The ‘Newcastle Diaries’ are intended as a new series of blog posts brought to life by a recent move to the city; inspired by a growing frustration at not being able to visit my regular, rural haunts half as often as I would like. While I assumed a move here would greatly decrease the time I spend in nature, quite the opposite has happened. And I find myself growing increasingly fond of the city and her wildlife. Heading back to this blog’s roots as a patch diary, I hope to share my experiences wildlife watching around my new, urban patch (the whole city, to be precise) with regular blog readers.
Diligently maintained by the Natural History Society of Northumbria since 1929, Gosforth Park Nature Reserve is, without a doubt, the jewel in the crown of the scant few wild places remaining in and around Newcastle. Indeed, when walking in the dappled shade cast by the sites many imposing trees, or engulfed in swaying growths of Phragmites, it is quite possible to imagine yourself elsewhen – in a time when nature still reigned supreme across the landscape. The sights and sounds of the city located a mere stone’s throw away drowned out entirely by nature – lost in a chorus of birdsong, creaking trunks and soggy, squelching footsteps. Truth be told, Gosforth is a rather beautiful site and one I was keen to explore in greater depth this week.
Walking the woodland tracks of Gosforth before noon, I was pleased to see that the intermittent bouts of rain tumbling from the heavens had not disturbed the wildlife. Mere moments after arrival, my eyes greeted by sight of a Great Spotted Woodpecker pair cork-screwing around the trunk of a denuded oak, clearly in the midst of some energetic, amorous pursuit. The male – as told by the conspicuous red blaze behind his head – clearly feeling somewhat frisky as the Spring draws ever closer. He was not the only one: a yaffling Green Woodpecker off to the East, a singing Goldcrest and the repetitive chanting of countless Great Tits likewise signalling the forthcoming shift from Winter to Spring.
While the birds of Gosforth gave plenty of hope for things to come, the woodland itself gave few. Trees, with the exception of a few intrepid, Catkin bearing, Hazels, still dormant; with scant botanical offerings on the ground to be seen. Still, the lack of cover appeared to work in my favour on this occasion – the characteristic white-rump of a Roe Deer easily picked out among from amid the trees. It’s owner – a doe – promptly joined by three more of her kin, all of whom preceded to wander, in a most un-deer-like fashion ever closer. Stopping, eventually, to ogle their admirers before ambling, with no sense of haste nor fear, back in the opposite direction. A memorable encounter, to say the least, and one which even gave rise to a few hurried photographs.
Evidently, the parks Roe Deer like to use the same time-honoured pathways utilised by human visitors – slot marks and, in some instances, droppings, visible for a good quarter-mile stretch of our journey. Made visible by the lack of lower-vegetation, and the gradual rot of the assorted leaves which once carpeted the ground.
Here too the tracks of Badgers were visible, rounded with distinct claw-marks, covering some distance and culminating in the familiar sight of broken-ground – doubtless where the mustelids foraged in search of forms sometime before our arrival. Badgers are not a species I expect to see within the city limits anytime soon; thus, for now, relics of their nocturnal activity will suffice.
Having departed the woodland temporarily, only after taking heed of a passing flock of Siskin, I soon found myself casting my eyes over a frigid and very empty lake. Almost beating a retreat after ten-minutes of expectant yet futile scanning. I am glad I did not, however, the sight of a rounded head surfacing on the fringes of the reeds, and the ensuing flick of a meaty tail as the creature dived, heralding the arrival of the Otter. A dog, to be precise, which fished for sometime around the frozen margins, appearing to break the crystalline film of ice as it rose and fell. Never once casting an eye in our direction. I’m sure it saw us, despite the screen – I was not exactly shy in my excitement.
At one point, marking perhaps the most comical yet exciting moment of the trip, the Otter departed the water entirely onto the ice. Climbing out and showing himself in all his glory. That is before the surface gave way and he plopped head and front-paws first back into the water. Clearly, it was not so cold last night as to warrant a “proper” coating of ice.
I hate to use the same phrase twice – at least knowingly – but the sight of an Otter really was the jewel in the crown of an already enjoyable visit. A crowning glory, seldom seen and definitely an experience to savour.
Following our success at Gosforth, a brief jaunt to Newcastle’s rural fringe ensued leading us quickly to Prestwick Carr. A site I visit often which, once again, yielded superb views of Willow Tit – never to be taken for granted given the state of the wider population of these underrated passerines. Here too, Buzzards mewed overhead, a charming mixed flock of Yellowhammer and Reed Bunting fed among the amassed feet of some local goats, and a squadron of Golden Plover passed overhead, seemingly on route further inland. To their heather-clad breeding grounds, I suspect.
Willow Tit: not half as vibrant yet equally as charming