Autumn wildlife in Northumberland

Holy Island Causeway

Autumn’s golden glow – Holy Island

Autumn arrived with a vengeance this week – cold, gusty winds shook the leaves off the trees and sent a shiver down our spines in the UK.

But what a thrill to see the seasons changing as summer’s glow faded and autumn’s orange hues appeared together with a whole host of wonderful wildlife.

Northumberland in the north of England is a great place to see the seasons changing in all their glory.

As a result of the drop in temperatures it’s a brilliant time for migrating birds that are flying in from Scandinavia and the Arctic, driven to British shores by colder climates.

Wild goose chase

Brent Geese on Holy Island

Brent Geese on Holy Island

For me autumn starts when thousands of geese return to their winter homes in northern England.

I watched the skies this weekend at Lindisfarne Nature Reserve as thousands of Light-bellied Brent Geese swirled overhead, turning the skies an inky black colour.

Holy Island is their winter holiday home – and they gather in their thousands – it’s one of autumn’s great spectacles.

I love these geese – they are elegant and distinctive with their dark chocolate bodies and pale chests. Their gentle honking sounds are an autumn delight.

I spent nearly an hour watching them through a telescope from the causeway near the island’s main car park.

Most of the new arrivals, exhausted from their long trip, were guzzling down seafood on the mud flats not far from the causeway. You can hardly blame them for re-stocking on food after an arduous flight.

Brent Geese

Incomers – Brent Geese

We arrived just after high tide, a great time to see birds relatively close to the causeway.

Also in the distance were four newly-arrived whooper swans, also winter visitors to Northumberland.

Huge numbers of wading birds were running around including red sandpipers, silver grey plovers and elegant, leggy bar-tailed godwits.

As ever, there were large flocks of curlew with their curvy beaks drilling into the gloopy mud for food – they look like strange avian drilling machines with their pointy beaks, which are perfect for extracting the juiciest crustaceans.

Bobbing a long way back were wigeon, a red merganser and the year-round flotillas of eider ducks who were keeping close together for shelter from the high winds.

By now my fingers had almost frozen as I alternated between looking through the telescope and binoculars.  Time for those woolly winter gloves to come back out of the cupboard!

Bird in the bush?

I took a walk further round the island, my head almost blown off by the gale force winds but it was worth the battering.

Up by Lindisfarne’s craggy castle I could see here was a lot of bird movement along the shores, a bit like an avian Heathrow airport with arrivals and departures coming and going.

Long gone are the summer puffins, terns, gannets and guillemots and in their place the winter waders and geese have moved in.

Holy Island

Holy Island’s landscape with very few bushes or trees

There’s always the chance of spotting a rare bird on this exposed island so I hung around the bushes near the castle fellow wildlife watchers trying to see something unusual.

The challenge is daunting because Lindisfarne has very few bushes and trees so a bird in a bush is indeed a remarkable sight.

There’s nothing more comedic than a group of birders with scopes and binoculars looking into the very small numbers of bushes in the gardens not far from the village.

Needless to say, there were no rare birds hanging around although in the past I have seen a Ringed Ouzel, which looks a bit like a Blackbird wearing a white ermine neck collar.

Others have reported a Bluethroat, a Roller and Red-backed Shrike but I’ve never been that lucky!

Seal safari

By now it was getting bone-chillingly cold so I decided to warm up by diving into Lindisfarne Castle for half an hour.

The castle is an impressive arts and crafts style ‘fortress’ designed by Edward Lutyens in the 1920s, located on a rocky outcrop.

Lindisfarne Castle

Lindisfarne Castle on a sunny day

From the upper battlements or battery I was rewarded with some excellent views of the island’s seals on the mud flats, some hauled up, others swimming in the water.

The colony of grey seals is easy to spot if you know where to look and you’re carrying a decent pair of binoculars.

They tend to move around a fair bit between low and high tide but look in the waters or on the mud flats, and it’s not hard to find them.


Seal spotting

I had hoped to see some other bird life down by the castle but it was so blustery that most of the birds had dived into sheltered areas away from the very choppy waters and high winds.

It was so bleak, wet and windy that for once I didn’t even manage to take any photos, other than inside the castle.

But on the way back through the village, there were still vestiges of this year’s late summer. Roses were still in full bloom and the trees were fighting not to lose their leaves in the wind.

As we drove away from the island, brilliant autumn sunshine appeared for 10 minutes and the wind dropped very slightly – typical of a trip to this coastline in the autumn.

Autumn’s wild delights

Despite the sudden autumn chill, not far down the road from Holy Island much of the wildlife was still transitional with smaller numbers of autumn birds.

Everywhere there was evidence of autumn encroaching – near Seahouses we spotted a flock of Fieldfares, back from their summer sojourn in Scandinavia.

These thrush-like birds were busy on the farmers’ fields, fattening up after their recent long haul flight.

One place had a few surprises – Cresswell Pond Nature Reserve near Druridge Bay.

Normally known for its winter ducks, Cresswell was quiet with relatively few autumn birds or wildlife.

But there was an unexpected treat in store – as I walked down to the hide the tiniest of birds, the Goldcrest, popped its head out from a scraggy hawthorn bush.


Goldcrest – smallest bird in Europe

I’ve only ever seen these birds high in the canopy of a coniferous woodland so imagine my joy when this gregarious bird stayed around to check me out.

As I stood rigid, not even daring to reach for my camera, the Goldcrest flew around my head, posed on a branch only six inches away and seemed to enjoy my company.

What a thrill to see Europe’s smallest bird at such close quarters – it’s golden orange streaked head and chubby, compact body make it unmistakeable.

I was surprised to see it hovering, a bit like a humming bird – it could almost have been mistaken for a large bee.

If that wasn’t enough for one day my next treat came a few minutes later when I was inside the Cresswell Ponds hide overlooking the lagoon, fringed by reedbeds.

Cresswell Ponds

Cresswell Ponds

There wasn’t a huge amount of bird action – the new winter arrivals hadn’t appeared yet and I was ready to quit and return to the warmth of the camper van.

Then suddenly, a surprise – a large sea otter appeared in the mid-morning daylight.

I knew that otters hunted for fish in this pond but I’ve never seen one in the wild in the UK – or indeed at Cresswell.

It was a thrill watching the otter hunting, swimming and even playing, lying on its back, at one point.

Swimming otter in Northumberland

Swimming otter

Although the otter lives here year round, I couldn’t help thinking that the quiet autumn day and the severity of the winds by the sea had forced it back into the lagoon for shelter.

Normally the best time to see the otter in this location is early morning before any visitors arrive so this was a real treat.

Autumn in transition

Hauxley reserve berries

Red berries at Hauxley nature reserve

The nearby Hauxley Nature Reserve also proved to be going through a transitional period but there were some colourful autumn delights

There were berries and rose hips everywhere but very few autumn birds on the large lagoon. Down by the beach it was also very quiet with small numbers of birds, mostly gulls and a solitary Turnstone and Rock Pipit.

No roseate terns, a summer visitor to Coquet Island, were spotted flying overhead; they had left already for warmer African climates.

Hauxley beach

The beach near Hauxley with Coquet Island

On the reserve, which lies slightly back from the sea, the lagoon was full of year-round Canada Geese in one large flock.

Also present were the regular residents including herons, mallards, a pair of little grebe and a group of lapwings.

Elsewhere on the reserve we were lucky to see a hare being chased by a rat, both competing for dropped crumbs from the bird feeders which were proving attractive to tits, finches and tree sparrows.

Hauxley Reserve

Hauxley Reserve lagoon

There were none of the big autumn visitors at Hauxley – no winter waders, no whooper swans and no rarities.

That is all set to change this week as the autumn winds and wild weather continue to blow migrating birds over to North East England’s coastline.

So get yourself out with your binoculars as autumn takes hold – with some great wildlife spectacles in store for lucky nature lovers.

And don’t forget your autumn woollies!

Tammy’s top tips

Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve is located on Holy Island on the Northumberland coast in North East England north of Bamburgh.

Check tide times for Holy Island before visiting – the causeway is cut off for several hours each day. Wildlife watching can also be influenced by tide times.

Hauxley Nature Reserve is located near Druridge Bay off the back of a sandy beach overlooking Coquet Island. The reserve boasts a variety of hides overlooking the lagoon plus access to the nearby beach. Admission is free.

There are several other nature reserves in this vicinity, mostly on land reclaimed from former open cast mining. East Chevington Reserve is popular with bird watchers but it’s not my personal favourite on account of the windswept hide.

Cresswell Pond Reserve is a great, quiet site lying off the back of the nearby beach and dunes where I’ve seen plenty of interesting birds and wildlife including otters.  Bitterns have also been seen on the reserve.

Druridge Bay Ponds has a series of small hides overlooking the reclaimed mining ponds. Once again, I’ve had less luck spotting rarities here but my partner Tony has seen otters and even a Glossy Ibis in October two years ago.

Glossy Ibis at Druridge Ponds

Glossy Ibis at Druridge Ponds

The nearby Farne Islands is good for wildlife rarities and seals but the weather at this time of year can be unforgiving. Pick your day – and try to find a time when the boat trip isn’t too bumpy.

The Farnes are best for sea birds in summer but seals and winter rarities are likely in the autumn and winter,

The whole of the northern Northumberland coastline is a brilliant place for sea watching – look out for birds and marine life including porpoises.

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