However, en-route, we had a call from the operator to say that he was waiting for an engine part and so the 10h00 would not be running, but he had booked us on the 11h15. This gave us time to buy our picnic lunch for later, and have a cuppa (followed by a superb Alnwick Rum Truffle ice-cream) in the café run by the boat people. I couldn't resist more images of female Eiders. There are variations in the plumage, with some showing quite distinct orange patterns on the brown feathers

Coquet island is famous for it's Roseate Terns, although Common, Arctic, and Sandwich nest there also. There seem to be two concerns running boat trips out there. The RSPB chartered boat which we used is the more expensive of the two (even with the member's price reduction), but although landing on the island is not permitted the RSPB boat does spend a short while moored up at the jetty on the island, and also on an inshore mooring buoy. This gives some observational advantages, and is well worth the extra. The boat used - 'Shokwave' (see picture below) - is also excellent for viewing from.

Lighthouse on Coquet Island

'Shokwave' - in Amble harbour

Common Tern (juvenile)

The Terns were catching Sprats. I got the impression that everything tended to live on Sprats, rather than Sandeels.

Common Tern

Sandwich Tern (with Common Tern)

The Roseate Terns were nesting (in artificial nest boxes) at a fair distance from the water's edge, and only distant views were possible, but these were another 'lifer' for me.

Roseate Terns (with Puffins)

Arctic Tern


The north end of the island has a large colony of Grey Seals and several of these, as ever, approached us with curiousity.

Grey Seals

On returning to Amble harbour we found a juvenile male (or possibly an eclipse adult male) Eider swimming around. The Eiders seem to be very confiding in these parts. The cheek markings on this bird were very strange. They look as if there was camera shake when I took the photos, but it's just an effect of the pattern.

Eider (juvenile male)

Back on dry land, after a brief stop for our picnic beside the Coquet at Warkworth (nothing of note seen) we set off roughly westwards, heading for Upper Coquetdale, on the north edge of the Otterburn Firing Ranges. Just before entering the area, we stopped for refreshment at the pub in Alwinton. Here we learned more about what Raoul Moat was up to, and that he was just down the road in Rothbury.

The road that heads through Upper Coquetdale is, for much of its length, single track with passing places. The area is amazingly beautiful. We just couldn't understand why an area such as this, so close to Newcastle, was so deserted. We probably only saw five or six other vehicles all afternoon.

We stopped a few times to gaze around in the lower areas, but then decided on a more exploratory stop when we got to a bridge over the Coquet higher up at a place known as Slimefoot Pub (no longer there!). A young Wheatear was messing about by the bridge, and a peak under the bridge revealed a Dipper. This was to be the first of several Dippers seen that afternoon. However, whilst we were there, the rain came in which, added to the stiff breeze, did not bode well for birding.

Upper Coquetdale

Wheatear (juvenile)


Most of the Dippers were quite nervous, but further upstream we found one that was somewhat more confiding - which might be why it was short of tail feathers!


The rain persisted, and a strange phenomenon occurred. The Meadow Pipits decided to all some out and sit on the road. In the rain, these were also quite confiding.

Meadow Pipit

All the while, we had been running along the northern edge of the Otterburn Ranges - the militaries second largest live ammunition range complex in UK. At one point we found ourselve passing by some target vehicles.

Target Tank

Further on I spotted a Merlin with prey, sitting on a post. It was quite close, but flew off very rapidly before I could get my camera into position. It would have made a superb shot if I'd been quicker.

That evening we made a detour to avoid Rothbury, and ended up splashing out on a superb Chinese meal at the Múlan in Morpeth.

Wednesday 7th July

The day looked a little more settled from a wind point of view, and somewhat brighter, so we decided that we'd like to return to Upper Coquetdale, in the hope of seeing more wildlife in better light for photography.

On the way we found a large white bird sitting in the road in the middle of nowhere. I hadn't a clue as to what it was but, having put this image up on Birdguides it has been positively identified as a domesticated form of Helmeted Guineafowl.

Helmeted Guineafowl

To our amazement, most of the birds that we'd seen the previous day were nowhere to be seen on this day! Not a single Dipper was seen, nor a Wheatear. There were few Meadow Pipits around - the one below is very well camouflaged against the rock. My hope lay in finding the Merlin back at the same spot, but when we got to the junction for that part of the road it was closed due to a live ammo exercise taking place. We had to take the diversionary route - another disappointment. We'd almost left the range area when suddenly a Merlin flew up from a post beside the road and straight over a rise - lost from view forever! Oh well!!

It's a Mipit!

Mindful of the gunman that was not a million miles away and thought to be possibly making for the Northumberland National Park (we were in the nearest part of that park to Rothbury), we decided to head back to the coast, and take a walk at Seaton Sluice. The beach here is superb - miles of sands and virtually no one on them in spite of the warm weather.

Beach from Seaton Sluice

We were noticing that the Starlings in this part of the world were already gathering together in groups. At Seaton Sluice there was a group of approximately 100 assembled.


A walk along the headland revealed the usual Herring Gulls, plus Oystercatcher, Redshank, and what I thought were two Curlews until one approached the other and the difference in size was considerable. There was a bit of a ding-dong between them and they went their separate ways. I can now confirm from my pictures that one was a Whimbrel.



Keeping to the low-budget formula, we decided to have our evening meal at the local Crown Carvery, after which we set off back to the Travelodge. As we approached Earsdon we noticed a guy with binoculars looking over the hedge to a 'flash'. Of course I stopped to ask him what he was looking at. He'd got a number of Black-tailed Godwits in full summer plumage in view, plus some Redshank. He told me that he was looking at Wood Sandpiper. However, I couldn't spot it (although we were looking straight into the setting evening sun) and I'm sure that he was, in fact, looking at a Redshank! In checking up afterwards, I found that it had been reported on the previous four days, but nothing for the day we stopped to look.

Black-tailed Godwits

Black-tailed Godwit + Redshank

Redshank + Black-tailed Godwit

This, effectively, was the end of our stay in Newcastle. Early the next morning we headed off north to Speyside in Scotland. I'll publish a posting on this in a couple of days or so.

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