5th April. Today was the day that Sam took up his bespoke photography tour with Northern Experience Wildlife Tours. This was the prize from his success in the NWT/NHSN Wildlife Photography Competition in 2013. The prize offered two places and Sam kindly invited me along again. So we were up before the larks at 4:00am and picked up by Martin Kitching of NEWT and soon on our way towards the North Pennines. As we left the birds were singing and thankfully the mist of the previous days had disappeared.
We had some decent sightings on the journey including Tawny Owl perched at the side of the road, Woodcock over the trees, Roe Deer, Grey Partridges and Red Legged Partridges.
The highlight of the day, and I have to say one of my top birding experiences was to be at our first stop at Langdon Beck. The dawn atmosphere was all set to provide a wonderful experience as we watched thirty plus Black Grouse at the lekking ground. It wasn’t simply the sight of these magnificent birds, but also the sounds. The calls of the Black Grouse intermingled with the calls of the likes of Curlew, Lapwing, Common Snipe, Meadow Pipit and Skylark. Bird calls were to be a major part of the enjoyment of the day, as was the general atmosphere and habitat, whether the sun was shining or the rain falling and mist dropping on the higher ground. This was an experience not to be missed and one certainly worth getting out of bed early for. Time seemed to pass very quickly as we watched the antics of the Blackcock, and the few Greyhens that were on the periphery and occasionally at the centre of the lek. At one point the birds seemed to be disturbed, possibly by an innocent dog walker, and flew off the lekking site to adjoining ground, but they were soon back. We watched until only two of the Blackcock continued to spar and birds began to disperse to feeding areas. You can count on this experience being recounted in my annual summary at the end of 2014! It was a little later that I slowly realised that I’d seen a familiar face pass by. Not a bird this time, but a blogger. I reckon that we had a couple of fellow local bloggers beside us today! :-)
Common Snipe. (I prefer drystone walls to barb wire fences and thankfully there are many drystone walls in the area).
It wasn’t long after watching the lek that we were photographing Lapwings and Common Snipe, of which the latter I can’t remember having seen so many before. We heard the plaintive calls of Golden Plover and eventually caught numbers in flight, but we never did get close enough for photographs of this species. We did have a splendid sighting of a Golden Plover through the binoculars and it had to be one of the most attractive species seen in a while. Other waders seen included Oystercatcher, Redshank and Curlew, with another possible fleeting sighting of Woodcock.
A good part of the day was spent watching more Black Grouse at a number of sites well known to Martin and photographing Red Grouse. Some of the areas we passed through are extensively managed for Red Grouse as reflected in the patchwork quilt effect of burnt heather. The area itself is magnificent habitat although needless to say there aren’t many raptors about! At times the sun was out, at other times the fells and crags were dark and brooding, whilst for a short spell it was simply misty and wet on higher ground. If it hadn’t been for the wildlife I would have been content to have spent the time on landscape photography. The changing light conditions was giving ample opportunity for this as we looked at distant fells covered in mist or overhung by thunderous dark cloud, then passed by at the foot of rather threatening crags above us. Then the sun would break through again giving a completely different feel to the remote and wild areas. We timed our lunch break well during the wet period. Lunch provided by Martin was much enjoyed.
Red Grouse in their habitat
Skylarks and Meadow Pipits were with us throughout the tour and thrushes well represented with sightings of Song Thrush, Redwing, Mistle Thrush, Fieldfare and Blackbird. No Ring Ouzels were found. Our mammal list for the day was Rabbit, Brown Hare, Roe Deer and either a Stoat or Weasel briefly seen by Sam. Smaller passerines were seen only in limited numbers, but did include the likes of Chaffinch and Greenfinch.
Early on in the morning we searched for Golden Plover around the area of Cow Green Reservoir. As I’ve mentioned we found none close enough to photograph, but we saw them in numbers and enjoyed their plaintive calling. An unexpected find was twenty-two Whooper Swans seen at distance and through thin mist on the reservoir.
Kestrels were seen briefly and we did have one Raven fly overhead during the day. Stock Doves were seen in some number. A couple of Red-legged Partridges gave us a far better sighting than an earlier one, but scuttled away before we could take a photograph.
So all in all it was a great day with great company and great wildlife in great habitat, and after an early rise and ten hours concentrating in the field I was pretty tired on the journey home. That Black Grouse lek will certainly take some beating as a spectacle this year. I’d like to offer my thanks to Martin Kitching of Northern Experience Wildlife Tours for providing such a wonderful opportunity. In my opinion NEWTs should be the first thought on anyone’s mind if they feel they want guidance and a wildlife tour in our area. I know from having also participated in three NEWT pelagics, that they too are excellent. Even more of my thanks go to Sam for inviting me to join him and share this opportunity. I’m pleased to say that as we came to an end of the tour Sam was rewarded with what I think will be a lifer for him. We found two what we initially thought were Common Buzzards one of which turned out to be a Rough Legged Buzzard!