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)