Friday, 1 February 2013

Birds, deer and hares in snowy Northumberland

Last weekend I had my first trip to Northumberland for my friend (and fellow artist) Kittie's birthday ceilidh in Lowick village hall. Jennifer had to drop out because of work which meant there was space for me with Kittie and her family in a beautiful self-catering cottage - 'Skylark' cottage at Laverock Law. I had hoped to visit Holy Island/Lindisfarne at least one of the days but circumstances didn't allow. It didn't matter at all - Skylark was perfect for exploring from, and cosy and homely to be in in the evenings. (Details of an ongoing competition to stay at Laverock Law Cottages are at the bottom of this blog.)

view from Skylark cottage

We arrived on Friday evening, leaving Edinburgh in a soaking sleet which quickly became snow as we travelled south. In Northumberland the snow was lying deep. That night, after a veggie haggis Burns Supper we went out in the snow from midnight until 1.30am. We were walking through a magical landscape, blanketed inches deep in white. The crunch crunch crunching of wellies and boots followed us except when we stopped to listen and look, which we did often. We walked on track and in woodland and on open field. Fields were wide expanses of nothing, sky and land matching in colour and in tone. Where there weren't hedgerows and trees we couldn't tell where land ended and sky began. Bending down to hang our heads upside down we watched the land become the sky. The sky become the land.

Several times deer bounded across the landscape. Indistinct to our bare eyes but quite crisp through binoculars. We looked at their hoofprints and saw where they had walked close-footed, then where they had run. Where they leapt they left three or four metre gaps of untouched snow.

Tawny owls began calling and we stood for minutes, motionless and listening. They were all around, near and far, whoo-oo-ooing to and fro. It sounded like there were four or five at least. One called so close that it must have been only two or three trees from us, but we could never see it. Captivating creatures, teasing this owl-obsessed human with their invisible presences.

We also heard pheasants chattering and a burbling bubbling that I think was grouse or the red legged partridges you see around there. This night, and on every other walk, we saw hares with their long slender hind legs and ears dipped in black ink.

On Saturday during the day, after a communal breakfast I walked the snowscape alone for four hours, from 11 until 3. I did an extremely slow circuit, an angular loop of no more than 4 or 5km along field boundaries and tracks. I forded a burn in my wellies, entered woods to seek tracks and signs - hoof and paw and foot prints and droppings of deer, rabbit or hare, fox, birds, and badger perhaps? My route took me to the hamlet of Holborn and back.

When I was nearly back at the cottage I sat in a snowfield and painted the land using watercolour on top of pencil. It was bitterly cold. I had to stop very quickly and whirl my arms round and round to bring blood back to my fingertips. The snow must have been affecting my brain too... I do tend to carried away when out in nature, but the caption I wrote here is particularly strange - "Nostalgic, British, BBC bliss!"

Northumberland snow, pencil & watercolour in sketchbook, 14.5x41cm

After the Saturday night ceilidh we stopped cars on the way home, necessarily, to avoid running over a woodcock that stood docile in the road. It was feeding in the areas of meltwater. The first woodcock I've ever seen. It's quite a large bird, almost pigeon sized. Long straight beak and perfectly camouflaged plumage (perfectly camouflaged when in woodland or marsh, but not when standing in headlight-illuminated snow). Earlier in the evening Kittie's sister had found a pair at this same spot. They let her walk so close that she could have leaned down and picked them up.

On Monday morning there wasn't much time to walk but we watched hordes of birds on and below the bird feeders of the cottages, including at least 10 bramblings Just in that one time were at least:5-10 blue tits, great tits, coal tits
5-10 long-tailed tits
5-10 house sparrows
5-10 greenfinch
10+ brambling
5-10 tree sparrows
15-20 chaffinch
15-20 siskins
15-30 goldfinch
a great spotted woodpecker
... and probably more!

As I've said before, enjoyment of a trip isn't entirely judged by the numbers of birds seen... but in case you're interested, over the whole weekend I saw 38 species:

blue tit
great tit
coal tit
long-tailed tit
house sparrow
tree sparrow
great spotted woodpecker
geese (grey, unidentified, flying over)
cormorant (white belly of a juvenile, flying over)
herring gull
tawny owl
sparrowhawk (flying across a snowy field - I'm always surprised to see these in the open)
red-legged partridge
unknown ducks (in flight, far away)
grey heron

long tailed tit, goldfinch, mrs great spotted woodpecker (no red on her head)

brambling, chaffinch, siskin, goldfinch, at Laverock Law Cottages

Three male bullfinches in the field by Laverock Law Cottages

animal tracks and signs

fox trail? notice where the tail has brushed the snow...

the field where I sketched

Win a stay at Laverock Law:
(Laverock Law Cottages have an ongoing competition to win a stay with them. Anyone can take part in their regular 'Northumberand Mysteries' competition on their facebook page.

my cosy bedroom

Skylark Cottage

 And finally a dog:

 It's snowy. Or Snowy!

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