New Year, there’s something about that idea of resetting and starting afresh that provides some positivity in mid-winter. The current restrictions narrow the focus to what’s close and nearby, though to be honest, I always feel like January starts that way, like throwing a stone in a pond you start at the centre and (hopefully) work outward.
With just two brief visits to the coast in the first couple of days of the year it was mid-month (15th) before my species total hit the magic century. I kicked off the year with two Goldfinches and brought up the first 100 species with a Woodcock in the dying of a sub-zero evening on 15th overlooking Longhirst Golf Course.
Garden highlights from the first 15 days included regular Willow Tit at the feeders from 8th, a brief Treecreeper on 14th and the first Lesser Redpoll of the winter on 15th.
Local walks produced Marsh Tit at a regular site near Morpeth and the wintering Hooded Crow around Morpeth Water Treatment Works. Out west the remaining Hawfinch at Abbey Mills did the decent thing and hung on into 2021.
In what has been a very good Autumn/Winter along the East Coast for the species a small number of Twite were found feeding with Linnets and Goldfinch in a turnip field just north of Fulbeck around the New Year. Inland Twite are pretty scarce and this is the closest I’ve seen the species to home in 33 years birding. As is often the case when you get one or two birders looking at an area they find other stuff. Graham Sorrie chanced on a fly-through Merlin on 7th whilst on Twite-watch. What was almost certainly the same individual was sat on a roadside hedge round 3km to the north near Cockle Park as I rounded a bend heading home from birding nearby on 24th.
Cold weather and frozen ground makes for much better and cleaner walking in winter and I’ve enjoyed putting in a few km inside a 5km circle centred on home. It can be rewarding, birds that might otherwise be mundane take on new meaning, Meadow Pipit is a good example, scarce in the vicinity in winter they can take some tracking down. Small numbers feeding in frozen fields behind Bothal Barns were reward for a 10km circular hike that morning.
Finding birds is often luck, more time in the field helps, a slow puncture resulted in needing a new tyre which meant a visit to the local tyre garage just around the corner and an hour kicking my heels. Not wanting to waste precious time I wandered off to the local pit heap and within 20 minutes was watching a juvenile Peregrine absolutely smashing into the large flock of feral pigeons that gathers daily around the grain store near Longhirst Colliery. For over five minutes it repeatedly had a tight mass of 150 pigeons in the air wheeling about like a Starling murmuration while it dived in like a shark hitting mackerel. Stood surrounded by dense uninviting stands of pine planted on the former spoil heap I hear a ‘jup… jup… jup..’ call getting progressively closer behind me that gradually breaks through the fog of concentration focused on the falcon to register the ‘that’s a Crossbill’ thought just in time to swivel my head and see a bright red male Common Crossbill drop into trees about 40m away. My first on the ground in Pegswood in over 20 years living here.
I pushed out east to the Longhirst Flash/Potland Burn area once or twice during the final days of the month and had a fairly productive time. The morning of the 28th found the grassy fields full of Pink-footed Geese, perhaps 800 in total and on the west side of the road three adult Russian White-fronted Geese were showing on the edge of the flock. These may have been the only individuals in the county this month, unfortunately they appear not to have lingered long.
Jonny Farooqui did even better the following day picking up a Todd’s Canada Goose on the east side of the road. Luckily I was nearby searching for the Spotted Redshank that had been seen earlier that morning by Andy Mclevy and had just found two Ringed Plovers an early ‘inland’ record. As I pulled up by Jonny’s car the Pink-feet flock had taken off and flew away from us dropping into a rough grass field beyond the Abyssinian Pool. We drove around that side and tried to approach using hedges as cover but the flock was wary and took flight again breaking into three groups and three directions. Not wanting to give up I had a drive around likely fields to the north at Longhirst/Linton and after working through a couple of thousand Pink-feet looped back towards home. A small group of geese north of the Linton road just beyond the A1068 roundabout caught my eye so I pulled in and bingo, 29 Pink-feet and one Todd’s.
The final walkabout of January took me back to Longhirst Flash and a 7.5km loop on a cool but sunny morning. Two Little Egrets and a Green Sandpiper around the old flash were fine reward for 3 hours in the field. Good numbers of Stonechat with at least five present in newly planted areas, a single Woodcock flew from hedge ditch. I counted 45 Meadow Pipits in loose flocks and out in the centre of the short green grazing sward five Skylarks including one that sang briefly, possibly the first time I’ve ever heard a Skylark sing in January here.
Stats for the month within my 5km circle limit from home – 91 species including three new for me in my ‘home area’ Merlin, Twite and Common Crossbill, two of those self-found, I can honestly say I’m enjoying birding in such a tight area and seeing what’s possible. A quick scan of my Ebird checklists and I’ve walked c65km in the period and I reckon my fuel consumption is down by about 40-50% in the month.