Ford & Etal is fortunate to have a wide range of habitats for birds and birdwatching opportunities are many. This brief guide offers some suggestions for walks along public footpaths and bridleways from where it should be possible to observe or hear some of Northumberland’s best birds.
As a piece of general advice, birds are less concerned about figures (including humans) when they are standing still. To get the most out of your walk plan to walk for a certain distance, or to a specific spot, and then to remain quietly in that location for several minutes. You will be amazed at the number of birds you see just by standing still!
For a chance to see riverside birds, such as Swans, Herons, Moorhens, Dippers, Kingfishers, Grey Wagtails, Common Sandpipers, etc. a walk along the National Cycle Route 68, starting at Etal Village, is highly recommended. There are some good open spots especially where the track crosses open ground about one mile downstream of Etal. The cycle track eventually rises away from the river but by taking the left fork just before the zig-zags you can drop down and sit on a sunny bench on a bend of the river, with good views each way. [You may find anglers’ equipment here, as visiting anglers often use the bench as a ‘base camp’].
A shorter riverside walk is available between Ford Bridge and Heatherslaw, or vice versa. The public footpath follows the west bank of the river for almost all the way and there are some good views from the corner of the track about 400m north of Ford Bridge. In summer, Sedge Warbler, Garden Warbler, Reed Bunting, Blackcap, Grey Wagtail, Mallard, Sand Martin and other species can be seen and heard.
The moorland areas of Ford & Etal are well worth a visit and in particular the Nature Reserve at Ford Moss. Managed by the Northumberland Wildlife Trust, this is a raised peat bog with many rare plant and insect species. Being a bog it is, of course, dangerous to walk on, even without the risk of encountering an Adder or two. A perimeter walk around the Moss will, however, allow you to enjoy fine views of the moorland and woodland habitats. In summer it is no surprise to hear Cuckoo, Jay, Treecreeper, Red Grouse, Grasshopper Warbler, Curlew and Buzzard. The surrounding scrubland is home to many Yellowhammers, Linnets, Greenfinches and Goldfinches, as well as other warblers such as Blackcap and Whitethroat.
Agricultural land predominates, with small copses and hedgerows. Yellowhammers, Linnets, Whitethroats and perhaps even Tree Sparrows are regular sightings as you follow the public footpaths which traverse fields or follow along the field edges. Chaffinches, Blackbirds and Song Thrushes are common, and in the conifer woodland you will often hear the highpitched call of the Goldcrest and the very loud song of the Wren. The Robin has a song that always seems to disappoint – it breaks off all too quickly after such a promising start.
For a birdwatching walk that combines as much of the varied terrain and habitat as possible, start at Heatherslaw Visitor Centre and cross the river by the metal bridge. Cross the road in front of you and take the permissive path uphill alongside woodland to join the public footpath which runs between Letham Hill and Hay Farm. Follow the signs to Hay Farm and then on to Ford Village. Make your way through the village and downhill past the church to Ford Bridge. Cross the road bridge and turn right onto the public footpath leading back to Heatherslaw. This is a walk of some 3 miles, and it will not be uncommon for the averagely experienced birdwatcher to have heard or seen 40 species by the time they return. Advice on other walks and guide leaflets is readily available at the Heatherslaw Visitor Centre. Alternatively, you can contact us at any time.
For more information on birding in North Northumberland, please visit the website of the North Northumberland Bird Club. The Club organises field meetings, indoor meetings every month, a ‘latest sightings’ report and offers an ideal way to make new friends and share exciting memories of birds and birdwatching.