Northumberland, Bird Club

Birds on the Farne Islands.
Birds on the Farne Islands.
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An array of birdlife

It was full house at Bamburgh Pavilion as North Northumberland Bird Club welcomed Christina Nicholson to talk on Wildlife of Speyside and Beyond.

Chrissie, who retains her Geordie accent and lovely sense of humour, first gained valuable experience as a field ornithologist for the RSPB and other conservation bodies, before joining Speyside Wildlife as a tour leader seven years ago, leading trips centred on the Cairngorms National Park and Speyside, often straying over to the West Coast and the Outer Hebrides.

Her presentation was habitat-based, looking at the rich diversity of wildlife found in the forests, lochans, rivers, mountains and islands of this stunning area, where they regularly encounter as many as 19 Schedule 1 species on a typical trip.

The forest plays host to chaffinch, coal tit, great spotted woodpecker, redstart and tree pipit, alongside such iconic species as crested tit, crossbill, parrot crossbill and capercaillie.

We learnt that crested tits excavate their nests, rather than use bird boxes. Sometimes the tops of trees are deliberately blown off to encourage swift rotting to tempt excavating crested tits. Filling likely nest boxes with sawdust has also been tried, but the success or otherwise of this experiment was not revealed.

The rare and declining turkey-sized capercaillie is a much sought after species in the area. Chrissie drew some laughter with a tale concerning some birders having to abandon their scopes abruptly when a rogue male decided they had invaded his territory.

Mammals to be seen include woodmouse, bank vole, red deer, badger, pine marten, red squirrel and, very occasionally, a wild cat will be spotted.

Lochans yield up goldeneye (doing well thanks to nest boxes, which are sited up trees), slavonian grebe, red-throated diver, black-throated diver, redshank and osprey.

There are red kites on the nearby Black Isle area.

The principal rivers are the Spey and Findhorn, with plenty of common sandpiper, dipper, goosander, and, less commonly, the grey wagtail.

In the high mountains, parts of which Speyside Wildlife can now access by the funicular railway, things get interesting, with such special birds as dotterel, ptarmigan in winter plumage or spectacular summer plumage, ring ouzel, snow bunting, red grouse and golden eagle.

The female dotterel is prettier than the male and, having laid her eggs, she leaves the chap to look after them and raise the babies.

Mammals of the mountainous areas include mountain hares, which always have white feet, goats, and rather tame reindeer, which were re-introduced to the Cairngorms from Sweden in the 1950s.

Of all the Western Isles, it is the island of Mull which proves to be the best place for raptors – often quite large numbers of them can be seen in the sky at the same time: kestrel, goshawk, buzzard, hen harrier, white-tailed eagle, golden eagle and peregrine may be seen.

Other species likely are short-eared owl, heron, curlew, great northern diver, and surprisingly, fallow deer, the latter more usually confined to southern England.

The seas around Mull are good for minke whale, bottle-nosed dolphin and the occasional sperm whale.

The Isle of Lunga (which sounds wonderful), a few miles West of Mull, is covered in bluebells and thrift in May. It has breeding colonies of puffins and other auks, corncrake, and also hosts storm petrels amongst the building ruins.

In the Outer Hebrides, you never know what might turn up. One trip had a hoopoe, another had a snowy owl.

Amongst the regulars are the waders, brent geese, pomarine and long-tailed skuas on passage, and of course the corncrake – a positive cornucopia of feathers.

Our next indoor meeting at Bamburgh Pavilion is tomorrow (Friday), at 7.30pm, when Richard Baines, from Yorkshire Coast Nature, will be presenting Birds and Conservation on Flamborough Head.