Sunday, 17 May 2015

Harthope Valley...Birds in a Landscape

Breaths there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land.
Sir Walter Scott

16th May.  An annual pilgrimage to the Harthope Valley was missed out of the schedule last year because of other pressing engagements, not least being the trip to Hungary, so it was great to be back today in an area which has great appeal to me.  I wasn’t at all concerned about threats of occasional showers and we were soon walking in the footsteps of the likes of Sir Walter Scott and Daniel Defoe who had been past visitors to this area.

Ascent…Our first priority was to search for Ring Ouzel along by the Hawsen Burn and we had hardly left the valley floor when we found a calling Ring Ouzel perched on a post not far from the footpath.  It gave all three of us perhaps our best ever sighting of Ring Ouzel.  Yes, Sam and I were accompanied by our one and only walk participant.  Yes the leaders out numbered the other participants two to one, but its quality wot counts and to be honest it allowed Sam and I to make the most of what was to become a great days birding without having to concern ourselves about the needs and demands of others, something which was of benefit to us.  After we had braved the now almost none existent path without falling into the burn we were soon watching and listening to other male Ring Ouzels, one of which flew close by us and began to search for food as we sat in the sun and watched.  Occasional calls of Red Grouse were heard and the birds watched as some took to flight.

Before we had reached any real height we had also been entertained by three or four Stonechats.  The male looked stunning when lit by the sun.  I thought we were going to be less lucky with regards Whinchat, a bird I’ve never failed to see on this climb on past visits.  The nesting heather area where we usually find pairs of this species had been burnt back, so it looked as though the birds had been forced to nest elsewhere.  I did eventually get my eye on one pair of Whinchat.

We reached our target site and rested for a short time during which time we had the Ring Ouzel fly close by and land near us.  There was time to take in the views including that of Hedgehope, look for Slow Worm which we failed to find and to watch the numerous Meadow Pipits.  A Skylark sang nearby and Sam ventured onto higher ground and found a Wheatear.

Cheviot can be seen in the background
Descent…We reached the valley floor in good time having passed species that we had seen on the climb and gaining a better view of the scorched squares of heather.  We began to pick up calls from Cuckoos, had a distant sighting of one of them and a much better sighting of another as we finished off our lunch.  Another Whinchat was seen, as was a pair of Green Woodpeckers.  Common Buzzards were showing regularly and one of them flew close by.  Willow Warbler song filled the air at times.  We could see the rounded top of Cheviot.  The occasional shower of rain was still hitting us.  The constantly changing weather meant that we were treated to a constant change of light patterns showing the area in different moods, so all of this added positively to the day.

View from a Bridge…The plan now was to walk into the upper part of the valley passing Langleeford.  As we had spent so long on the walk beside Hawsen Burn our time was rather limited, but as it turned out the birding form the bridge at Langleeford was so good we didn’t have to go further.  We spent our time here taking in a number of good sightings of our target species and I pondered over the likelihood of Sir Walter Scott having done the same when he stayed at Langleeford.  I even got a bit carried away and imagined him watching us out of the window, quill in hand as he dashed off one of his novels.

Common Sandpiper

Spotted Flycatcher
The list of species in no particular order seen from the bridge is as follows, 2 pairs of Spotted Flycatcher, Dipper, Grey Wagtail, Pied Wagtail, Common Sandpiper, Swallow, Robin, Wren, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush, Blackbird, Chaffinch, Goldfinch and Nuthatch.  The stars here were definitely the Spotted Flycatchers with close up sighting of the birds on branches and on rocks in the burn giving ample chance to take in the beauty of these birds.  Our time on the bridge was a good example of picking a good point and letting the birds come to you.  Bird watching should be relaxing and this was and we could no doubt have stayed put for much longer, but instead we agreed to cancel any plan to walk further into the valley whilst accepting that could mean we missed our best chance of Tree Pipit.  We decided to return to the cars and take a look in the lower part of the valley along by Harthope and Carey Burn.

Valley Floor and Burn  We visited the site of the Sand Martin colony, but there were only a small number of Sand Martins in the area.  Sam picked up the call again of Ring Ouzel as he ventured a little higher above the burn.  The brightness of the yellow Gorse added vivid colour to the valley as we looked up Harthope Burn towards Cheviot and the side of the hills the left and right of us.  Common Buzzards were enjoying the thermals above the hills and Kestrels were seen hovering in the strong winds.  Black Headed, Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls were all seen and a Grey Heron was seen flying along a stretch of the burn whilst a Mallard lifted and flew in the opposite direction.

Red-legged Partridges, Pheasant, Oystercatchers, Lapwing, Curlew, Great Spotted Woodpecker, tits, Linnets and other finches were amongst birds seen as we explored the valley floor.  Small Skipper Butterfly and Green Veined White Butterfly had also been seen.  Wren song was heard often.  It was with reluctance we decided to leave the valley as we had a planned stop on the way south.  We agreed that more exploration of lesser known parts of the valley was required at a later date.

Homeward bound…More icing was added to the cake as we found a ringtail Hen Harrier on our return journey.  Details of this sensitive sighting will be reported to the RSPB Skydancer Project.

Our itinerary for the day included a stop at Branton Pond Reserve and excellent example of what can be achieved at a now disused sand and gravel extraction site.  I have been here only a couple of times before and I know it gets good reports and has good days.  I’m afraid today was not one of the good ones and it was very quiet.  There was lots of Sand Martins feeding over the water which made up for only the few we had seen at Harthope.  We found Little Grebe and heard Blackcap and Common Whitethroat singing, otherwise there was little of note today.  The wind appeared to be picking up speed.  I was surprised we didn’t hear Sedge Warblers.  It was a good way to relax at the end of what had been quite a long day and it brought us slowly down from the heights of birding in Harthope Valley.

It had been a very special day and my thanks go to Sam, Tony and Carmel.  Ring Ouzel was without doubt the bird of the day in a day list of sixty-one species, many of them very special sightings indeed.  This had been bird watching at its best with so much else to take in alongside it.


  1. Sounds like a great day, hopefully I shall be with you the next time you're there.

  2. Not sure there will be a next time for group walks Mark, as Sam and I are feeling the benefit of freedom too much.:-)

  3. Fair enough, I know also that it's a lot of hard-work to organize the group-walks and often not appreciated.