Sandwiched between the freshness of January and the real onset of Spring in March February can be a wishy-washy birding month. On the positive side it only last 28 days most of the time and despite my northerly latitude there’s always some signs of the change of season ahead. With Covid-narrowed horizons this particular February has been one of local exploration, seeking hidden treasure in familiar corners.
Six days in before I could add another species to the 5km from Home List in the form of an adult Mediterranean Gull feeding in the horse paddocks at Blue Sky Stables. This is the 2nd time this winter I’ve found Med Gull in these paddocks, a favoured feeding area for Black-headed and Common Gulls. In fact this was one of two at the site this month with a 2nd-winter individual present on 19th. The wintering Hooded Crow was also present briefly that morning as it has been fairly regularly over the last couple of winters.
There wasn’t long to wait for the next addition as heading back home via Longhirst Flash proved fortuitous with a pair of Common Shelduck on one of the many floods on local arable nearby.
Back to Blue Sky the following day as Jonny Farooqui once again trumped my Med Gull with a juvenile Iceland Gull in the next field west which loitered long enough for a brief Sunday afternoon mini-twitch.
By mid-month winter was kicking in hard with snow cover and below freezing temperatures mixing things up. A Tundra Bean Goose was discovered at Longhirst Flash amidst a flock of Pink-feet and as usual proved a bit of a pain to lock onto, not least because of the gentle roll of the land helping it to hide in plain sight in the flock. Good numbers of argentatus Herring Gulls were rolling through in cold weather movements and the local gull flocks at least provided something to look at in bleak conditions.
Many birds struggled in the tough conditions, there was clearly an arrival of Woodcock both at the coast and probably from birds wintering inland moving lower to try and find easier feeding. I saw several mid-month often flushed inadvertently from pathside hedges or ditches. Common Kingfisher is another species that can struggle in big freezes, I stumbled across this female over a small stream feeding into the Wansbeck on 13th and it didn’t want to move from it’s perch just metres off the nearby footpath. I fired off 2-3 images and then walked on, keen to avoid causing it any undue stress.
A male Marsh Tit singing in the town park at Morpeth on 15th was one of the highlights of a quiet few days often spent just enjoying the garden birds. The snow cover forced thrushes to move around and ensuring the garden was well-stocked with apples resulted in my first ‘Five Thrush Day’ in the garden for a decade.
The 19th provided the rarest bird of the month in the 5km circle in the form of a Great Egret at Longhirst Flash. An early record for the county, in fact looks like the third earliest to date with the two earlier records in the winter of 2019 probably relating to the same wintering individual in the north of the county. Still a fairly rare bird in Northumberland this is the third one I’ve found, amazing to think that only 21 years ago when I found my first there had only been 4 previous records, it’s a species that now we expect to see annually.
I was on a roll on the 19th, after leaving the Egret I headed over to Linton Lane NR to check for Pochard and was in luck with six drakes loafing close to the hide, the first I’ve had at the site this year. Contrary to local folklore I found them to be honest, straightforward ducks. A further change of venue out west to Longhirst Golf Course added another migrant in the form of the first four Oystercatchers for 2021 feeding on one of the fairways.
The 22nd brought frustrating news of a Mealy Redpoll on feeders just a few gardens further east from mine, given restrictions not much chance of catching up with it. I switched a couple of feeders over to pure sunflower hearts more in hope than expectation but…
I didn’t have long to wait as this smart white male rocked up the very next day. The 23rd added another wader species in the form of a single Curlew in the horse paddocks south of Bothal Pond, sadly they appear to be increasingly rare in the local area away from the coast. Another Med Gull this time a yellow-ringed adult was also feeding in the same paddocks.
The 26th brought the expected return of an adult Great Crested Grebe to Bothal Pond, it was joined by a 2nd a couple of days later. More unexpected was news of a county-first drake Bufflehead at Cresswell Pond late morning, a mere 5.5 miles from home it would be a hard heart that denied me a brief visit to an area with no residents. Only staying the one day, all the dates suggest that this is likely to be the drake that was originally found in Northern Ireland at Quoile Pondage on 5th December 2020, remaining until 9th January 2021 then relocated in Warwickshire on 27th January where it took up residence until 25th February. This pattern of moving east then north in early Spring along with the absence of any rings will presumably see it accepted as a genuine wild bird by BBRC.
Later that day a Willow Tit and two Barn Owls were near Longhirst Flash as were 31 Magpies in a pre-roost gathering.
A walk out in decent sunshine on 28th at Ulgham Lane produced nothing new or noteworthy but some of the lichens found on a single Hawthorn were interesting. I did manage my earliest ever and first February Common Chiffchaff through the garden mid-afternoon. Throwing the moth trap out that evening for the first time this year produced the first moth of 2021 a Hebrew Character.
By the end of the Feb my 5km From Home List had reached 104 species which isn’t bad for an inland patch with no coast. It’ll be interesting to see how things continue as the months unfold.