May 2021

Highs and lows, always both, perhaps that’s the way it should be. Certainly the first few days of this particular May will be remembered, as any period with a new bird for Northumberland should. I doubt that this addition featured in anyone’s predictions of what might arrive next..

A brief look at the sea from Newbiggin Point on 4th produced a single Manx Shearwater north and a Red Knot on the rocks. The following day walking north passage waders were in decent numbers with 55 Sanderling counted and a couple of Purple Sandpipers. West Stobswood Pools was also productive on 4th with two late Pink-footed Geese and 19 Whimbrels present. Another sea-watch on 5th produced my first Great Skua of the year lumbering north low over the waves as well as a 1st-winter Mediterranean Gull.


Early evening on 6th was disrupted by a report of Black-headed Wagtail at Bothal Pond. I managed to nip down for an hour and watch as the bird was showing superbly well commuting between the flooded southern edge of the pool and the horse paddocks to the south where it happily fed in close proximity to the horses, following them to within inches of their heads and hooves presumably to benefit from disturbed insects.

It’s fair to say that there was split opinion on the identification of the bird with some quick to call it as feldegg and others more inclined towards thunbergi. On the night certain features were clear in the field if nit from the early images, a lack of gloss to the head, a strong white malar and to my ear a call that, when it called twice just a few metres away, sounded like flava. Reviewing Alstrom’s Pipits & Wagtails later it was apparent that the all of these pointed away from feldegg (though on plumage description may have been a good fit for melanogrisea). Recordings of the call obtained the following morning by Neil Osbourne and sent to Magnus Robb pointed back towards thunbergi and it was good to see people with experience of all three races such as Alan Curry and Mike Carr chip into the discussion with more pointers towards thunbergi.

Individuals like this often offer the best learning opportunities and this was no exception. Away from the specifics of the identification it also acts a a reminder that sometimes taking time over an identification is the right action and expressing uncertainty shouldn’t be a position to be frowned upon.

Any thoughts of a quiet night after this were further disrupted by messages from Paul Freestone and Sam Viles about a video circulating showing a Northern Mockingbird reportedly in Northumberland. Some digging and not a little astonishment later I’d made contact with the garden owner and had an agreement that she would share an address in the morning to allow me to check it out.

Early morning dawned and I’d decided to be in Newbiggin awaiting further instructions, it was clear I wasn’t alone as a scene from those old westerns emerged with every street corner holding a bins-toting birder trying to look inconspicuous. Lots of words and the finder’s account have been published so I’ll restrict myself here to sharing a couple of anecdotes from those first few hours trying to confirm the bird’s presence and then arrange suitable access. I was amazed at one point to note that at least one person in Newbiggin that morning decided that tailing me was a good option, passing me in a vehicle then u-turning to watch me from a distance as I returned to my car, presumably in the hope I was going to lead them to the bird, just bizarre.

The other incident involved persons unknown who had managed to obtain the finder’s mobile number and rang whilst I was at the property arranging access claiming to be ‘Sky News’ and trying to setup a fake interview (and access). A frankly disgraceful attempt to lie their way into the finder’s garden, which could easily have backfired and resulted in no one getting to see the bird in the way that later panned out.

In the event, things turned out well..

Northern Mockingbird, Newbiggin

Small numbers of adult Roseate Terns began to build up on Beacon Point in the next few days, five was the maximum count I managed but I think others may have had up to seven. They showed well over high tide when allowed to land in their favoured roost area.

Roseate Tern, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea

The second half of the month was fairly mundane in comparison with little of note, a single Little Ringed Plover at Castle Island LNR on 12th. My first Puffins of the year and another Great Skua from a sea-watch off Newbiggin Point on 22nd. A day walking, birding and avoiding the world in the Harthope Valley on 24th produced 2 Common Cuckoos, 2 Spotted Flycatchers and 4 Whinchats.

Whinchat, Narthope Valley

School holidays and a son with a broken finger managed to hurl a spanner into much further birding in the month but time rolled on into summer nonetheless.

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