Escape to the Wilds

Recently I travelled up to Northumberland to visit friends from university. They are two of the busiest people I know, so I was pleased to be able to steal a few days in October to catch up and visit their local patch.

The first thing I experienced was severe house envy. Wildlife art adorned every wall; the sort of beautiful paintings and drawings that I planned to splash all over my own home some day. However, it was the bookshelf that really caught my attention. Sprawled across an entire wall and almost reaching the ceiling, it was crammed with every book on natural history you could want. Not just modern paperbacks but antiquarian hardbacks with leather bound covers and swirling gold titles. In front of every row of books was an envious selection of treasures: pinecones, gannet eggshells, roe deer antlers, pin badges, lino prints, Wade Whimsies, fossils, gemstones, lichens, miniature animal wood carvings and a beautifully preserved badger skull with its lower jaw intact. I spent ages studying everything in turn, gravitating first to the roe antlers. I have a roe buck skull of my own – one of my most prized possessions – but I still long to find dropped antlers too. It was an impressive collection of everything nature, framed by dozens of books from my wish list.

I stayed with my friends for a long weekend and managed to cram quite a lot into those few days. Heather and I visited a fantastic patch of woodland, which was home to not only red squirrels but also pine martens! I knew we probably wouldn’t catch a glimpse of one during the day, but it was still exciting to walk among trees that might be housing a sleeping marten. It was so peaceful and quiet with only faint birdsong punctuating the air. As we searched for fungi to photograph, I found a gorgeous caterpillar making its way along the fence. Later, we discovered it was a buff tip moth caterpillar.


Photo by Heather Devey

The next day I helped Heather with a “Mini Wildlife Adventure” that she was running for a child’s birthday party. The boy was intrigued by nature and so he and his friends spent the morning pond dipping, searching for bugs, finding badger prints and birdwatching in a hide. It was such a fantastic idea for a birthday party, and it was particularly refreshing to see that the boys had good wildlife knowledge and were genuinely excited by what they saw. Educating children about nature at a young age is the key to ensuring they continue to care about it when they grow up. Those boys would have spent hours pond dipping if we’d had the time, and it was so lovely to see.

Here there be badgers

That evening Heather, Cain and I spent a peaceful last evening watching Sherlock with the fire cracking and snapping in the grate. It had been a pretty jam-packed weekend but as always, I felt inspired with a rejuvenated love for nature that always comes after a trip to northern England or Scotland. I sometimes struggle to feel that same passion at home in the south, where there are more people and noise and far fewer pine martens. I love escaping to the wilder parts of the UK and look forward to another wildlife adventure very soon.

Photo by Heather Devey

On the Hunt

After watching Chris and Michaela hunt for great grey shrikes on Winterwatch, I realised what stunning birds they were and that I’d quite like to find one for myself. I asked Cain if he knew of any recent sightings and of course, he did. There was one of these beautiful shrikes in a patch of rural Newcastle that had remained in the area all winter. So, early on Friday morning, Zahrah and I set off to try and track the bird down.

As we made our way east towards Newcastle, the combination of pouring rain and sleet filled me with dread. As usual, the weather forecast had gone awry, and I hoped the grisly sleet would clear up by the time we arrived. Luckily it did, and once parked and heading down the track with eyes peeled, we stayed dry. We were looking for a patch of stark white at the tops of the bare trees. Every so often we would stop and peer across the field, binoculars meticulously scanning each tree. Unfortunately, great grey shrikes are not vocal birds, so there was no telltale call we could listen out for. This would be a case of sharp eyes.

We came across a group of bullfinches – a handsome male and two females – as they foraged in the bushes. I have a soft spot for these vibrantly coloured birds, so stopped to take photos, trying to manoeuvre myself to sneak a clear glimpse of the male through a break in the tangle of twigs. This was only partially successful.

Bullfinch pair

As we trudged up the track, the only sound to be heard was the mud as it sucked on our boots. I found it a challenge to survey the trees for signs of movement while keeping an eye on where my feet were landing. After no sign of the shrike, we decided to try the other stretch of track that hugged the same field. At the crossroads we encountered a vast flooded patch of grass. At first glance it seemed empty, but a look through the binoculars revealed a large gathering of lapwing and golden plover huddled together. Further up the track, a hubbub of activity surrounded the bird feeders hanging from a tree. Great tits, blue tits, robins, a ground-foraging blackbird and a special sighting: a willow tit. I’d never seen one so close – a bird that I find indistinguishable from the marsh tit. According to the BTO, the most reliable way of telling these two species apart is by listening to them, as the birds’ most common calls are quite distinctive from each other. While marsh tits make a sneeze-like “pitchu” call, willow tits have a nasal “chay chay” sound.

Willow tit
Great tit

We had come to the joint decision that our shrike would sadly not be making an appearance today. The needle was well hidden in the haystack, and we made our way back to the car. A little way further out was another reserve that we decided to visit. By this time, unexpected sunlight was filtering through the dissolving clouds, and gleamed on the pond, illuminating a flock of wigeon. They chatted to each other but were otherwise motionless. High up in the trees was a buzz of excitement, and yet more beautiful bullfinches! These ones were silhouetted against the sky, so their smart plumage was diluted in the sun. Accompanying them were great tits, siskin and a few goldfinches. A magpie was perched in the topmost branches, feathers ruffling as the wind caught him.


Before long it was golden hour, where the sun began to vanish behind the pond. The trees took on a shimmering glow, every hue heightened. A group of blue tits fluttered around, barely perching for a moment before swooping in another direction. I thought I saw the fluffy brush of a red squirrel’s tail disappearing between two boughs, but after waiting stock-still for it to emerge, I thought perhaps it was just a trick of the golden light.

Golden hour

Species seen

Blackbird (Turdus merula) Black-headed gull (Larus ridibundus) Blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) Buzzard (Buteo buteo) Carrion crow (Corvus corone) Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) Golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria) Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) Great tit (Parus major) Grey heron (Ardea cinerea) Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) Magpie (Pica pica) Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) Pied wagtail (Motacilla alba) Reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) Robin (Erithacus rubecula) Siskin (Carduelis spinus) Song thrush (Turdus philomelos) Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris) Wigeon (Anas penelope) Willow tit (Parus montanus) Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus) Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Northumberland: Day Three

There was no frost today, but the sun was shining brightly and I knew the larches on the hills would be lit up like fiery beacons. We only had the morning, as we were leaving the bothy just after lunch, so first I headed out with Cain to pick up the camera traps. I was wrapped up in my fleece but was soon peeling layers off – the weather was surprisingly warm today with such bright sunshine and little wind.


Just before we returned to the bothy to check the footage, Cain took me to see the huge troops of orange fungi up the hill by the clearing. I’d just been saying how little fungi I’d seen, but I was soon proved wrong when I saw how many there were up here. Sprinkled all the way along the track were small orange bulbs of every shape and size. Some were illuminated in patches of sunlight, which made their colours shine even brighter.


As I was stooped on the ground photographing the fungi, I heard a bizarre sound that reminded me of an angry cat. I turned and saw the outer layer of trees swaying in the growing wind, releasing the most peculiar creaking noises. Cain explained how these trees would usually grow on the inside of the forest, but due to felling they were now on the outer layer and were struggling to cope with the battering elements. Some had already succumbed, and we passed gigantic trees lying flat on the forest floor, their roots larger than tractor wheels.


Out in the open, the wind was a lot stronger, so we ducked back down and sought the shelter of the forest. We gathered everyone in the bothy and had a look to see if the traps had been successful. Sadly, the two I had put out only had footage of my bobble hat as I attached and detached the trap from its post. However, Cain had put one in the garden and this had filmed several clips of a bank vole darting in and out of the rock pile. Later in the night, a wood mouse joined the scene, distinguishable by its longer tail and much larger Mickey Mouse ears. So, the traps weren’t a complete disaster, but certainly no pine marten footage.



  • Bank vole – on camera trap (Myodes glareolus)
  • Chaffinch(Fringilla coelebs)
  • Kestrel(Falco tinnunculus)
  • Robin(Erithacus rubecula)
  • Wood mouse – on camera trap (Apodemus sylvaticus)

Northumberland: Day Two


When I woke up the blinds were bright. I had a peek outside and was thrilled to see there was a frost clinging to the grass. I hurried into clothes and headed out into the garden. It had been a full year since my last frost and I was eager to capture some macro photos again. Leaves, twigs and thistles were all coated in a fine layer of silver crystals that, when hit by the sun, twinkled and shone like last night’s stars. Soon I had wet knees from crouching in the grass and the beginnings of a crick in my neck from getting as close as possible. My plan was to crop the photos in to create a repeating abstract texture. As usual, I took far more than I probably needed.


After relaxing for a while in the bothy I headed out again, down one hill and up the next. I passed the tyre swing, but the lack of decent light meant the shots weren’t quite what I imagined. I knew I had to photograph the bright yellow and orange larches that had taken my breath away on the drive in yesterday. Unfortunately the sun that I’d wanted to shine was well and truly concealed behind thick clouds; the light was so diluted I could gaze in its direction without difficulty. However, when I began to shoot, the rusty warm hues still popped. I began to experiment with positioning individual subjects like stray grasses in front of the camera, so the trees bled together and created a vibrant background.


The rest of the day was spent writing beside the fire and recording what I’d seen during the day. I had a sneaky look at my photos so far and was pleased with some of the outcomes. Hopefully there’d be more opportunities on our last day tomorrow.



  • Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)
  • Goldcrest (Regulus regulus)
  • Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)
  • Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Northumberland: Day One

We arrived at the bothy just as the sun was at its warmest. We were in the Northumberland National Park, and as the car rumbled up the hill I craned my neck to see the valley opening up into a patchwork blanket of green, orange and brown. It was autumn at its finest; an explosion of colour with just the right amount of chill in the air. On the way up to the bothy I spied an abandoned tyre swing, which would be a great accompaniment to the stories about childhood memories, so I made a mental note to return tomorrow.

After the customary dumping of the bags, I headed out with Cain and Lequane to set up two camera traps. With a new area, you never knew what could be roaming the forests; red squirrels, even a pine marten perhaps. We followed the burn down the hill, which was a thick sponge of fallen leaves. A dry stone wall ran parallel to the water, and I could just imagine small mammals darting along it, so set up the first trap looking out over the wall.

The light was fading, so we made our way along the burn with torchlight. The wall had collided with a tangle of sticks in one patch, perhaps a resting place for voles or mice. I set the second trap up with a viewpoint over the wall.

We made our way back up the road to the bothy, and were very surprised to see bats zooming around over our heads. Cain told us how it was very late in the year for bats, and they were perhaps roosting in or around the bothy. Cain’s sharp ears picked up a redwing calling in the distance, and then we heard a tawny owl very close by, so decided to pursue it into the cluster of trees behind the house. It was tantalizingly close and we searched the trees in the gathering gloom for any sign of it. No doubt the owl could see us perfectly and was watching with a combination of confusion and amusement, as it stopped calling as soon as we reached the trees and we didn’t hear it after that.

After taking shifts to cook our separate dinners, we had a look outside and there was a series of gasps and excitable shrieks when we all saw the night sky. I don’t think I’d ever seen so many stars – the sky was pitch black, with not a single lamppost or car light to spoil it. We all hurried inside to layer up and grab cameras, then broke off in different directions to get started. Some wandered up the hill and turned towards the Milky Way, while others stayed in the car park and began a time lapse of Orion’s Belt.

I hadn’t done a great deal of night photography, but I began to experiment and soon I found myself quite addicted to it, especially with such a beautiful and flawless background. The camera picked up millions more white pinpricks in the sky, and I was very pleased to find that I’d caught a shooting star in one image.

After an hour or so, my fingers had begun to grow numb, and I found myself capturing the same photos multiple times just because they were so beautiful. For the sake of my memory card, I headed back to the bothy to warm up and have a snack before bed.



  • Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
  • Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)
  • European Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus)
  • Redwing – heard (Turdus iliacus)
  • Robin (Erithacus rubecula)
  • Soprano Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pygmaeus)
  • Tawny Owl – heard (Strix aluco)

Chesters: Day Two

As I peeked out the window this morning, the sun was just beginning to shine. It looked like a promising day and I was glad, as we would be walking ten miles around the Breamish Valley.

First things first though: check the Longworth trap for any visitors. Heather retrieved the trap and carefully emptied it into a paper bag. Along with the hay and leftover oats and apple chunks was a bank vole, gazing up at us with its beady black eyes.

If we were carrying out a proper small mammal survey we would attempt to sex the vole and perhaps snip a small section of fur from its back. The purpose of this is for re-trapping, so we’d know if the same vole came back. However, we were just trapping to see what mammals were in the area, so these procedures weren’t necessary. We observed the vole for a little while longer before Heather released it back into the dry stone wall alongside the bothy, where it slipped out of sight in seconds. We also left the remaining food for the vole to feast on – it was only polite.


After eating a hearty bowl of porridge and making sure we had everything packed for the day ahead, we set off across the fields and down to the first plantation. Heather told us the habitat had been classed as “felled”, but there was nothing felled about it now. Trees loomed above us, and with foliage on all sides it felt like we’d wandered into an enclosure at Jurassic Park. My overactive imagination thought the grating screeches we heard were those of Velociraptors, but sadly were just squabbling jays.


I led the group down the hill, taking care over crooked roots and dislodged rocks. I was just negotiating a particularly steep section when Cain called us back. I knew he’d seen something so I rummaged for my telephoto lens while scrambling back up to where the others had binoculars trained at the very top of a large conifer. There was a loud chirruping, and among siskins and chaffinches was a larger finch with a forked tail and an unmistakable bill that had the upper mandible overlapping the lower: common crossbills. There were several up in the tree, and as I zoomed in I saw that a male was being pestered by a begging juvenile, its pale wings flapping ten to the dozen in an attempt to catch its parent’s attention. The male, and another a few branches away, were plucking cones from the tree and holding them aloft like they weren’t quite sure where to put them. It was fascinating to watch such a strangely designed bird negotiate its food.


We wandered on, breaking out of the trees and beginning the first ascent of the day. The trail wound through an ocean of bracken, and I soon found myself chest-deep. When I glanced behind me I could only see everyone’s heads and shoulders as they waded through. The resident skylarks joined us, as well as a distant buzzard that I’m sure the skylarks were keeping a close eye on.


The sun sunk in and out of the clouds as we made our way through the valley, stopping every once in a while to photograph a mysterious fungus or watch a bird through binoculars. By lunchtime, just as my stomach was rumbling for my sandwiches, we arrived at Branton Nature Reserve. The first sound that greeted us was the noisy gabble of greylag geese as they fought for space to sit down on the crowded island. There were dozens of birds here; groups of lapwing, snipe, goosander and moorhen. There was minimal mingling between the species, reminding me of a school canteen full of cliques. Suddenly there was a commotion and many birds took to the air. The source of the panic was a heron, gliding in with broad wings and a curled neck. As he landed with spindly legs dangling, the geese gabbled uncertainly and gave him plenty of space.

We slunk as inconspicuously as we could into the hide and tucked into lunch while keeping one eye on the lake’s activity. A cormorant surfaced a few feet from the window, and paused long enough for a few breaths before diving back down, emerging moments later in a completely different place and with a wriggling fish in its bill, which was swallowed up in the blink of an eye.


Soon it was time to start heading back. It was trying to rain, and as we were making our way back past the village of Ingram it succeeded, so I hastily packed away my camera and bins. Later, once Cain had got a fire going, we’d rested our aching feet and eaten dinner, we pottered into the garden with the bat detector, to see if any bats were passing through. Before we heard any clicks though, there was a flash of white wings and a barn owl swooped out into the open. Shortly after, a second owl appeared some distance from the first, which was even more exciting. We ventured a little further up the hill and the detector started clicking. That evening we heard both common and soprano pipistrelles, and although we were leaving the wilderness behind and heading back home tomorrow, just these two days have been enough to remind me once again how important it is to spend time in nature.


Species Seen: Adder (Vipera berus) Bank Vole (Myodes glareolus) Black-Headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundusBuzzard (Buteo buteo) Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) Common Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) Coot (Fulica atra) Eurasian Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculusEurasian Siskin (Spinus spinus) Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) Goosander (Mergus merganser) Greylag Goose (Anser anser) House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) Jay (Garrulus glandarius) Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) Lesser Black-Backed Gull (Larus fuscus) Lesser Redpoll (Acanthis cabaret) Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollisMagpie (Pica pica) Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) Red-Legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa) Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) Robin (Erithacus rubecula) Rook (Corvus frugilegus) Skylark (Alauda arvensis) Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) Teal (Anas crecca) Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula) Wigeon (Anas penelope)

Chesters: Day One

The rain was lashing on the windscreen as we made our bumpy way up the hill to Chesters. Sheep shook their sodden wool and watched the car with quizzical expressions as it grumbled over rocky grass. Before long the bothy came into view, nestled amongst the rolling bracken hills. I was just scanning the ground for darting pheasants when a pair of beady brown eyes made me call out for Cain to stop the car. Slowly reversing, we just caught a glimpse of the hare’s face before it turned tail and scarpered back through the bracken. I saw this as a very good wildlife omen for the rest of the weekend.

After settling in and enjoying some lunch, we headed through the Breamish Valley to meet the expeditioneers. I had a scan with the binoculars and spotted a kestrel hovering, drifting and hovering again. Heather told me she’d seen a pair of ravens swooping around yesterday, so it would be fantastic to hear some ‘kronking’ this weekend.

The weather couldn’t seem to make up its mind. Rain drummed on our heads one minute, then the sun was shining and turning the hills gold. Skylarks zoomed above, filling the air with their high-pitched chirruping, while pheasants screamed down in the valley, darting in and out of view like a Scooby Doo villain chase.


Once the expeditioneers had unpacked, we headed out for a wander. A breeze whistled in the grass but the sun still fought with the clouds for a good view. We ducked into the nearest conifer plantation to see if there were any good spots to set a camera trap. After following a trodden track that trailed through the trees – a sure sign that there were creatures using this route, perhaps a group of roe deer or even a badger – we positioned the trap with a good vantage point down the trail.

Further on through the plantation was a Scots pine peppered with deep, spherical holes. The tree was dead, and had become the perfect sculpting project for great-spotted woodpeckers, who had transformed it into a wooden honeycomb. It was extraordinary to see tough, dead bark being carved and moulded so easily by blackbird-sized creatures. Although we did hear their sharp ‘kik’ call somewhere in the plantation, we didn’t meet any possible culprits, so couldn’t be sure if it was the work of a single bird or perhaps multiple competing for such a valuable pecking post.


The sun was slowly setting. As the light faded, a hazy glow settled over the Cheviot Hills, illuminating the uppermost branches. Every colour was intensified; russet orange, army green, lime green, all blending together and criss-crossed with conifer needles. Spots of bright light broke through gaps in the canopy, playing tricks on my eyes when I thought a hyper-lit brown leaf was a luminous orange mushroom.


After a while we broke out of the plantation and wandered along the Chesters Burn as it bubbled downstream. The water was a vivid blue, frothing white as it crashed over rocks. A piercing ‘zrik!’ cut through the rush of the river and we all turned to spot the white-breasted bullet speeding down the watercourse. Sure enough, a dipper zoomed into view, wings a frantic blur. Perhaps less regally dressed than its neighbour the kingfisher, but still a charismatic and highly specialised little fisherman.

By now the sun had sunk out of view and the landscape dulled in colour, the familiar dusky haze settling over our surroundings. Heather told us about an expression that perfectly described this time of day: entre chien et loup, meaning “between dog and wolf”. In dim twilight, our eyes have to work harder to distinguish shapes, perhaps mistaking a harmless dog for a slightly more intimidating canine! Up in the Cheviots though, there were no monsters hiding, so it was enlightening to see what was venturing out at this time of day.


Once we’d made the ascent back up the hill to the bothy, the moon and stars had dominance of the sky. There were a few wispy clouds, but mostly the horizon was clear, so we all retrieved hats and gloves and set up tripods in the garden for some star photography. I hadn’t had a lot of practice shooting at night, so was pleased to capture some shots of the bothy backed by the entire night sky. Getting such good views of stars was a breathtaking end to our first day in the wilderness.


Species Seen:

Brown Hare (Lepus europaeus) Buzzard (Buteo buteo) Carrion Crow (Corvus corone) Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) Coal Tit (Periparus ater) European Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) Great Tit (Parus major) Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) Long-Tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)  Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis) Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) Skylark (Alauda arvensis) Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus)

Chesters – Day Four

Sadly the day began with no visitors to the Longworth trap we’d set out, but on a positive note the Cheviots were shining under the sun again. I walked up towards the conifer plantation where we saw the red squirrels and drank in the views. Northumberland National Park was beautiful even on a grey day, but when the sun was bright and the clouds’ shadows were drifting across the hills, it was truly stunning. Despite the river gurgling many metres below, I could hear it as clear as if I was standing on the shingle bank. With no disturbance and very few voices on the air, sounds sliced straight through the landscape. It was one of the most tranquil places I’d ever been to.


After gathering our bags together ready to leave Chesters, we went on a final walk to a new plantation close to the bothy. As we scanned the horizon, we spotted three buzzards circling. Heather told us it was a courtship display, where the males soared high into the sky then dropped down in a dramatic feat of bravery to impress would-be partners. It was fascinating to watch – I only hope the watching females were as impressed as I was!

The plantation we visited was dominated by larch trees, and despite fragmentation of woodland in the Cheviots it was a very old habitat. We could tell this by the presence of tummocks; moss growing over the rocks. This kind of succession would take many years to take place, meaning the habitat had become established a long time ago.

Throughout the plantation, there were many holes in the grassy bank of many different shapes and sizes. Commonly, a fox hole will be oval-shaped, while the sett of a badger will have a sideways oval opening. Meanwhile, a rabbit warren will be made up of many holes of similar size. There were also a lot of droppings, including the dimpled pellets of roe deer, fox and what Heather suspected to be pine marten, which was a really exciting find with a pine marten never having been seen at Chesters. Both of the scats belonging to predators had been deposited right outside the opening of a rabbit warren; a sign to other predators that the poor rabbits within were claimed prey. It was a sinister sign, especially for emerging rabbits!

In fact, the plantation had a likeness to a graveyard. Mammal and bird bones littered the forest floor, from woodpigeon and pheasant to ram skulls. I found a pheasant’s pelvis, which was beautifully intricate and incredibly fragile. However, bones weren’t the only treasure. After nearly stubbing my toe on it, I found an open orb of white quartz within an ordinary rock. The crystals in the crevice were tiny, but reflected the sun in dazzling fragments.

Shortly after, we found an even more peculiar discovery. Hawk-eyed Heather spotted a patch of bright red up in the tree canopy. There, lying in a nest on the end of a bough was a dead red squirrel. Although it was a sad sight, it was also a fascinating one, certainly something I’d never seen before. We debated whether the nest belonged to the predator, or perhaps the squirrel had simply been stored there, or the nest was being used as a plucking post, as is often the case with birds of prey. We walked around the tree looking for feathers or pellets that would tell us the culprit, but there were no tell-tale signs. It was a real mystery that we unfortunately never got to uncover!


Soon we returned to the bothy, carefully carrying the treasures we’d found including the quartz and animal bones, as well as an array of feathers and owl pellets. We spent the rest of the day packing to leave and reflecting on the experiences we’d had over the weekend. As a final send-off, we had a rabbit visit the garden and put extensive time and effort into digging perhaps the beginning of a warren not two metres from the front door. I tested my luck and crept outside to watch him, and was amazed to find him so calm in my presence. Every few seconds he would stop and peer at me, dry earth sprinkled on his head like brownie crumbs, but each time he was convinced I was no threat and continued his work. It was the closest I’d ever been to a wild rabbit and a real privilege to be able to film it digging and moving twigs aside with its long lagomorph teeth. It was perhaps my favourite wildlife encounter of my time at Chesters, and happened right on the bothy doorstep.


Species seen/heard:

Buzzard Buteo buteo Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs European rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus Fieldfare Turdus pilaris Great tit Parus major Grey wagtail Motacilla cinerea Mistle thrush Turdus viscivorus Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus Pheasant Phasianus colchicus Pied wagtail Motacilla alba Skylark Alauda arvensis

Chesters – Day Three

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.


Species seen/heard:

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