Sunday, March 26, 2023

Guided Walk


This weekend Jane has been away on a jolly with her friends so that leaves me in charge. After the dog that is. 

Yesterday I was leading a guided walk for Alnwick Wildlife Group on a 3 miles circular route from our Village, taking in local woods, farmland and the coast path. When committing to a guided walk, I always try to have an idea of what to look for and where so people can get the most out of it, but that rarely works out as you'd expect. The other week I added a short note to the AWG newsletter describing the route and what to expect.  

Largely flat walking with some muddy paths so suitable footwear required. 3 miles. Village Hall available for an hour on return for loos or people to catch up, eat their lunch, have tea or whatever? The route will start off inland with fields, woodland etc. Then down to the coast and south back to Howick.

Weather permitting, I’ll put a battery moth trap in the Village Wood to check on the way through. 

There should be some spring flowers with the likes of Marsh Marigold, Lungwort, Primrose, etc. Maybe some early Bees, with Hairy Footed Flower Bee as well as Bumblers. Chance of an early hoverfly too. Woodland birds singing, Woodpecker drumming, Buzzard, Jay, Nuthatch. Chiffchaffs often back by then. Raven possible. Roe Deer, Brown Hare maybe.

Down to the coast with Fulmars and Kittiwakes back at the cliffs.

What I cant predict, a month in advance, is the weather. After a week of generally mild and fair days, it was all change on Saturday with a fresh, cold NW breeze and some short sharp showers to spice things up.

So, how did it go....

Well, the previous night was quite mild and only a light shower was on the menu so the battery bucket trap was deployed into the wood while the Robinson was on our drive for the Garden Moth Survey as usual. The walk was due to start at 9am so at 8.15 I gathered both traps in and took them to the hall. It was dull and cold with rain until 10am, so my plan was, if anyone turns up,  to go through the trap in the hall until the rain eases then we can head off. If no one turns up, at least I am about 100 mtrs from home.

I need not have worried. Regardless of the return to winter, 21 hardy souls filled up our small car park and were ready to be shown local wildlife. 21 is quite a few, and maybe a few too many but at least we will get a walk out of it. The observer experience in the group varied from seasoned experts in botany, environmental, ecological surveys and birders all the way to beginners looking at nature with all levels between.

Now I look at my advert, its wasn't too far off the mark really except for the invertebrates that were never going to be out and about in this weather.

To begin with, there was a nice selection of regular early spring moth species to show. Everyone seemed to enjoy this part and it was a great way to start the walk, now at least most people had seen some new stuff!

The combined two trap catch - 


70.066  Shoulder Stripe (Earophila badiata)  1

70.101  Mottled Grey (Colostygia multistrigaria)  1

70.103  Water Carpet (Lampropteryx suffumata)  1

70.156  Brindled Pug (Eupithecia abbreviata)  7

73.069  Early Grey (Xylocampa areola)  8

73.194  Chestnut (Conistra vaccinii)  6

73.241  Pine Beauty (Panolis flammea)  1

73.242  Clouded Drab (Orthosia incerta)  2

73.244  Common Quaker (Orthosia cerasi)  11

73.245  Small Quaker (Orthosia cruda)  4

73.249  Hebrew Character (Orthosia gothica)  46

73.250  Twin-spotted Quaker (Anorthoa munda)  3

73.336  Red Chestnut (Cerastis rubricosa)  6

Pine Beauty

Shoulder Stripe with a Hebrew Character hidden above.

Twin spotted Quaker

The muddy route wound our way up through Village Wood where the first Marsh Marigolds were in flower, 4 Chiffchaffs had been singing earlier but not a peep when the guests were here, the Badger set was inspected as were a few of the introduced trees.

Out at the top we optimistically checked a flowering patch of Lungwort for bees, but that was never an option today. The flowers were nice...

An older Lungwort shot in better weather.

Walking the track north, Butterbur were just beginning to flower, whilst a Roe buck watched us as carefully as we watched him. Other plants such as Opposite leaved Golden Saxifrage and Holm Oaks were given the once over too.

Here the track takes us back east to the coast over exposed farmland. A few Skylarks remained in full song defying the weather.

We reached the coast just south of Craster. From here a party of 8 or more Bottle nosed Dolphins gave prolonged views, the group included a few juveniles too that everyone  was pleased to see. A few birds were noted now, with a bathing Purple Sandpiper, 1 Red throated Diver and a few Shag S, strings of Gannet N, a few Eiders, 2 Canada Geese S ( a patch year tick for me) and a flock of 15+ Sanderling N ( also a new one for the year and often tricky to get on our rocky bit of coast. 

The strappy leaves of Spring Squill hinted of flowers to come, but there were no Wheatears waiting. Along to Cullernose cliffs a few Kittiwakes were out on the ledges along with Fulmars. The walk back to the village along the road only gave us a newly arrived Chiffchaff and a Curlew.

I didnt bother taking a shot of the walking group mainly due to the weather.

As you can imagine, later in the afternoon the sun came out... 

Monday, March 20, 2023

Storming the Castle.

 This might be a longer blog post than most recently, as this week I've finally got something to write about, so please bear with me. There has even been some good signs of spring.

Before I come to the weekends events, on Tuesday mornings dog walk, a smart adult, summer plumaged, Mediterranean Gull flew low south over our village with a team of Black headed Gulls. My first of the year on patch. As far as gulls go they don't get much smarter than these, with backlit angels white wing tips and contrasty hood..

Mediterranean Gull.

The next few days were standard, with that treading water feel to it, until Friday.

I was office based on Friday morning when at 09.17am a WhatsApp message came through - 

Alpine Swift is a rare bird in Northumberland with only around 15 records and there hasn't been one 'gettable' for about 30 years. Not in my time anyway. 

Now, my office is 40 miles from Bamburgh Castle so it is not exactly a short jaunt away. When that last message came through I felt some relief that it had gone, but a short while later, it had returned. Had I been working from home, Bamburgh is only 15 miles away, but not today. 

After another hour and more updated grippage of 'showing well' and a frame filling pic, it all became too much, I had to go. So, colleagues updated, I was going to pop out and work from home in the afternoon...

After a sluggish tractor / tourist subdued drive up the A1 the car finally came to a halt in the large car park over shadowed by the huge bulk of Bamburgh Castle at 12 noon. A quick scan with the bins. Nothing. Just blue sky and fluffy clouds.

Checked phone. 

Bugger. No news for an hour. Its not looking good.

I pulled out of the car park and drove a few hundred yards to the south and parked on the road side so I didn't need to pay and thought I'd give it half an hour and see what happens. As I got out of the car I was joined by Alan Hall who was buzzing having had great views of the bird. By now I had resigned myself to having wasted my time, but you have to try or you'd never succeed.

Then, Alan became quite animated. Gesturing over the dunes  - 'There it is!'

And it was coming our way.

What a bird, Alpine Swift is a good deal bigger and bulkier than Common Swift, appearing like a more stiff winged Merlin as it approached and went low, straight over our heads then gone towards the village. This is only my 2nd UK record after seeing one on this very same date in Scarborough 19 years ago. Alan left for home but I went back to the car park where a few others were watching the now very high Alpine Swift feeding. Sometimes it would drop lower and strafe the castle walls and flag pole at great speed, rocking its wings side to side. I wished for my camera that was lying at home, but no worries, the lack of it meant I could just take it all in above us.

After about half an hour, the car park attendant came. This was cue for me to head back home and work. What a day. The swift was present only for a short while after I left when a rain shower seemed to move it off and despite some vague reports around 3pm it was not seen again. 

Back to reality now. Yesterday was another pleasant day so I met John at Seahouses Farm layby and after some car shuffling where we took one vehicle up to Craster then drove back to Howick to walk the coast line looking for migrants, we set off in clear blue skies for the walk north.

Soon the sound of trumpeting Whooper Swans was followed by the lovely sight of a majestic flock of 47 slowly following the coast north. Another party of 72 was seen later on at Craster as well as a big flock of 350+ Pink footed Geese following the same route back up to breeding grounds. 

Whooper Swans

As we approached the small Salters Gate layby an early Sand Martin flew low west while a couple of Chiffchaffs could be heard singing.

A few Skylarks, Meadow Pipits and Wagtails were also on the move north along the coast path.

Chiffchaff, Howick coast path.

Meadow Pipit

The rocky shore between Cullernose and Craster is excellent for Wheatears or a Black Redstart maybe but we didnt see any on this walk. New additions to my Local Patch year list were welcome though with a drake Red breasted Merganser and 3 Lesser Black Backed Gulls N. A few Razorbills were displaying on the sea below Cullernose cliffs and the first Kittiwakes were back on the sea.

Razorbills displaying.

After a wander around Craster seeing only 9 Purple Sandpipers of note, we arrived back at my car for tea and sausage rolls before moving back down the coast for a short seawatch off Howick. At this time of year seawatching is usually slow but we had things like wildfowl or maybe a Sandwich Tern newly back in the county, in mind.

We had 8 Red throated Divers N, 12 Common Scoter N, 4 Dunlin ( another new patch tick), a few Gannets and Kittiwakes, 1 Shelduck N, 2 Lesser black backed Gulls N and a Harbour Porpoise. More intriguing though, I picked up a flock of tiny dots miles offshore towards the horizon that looked a bit like Lapwings at that range. It was clear they were coming in off so I stayed with them to confirm. When they finally came within reasonable range, I could see it was a group of 31 Jackdaws! What on earth were Jacks doing miles out to sea? That's a first for me, migrating Jackdaws... 

Migrating Jackdaws out at sea.

Low right, adult Lesser black back.

2 of 9 Purple Sandpipers

So not a bad morning out, a good end to a good week. The moth trap has been active too since Friday so here are a few of the moths caught -

Acleris literana

March Moth

Oak Beauty 

Red Chestnut

Twin spotted Quaker, orange spotted form.

Pine Beauty,



Monday, March 13, 2023

Winter, you've had enough, move on!

Almost mid March and it seems like we are stuck at Valentines Day.

Yesterday I met up with John at Boulmer early doors. That was clearly a mistake, as we just couldn't get motivated. It was dull, breezy and cold in a flat, dull, grey landscape, lit up by 43 blue plastic pheasant feeders across an otherwise barren landscape. No, it was time to move on.

A quick cross country dash to Alnwick Homebase car park, one vehicle was left and we headed off to recce a few sites for when spring really does arrive.

Inspired by last week's disused railway line, our first stop was Rugely just a mile or two west of Alnwick town. There was still some snow lying here and it was even windier than on the coast but we were here now, so we had to make the best of it.

A short walk along the line looked promising for better weather, though it was quiet today. A Treecreeper or two, a pair of Roe Deer and some Badger tracks in the snow were all of note. There might be some plants and insects here later in the year.

Rugely Footbridge


Next stop was an overly optimistic 5 minutes at our known Adder site before heading west to Debdon where at least we might get some shelter in Primrose wood for a walk. On route our first 2 Lesser black backed Gulls of the year in a moorland sheep field, always a good early site for them.

A loop walk through the wood and back by the moor had us scanning for raptors after a Rough legged Buzzard was reported not too far away yesterday. We didnt have such luck, and all that entered the notebook was 2 Ravens, 3 Crossbills, 10+ Siskin ( that prompted some chat about six smart Siskins sat singing in a Sitka Spruce, yep it was that quiet), 3 Buzzard, 1 Kestrel.

A pair of Crossbills high up a larch. They should have a nest by now somewhere.

Debdon Moor.

Its always a nice walk here, but it was only slightly marred by the landowner doing his very best to chop down birch woods, finishing the vegetation clearances done so efficiently by a load of sheep! One day we will find somewhere, where people are trying to improve the biodiversity rather than just doing all they can to kill everything. 

On the right, before and on the left, after. 

Wednesday, March 08, 2023


That's the first week of March over and last night was the coldest of the year so far. Our thermometer showed -3.9 degrees at 06.25am this morning. That was 10 minutes after our electric cut out and with it, the heating and hot water too. Great. This was followed by a despondent 3 hrs until the power pinged back into life and normal life could be resumed.

The quiet period had me thinking about how we go about our birding, as I often do. Now, we are swamped with bang up to the minute ( literally) information on what is around . I wonder how we would get on if WhatsApp  and Social Media all stopped. If we were back in a time like the 80s when we used an ineffective telephone grapevine. A part of me might quite like that, but I haven't got the bottle to stop it all voluntarily in case I missed anything. The state of things...I have blogged a few times about Olden Days and Old Ways ( see index) so wont repeat myself now, but you never know, one day I might just go off grid.

Back to whats been happening. As usual we have kept it local over the last week. 

On my main Local Patch ( we watch a few, in our vice county as you have seen) things remain a bit samey though signs of change are coming. Our Village Water Rail has started to be seen a bit more often in its usual burn, and even staying a few minutes before running off. Nice. Some thrushes are returning back north with a few Redwings and Blackbirds in the paddock and gardens, while down at the pond, the female Kingfisher is still about with 6 Tufted Ducks though the Gadwall seem to have gone now. The other evening, a lovely group of 5 Whooper Swans trumpeted their way NW low over the village, What a sight and sound they made. I stood, with the dog, and just soaked it all in as they slowly moved out of earshot.

Same place on different days, the Water Rail.

On Sunday we had the morning down the road at Alnmouth. Surprise of the week occurred with two Chiffchaffs including my earliest ever singer at the waterworks. Down on the river, Little Egret, Barnacle Goose, a pair of Grey Wagtails and a scatter of wildfowl gave plenty to look at.

Looking from the line down to the River Aln valley.

JWR on the disused railway line

The haunt of Willow Tits.

As the village became busy we moved a short way to the disused railway line at Greenrigg. A pleasant wander here had 2 Willow Tit, 2 Grey Partridge, a Woodcock, 2 Kestrels, 2 Buzzards plus a few more regular farmland birds.

Flyover Sparrowhawk.

One of the pair of Willow Tits.

As I write this it is gently snowing though sunny and cold. Hopefully it wont be long before the wind swings back to a more southerly direction so we can expect some more bird movement and insect activity.