Monday, 22 October 2012

Holy Island...Birds, Dolphins, Seals and Sites

20th Oct.  The RSPB group trip to Holy Island set off from Newcastle on what was happily a mist free morning.  I knew that the weather of recent days would not be conducive to large falls of birds on the island, but to be honest if I had my choice of spending six hours on the island in decent clear weather or foul weather, I’d definitely pick the former for this type of trip.  I have been there during the latter type of weather also.  For Sam and me in particular, it was planned as a birding and photography day, so chasing rarities on the island was not on our agenda.   There is of course plenty of good birding to be done and good habitat to take in on Holy Island, even on a day which some would consider quiet.  If we were to come across a rarity, that would have been an unexpected bonus for us.

The outward journey was uneventful apart from catching up on some chat and we were soon crossing the causeway with the sun shining on the remaining pools of seawater.  Our ‘baggage’ was shared out between the two of us.  That is to say, Sam kindly offered to carry some of my photography gear as I’d felt like a mule the night before on testing my ability to carry photography gear, scope, tripod and assorted bits and pieces.  The scope was a priority today for at least part of the walk we had planned.

A favourite vista

We started at the point where I have previously seen Long-eared Owl.  There was no sign of one today and the bushes/trees here seemed to have been cut back.  One of our first species seen was Barn Owl however.  I also picked up a very distant Peregrine Falcon perched on the sands, which showed better and better as the light improved, and a pair of Kestrels flew and hovered beside us.  I’d named the day ‘Mission Brent Goose’ as Sam had been keen to see these having seen his first single Brent Goose in Colywell Bay  last weekend and we were soon rewarded with good and fairly close sightings of numbers of them.  We had numbers of them flying past as well as on the ground.  A large skein of Pink-footed Geese flew overhead.  There was a very large and unmistakeable flock of Golden Plover which stretched for a lengthy distance across the sand before lifting up into the air.  Other waders seen included Oystercatchers, Grey Plover, Redshank, Curlew and large numbers of Bar-tailed Godwits.  When we walked around to St Cuthbert’s Island we found two Red-breasted Mergansers.  One Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly was seen on the wall of the school.

Numbers of Grey Seal were stretched out on the sand and on watching the sea several heads of Grey Seal bobbed up now and again.  The waters were unusually quiet I thought, with the largest number of birds being Eider Ducks.  We did find a Red-throated Diver showing really well close to the shore and a Razorbill.  I felt wader numbers in the main seemed down in comparison to previous visits, especially Grey Plover.  The beach in the harbour held Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Redshank and Curlew.

The Farne Islands were showing nicely in the distance


Wasn't it David Copperfield who visited a family who lived in an up turned boat?

As we’d walked around to the harbour the rain had begun and it was feeling cold.  Now that was definitely not on our agenda given the forecast for sunny weather.  The rain didn’t last very long and the positive side of this was the views south across the water were stunning as the sun partially shone down onto the sea through various shades of grey cloud.  This area does give a favourite Northumbrian view of mine as I look south towards Ross Bank Sands and Bamburgh Castle.  Ross Bank Sands is on a list of places to visit this winter.  I was told to be careful where I point the binoculars if I go in the summer as the beach is used by naturists.  Now I never knew that!  I suppose I could go naked and then no one would complain binoculars or not.  Although come to think of it maybe complaints would be forthcoming.  When the sky began to clear the view of the Farne Islands and Bamburgh Castle were excellent as was the sight of Lindisfarne Castle.  After picking up the usual Pied Wagtails near the harbour it was time to drop the scope onto the bus, nay, nay…coach!  We then headed down the long lonnen where we intended to take lunch.  I’m surprised that on such a wonderful day so many decide to have their lunch on the coach rather than in the open air.  Well I suppose it was better than heading to the cafes and I’m guessing a few cups of tea were sold today!

The lonnen proved to be very quiet both of birds and people although we had sightings of a number of Goldcrest.  The flooded conditions accounted for numbers of people turning back I reckon.  Sam and I aren’t put of that easily, although one area was especially difficult to get through and we both ended up with wet feet.  We heard that there were Short-eared Owls about so we stopped at a good vantage point for lunch.  We picked up the likes of Grey Heron, flocks of Lapwing, Teal and Curlew, Skylark, Meadow Pipit and Linnet.  We believe we may have seen Merlin, as well as Kestrels.  I was very surprised that there were so few people about today given the really good weather.  The afternoon was very warm

Short-eared Owll Pellet I believe.  Look closely and you may be able to ID remains.
We eventually reached the reserve area and took in the sea from the dunes whilst watching three Short-eared Owls.  As I looked out to sea I picked up a Dolphin swimming south, then another and another.  For once the Short-eared Owls were forgotten as we watched the White-beaked Dolphins surfacing and on several occasions breaching.  They were moving quite quickly southwards.  However we had great sightings of them.  It was difficult to be exact with numbers as the pod was well spaced out, but we reckon that there was at least eight White-beaked Dolphins, and I would say every likely more than this.  As far as I’m aware only one other member of our group saw them, but he did agree on at least eight dolphins.  This was a first sighting of Dolphins for Sam and the first time I have seen more than a couple together in UK waters.  This was a great and unexpected sighting and my best ever cetacean watch in the UK.  We were delighted and this has to be the sighting of the day!  This proved to be one of those natural events that make you realise why watching wildlife is so exciting and why you should always be on the lookout for the unexpected.  We did think about trying for even better views, but decided instead to head out of the dunes and watch the three (or was it four?) Short-eared Owls from an appropriate distance.  Sam had found what we believe is a Short-eared Owl pellet before actually sighting the owls.  Full marks for observation there.  Sam managed decent photographs of the White-beaked Dolphins given the distance between them and us.

Distant Short-eared Owl over the dunes.

Courtesy of Samuel Hood.  One of the White-beaked Dolphins.  If you look closely you can see the splash of another and the fin of another.  Great experience.

 The area of the Lough brought us large flocks of Teal, several hundred, and I believe only an odd Wigeon.  We did get the chance to photograph Goldcrest near to the hide.  I didn’t manage to match Sam’s recent images of Goldcrest, but I’m still more than happy.

A few of the hundreds of Teal near the Lough

An obliging Goldcrest near the Lough

  By now it was time to take a slow walk back towards the coach.  Six hours were flying by!  We’d seen only a few of the group members throughout the day.  Where were they all I thought?

Every now and again we would come across something worth photographing, including poppies, and as we got nearer Lindisfarne Castle the light seemed rather good for photographs of it.  I’m hoping some plans for a photographic expedition to the island in the future may come to fruition.

Poppy by the wall

A good way to reach the end of a great day on the island.
Back at the coach someone spotted a Great Skua fly by, but unfortunately that was missed by us.  I’m also aware that at least one Snow Bunting was picked up by a member/s.  Surprisingly only an odd Redwing had been picked up.  I had seen Mistle Thrushes just after we had arrived.  We seemed to make a quick get away to head for Budle Bay for the customary short stop there, but not before seeing the Sparrowhawk flying near the village.  We’d spent six great hours on the island and I’d never at any point felt rushed.

Budle Bay was fairly quiet in comparison to previous visits.  We were rewarded with the likes of Little Egret, a flock of Barnacle Geese, Shelduck and Goldeneye which were all new for my day list of species.

Common Buzzard was seen from the coach as we returned to Newcastle as the sun set.  I remember on one previous trip to the island as a group we had a group day list approaching ninety species.  No group list was done today for some reason, or if it was no one shared it with me, but I’m sure it would not have approached such figures.  Numbers just didn’t seem to matter today on what had been a very special day as far as I’m concerned.  The sighting of those White-beaked Dolphins will stay in my memory for sometime to come and ‘Mission Brent Goose’ had been a massive success.  Thanks to Sam for the usual interesting chat and good humour along the way. :-)  It was one of those days that you feel your returning home having truly spent the day in the wild and with nature.

21st Oct A bird count on Killy Lake today produced the likes of One-hundred and forty Mute Swans (plus one dead Mute Swan in the reeds which is going to be removed), seventy plus Canada Geese, thirty-one Greylag Geese (most of which have just appeared), a pair of Shoveller, two female Goldeneye and one Goosander, the pair of Great Crested Grebes (rapidly heading for winter plumage and which we are surprisd to see are still about) and four Little Grebes, plus numbers of other regular waterfowl.

Addendum.  I now see there was a large movement of Dolphins past the Farnes on 21st Oct.


  1. Sounds like a better day than the one where you had about ninty species, as quality beats quantity I reckon.

    Those White-beaked Dolphins in particular must have been really special!

  2. It was an excellent day Mark. The light is often very good on the island, but it was exceptional on Saturday. Good nature watching, good light and few people (in the areas Sam and I were in anyway) spells great day as far as I'm concerned.

  3. What an excellent account; I felt as if I was there. Holy Island is a beautiful place and that reminds me I must go again soon! Cheers, Seumus

    1. Thank you Seumus.
      The island does have a unique quality that I find hard hard to explain, but that should be experienced. I hope you make it back soon. Cheers. Brian.

  4. Cheers Brian. Yeah as ideal birding days go, it sounded pretty spot-on!

  5. wow White-Beaks! fantastic Brian!

  6. Cheers Ewan. I believe we saw the beginnings of a large movement of cetaceans. The following day I understand that there were 100+ dolphins (white-beaked and bottle- nosed)past the Northumberland coast.