Today was the toughest day for my feet, but also the most rewarding. We set off east away from Chesters on a ten-mile hike to the gravel pits of Branton Nature Reserve, though the journey was just as fulfilling as the destination.
After the trials of crossing the Chesters Burn without getting wet, we ascended towards Ewe Hill, where lapwings zoomed with seemingly erratic coordination, and skylarks serenaded us from overhead, in a hovering flight they can maintain for the approximate equivalent of running five marathons back to back.
On the way down Turf Knowe, we spotted two hares dashing across a field, accompanied by the frustrated squawking of a distant rookery. We also stumbled across a common frog in a puddle, keeping its numerous frogspawn company.
Soon, we reached the village of Ingram, situated on the edge of Northumberland National Park. Here the birdlife transformed to an orchestra of finches, tits and some special guests, including two male yellowhammers, a bustling group of siskins and some striking chaffinches in their immaculate breeding plumage. As we left Ingram behind, we followed the River Breamish to the gravel pits to do a spot of bird watching in the hide overlooking the lake.
Since the 1920s, the Breamish Valley was used for sand and gravel extraction, including gravel from the riverbed, which was used to surface roads. After the area was restored to agricultural land, concrete company CEMEX asked for permission to extract and was denied, as it was thought the extraction would be taking place too near to the National Park. However, in 1993, CEMEX was granted permission to extract, on the one condition that the company also converted the area to a nature reserve that would “complement and enhance the rural landscape”, ultimately creating a landscape that would improve the area’s biodiversity and provide a stable aquatic environment for many species.
As we sat and watched the lake from the bird hide, we spotted a broad variety of waders, geese and passerines, or songbirds. Greylag geese, goldeneye, wigeon, tufted duck and many more were bobbing about on the still water. Interestingly, instead of the usual drab colouring used for camouflage when on the nest, female shelducks have the same striking green head and bright red bill as the male. The reason for this is the bird’s choice of nest, which is often in rabbit warrens instead of out in the open. This makes female camouflage unnecessary.
Another highlight of our time in the hide was hearing the first chiffchaffs of the year, which arrive from their wintering ground in sub-Saharan Africa in mid March, staying until around October.
Once the drizzling rain had subsided, we did a spot more tracking around the lake. There was an otter spraint by the stream, a sign of territory marking, the square pad of a badger print and several roe deer tracks. While sheep prints – which were abundant virtually everywhere – are rounded, deer prints meet at a point.
By then the best of the daylight had passed, so we made our way back to Chesters, pockets laden with treasures collected during the day. Along the way we tried our luck spotting some adders. As it was still drizzling and the sun had gone in, chances of a sight of basking adders was slim. However, we managed to find two that were catching the last rays before returning to cover. After such a long walk to find them, I’m glad a few stayed out just a little longer.
Adder Vipera berus Bank vole Myodes glareolus Black-headed gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus Blue tit Cyanistes caeruleus Canada goose Branta canadensis Carrion crow Corvus corone Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs Common chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita Common frog Rana temporaria Common toad Bufo bufo Curlew Numenius arquata Eurasian siskin Spinus spinus European mole Talpa europaea European hare Lepus europaeus Fieldfare Turdus pilaris Goldcrest Regulus regulus Goldeneye Bucephala clangula Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis Grey heron Ardea cinerea Greylag goose Anser anser Lapwing Vanellus vanellus Lesser black-backed gull Larus fuscus Long-tailed tit Aegithalos caudatus Mallard Anas platyrhynchos Meadow pipit Anthus pratensis Moorhen Gallinula chloropus Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus Pheasant Phasianus colchicus Pied wagtail Motacilla alba Red-legged partridge Alectoris rufa Reed bunting Emberiza schoeniclus Robin Erithacus rubecula Rook Corvus frugilegus Shelduck Tadorna tadorna Skylark Alauda arvensis Snipe Gallinago gallinago Song thrush Turdus philomelos Treecreeper Certhia familiaris Wigeon Anas penelope Woodpigeon Columba palumbus Wren Troglodytes troglodytes Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella