Late winter/early Spring can be a fascinating period in the right weather. Writing this 3 months later so the post is just a repository for some of the better sightings in the period.
February – A Barn Owl in darkness on 2nd at St Leonard’s, Morpeth was the only bird of note in the first week. The wintering Spotted Redshank was again at Bothal Pond on 7th as were 11 Golden Plovers – a sign of early movement away from the coast.
A short trip to East Chevington on 7th produced two Russian White-fronted Geese which were pleasing as they’ve been scarce on the ground this winter up here.
On the return along the coast 18 Twite fed in the dunes at Cresswell and five Med Gulls were at Woodhorn Flashes. I noted 225 Pink-feet flying north over the allotment in Blyth later in the day.
A short trip to some damp fields adjacent to a sizeable chunk of mixed woodland on 8th produced the desired target when a Woodock flew out to the fields to feed at dusk. Another of the same species was noted in daylight during a visit to Low Barns NR, Durham the following day along with a Willow Tit.
The Hooded Crow was still in fields at Ellington Wind Farm on 11th. A Saturday morning visit to Killingworth Lake the next morning whilst the kid trained nearby to see the 1st-winter drake Greater Scaup that had been wintering. A count of 32 Common Pochard there was impressive by recent county standards for this species.
15th brought an influx of Shelduck into Druridge Bay with over 40 counted across a number of locations, a harbinger of Spring. Several sizeable Curlew flocks fed in coastal fields too.
On 18th I jammed into the Longhirst Flash Green Sandpiper providing another new bird for the year and the following day a Little Egret was at Bothal Pond, making it’s way onto my 5km Year List for it’s troubles. A couple of Ringed Plovers on Cooper’s Kennel Flash on 25th another indication that warm April days were just around the corner (that worked out right?).
Short-eared Owl again at Longhirst Flashes on 25th and a first slate grey adult Lesser Black-backed Gull brightened up the Blyth Estuary on 26th. February had time for one more splash of year newness in the form of a drake Velvet Scoter north past Newbiggin Point on 28th.
March – Kicked into Spring with a mid-morning jaunt to the Gibbet and whilst it was a slow morning did manage two Goshawk though no display. Nice to see one or two old faces up there and pick off a couple of Crossbills on the slow drive back along the southern edge.
Bird of the month came on 5th, I woke and picked up my phone to a message dropping in that John Graham had found a Dipper on the stream at Woodhorn Church. Those of us that birded occasionally with the late Jimmy Steele will know that he had long predicted that “There’ll be a Dipper on that stream one day” – the first known record in the Newbiggin recording area had me leaping out of bed like a salmon, bundling bins into the car and shooting through thankfully empty roads to rock up in the car park, peer nervously down the stream and see the brown and white wee beastie in all it’s dippery magnificience before it shot through the pipe under the road. Two or three brief views later it had swerved around a bend upstream and was never seen again!
Two days later a Water Rail called from one of the reedbeds at Woodhorn as I walked past and at least nine Med Gulls were in the Storey Crescent horse paddocks. Great Crested Grebes were back on Bothal Pond by 7th and 11 Avocets were staging at the Blyth Estuary on 8th. A Chiffchaff dashed around mallows behind the Budge Screen on 11th but remained stubbornly silent despite having sang earlier in the day for the county recorder. A Barnacle Goose put in a brief appearance at Cooper’s Kennel on 12th. Little Egret, Short-eared Owl and 110 Fieldfares were highlights at nearby Longhirst Flashes the same day.
By 16th a Chiffchaff was singing in the wood by the garden and a White Wagtail was at Bothal Pond.
Despite lots of effort in the second half of the month there was little reward, a few more Chiffs including one singing in the Harthope Valley on 27th, a female Great Spotted Woodpecker at Woodhorn and two Mandarin that I mini-twitched at Mitford were the highlights.
Fresh start, clean slate, new lists, optimism, despite working for my 13th consecutive New Year’s Day, all of the aforementioned are bouncing around my head from the moment dawn breaks. There’s never much actual birding on 1st for me, whatever scraps I happen to notice during periodic glances out the office window and the last hour of light once the work is done for the day. This year’s New Year’s Day highlight was a Scaup at Bothal Pond in the heady rush of late afternoon cold air.
At Longhirst as the dawn broke the following morning, my breath hanging in the air and fogging up the bins as a Short-eared Owl quartered in the distance, 39 Fieldfares on the ground and a covey of Grey Partridges cackling at me as they glided over the field hedges to put safe distance between us.
Later that afternoon Ella and I cycled to Bothal Pond on news of the returning Spotted Redshank for a ‘low carbon’ kickstart to the year and a distant grainy image.
A January seawatch on the morning of 5th was typical for the time of year, 2 Pale-bellied Brent Geese moving north, 3 adult Gannets, 3 Mediterranean Gulls and a single Purple Sandpiper the best of it. Further up the beach AP had found a Water Pipit hanging about just south of Beacon Point, it was mobile but afforded decent views and an opportunity to catch up with one or two locals.
Home via Castle Island added Little Egret and the wintering juvenile Spoonbill to the new year list.
A day later (6th) I picked off another two of the hangers-on in my 10km area, the Hawfinch at Abbey Mills and for the second year a wintering Whimbrel in the damp field west of Boca Chica, Cambois. Judging by the map of UK wintering Whimbrel (see below) this year between 1 Jan and 18 Feb this might be the most northerly individual in the UK and the only bird on the East Coast.
The River Wansbeck has a long wooded stretch between Morpeth and Bothal and is never overly busy on winter weekdays. Walking the full section on the 7th with Bubo for company produced an expected bag of birds, Dipper, Grey Wagtail and two drake Goosanders on the river and clinging on in the woodland a Marsh Tit. Probably the most unexpected species was a Eurasian Wigeon on the river, not a bird I associate with this kind of riparian habitat.
Later on 7th I headed up to Widdrington Moor Lake and returned via Ellington Wind Farm, Slavonian Grebe and Marsh Harrier the highlights at WML and the wintering Hooded Crow on show at the wind farm.
The rest of the month was quiet local birding all withink 10km of home, in part driven by my daughter isolating with Covid, though I doubt I’d have gone much further even if free to do so. A Kingfisher from a cycle around Morpeth, a decent flock of 27 Meadow Pipits in the Longhirst Flash area and a Peregrine at Castle Island kept things ticking over. The Spotted Redshank was sporadically at Bothal, a Mediterranean Gull during a walk in the Woodhorn Church area on 28th and a couple of small Pied Wagtail groups in two areas away from the coast.
Evening has fallen The swans are singing The last of Sundays bells is ringing The wind in the trees is sighing And old england is dying
Possibly the month I like least in any year, too much to do, not enough daylight to do it in, too many competing needs from too many people and too much darkness (metaphorically and literally).
An afternoon around several local sites on the 1st threw up little of note, around 1,000 Pink-feet in the Longhirst Flash area, an adult Mediterranean Gull on the shallow water of the Hospital Pool at Woodhorn and 5 Fieldfares in the Bothal Pond paddocks as much as I could squeeze from the gloom.
The following day a single Willow Tit was around the garden and joined by a male Siskin as well as a snow white male Pheasant, one of several releases in the fields to the north provided the only white stuff in the month.
Fast forward to 7th and I was pleased to find a 1st-winter male Black Redstart at the mouth of the Wansbeck Estuary, then, further upriver, a Spotted Redshank at Castle Island, presumably the same individual that wintered between here and Bothal Pond in 2020 returning. Scaup and Spoonbill were also present at Castle Island, the latter around for some days prior but the first ever December record for Northumberland I believe.
A Pale-bellied Brent Goose on the field west of Woodhorn Church Pool on 8th was the bird of the day. The following day a walk around Far Letch NR offered a flock of 40+ Yellowhammers and a third Grey Partridge covey in as many days (10, 10 and 8) locally. Friday 10th I made a brief visit to Widdrington Moor Lake and saw the returning redhead Smew, Red-necked Grebe and Great Northern Diver.
The Spoonbill remained at Castle Island throughout December and was there on 13th when i counted 263 Teal on the now tidal river following the NCC/Environment Agency decision to attempt to de-silt the river by opening the weir throughout the 2021/22 winter. I can’t see the plan working but it has demonstrated the habitat lost as a result of the weir installation. By 27th the Teal numbered 602 and 213 Mallard were also present.
Treecreeper and 5 Lesser Redpolls were garden highlights on 15th, the former one of only 5 garden records to date, most since the trees have matured. Two days later another Treecreeper surprised me as it was high up in Harwood Forest with a big mixed tit/crest flock. Mild winter weather resulting in many more birds in that area than I would have typically expected on a mid-December day. Other species that day included 2 Stonechats, 50 Chaffinches and 11 Crossbills including a couple of singing birds.
The Spotted Redshank appeared at Bothal Pond on 20th and a Short-eared Owl was near Abyssinian Pond later that day.
Tuesday 21st brought the bird of the month in the form of a drake Surf Scoter off Cambois. Tracked from Whitburn past St Mary’s Island then lost, it was a good relocation by Steve Taylor off the Cambois outfall pipe.
Post-Christmas was even quieter with 13 Gadwall on the Wansbeck Estuary, a Merlin doing it’s thing atop a hedge by Ellington Wind Farm and a 1st-winter Mediterranean Gull in the regular paddocks at Blue Sky Stables, Linton.
A final visit to Bothal Pond on New Year’s Eve ably demonstrated that any year-long birding list is a full year long when a chocolate brown Marsh Harrier spent several minutes over the west end scaring the living daylights out of the assembled ranks of Teal to become the 133rd bird species I saw in 2021 within a 5km circle from home.
November is not the month to put your feet up and relax, whilst the onset of darker nights makes it more difficult to squeeze in birding opportunities it’s most definitely worth making the effort.
Newbiggin on a bright shiny Monday morning on the first day of a bright shiny new month found me full of optimism. After a couple of hours around the Mound and Ash Lagoons with a Treecreeper as the highlight and not a sniff of any real migrants aside from some light Skylark movement south my optimism levels were a little lower.
A BirdGuides ‘ping’ rescued a quiet morning with news of a Wilson’s Phalarope at Newham Flash some 55km to the north, a species I’ve not seen in Northumberland previously. Within the hour I slid the car behind two others just before the bend and drop down the small hill to Newham and was watching a frantically spinning phalarope on this small farm pond. In the event it remained in place for several days and performed very well.
On 2nd a female Mandarin was a nice surprise at Bothal Pond and was the 131st species seen within a 5km circle of home in 2021. Gadwall numbers reached 57 there that same day. The following day whilst sheltering from a particularly heavy shower 33 Whooper Swans flew south over Newbiggin’s south bay, 10 Mediterranean Gulls were scattered around the beach and a single Red-throated Diver slipped quietly into the waters of the sheltered bay.
Recent years and mild winters have seen Stonechats increasingly winter away from the coast in suitable habitat. Two at Longhirst Flash and a third beside a hedge at West Chevington Hill on 3rd will no doubt be about as long as the weather stays mild. Time in the field on 3rd ended with two Little Gulls and 11 Mediterranean Gulls feeding in the high tide surf melee at Snab Point.
A five hour seawatch from Newbiggin Point didn’t produce any fireworks on 5th but 5 Great Northern Divers, 3 Velvet Scoters, 4 Little Gulls and 5 Puffins over the period ensured there was always something of interest. 14 Siskins moving north were a small part of a much larger movement along the East Coast over this period. The suspicion is that these birds make a short sea crossing from Netherlands/Belgium then track back north to winter in the northern forests.
Early into the second week of the month I spent some time in the scrubby horse paddocks and hedges inland of Lynemouth Power Station, a single Willow Tit was the highlight. 41 Mediterranean Gulls roosted on rocks just north of Spital Point that morning. Later in the day Barn Owls were noted at Cresswell Pond and along the Morpeth Northern Bypass.
Argentatus Herring Gulls of various shades were prominent in the month and included a 1st-winter pale varient with milky way brown primaries with white tips and a white-headed individual with incredibly pale greater coverts and tertials.
Leading a guided walk along the Wansbeck on 11th produced a single Greater Scaup, 3 Little Egrets, a Black-tailed Godwit and a Kingfisher as well as reasonable views of three cavorting Otters.
I headed to Cambois on 16th, highlights included 5 Whooper Swans south along the beach, a Woodcock arriving in off the sea and a male Blackcap in the beachside plantations. On 19th a Great Northern Diver was to the southof Spital Point and a single Little Auk, 3 Puffins and a distant but obvious biscuit-coloured juvenile Glaucous Gull were noted from Beacon Point; the latter in a swarm of large gulls around an active fishing boat.
Walking with the dog (Bubo) features in my daily routine and offers hyper-local birding opportunities, a Fieldfare was feeding in arable two fields north of the house on 24th and later that same day a Marsh Harrier flew west over West Stobswood Pools whilst i perused a Pink-foot flock. Widdrington Moor Lake is developing into a fine site and a visit on 24th produced Red-necked Grebe, Great Northern Diver, Slavonian Grebe and a Little Egret. Chibburn Links added another Great Northern Diver and three more Puffins for the month both species having an exceptional November locally.
On 28th I was keen to try out a newly acquired scope so dropped down to Newbiggin Point for a brief seawatch in the morning, a single Red-necked Grebe was the highlight, 2 more Puffins , 4 Mediterranean Gulls and a couple of Gannets the also-rans. Back the following day for a Velvet Scoter/Long-tailed Duck combo with another 8 Puffins noted. The Linton Hooded Crow back for another winter ended the month on 29th.
It was easy to tell it was October as the grumbling of many birders became louder as days of west/south-west winds offered little quality (at least on the mainland). Despite the apparent poor state of affairs I’m not going to complain, I continue to do most of my birding within a few clicks of the front door and take what comes.
The first few days of the month must have been busy as the first bird I recorded was a garden Chiffchaff six days into the month. A visit to Widdrington Moor Lake on 7th produced 4 Marsh Harriers (1 male and 3 cream-crowned individuals) causing mayhem on the north side. Later that morning whilst failing to catch up with Mark Eaton’s fabulous drake Surf Scoter at Birling Carrs over 330 Pink-footed Geese I noted in skeins up to 100 strong, their approaching calls drifting on the wind as they ‘winked’ their way south.
Having spent the next night in Sedgefield I had a short early morning walk at nearby Hurworth Burn Reservoir and discovered that there was a feral goose conference in progress with some 1200 Greylags, 200 Canada Geese and 100 wild Pink-feet just for good measure, frightening!
Another Great Shearwater was noted moving north at Whitburn on the morning of 12th around 08:25. With the school run to do I opted for a safe option of going to Snab Point where I could literally fall out the car and avoid the ignomony of arriving puffing and panting at Newbiggin to be told “You’ve missed it by three minutes” which has happened before. As it happens this particular individual was apparently in no particular hurry and ambled past Snab at mid-distance at 11:12. An uneventful post-shearwater romp around the Moor at Newbiggin through up a Willow Tit (two more were in my garden the following day).
A brief post-work snatched visit to Bothal Pond on 18th produced a count of 45 Gadwall. The following morning two Mediterranean Gulls (adult and 1st-winter) were in the paddocks at Blue Sky Stables. Another adult was offshore at Newbiggin where a Ring Ouzel was the highlight of an otherwise quiet circuit. Several Bramblings were also in evidence including one sat on the rocks off the beach looking, well, knackered.
Another short visit to Bothal Pond on 21st through up a good candidate for monedula race Jackdaw in the horse paddocks. Recent years have highlighted that some British race spermologus clearly can and do show collars after wear but by mid-October Jackdaws should be in fairly freshly moulted plumage as they moult end June to September and so in theory should not be worn, add to that the fairly extensive collar on this one and it may well have been a migrant. Not seen since.
Two hours seawatching on 22nd yielded a decent return, a White-billed Diver flew north, two Great Northern Divers moved past, six Whooper Swans flew south plus a single LittleGull and two Mediterranean Gulls were seen.
Again over night in Sedgefield on 23rd I headed back home the following day via Hartlepool Headland where I caught up with the Arctic Warbler that was on a bit of an extended stay in the square in front of the council offices. This mini-twitch was only slightly marred by the woman loudly and frequently asking “Bob” if he could see the bird, I left uncertain as to whether Bob was hard of hearing (like myself) or just blissfully unaware of the loud repetitive calls to his rear as he gazed at the magnificience of the phyllosc in the squircle and contemplated it’s journey that had reached it’s presumed end in Hartlepool.
A period that saw my youngest start his sixth full season at the NUFC Academy and a post-covid resumption of full training schedule and games programme. Inevitably when combined with work and life birding once again became a little sporadic over the late summer/early Autumn.
A short trip to Aberlady Bay with the kids early in August was relaxing with (too much) good food. Odd moments of snatched birding produced a few Little Egrets and a reeling Grasshopper Warbler. Enjoyment came from warm evening walks filled with House Martins and Wall butterflies, the latter apparently on the increase along the East Lothian coast I later read. Lazy afternoons found us on the North Berwick beaches and rock pools with the odd Gannet and Shag passing the Bass Rock vista as we explored.
It was 20 days into August before I managed some sea-watching though a juvenile Long-tailed Skua south off Newbiggin Point went some way to compensate for the lack of activity in previous days. An adult Little Gull and a northbound Sooty Shearwater added further interest. Later that day Castle Island produced a decent count of 19 Little Egrets my highest ever count in Northumberland (others have had larger counts at Lindisfarne NNR), two Red Knot and six Ruff were the pick of the waders and two Mediterranean Gulls, always welcome here as relief from the 120 strong Great Black-backed Gull flock.
Back to Newbiggin on 26th a Black Tern and 10 Sooty Shearwaters were the best from three hours of gazing east. Another two and half hours on 2nd September produced a single Balearic Shearwater and two Sooty Shearwaters.
On 5th I travelled to an away game for the kid at Burnley so I used the journey to drop in to Swinsty Reservoir, North Yorkshire and Foulridge Reservoir, Lancashire during the journey down. Two Red Kites at the former and a single Ruff at the latter was scant reward for the effort.
Sunday 12th I took my daughter and a friend to Amble for the afternoon, I left the girls to enjoy some shopping and ice cream and had a short wander along the Coquet Estuary. Scanning through the regular low tide gull roost I managed to pick out Amble’s regular adult yellow-ringed (PKCS) Caspian Gull whilst further up river a colour-ringed Common Gull was above the weir. This individual turned out to be from Loppa, Finnmark, the first recovery of 88 ringed indivduals from that site. Seven years old this individual had managed a cool 2000km post-breeding journey to the Coquet, pretty impressive in my book.
Mid-September saw me off on a trip with my partner in a VW campervan around the Scottish coast loosely following the NC500 route. Not ostensibly a birding trip I did my best to pick out any quality from stops along the way. A 2nd-winter Iceland Gull on the river at Thurso was probably as good as it got (I toyed with thoughts of Kumlien’s Gull but the lack of tail band, at least some dark inner primaries and the shade of the emerging mantle all point to glaucoides to me) though an early morning Merlin making a low pass at the local Linnet flock at Murkle in the crisp northern air livened up the morning coffee and several Black-throated Divers still in summer plumage from high above Gruinard Bay on the southbound journey in the afternoon sun are always evocative.
Back to basics by 20th a Northern Wheatear at Bothal Pond was probably my last at an inland site in 2021. The following day an adult Avocet was among the Lapwings in the north-east corner and again almost certainly the last I’ll see inland this year. A Northern Pintail was also a decent duck for the local pond.
Two days later at Castle Island a drake Scaup lurked in the Tufted Duck flock and a swarthy juvenile Common Goldeneye was the first of winter and along with 167 Eurasian Teal a reminder that time marches on.
A good couple of hours around Newbiggin Moor on 25th brought little by way of rarity, 2 Northern Wheatears hung around the golf course boundary and 235 Pink-footed Geese made their way noisily south. Best bird was a hybrid Hooded x Carrion Crow; presumably not a first generation hybrid as it just has the ghost of the Hooded plumage pattern which despite me fluffing the images can still be seen.
A short stop to check field-feeding gulls near Longhirst Flash through up (another) adult Mediterranean Gull increasingly a regular sight in any local gull flock.
Back to Newbiggin on 28th three Northern Wheatears were the passerine highlight whilst a search through the thousand strong Golden Plover flock had me briefly excited with the bird below, which whilst head-tucked and half-hidden had me hoping for an American but turned out to be a pale European when it eventually revealed itself.
Later that day I called into the Hospital Pool, now partially drained due to the ongoing building work I suspect that 2021 will see it’s final demise and it won’t see another Spring. Disappointing as the Med Gulls have taken a bit of a liking to it since late summer.
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.