As I was overnighting in Darlington on the final day of June I decided as I was nearly half way to Bempton that one journey to see a bird wouldn’t be the end of the world. Only one flight in three years and a big reduction in car miles staying local but the Black-browed Albatross has a certain desirability. So despite the crowds, which I largely avoided, I headed down for a couple of hours. It’s an utterly surreal experience watching an Albatross hanging in the wind before surging across the skies with barely a wingbeat through a Gannet and Auk-filled seascape. I may never see one again but the sheer majesty of this bird’s aura will live long in the memory.
The following day working out of Darlington a Fea’s-type Petrel was picked up at Flamborough in the morning and I thought here we go again another was going to slip by and missed off Newbiggin as others have done in the past due to work or family committments. However this individual seemed to be on a go-slow in the morning and as the day progressed and it was tracked up the East Coast there appeared to be a good chance I could finish at 15:00 and get back up in good time to be in with a shout. In the event this turned out to be extremely fortunate as there’s little doubt that this bird was actually a Soft-plumaged Petrel – the first ever for Britain if accepted by BOURC/BBRC albeit identified from images immediately after the event. I’ve written a few words about how the day panned out here and here’s a heavy crop of how it appeared in my 400m lens as it glided past in all it’s full breast-banded glory (proper record shot stuff).
Thursday 8th I caught up with the itinerant female Ruddy Shelduck at Castle Island, a ginger sleeping blob on the edge of the island. A couple of days later a hike into the Cheviot foothills produced two juvenile Common Goldeneye on a small upland pool, whether dispersed from a nearby breeding site or a new site entirely remains unknown. A short visit to Newbiggin on 13th was uneventful with just a Whimbrel and 9 Mediterranean Gulls of note.
It was 22nd before I was back in the field with another sortie to Castle Island, the Ruddy Shelduck remained as did the summering Mandarin but best bird of the late afternoon visit was an adult Yellow-legged Gull at the east end of the island amongst 400 Herring/LBBG.
A quick stop at Cooper’s Kennel Flash on 23rd revealed a single Green Sandpiper on a rapidly drying flash. A summering Pink-footed Goose was nearby at Bothal Pond.
Summer staggered onto the stage slowly, apparently offering more freedoms and a return to normality so why does it feel like we’ve gone down a rabbit hole and there’s no turning back no matter how much we wriggle and squirm?
The first day of June felt like distant summers past as some warmth helped persuade the younger half of the tribe to head out with me into the deep south to while away a few hours along the River Allen walking between Allen Banks and Plankey Mill. The grandeur of the steep wooded gorge sides here always feels cathedral-like in places during the summer, with the distant sounds of singers offering worship hidden in the leafy rafters; both Common Redstart and Pied Flycatcher were easy enough to pick out the choir. A good site for Dipper the eddies of the Allen were echoed in the air by the swirling flocks of tens of thousands of insects parading low over the water in meditative circles.
Avoiding the roadworks at Hexham on the road home took us on a short detour past Grindon Lough where a brief stop offered distant views of the returning adult female Red-necked Phalarope.
Later in the week I had a classic example of right place, wrong time when Ella and I had a late afternoon walk checking through the Common Starling flocks at Newbiggin looking for anything pink late on the Sunday afternoon. Early Monday morning news from Tariq Farooqui that he had scored pink in the exact spot we’d been the previous night. At least this particular 1st-summer Rosy Starling hung about until I got there.
Four days later work done for the day I headed out for an evening jaunt up the road to Far Letch NR. A small, new nature reserve on former opencast mining land it has some small pools, newly planted woodland and lots of grassland. Twenty minutes walking from the car berated by a nearby Lapwing and the phone rings, as i lift it out of my pocket I note it’s Josh who I’d handed over to at work a couple of hours earlier. At this point it’s worth noting that these days I have my Whatsapp notifications permanently switched off, with over 30 birding groups it’s just too distracting to receive that many notifications when not working. Answering the call I was expecting that something of mild interest had turned up that he wanted to twitch at his beloved Baston & Langtoft Pits but instead was greeted with the ominous “hope you’re on your way to Blyth…”. His next sentence stopped me in my tracks “Alan Curry’s got a stunning Red-neckedStint on the Blyth Estuary” – several expletives later I was jogging back to the car with a pissed off dog who hates moving that fast.
What was without question one of the birds of the year has been suitably put into words by AC for BirdGuides here suffice to say it was satisfying to pull back a bird that due to various personal circumstances I missed back in 1995 despite it being less than 3km from my then home.
A two hour hike around the golf course at Newbiggin on 8th confirmed that summer was in to stay, two Yellowhammers were the pick of the birds, a species that has been scarce on the patch for many years. A male Sedge Warbler was singing from the ever-burnt gorse and Common Shelducks were commuting between golfers from the barren beach to the Ash Lagoons.
A quiet circular walk around the bridleway at Blubbery Scrogs on 10th was enlivened by a distant Red Kite that attracted the attention of a local Common Buzzard. Thinking this would be the best bird of the day I headed to the Longhirst Flash area and walked to the Abyssinian Pool to look for dragonflies. After a few Large Red and Common Blue Damselflies I headed home via Bothal Pond, no scope as they’re not much use for dragons. I was a little taken aback to lift my bins to a pristine drake Ring-necked Duck loafing at the south end of the pool. A long (very long) overdue British self-found tick for me, as is often the case no skill involved here just right place, right time and fortuititously before anyone else on this occasion.
An away day walking in the Yorkshire Dales with my partner and friends on 12th was interesting though relatively quiet birdwise, Little Owl, several singing Common Redstarts (and my first juvenile of the year) was as good as it got. A few Curlew were noted and a couple of Spotted Flycatchers but the real story was the almost complete absence of raptors in the air on a perfect day for thermalling and very few butterflies or bees in the numerous flower-filled grazing meadows en route.
I won’t lie, not being around for that Swift stung a little but you can’t win them all. Luckily the 1st-summer American Golden Plover at Cresswell Pond, also discovered on 12th hung around for my return the following day.
The latter half of June has been almost empty of birding, a heavy work schedule and another 10 day isolation for two of the kids due to ‘close contact’ reduced my available time to fleeting visits here and there. Add to that the general lethargy caused by my heart drugs that seems to come and go and there’s little to write about. A sea-watch on the afternoon of 22nd produced a dozen Manx Shearwaters, the first real pulses of foraging Atlantic Puffins with 88 flying north in around 90 minutes and a single adult Bottle-nose Dolphin close inshore moving through south in a hurry. Perhaps some small saving grace has been the small numbers of moths that have occasionally found their way into the garden trap on the half dozen days I’ve bothered to get it out.
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..
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.
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.
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.
April did what April does, one minute you’re fooled into thinking it’s Spring and leaving the layers and gloves behind and then the weather says “Hold my beer!”
A cold northerly airflow for much of the month seemed to slow progress, for many species on the East Coast at least, hirundines particularly were notable by their absence from many places (or at least the ones I was visiting).
With Finn having resumed full training I’m back to having a spare hour and a half on the outskirts of Newcastle on at least a couple of nights a week. Over the last couple of years I’ve variously walked and birded around many of the local urban footpaths and occasionally a little further afield to sites like Killingworth Lake and Rising Sun CP so it’s not exactly unfamiliar ground but I decided make the most of the time during April.
As urban local patchers know birding like this is relative and you take what you can get, seven Common Pochard and a Little Egret at Holywell Pond on the afternoon of April Fool’s Day and 18 Magpies and a Common Snipe in flight at Findus, Salter’s Lane were the highlights of a quiet start to the month. A week later I threw on my best black hoodie and slipped into Walker Park, camera in one hand and a can of LCL Pils in the other to blend in. All to catch up with some of Newcastle’s small but growing population of Ring-necked Parakeets that appear to have taken a liking to several of the city’s parks. Urban living seems to be catching up with some of them.
On a couple of evenings I slipped the five miles to the coast in the hope of catching up with one of several white-winged gulls that were appearing around the ever-fragrant fish quays at North Shields. I wasn’t disappointed as on my first visit a juvenile Iceland Gull loafed on the quay roof and was viewable from the streets overlooking the quay. A week later and it was the 2nd-winter that was enjoying some evening chill time by the river. Each visit was just an hour but along with the Iceland Gulls my high vantage enabled me to watch squadrons of iconic Kittiwakes commuting up and down the Tyne to and from their city breeding ledges at the worl’d furthest inland colony, always a privilege.
By mid-month with half the country apparently besieged by passage Ring Ouzels I looked around for some high ground and decided to head for Weetslade CP. One of many former pit heaps that litter Tyneside and South East Northumberland I’ve driven past this site literally a thousand times without ever visiting. It has good all round views and I imagine if anyone put any effort in they’d be rewarded with some occasional viz mig gems. Three Buzzards and a Grey Heron in the air were as good as it got during my hour but a smart Wheatear was a bonus.
Wheatears were as ever, a joy whenever and wherever i came across them, spunky attitude in abundance whether zipping across a bank of seaweed in search of insects or bouncing down a fence line adjacent to arable en route for wilder places. Knowing they could be spending the summer in Iceland or Greenland is always awe-inspiring.
Towards the month end Jack Bucknall found a female Ring Ouzel in horse paddocks between Backworth and Seghill, just 10 minutes from the NUFC Academy I headed out there that evening and failed to relocate it but did have 17 Fieldfares staging before heading out home. A chance to explore the large sloping grass covered hill towards Seghill drew me back the next night where I stumbled on the female Ring Ouzel still in the small paddock it had originally been seen in the previous day.
Away from the delights of Tyneside most of my birding time continued to be fairly local though I made one or two journeys elsewhere to the Harthope Valley, Skipwith Common, Yorkshire, Low Newton and Dipton Woods in the south-west. Some of these were walking days with my partner or (in the case of Skipwith) a little birding wrapped around one of Finn’s away games.
Harthope Valley was quiet bird-wise, a bit too early in this coldest of Aprils for much to have got started but on some of the sheltered slopes we found five Adders just emerging from hibernation and seeking some sunshine and warmth.
By the time we headed into the woods around Dipton they were hosting singing Pied Flycatchers and Common Redstarts. Distant drumming from Great Spotted Woodpeckers revealed their presence and after brief flight views the mobbing by multiple Blackbirds of a Tawny Owl drew our attention.
Gary Woodburn’s smart Red-throated Pipit was a a full fat county tick for me and many others who nipped up the coast to Low Newton, always distant and having already been turfed off one golf course that morning I managed zero usable images but I’m sure anyone reading this will have seen plenty to get the picture.
General day to day birding was pretty much all within 15km of home and provided enough newness and variation to keep things interesting as the month progressed. Highlights included relocating the wintering Spotted Redshank on the Wansbeck, self found Little Ringed Plover, Black-tailed Godwit and Whinchat. Species seen but found by others included Garganey, Shore Lark, Pectoral Sandpiper and Little Gull.
Unexpected bird of the month was this Emu wandering around a large sloped paddock near Abshiels, not a migrant but it brightened up another cold bird-less morning.
Big changes, small changes, it’s all change in March. Winter visitors departing, summer visitors arriving, another shift of our collective pandemic state of mind and for my kids a long awaited return to sport and other activities. One of those opens up different destinations the other adds curbs and limits on my birding time and locations that will no doubt become apparent in the weeks that lie ahead.
Looking back at the first few days of March much of my free time was spent roaming around the local ponds and flashes to the east, highlights included the Spotted Redshank and Red-necked Grebe at Bothal Pond, the latter a first site record for me ( not my find but I made up for it by scoping it from Pegswood Pit Top on 7th to add it to the ‘Pit Top List’). At least two Twite remained out west at West Shield Hill and an adult Mediterranean Gull was loafing on the Cooper’s Kennel Flash on the 7th.
The status of Caspian Gull in Northumberland is certainly in flux with an unprecedented eight or nine reports in the period between 1 August 2020 and end March 2021. A case of greater familiarity brings more records or a genuine uptick in the number of individuals wintering in the area? Time will tell if this increase in reports is sustained. At least five different individuals have been involved based on the ageing of birds reported (juvenile/1st-winter/2nd-winter/3rd-summer and adult). Anyway this is a rambling, roundabout way of highlighting one of the best finds of the month for me this cracking 1st-winter Caspian Gull at Queen Elizabeth II CP, the same individual was seen earlier in the month on the Coquet Estuary but obviously decided on a quick foray south on 12th.
With the kids back at school for several days and into my third week since vaccination I took a short drive inland into the emptiness of Harwood Forest on 17th to look for the Great Grey Shrike found a couple of days earlier. A good 10km circular walk was generally quiet for birds though the shrike was found it mostly kept its distance.
I’d put in several hours on the ‘pit top’ by mid-month working hard for some visible migration, I was delighted with a northbound Yellowhammer that just kept going until I lost it in the distance over Longhirst Station but the morning of the 20th all the stars aligned for a great morning’s birding. One of the national highlights of the month, the northbound movement of Britain’s wintering Whooper Swan population had begun further south over the previous two days as big numbers departed middle-Britain bound for Iceland. Determined to get in on the action I hit the pit at 07:00. In my first scan out to the west I picked up two large birds in my bins moving north some 4-5km distant, something about the wing length and flight action… swinging the scope around i suddenly had two Common Cranes moving low for the next 30-40 seconds before disappearing behind the roll of the land as they cracked on north. What were almost certainly the same birds were seen moving north at Dowlaw, Borders some 3.5 hours later that morning (per BirdGuides).
Id have gone home happy but more was to come as a commotion of gulls and corvids over Ashington drew my attention to what was instantly recognisable as a Red Kite that i was able to track north all the way to Ellington and was duly seen at Cresswell and East Chevington by other observers. Remarkably a second individual came over high from the south a little later in the morning, one of half a dozen reports of Red Kites moving through the south-east of the county that morning in an unusual Spring passage.
The Whooper Swans didn’t disappoint either with up to 250 noted moving north to both east and west of the pit top over the morning, none directly overhead but it was clear there was some serious movement going on as flocks were tracked from the Tyne north. I noted a further 60 over the next couple of days too.
Another local birder Debra B had E-birded a Mandarin at a site just up the Wansbeck Valley around 22nd so I took a walk on the morning of 24th and was pleased to discover four on a short wooded stretch of river along with the full suite of Wansbeck specialities (Kingfisher, Dipper and Grey Wagtail). Again another species with an apparent changing status in the county as the last five years have seen a small population establish and began to proliferate on the Wansbeck, presumably originating from the North Tyne population as it has grown and expanded.
I slipped down to Spital Point on the south side of Newbiggin on 25th, hoping that there might be some bunting action in the big field or even a coastal Wheatear but to no avail. as ever when birding, all was not lost as the small gull flock in the centre of the field had five Mediterranean Gulls ensconced within, an adult and four 1st-winters. An hour later on the ‘Hospital Pool’ at Woodhorn there were a further six, this time three each of 1st and 2nd-winter and a Northern Shoveler just to provide some variety.
Also of note was the male Mealy Redpoll that continued to drop into the garden periodically in the latter half of March and my first Small Tortoiseshell of the year on 27th. A pair of Avocets were briefly at one of the flashes during the month before moving on elsewhere. Oh and this, the least said about this beauty the better….
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.
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.
Winter and the land is down to the bare bones, on a good day the warmth of the sun replaced by a sharpness in the air. I spent the first day of this particular winter alone, bar the dog, walking in Northumberland uplands, the silence of the season only broken by the occasional rattle of a Wren.
The last month of Autumn was mild so a day total of five European Stonechats found on moorland and clear-fell was perhaps not so surprising. Other passerines included Goldcrest and a couple of Coal Tits at one site. Bird of the day was a male Hen Harrier that moved purposefully out of the morning sun across a wide stretch of open moorland. A small unseasonal flock of Northern Lapwings (86) broke up the empty sky near Elsdon.
A brief respite from work on 2nd produced a small flock of Fieldfare and Redwing moving through hedges to the north of home.
Shorter days and the imminence of Christmas and the attention it requires often means I bird in short snatches of the day. The 3rd was just such a day, an hour west of Morpeth whilst waiting for one of the local shop-owners to make a late start produced a single Hawfinch in the Hornbeams at Abbey Mill, the first seen there for 6-7 days as far as I can tell. At the other end of the day a search for pre-roost gulls at Widdrington Moor Lake turned up a hunting juvenile Merlin dancing around the occasional phragmites stands and lakeside vegetation in the hope of flushing passerines to prey on. Occasionally it perched up on one of the plastic tree shelters affording an opportunity to grab a distant picture from the car, albeit in poor light.
A brief foray to the coast on 7th via the Woodhorn Long-tailed Duck produced nine Snow Buntings and 4 Velvet Scoter at North Blyth. Jonny Farooqui’s Todd’s Canada Goose just a few clicks up the road at Hadston lured me in on 11th and was conveniently close to the road.
There were large numbers of gulls using the stubble and dropping into surrounding lakes so another shufty around the area on 14th produced 9 Mediterranean Gulls at Widdrington Moor Lake and 2 at Maiden’s Hall Lake along with a drake Pintail at the former site.
The latter half of the month as ever dominated by family and Christmas commitments, I managed an hour at North Shields to see both the juvenile and 2nd-winter Iceland Gulls on 16th. The following day I headed north for quiet walk from Boulmer to Howick, briefly caught up with the wintering Hooded Crow at Howick and saw the wintering colour-ringed littoralis Rock Pipit I wrote about in my previous post.
A post-Christmas walk in the Allenheads area on 28th produced a single drake Black Grouse at Green Hill (569m asl) and Dipper along the East Allen as well as a Water Vole that narrowly avoided the attentions of my dog Bubo as it furtled in waterside vegetation.
Sunshine on 29th drew me back to Newbiggin where good numbers of common waders fed and roosted at Beacon Point and a 1st-winter cairii-morph male Black Redstart had been hanging about for a day or two.
I’ve also been clarting about with trying to record some ‘noc mig’ or nocturnal migration/bird calls this month. It’s been reasonably productive with 10 species including Moorhen, Tawny Owl and Little Owl so far, the Moorhen the first around the garden in several years was presumably just wandering in the wood beside the garden. I’m using an Audiomoth device which has the advantage of being inexpensive and relatively easy to use. The quality isn’t as good as setting up with parabolic reflector and external micro phone etc but it’ll do me.
One of the highlights of a clear the head/good for the soul three hour wander along the Boulmer to Howick stretch of coast in good low winter sun today was stumbling across a colour-ringed Rock Pipit, one of several; feeding on the insect life along the high tide mark. Luckily I was able to photograph the orange colour ring and read the three letter code as a result (PTZ). Home this afternoon I tracked the bird to a Norwegian colour ring scheme, confirming it as a littoralis race individual. Thanks to an amazingly quick response from the ringing scheme it appears this individual was ringed at Giske Ornithological Station on 9 August and is a 1st-winter male. It’s been present in the Boulmer area since 7th October, the ring details submitted on three occasions including today.
It’s pretty much accepted wisdom these days that most of the Rock Pipits wintering along British coasts are littoralis and that the individuals turning up at inland wetland sites during the Autumn are individuals moving overland to the west coast or beyond to Ireland for the winter. A quick google search on Giske Ornithlogical Station shows that over the last 2-3 years their colour-ringed Rock Pipits have been noted from Teeside, Cheshire, Lancashire and Kent for example.
If the weather remains as mild as it is currently I guess there’s every chance that this individual will see out the winter along that stretch of coast before moving back across the North Sea in March/early April.
October ended in blustery, wet weather smashing in waves from the Atlantic, not the best birding weather for the East Coast. Birding the final couple of days of the month had a distinct wintry feel as a result. The half dozen Tundra Bean Geese remained in the fields between Longhirst Flash and Bothal Pond. Searching nearby arable on 30th produced one or two sizeable flocks of Pink-feet with c 1500 individuals involved in stubble at Longhirst Station and North Linton Farm, despite extensive checking a few Greylag Geese were all I could drag out the flocks. The Linton Hooded Crow has settled back in and as noted first by sharp-eyed John Malloy it’s actually ringed, typically wary I doubt anyone is reading it anytime soon.
Whilst looking through the gulls from Ellington Suez Tip the same day I had five Jays fly north along the rail line towards the Potland Burn shelter belt and as I was returning to the car a single Common Crossbill flew calling in the same direction.
I still have several ‘soft’ birds that I’ve not seen in the Newbiggin/Woodhorn patch for one reason or another so I was pleased to knock down a couple of those pins on the opening days of November First Neil Osbourne picked up a Spotted Redshank at Beacon Point, I’d been working out of Darlington until mid-afternoon so had to drive home pick up optics and in ever declining light pick through the small high tide roost but luckily the bird was still present early evening. Eight Purple Sandpipers and five Grey Plovers continued the wintry theme. The following morning an early morning visit produced one of the Little Egrets that appeared to have been making dawn visits to the flashes judging by AP’s reports.
Other birding in the first few days produced a Grey Wagtail at Beacon Point on 2nd among a loose mixed flock of Pied Wagtails, Rock Pipits and Meadow Pipits. A male Marsh Harrier, 2 Mediterranean Gulls (adult and 1st-winter) along with a flocks of 95 Gadwall and 96 Greylag Geese at Linton Lane NR. At Queen Elizabeth II CP an adult Whooper Swan has taken up residence among the Mute Swan flock and the feral Barnacle Goose was still around on 2nd.
On 4th Tim Daley found a smart adult Shorelark on the beach in the North Bay, the following day it was relocated in the South Bay and continued to commute between the two until 7th. This is the first I’ve seen here since 1992 though there have been several records in the intervening years.
The same day (4th) Graham Sorrie located two Hawfinch at the Abbey Meadows Hornbeams. A short walk over lunch picked up one of them actively feeding, in fact it was the sharp tugs on the Hornbeam seed moving branches in otherwise calm conditions that proved the best method of locating it in trees that still had a high percentage of leaf cover.
Saturday 7th was spent walking a fog-bound circuit between Cupola Bridge-Plankey Mill-Kingswood Burn, a single Woodcock and small flock of c 25 Brambling were the avian highlights along with the ethereal views from the high point late afternoon as the sun briefly broke through and pushed the mists into the valleys. We walked the final 1km in near-darkness with Pheasants exploding from the tall beeches and conifers all around us.
Brief visits to Linton Lane and Bothal Pond on 9th detected a small recent arrival of Common Goldeneye with 11 and 8 respectively, each site including two adult drakes. By 16th Gadwall numbered 109 the first three-figured count of the species I’ve ever personally recorded in Northumberland.
Settled cool calm conditions on 26th found me visiting a small number of coastal sites, three Mediterranean Gulls fed nonchalantly by the roadside along Newbiggin’s Central Parkway, I could see a decent scoter raft off Cambois, a five minute drive south, so nipped down and counted 200+ Common Scoter with a number of other birds loosely associating with them. Best of the ‘others’ was a Great Crested Grebe, a half dozen Red-throated Divers slid under the surface nearby, whilst a flock of seven Red-breasted Mergansers scooted about in typically prickly fashion.
Two miles further south at North Blyth a dark-looking diver off the Alcan slipway proved to be an adult Great Northern Diver it showed well on a flat sea albeit a little distantly.
Nearby five insulae Snow Buntings had been present for a few days and made for confiding photo targets as did the eight Twite that were hanging out on the weedy slopes nearby. The Snow Buntings blend rather well with the weedy waste ground and stony concrete sea wall. Think this is an adult female based on pointed centres to scapulars, broad tertial and greater covert fringes, contrast between mantle and scapulars, (shout up if you think different please).
It’s proving to be a good Autumn for all three of the species just mentioned with decent numbers present nationally, as was the case with a good Autumn wader passage it suggests (to me at least) that many northerly breeders had a good year.