Church Point, Newbiggin 13/08/2010

•August 13, 2010 • Leave a Comment

With a busy year behind (and ahead of) us, and two other blogs, Northeast Cetaceans and NEWT, I’ve been an infrequent visitor to this blog and, as we don’t have 28hr days and 9 day weeks, seawatching opportunities have been few and far between as well.

This morning though, the lure of a stiff northerly breeze was just irresistible.  I had a few business things to deal with first but managed an hour and a half at Church Point.  Along with the usual cheery banter 😉 there were a few birds passing.  Among the steady stream of Gannets, Fulmars and Kittiwakes the highlights of the session were;

Manx Shearwater 6

Sooty Shearwater 1

Teal 5

Common Scoter 13

Arctic Skua 20

I should have been boarding a boat at 23:30 tonight for a pelagic to the Dogger Bank. Unsurprisingly, given the weather, that one has gone the same way as yesterday’s Farne Deeps pelagic (although our Farne Deeps trip has been rescheduled for Friday September 3rd – give us a call on 01670 827465 because we’ve got a couple of places left; White-beaked Dolphin, Minke Whale and Orca have all been reported from there in recent years so anything is possible).

Working in partnership

•January 29, 2010 • Leave a Comment

For an addicted seawatcher, obsessed with pelagics and trained as a scientist, what could be better than an extra 10 days on the SarahJFK, counting seabirds and searching for cetaceans?

White-beaked Dolphin

PRESS RELEASE. Exciting New Dolphin Project off North East Coast

Marinelife and Natural England launch a new project to monitor White-Beaked Dolphins and other marine wildlife in the waters off the Northumberland coast with Northern Experience Wildlife Tours.

The White-Beaked Dolphin is a little studied species which occurs around the coast of the UK and is vulnerable to the effects of global warming. It lives in the cold waters of the northern Atlantic and its available habitat is thought to be shrinking. There is little detailed information on the status of the species around the UK and the charity Marinelife has been studying these dolphins as well as other marine mammal species and seabirds off the south west coast of the UK for a number of years.

Now thanks to funding from Natural England (£17,700) and the Northumberland and Tyneside Bird Club (£1000), a new project starts this month to discover more about White-Beaked Dolphins and other species in the rarely studied Farne Deeps off the Northumberland coast. The partnership includes Marinelife, Natural England, the Northumberland and Tyneside Bird Club, the University of Aberdeen, and Northern Experience Wildlife Tours – who will coordinate the winter surveys in the Farne Deeps and surrounding waters.

Dr. Tom Brereton, Research Director for Marinelife commented: “Our work along the coast of the south west has provided useful information on the distribution of White-Beaked Dolphins and their preferred habitats and this project will help complement and extend the existing work. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the area around the Farne Deeps will be important not only for White-Beaked Dolphins, but also for wintering seabirds”.

As with the project along the south west coast, the aim is to engage the local community in the conservation work and the value of safeguarding this species. It is believed the work can also raise the profile of Northumberland as an eco-tourism destination. A sightings website and postcard survey will be launched for local fishermen, recreational dive and angling boats, and yachtsmen to submit any sightings of White-beaked Dolphin and other cetacean species.

Dr. Catherine Scott, Marine Advisor for Natural England North East added: “Natural England is delighted to be supporting this exciting project. The survey will help us understand more about the importance of the sea off Northumberland for these little-known marine mammals, which are a priority species for wider marine protection. This is a great way for the North East to mark the start of the International Year of Biodiversity and it’s possible that this survey will discover that we have a nationally important stronghold for White-Beaked Dolphins off the coast of Northumberland. Through this new project, the North East is playing a vital role in identifying the areas which need protection to safeguard the future for this species around the UK.”

Dr. Martin Kitching, lead surveyor from Northern Experience said: “We have been recording White-Beaked Dolphins and other wildlife along the coast of Northumberland for seven years, and now systematically investigating the off-shore waters during the winter months, and engaging with the local community, provides a real opportunity to define the North Sea off Northumberland as an important area for conservation efforts”.

The project also involves setting up a photographic database of dolphins that will help experts to identify individual animals. In future, the ‘photo fits’ taken of dolphins in waters off South West and North East England will help find out how wide ranging the animals are and whether the two populations are linked.

White-Beaked Dolphins are a species limited in distribution to the colder waters of the Atlantic. The North Sea represents some of the coldest waters around the UK coastline and this new project will strengthen the scientific data about this and other species in this area and help support conservation efforts for this vulnerable species.

Now this is a unique opportunity

•January 4, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Happy New Year 🙂

My final seabird of 2009 was, surprisingly, a Fulmar that was flying E along the Tyne valley at Haydon Bridge on December 30th.  I’ve always wondered where Fulmars go when they’re absent from our inshore waters…

Most of my seawatching over the next 2 months will be from the SarahJFK, as we continue our offshore survey, primarily to search for White-beaked Dolphins but also logging all of the seabirds that we come across as well, covering most of Northumberland’s waters out to a distance of 20-35 miles (depending which sector we’re surveying on any given day). As it’s incredibly weather-dependent we’re running the surveys at fairly short notice (we’re usually confident enough to arrange the boat and the survey team 3-4 days in advance of sailing).

We’ve got a few spaces available for passengers on each survey, which are available at very low cost, so give me a call on 01670 827465 if you think you might enjoy a 7 hour pelagic into the unknown at some point in the next 6 weeks.  Imagine the possibilities…

Voyage into the unknown

•December 11, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Today is a day that I’ve been eagerly anticipating.  Over the last 10 years I’ve spent hundreds of hours leading pelagic trips in the North Sea, and observing and photographing seabirds from angling charter boats, but they’ve been almost entirely between the months of July and September.

So, heading out during the winter months is something special.  We really don’t have a clue what’s out there at this time of the year.  Which is what today’s trip is about.  My background is in scientific research so, when I was asked if I would like to undertake a systematic seabird and cetacean survey of offshore Northumberland, agreeing to do this was a bit of a no-brainer really.  The other intriguing thing is how far offshore we’re going.  On most of the surveys it’s going to be twice as far as we would reach on one of our usual pelagics, and on a couple of them it’s going to be even further.

We’re likely to have a few spaces available on most of the surveys, and we’re offering them at a bargain price of £20/person/trip, so if you’re interested in joining us then get in touch and we’ll put you on our mailing list to be contacted whenever it looks like a weather window will allow us to take the boat out.

Excited?  I certainly am.

The reward

•October 26, 2009 • 2 Comments

Monday is my ‘office’ day and I had a long task list to get through.  Self-motivation was generated by telling myself that, if I completed all the tasks that were feasible to complete today, I would reward myself with an hour of seawatching leading up to dusk.  Eventually I was ready to reap my reward, and drove to Church Point.  The northwesterly winds of earlier today seemed promising…

When I arrived at 4.40pm the light was reasonable, but seemed likely to fade rapidly.  A steady stream of Black-headed Gulls were heading into the bay, and a similar stream of Kittiwakes were headed out to sea.  Then, there it was…a  juvenile Sabine’s Gull.  One of my favourite birds and a real treat on an east coast seawatch.  Juvenile Sabs are, with the exception of the white uppertail and inner primaries/outer secondaries, very dark birds.  I watched it for almost 5 minutes as it headed north, out to sea with the Kittiwakes.  Eventually it was so far offshore that only the white feather tracts were visible, and I decided it was time to head home (not that I’ve got any of my task list still to complete, of course).

A Little difficulty

•October 5, 2009 • Leave a Comment

After a day spent working on a photo assignment in North Northumberland, and appreciating just what the strong northwesterly breeze could mean for seawatching, I headed to Church Point.  The assembled masses (well, four of them anyway) had reached the same conclusion…and were now bemoaning the fact that there was very little passing by.  As they gradually departed, eventually just two hardy souls remained; yours truly and David Dack.

As the light faded there was a sudden burst of birds; four Arctic Skuas all purposefully moving north, and nine Manx Shearwaters.  Then the words you always want to hear “get on this bird”.  It took a while but eventually I did lock on to said bird.  I knew what it was – I’ve seen 30 or 40 previously, although never in Britain, certainly not in the North Sea.  Black upperparts, gleaming white underneath (including it’s face), occasionally shearing above the wave crests and mixing that shearing with short bursts of rapid wingbeats as it powered back down into the trough.  But, and this is the real pain of seawatching…I could never write a description of that bird that would satisfy a records committee (not without a certain amount of embellishment anyway, and I’m not prepared to do that).  So, it will vanish into the annals of this blog…and I’ll be out there again later today hoping, praying,  that the next mega seabird to pass by while I’m sitting there is a lot closer.

After a summer of seawatching drought

•September 15, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Well, it had to happen eventually.  A good northerly blow leading to the sort of seawatching where you don’t mind sitting on an exposed headland as the cold permeates all of your layers of clothing and your body.  So long as you can keep your eye to the ‘scope and your brain isn’t so anaesthatised that you can’t process what you’re seeing…

A good group of seawatchers were gathered on Church Point, Newbiggin, when I arrived at 15:20.  Over the next 4 hours the steady stream of birds passing was enjoyed along with the usual ‘banter’; the minutiaea of moth identification, the claims of ‘Little Auks’ in September (more of that later) and the obligatory ‘winding up’, via mobile ‘phone and text message, of young Mr Robson at Druridge Pools.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m extremely sceptical about claims of Little Auks before the end of September (and with good reason as some birders with very good reputations have sat on Church Point in the past and cheerfully misidentified winter-plumaged Puffins).  So it came as a bit of a surprise, while watching 2 Sabine’s Gulls, to see a summer-plumaged Little Auk fly past the end of the point.  The ‘Church Point Records Committee’ began muttering something about retractions…

14/09/09 15:20-19:20
Manx Shearwater 212
Sooty Shearwater 5
Sabine’s Gull 2-3 adults, 1 possible juvenile
Red-necked Grebe 1
Red-throated Diver 5
Little Auk 1 summer-plumaged adult
Arctic Skua 10
Pomarine Skua 1
Great Skua 4
Wigeon 19
Teal 14
Common Scoter 11
Scaup 1
Pale-bellied Brent Goose 4
Common Tern 20
Roseate Tern 1
+ Gannet, Fulmar, Kittiwake, Sandwich Tern

NEWT Pelagic 05/09/09

•September 7, 2009 • Leave a Comment

After a few days of rain Saturday dawned bright and sunny and, with westerly winds, we wouldn’t struggle to get the SarahJFK well offshore.  Reasonable sea passage over the previous days led to quiet confidence.  Lines of communication were in evidence to two seawatching sites with good birds already that morning; Whitburn (Sabine’s Gull) and Newbiggin (Cory’s Shearwater).  Our first Mackerel stop produced just one fish – hardly likely to attract hordes of hungry birds to the boat – and we headed north.  With strong winds this was a real pelagic experience.  Eventually we found birds…and Mackerel.  Manx Shearwaters were passing by during nearly all of the 8 hours we were out, and a few Sooty Shearwaters were seen as well,

Sooty Shearwater 05/09/09 (c)Ross Ahmed

Sooty Shearwater 05/09/09 (c)Ross Ahmed

single Arctic and Great Skuas gave excellent fly-by views

Arctic Skua 05/09/09 (c)Ross Ahmed

Arctic Skua 05/09/09 (c)Ross Ahmed

and we headed further offshore to check out a feeding flock of Kittiwakes.  As Allan slowed the boat and we began scanning the birds – whenever we happened to be on the crest of a wave – Tim Dean announced calmly “adult Sabine’s at the right hand end of the flock”.  There it was, our prize for persistence and the panaceae to the physical hardship of a pelagic on increasingly choppy water.  Tim and Ross Ahmed both managed to take a few record shots of the bird.  Many thanks to both of them for kindly supplying their images.

(c) Ross Ahmed

Sabine's Gull 05/09/09 (c) Ross Ahmed

As we headed back towards the Tyne a flock of Roseate Terns were alongside the boat calling and we returned satisfied (especially the two birders onboard who are chasing a big year list this year)

NEWT Autumn Pelagics

•August 25, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The legendary Northern Experience Pelagic programme continues…

Saturday 5th September 2009 

An 8-hour pelagic departing Royal Quays Marina at 09:00.  Cost £45 per person.  Target species; skuas, shearwaters, cetaceans. One place remaining


Saturday 12th September 2009

Whale and Dolphin Cruise.  A 4-hour pelagic departing Seahouses Harbour at 10:00.  Cost £30/adult £20/child.  Target species; skuas, shearwaters, cetaceans


Saturday 19th September 2009

An 8-hour pelagic departing Royal Quays Marina at 09:00.  Cost £45 per person.  Target species; skuas, shearwaters, cetaceans. FULLY BOOKED


Saturday 21st November 2009

Tystie Trek.  A 2-hour pelagic departing Seahouses Harbour at 10:00.  Cost £30/person.  Target species; Grey Seal, Black Guillemot, seaduck


Saturday 5th December 2009

Seal and Seaduck Special.  A 4-hour pelagic departing Seahouses Harbour at 10:00.  Cost £40/person.  Target species; Grey Seal, Black Guillemot, seaduck


All of our trips are on boats which are fully licensed and insured to carry our clients.

Our pelagic trips from Royal Quays take place on the SarahJFK, a 44ft converted lifeboat which is used for sea-angling charters and for the last eight years has been chartered for our pelagic trips.  The boat offers an excellent vantage point for observation of wildlife.  All trips are limited to a maximum of 12 participants, allowing all on board a good opportunity to see any birds or cetaceans which are found.  Some truly outstanding opportunities for photography occur on our pelagic trips as well, with many birds being attracted very close to the boat.


Over recent years the pelagic trips have proved very successful and they are an excellent way to enjoy our offshore wildlife in the company of other birders who are always willing to help any less experienced participants.  More experienced birders may well find that the North Sea is a new frontier for their birding.  Pelagic birding is very unpredictable but highlights in recent years have included the 1st British North Sea Wilson’s Petrel (2002), Long-tailed Skua (2002), Sabine’s Gull (2005), Harbour Porpoise (2006), Minke Whale (2006 and 2007), Great Shearwater, Balearic Shearwater and Pomarine Skua (2007), excellent views of Sooty Shearwater in each of the last seven years and several very close encounters with White-beaked Dolphins.

Our Seahouses based pelagics are on one of the Glad Tidings fleet of boats, operated by Billy Shiel MBE.  The November and December trips offer an exclusive chance to search for wintering Black Guillemots and the seaduck that spend the winter months off the North Northumberland coast.

Participants should bring their own food and drink and warm/waterproof clothing.

To reserve a place on any of these trips, please contact Martin Kitching or (01670) 827465 and send a deposit of £10 per person per trip (cheque payable to ‘Northern Experience Wildlife Tours Ltd’, non-refundable if you cancel at a later date) to NEWT Ltd, 18 Frances Ville, Scotland Gate, Northumberland, NE62 5ST.  The balance of payment is due 2 weeks before sailing.

Like a millpond

•August 8, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The final Northern Experience evening pelagic of the year saw the best weather of the last three Fridays.  Demand for places was so high that we chartered a second boat, and collected nearly a full boat-load from Mill Dam, South Shields.  The plan was to take the two boats out in tandem; the ramifications of one boat seeing something good, and the other boat being out of sight, just weren’t worth contemplating.

Much like last week, Manx Shearwaters were much in evidence; presenting photo and video opportunities throughout most of the four hours that we were at sea.  We must have seen well over 100, not surprising when 250 were recorded passing Newbiggin yesterday evening.  Waders were in evidence; a Turnstone and a Sanderling flew side-by-side, heading south, and a fast-moving line of ‘curlews’ low over the sea were thought by one person on the SarahJFK to be Whimbrel.  Video footage taken at the time suggests that the minority view was the correct one.  A distant ‘V’ of birds above the horizon proved to be Curlew.  Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Gannets, gulls, gulls and more gulls all stayed close to the boats throughout the evening.  A lone Arctic Skua was pestering a group of terns, but there was no sign of the Bonxies reported by fishing boats earlier in the day.  A Moon Jellyfish passed along the length of the boat before dropping out of sight beneath the hull and the Fulmars were squabbling amongst themselves, almost close enough to touch.

As the sun began to set over the Cheviots, an orange moonrise was away to the east and coats were donned as the temperature began to fall.  As the atmospheric ‘at-sea’ experience gave way to the reality of sailing back along the Tyne, our total species count was announced as 22.  And then myself, Ipin, Janet, Joanne and Sarah headed into Tynemouth and the Gate of India; a sociable end to a typically sociable evening pelagic.