Tuesday, 30 June 2009

A Hare on the Hill

The road in highest parts of Upper Coquetdale is very narrow, sometimes barely a car-width, and in places where the valley side is at its steepest, the road seems to look for the best contour and cling on by its finger tips. Occasionally, on the sharpest bends, there is an old post and rail fence on the down-side edge of the road. These are a blessing to passing itchy sheep but I doubt they would stop an errant motorist from crashing over the edge and down into the river.

It was on just such a bend last week that I came upon a carefree Brown Hare sitting in the middle of the road. The hare sat perfectly still, seemingly unstartled by my arrival. I reached for my camera and it was only when I lifted it to my eye that the hare reacted. Two quick steps took it across the road and up onto the grassy valley side. I thought I'd seen the last of it, but no. As I drove slowly forward, I saw that it was just above me in the grass, ears erect, eyes alert, crouched and ready to spring off in a flash.

Watching hares is always rewarding but this was a rather special encounter.

Brown Hare (Lepus capensis)

Monday, 29 June 2009

Views of Upper Coquetdale

The visitor to Upper Coquetdale, whatever their interest, will be seldom disappointed. My two visits during the last week included views of a fine-looking Grey Heron, flying up from the river bank onto a nearby grassy slope ...

Grey Heron (Ardea cinera)

A Common Sandpiper calling from its perch on a fence ...

Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos)

And lots of young Wheatears.

Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe); a juvenille

Along the Coquet there were clumps of Blotched Monkey Flower, garden escapees relocated now in splashes of mustard and blood-red cheerfulness on the river bank ...

Blotched Monkey Flower (Mimulus luteus)

River Water Crowfoot, and their reflections, in the river itself ...

River Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus fluitans)

And Wild Thyme clinging to a sunny, bank-side rock.

Wild Thyme (Thymus polytrichus)

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Barrowburn Hay Meadows (3)

Although it was hot and sunny during my second visit to the hay meadows at Barrowburn, it was also quite breezy. I had travelled in hope of photographing some of the insects that visit the meadows, particularly the Chimney Sweeper moth pictured below, and the bumble bees. And from reading the SSSI description, I had tagged the grasses present on site in my field guide and planned to try photographing them too. However, as there were not as many of the moths and bees about and the steady breeze kept the grasses on the move, both these objectives were made difficult if not impossible to fulfil. So, as well as having a very nice lunch at the Barrowburn Farm tea room, I spent the afternoon happily sauntering the hay meadow paths and photographing the flowers again.

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) on the meadow edge

Ox-eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)

Meadow Vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis)

Wood Crane's Bill (Geranium sylvaticum)

Chimney Sweeper Moth (Odezia atrata)

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Barrowburn Hay Meadows (2)

In part one of my description of the Barrowburn Hay Meadows I said that I was quite unprepared for the experience that awaited me. The meadows were filled with such an overwhelming variety of plants that they provided a feast for all the senses. I fully intend to spend more days amongst them while they continue to flower.

As might be expected, there were many insects about. One which particularly caught my attention was the Chimney Sweeper moth (Odezia atrata), a small, day-flying white-tipped but otherwise plain black moth which I had not seen before. Apparently the Chimney Sweeper relies on the Pignut flower for its existence, it being the only food plant of the moth's caterpillar. I hope the next part of this series will include pictures of some of the insects visiting the hay meadows.

Now to the flowers: They were all photographed using my standard Nikkor 18-55mm lens and a 6 dioptre close-up lens. This is only a selection of the flowers on display. If a reader finds that I have wrongly identified any of the flowers, I am more than happy to be corrected (I am not entirely confident about the Bitter Vetch, although the SSSI description suggests it is found on site).

Pignut (Conopodium majus)

Wood Crane's Bill (Geranium sylvaticum)

Eyebright (Euphrasia memocosa)

Rough Hawkbit (Leontodon taraxacoides)

Bird's Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)

Bitter Vetch (Lathyrus montanus)

Hay or Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor)

Germander Speedwell (Veronica chamaeodrys)

Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata)

Monday, 22 June 2009

Barrowburn Hay Meadows (1)

For almost a week, I had looked forward to visiting the hay meadows at Barrowburn in Upper Coquetdale but was quite unprepared for the experience that awaited me. Upland hay meadows are internationally rare and at Barrowburn, where the grazing land is managed in such a way as to encourage these lovely reminders of a slower way of life, the meadows are filled with an overwhelming variety of plants.

The greater part of the afternoon was spent in just one meadow, taking a slow what’s-this-what’s-that walk, firstly along a boundary path and then on a steep diagonal path crossing the meadow at the start of a well-trodden route to the Border Ridge at Windy Gyle. Although I already knew some of the flowers, I still needed to stop every two or three paces to take a closer look at one I didn’t recognise and thumb through my field guide in an effort to identify it. And all of the time, plant identification was competing with photography and vice-versa.

The meadows at Barrowburn support many plants typically found in northern hay meadows. These include wood crane’s bill, pignut, bitter vetch, rough and autumn hawkbit, cat’s ear, selfheal, common bird’s foot trefoil, yellow rattle and oxeye daisy.

In an earlier piece I owned that for some time I had not given sufficient attention to wild flowers in my wanderings. The hay meadows at Barrowburn served only to reinforce this feeling and, with my new set of close-up lenses at the ready and another hay meadow nearer to home at Greenhaugh, I can see it won’t be too long before more wild flower items appear on these pages.

To begin, the pictures show Barrowburn and views of the meadows. In the next part, I will introduce the flowers themselves.

A view from one of the meadows towards Barrowburn Farm and Upper Coquetdale

Looking towards Barrow Law

In the midst of the meadow

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Redstarts at Black Middens

Without any particular plan, I ventured today into the remote and beautiful country surrounding the Tarset Burn and the ruined bastle house at Black Middens. The Tarset Burn is a tributary of the North Tyne and because there is only a single-track road into and out of the valley, people seem to pass it by.

In the woodland at Black Middens I watched a pair of Redstarts feeding at least four young. These were the best views I have had of Redstarts in many years. There was also a very active family of Treecreepers in the wood, which added to the pleasure.

A short way down the road, a finger post directed me through a gate and across a field to a path through more old woodland on the burn side. I watched a pair of Grey Wagtails on the burn and was eaten alive by midges while standing still for half-an-hour trying to photograph a Wren.

Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus): the female I think

The Tarset Burn

Grey Wagtail (Montacilla cinerea)

It may be of interest to know that bastle houses are numerous along the border between England and Scotland. They are defensible farmhouses, defensible that is against raids by reivers between the thirteenth and sixteenth century. Bastle houses are characterised by stone walls often a metre thick, a generally vaulted ground floor where livestock was housed for safe keeping and family accommodation on the first floor accessed by a ladder which was pulled up from the inside at night (the ground floor entrance and external staircase shown in the picture below were probably additions after peace came to the Borders in the early seventeenth century). The windows were usually narrow slits and the roof would be made of stone slates. Today, most bastle houses are in complete ruin, some like Black Middens have only their walls standing, others in better repair are still used as store houses on farms and some are converted into comfortable homes.

Black Middens bastle house

Friday, 12 June 2009

The Early Bird

I have all the windows open to the fresh air this morning and the sounds of birdlife are all around. Somewhere amongst the buttercup-filled pastures to the west, curlews are calling; their haunting, falling call one of the great pleasures of an upland spring. And occasionally too, I hear the faint piping of an oystercatcher in the opposite direction towards the River Rede. Earlier, a linnet sat on the sunny ridge of a neighbour’s roof; its breast so puffed up in song that it looked exactly as if it were wearing a Pickwickian-red waistcoat, two or three sizes too small. In the garden, coal and blue tits, siskins and a solitary female redpoll, a nuthatch and a great spotted woodpecker, chaffinches and goldfinches are visiting the feeders and bird table, flitting hurriedly in and out again with food for young which I think I can sometimes hear nearby but can never see through the mass of leaves which now cover the poplars. And then, into the midst of this harmony, a jackdaw elbows in, frightening away all the small birds to tension-filled waiting areas in the surrounding trees before casually stepping onto the peanut feeder and breakfasting on the nuts.

I don’t suppose this behaviour is based on anything other than opportunism; the jackdaw sees the chance of an easy meal and takes it. And for all their strutting style, I still prefer jackdaws to starlings; I just wish they would go and feed somewhere else!

The Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) on the peanut feeder

Saturday, 6 June 2009


In 1957, Brooke Bond and Company began giving away a colourful series of fifty collector’s cards with their tea products. The series was entitled British Bird Portraits and, in recruiting me as an enthusiastic collector, the company set me off on a path of discovery I am still following today (which was probably their aim).

I remember the excitement, and it was exciting for a 1950’s ten-year-old, of opening each new packet of tea and looking for the card between the outer and inner wrapping; would it be a new one for my collection or one I already had? I remember too that there was a grocers shop on a nearby corner where I could take duplicates to swap for precious and yet uncollected cards and, if all else failed and the series ended, Brook Bond kindly sold the cards you needed at a halfpenny each.

The British Bird Portraits cards were illustrated and described by C.F. Tunnicliffe, RA, regarded by the late Sir Peter Scott as possibly the greatest wildlife artist of the twentieth century, and were similar in format to the cards given away in cigarette packets and collected by countless youngsters between the two World Wars. One difference however was that Brooke Bond also sold a collector’s album for sixpence; every card in the series had a place of its own with an accompanying description and as each new card was collected, I carefully stuck it into its place with flour and water paste.

When the series ended I still needed five or six cards to complete my collection, one of which described the Great Crested Grebe. I sent away a thrupenny postal order to Brooke Bond and eagerly awaited the postman’s delivery. The cards duly arrived and my first view of the Great Crested Grebe left me spell-bound and set me off on another journey, one which took some years to complete.

Today, the Great Crested Grebe remains one of my most favourite birds and subsequent series of Brooke Bond cards, such as British Wild Life and collections describing trees, freshwater fish, wild flowers, and more British bird species, served only to reinforce my interest in natural history.

The Great Crested Grebe which started the Journey

A page from the album showing a Grey Wagtail,
Green Woodpecker & Nuthatch

The album cover

The subsequent British Wild Life collection, another full set I collected, and two collector's cards from the series, one of Fallow Deer, the other of the Chillingham Wild White Cattle, again illustrated by C. F. Tunnicliffe, RA:

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Wallington West Woods

I enjoyed a walk in the West Woods at Wallington Hall this afternoon. All the common woodland species were about but the highlight was a group of six Stock Doves. They were gleaning an area near the visitor hide, filling their crops with the sunflower seeds dropped by the finches, tits and nuthatches visiting the feeders. There was also a fine Robin and a male Great Spotted Woodpecker. The latter was particularly active, moving from tree to tree and calling all the time. A group of noisy Rooks also put in an appearance; not very exciting perhaps but I've not photographed any of the corvids before so the picture below is one for the collection.

Stock Dove (Columba oenas)

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopus major)

Rook (Corvus fruilegus)

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Cheviot Seasons

The historian G. M. Trevelyan, a native of Wallington, wrote: "in Northumberland alone, both heaven and earth are seen. We walk all day on long ridges, high enough to give far views of moor and valley and the sense of solitude far below. It is the land of far horizons. Up above here on the moor, the silent sheep browse all day long, filling the mind with thoughts of peace and safety. Northumberland throws over us, not a melancholy, but a meditative spell."

It is this feeling of peace and safety, and no doubt a measure of Trevelyan's meditative spell, which draws the walker, naturalist and visitor alike, again and again to the Cheviot Hills. Once neighbours of mine, now living in Australia, sit on their Sydney veranda and remember days spent in the hills; many people have favourite places amongst the hills which draw them back, always satisfying, never disappointing. And if you stand on any point along the Simonside ridge and cast your view northwards, the horizon is filled with the Cheviot Hills, rising in green waves to the Cheviot ridge, where the English and Scots made a boundary they fought over for eight centuries.

The Cheviot Hills seen from Carter Bar

The Cheviot in snow

The River Coquet in spate after the thaw

'Green waves rising to the Cheviot ridge'

A ewe and her lamb on Yardhope Moor

Monday, 1 June 2009

Goose's Nest

The pleasure of a spring-time walk in woodland is always enhanced by the sight of bluebells and although it's not possible to walk amongst the bluebells at Goose's Nest, the view of the annual spectacle from the roadside can be breathtaking.

A bank of Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) at Goose's Nest

Anne Bronte, in her poem The Bluebell, writes:

"A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power.
There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell."

The woodland and bluebell banks at Goose's Nest are in the care of the Northumberland Wildlife Trust.