Report on 'Birds of Wild Northumbria' day tour - May 2004

Mark's Birdwatch Northumbria enjoyed the luxury of the Otterburn Tower Hotel in May. Friday night gave us a preview of many birds likely to be seen. Next morning in the hotel grounds we 'heard the song and looked for the bird'. The Black Cap eluded us but not so the Willow Warbler. On the vast moorland of the Otterburn Ranges, Curlews, Lapwing and Larks sang. There were stocky Buzzards, and in the distance, a Peregrine Falcon. On Holystone Common, finches, thrushes and tits sang in the sun, and a Cuckoo gave proof of spring. The Upper Coquetdale Valley was alive with Oyster Catchers, Redshank and Sand Martins. Mist over Caistron Reservoir failed to hide Cormorant, Greylag and Canada Geese. Mark had shown us how to Walk with Birds - over 70 different species that day.

A beginners' course one winter weekend in the Lakes, introduced me to Bird Watching. It turned out to be rather expensive as it necessitated the purchase of a good pair of binoculars, but what a difference those made to finding birds and picking out detail!

My next step has been a weekend in luxury at the Otterburn Tower Hotel, joining Mark's Birdwatch Northumbria. On the Friday night our leader showed slides of many of the birds we hoped to see next day. Thanks to practising with my binoculars in my garden where sustenance is provided daily for feathered visitors, I thankfully was able to recognise a few.

The next morning we spent an hour finding birds in the trees and shrubs around the Hotel. 'Hear the song, look for the bird' was the motto. We heard occasional phrases from a Black Cap with its slow start accelerating into a rich sound, but the bird tantalisingly, eluded us. A Willow Warbler delighted us with its song descending down the scale. The chatter of the rooks drowned all other sounds at times but we had chance to look at differences in the head shape of rooks and crows.

We drove out to Otterburn Ranges, open to the public for all too brief a spell. In subdued light, we stopped in dips covered with broad leaf and pine. This provided welcome protection from a strong NW wind, both for us and for the birds; there were numerous blue tits and coal tits. Driving up to Leighton Hill, one realised just how extensive the Ranges are - open moorland seemed to roll on to infinity, apparently deserted yet full of bird song from curlews, lapwing and larks. Northumberland seems to have more than its fair share of larks. Was Vaughan Williams inspired to compose 'The Lark Ascending' having visited Northumberland, I wonder?

We part drove, part walked to Holystone Common, passing the remains of bastles (fortified towers) on the way. We saw stocky Buzzards with their broad heads and tails; then yes, with the help of a telescope, we really did pick out a Peregrine Falcon perched high up on a rock some considerable distance away. Later in the day we were to see more Peregrines soaring and diving at speed. I say 'saw' - to be perfectly honest, I needed our leader to pick out the birds for me because I do not yet have the knowledge to identify them myself!

Walking in the woodland of Holystone Common (part of Northumberland's National Park) there were finches, thrushes and a variety of tits. With the patient help of our leader I had eventually seen a Meadow Pipit darting about in coarse tussocks of grass. In the wood, its cousin, the Tree Pipit, seemed easier to identify. The cloud lifted whilst we were in the wood, and weak sun stimulated more bird song. We walked back to our car, snatched a sandwich after a morning in the field, and heard a cuckoo in the distance. It must be spring!

We swept on past Holystone and saw a deer moving fairly leisurely up the northern hillside. Alighting at Alwinton, we paused for a welcome cream scone and jam.

Thence to the Upper Coquetdale Valley, where thin streams of water or 'braids' intertwined themselves between the pebbles. The area was alive with Oystercatchers, Redshanks and Sand Martins, as if the coast had mysteriously migrated inland. Drizzle rolled in and over us from the north as we drove on to Caistron Reservoir and its wildlife reserve. Ducks and geese seemingly 'glued' to the water, made it much easier to identify characteristics of the birds - Cormorant, Greylag Geese and Canada Geese and in the air, yet more Buzzards. We were alarmed as a disturbed noisy Woodcock shot out of the undergrowth. The rasping cry of a Sedge Warbler haunted us as we strove to see the bird itself.

Somewhat damper and cooler, we completed our circular tour and returned to Otterburn. Reviewing the day, we had seen or been introduced to over 60 birds, and another dozen or so had made their presence known audibly.

Walking in the Wild? No, Walking with Birds! Perhaps, in the future, 2or 3 notes, a quick sight of a bird in flight, its outline, shape, colour and size will enable me to say "Oh it's a ???.."! I'd like to think so anyway!

Thank you Mark.

Del Clark

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