Late September and October 2020

The evening of 27 September felt like a good time to take a brief look around the Woodhorn Church Field and Hedge. Earlier in the year the builders from a small site opposite had dumped a fair amount of spoil at the north end presumably to reduce the flooding that occurs through winter. It was on the now weedy-fringed spoil that the best birds of that evening were found 3 Grey Wagtails. Passage Grey Wagtails are regular at Newbiggin with a small number of individuals seen annually but almost always single birds. This is probably the first time I’ve had more than one on the patch. In the event the rest of the visit was below par with 4 European Stonechats and 3 Common Chiffchaffs all that I could find.The following day the semi-regular Ash Lagoon walk produced an overflying adult Mediterranean Gull a Grey Heron roosting on the bank, one of the now regular Willow Tit and a brief Short-eared Owl.

Over the next few days further visits provided Yellow-browed Warbler along the edge of one of the East Lea Plantations and a Jack Snipe out of the west end of the central ditch. On the morning of 8th I was at the south end in the Spital area when Dave Elliott bumped into a Barred Warbler at the south end of the Ash Lagoons. Luckily Alan Priest was just leaving as I arrived so there was no need for much searching. Reasonably showy in the bright morning sunshine it muscled its way through a small stand of tall Whitebeam before crashing around a Hawthorn and some bramble. A relatively unmarked individual that I think must either be a 2cy or adult due to the pale yellow iris, grey-toned mantle and white rather than buffy tertial edges. The relatively unmarked flanks and undertail coverts suggest a female.

Barred Warbler, Newbggin-by-the-Sea

Later the same day I took advantage of the fine Autumunal sunshine and hoping for some raptor movement headed up to my Lockdown Migration Watchpoint on Pegswood Pit Top. A pleaseant afternoon with 3 Common Buzzards and 4 Common Kestrels noted though all were local birds I suspect. A late Barn Swallow and small distant flocks of c 30 Pink-footed Geese and c 50 Golden Plovers rounded off the day.

It’s been such a difficult year for any travel so I was pleased to have a weekend away in Scotland to the Rosneath Peninsula in Clyde mid-month. More a couple of days of walking and re-charging batteries there was the occasional bird of note including a Little Egret, much scarcer in that area than it is in anywhere in England these days, also a nice close Red-throated Diver and a couple of Carrion Crow x Hooded Crow hybrids which are always of interest as they are uncommon back home.

The highlight of the weekend was stumbling on two of the Northern Bottlenose Whales that have been in the area for some weeks at Arrochar on the Sunday morning. An amazing sight seeing these animals in such shallow water but tinged with sadness at the knowledge that their fate is probably to perish.

A return to Newbiggin on 20th provided several glimpses of a small looking sylvia sp. at the extreme northern end of the golf course. Constantly on the move, rarely in the open this pale sandy-mantled individual with white outer tail defied any attempt at images or conclusive identification. Over the next two days several other birders have glimpsed it, possibly a female subalpine warbler sp. but no one has managed to nail it. Frustrating that time wasn’t available to fully do it justice as it may, just may, have proved to be a new bird for the Newbiggin List.

Sunday 25th at the third attempt I finally caught up with Newbiggin’s fourth Hoopoe that’s lingered for several days in the power station compound. To be honest I might have gone home empty-handed again but for Mark Whittingham frantically waving from atop a spoil heap as I lazily chatted to Geordie exile Brad Robson over for the last couple of weeks from his normal Irish haunts. The Hoopoe has stayed longer than might be expected, presumably having made the fatal error of mistaking the bleak coal-blackened Lynemouth peninsula for a volcanic Mediterranean landscape.

The month appears to be ending in several grey days, six Tundra Bean Geese locally found by Andy Mclevy have lingered for three days and the Linton Hooded Crow has returned for it’s third consecutive winter. A brief late morning visit to look for gulls at Linton on 29th produced a decent count of Gadwall at the site, perhaps my largest ever flock at 93 strong in grey conditions.

Common Gull in the rain at Linton Lane NR

The Pit Top

One of the personal highlights of 2020 for me has been the realisation that the partially wooded hill that sits on the east side of my home village has some real potential when it comes to visible migration. Early on in the lockdown when there was a fair amount of social media chatter as birders rediscovered their hyper-local home Mike Carr made a comment about the potential of the reclaimed pit top. It’s not somewhere I’m unaware of and I have put in the occasional half hour from there when I haven’t fancied anything further afield. Has to be said I’ve never really had too much, a yaffling Green Woodpecker nearly two decades ago and never since, a few Common Buzzards and Sparrowhawk but no real passage of note. However it has decent vistas east and west, a view of one corner of Bothal Pond and a couple of seasonal flashes to the East.

Early morning March 28th saw my first morning hour from 07:00-08:00. A single Greylag Goose flew over noisily as I reached the top of the short incline and then two Mistle Thrushes lifted from the wood on the north side. Looking east three Mute Swans swept past on the south side heading west, they were followed at intervals by a further seven (3 and 4) moving North over Ashington. Having seen the Greater Scaup at Bothal Pond fairly frequently I knew where it likes to haul out, the short spit on the east side, and this luckily is visible from the pit top, as was the preening Scaup this morning alongside two Tufted Ducks for size comparison.
Things got a bit mad after that, scoping the edges of the seasonal flashes hoping for the Longhirst Green Sandpiper and two Avocets suddenly appear from behind a hedge obscuring part of the flash. I’ve had them nearby on other flashes previously as they move through to breeding locations but I was well chuffed to see them on my first big lockdown watch! Further along the same field a couple of courting Stock Doves were another new addition. In terms of moving birds, a couple of the Common Buzzards this morning were actively moving north and a pair of Grey Wagtails wanged through on the east side as well. All in all with 25 species recorded I was reasonably satisified with how things started.

During April I put in several hours viewing from the hill and had a couple of notable reports as reward. On the evening of the 6th, two reports of Osprey moving north, one at Big Waters/Blagdon and another at Tynemouth prompted me to hurriedly dash to the Pit Top hoping to connect with one. Just before 19:00 I noticed a bird approaching from the south-east over the west end of Ashington mobbed by corvids and sure enough an Osprey tracked north-west, turning slightly and veering just above tree-top height over Longhirst Flash.

Fast-forward to evening of 16th and around a similar time a little to west over Bothal Pond up pops a Common Crane again attracting attention from local gulls and crows before almost flying over my head on the pit top and off north. Other decent records during this period involved female Marsh Harrier and distant galaxy views of two Red Kites that hung around north-west of Morpeth during the late Spring.

Summer came and went and it was 24th September, whilst working around mid-morning I noticed a couple of flight-only Great Egret reports from Cleveland but didn’t think too much about them. At 10:48 up popped a post (from John Harrison) in the local Whatsapp of a northbound Great Egret east of the Rising Sun CP on North Tyneside. Remembering the successes in the Spring I wondered if this Egret was on a bit of a journey. Was it the same individual seen in Cleveland earlier on a big northward movement and could I connect.

I decided to gamble, threw the laptop in the bag and yomped up the damp pit top to the ‘viewpoint’ and set up the scope before resuming work and periodically scanning across to the east. Sure enough after around 10 minutes an egret appeared fairly low about 40m up over central Ashington, moving steadily north. Scope on it and bingo it was the big white one, it chuntered on passing directly over Ashington High Street, skirted the Jackie Milburn statue and continued on just to to the west side of Queen Elizabeth II CP, then through the Lynemouth Wind Farm and off north. 

I have now made eight visits over the last seven months and seen 52 species so far, I’m convinced that more effort will provide greater rewards so the Pit Top is going to become a more regular feature in my local birding moving forward.

Tundra Ringed Plovers

Late Spring in Northumberland often sees movements of Arctic-breeding waders making a rapid leap beyond the local birds that have already settled into the breeding cycle to areas far to the north that will have retained their snow until much later in the year. Ringed Plovers are one such wader and the birds moving through in late May are a different race tundrae. Smaller and darker plumaged they often appear in good numbers and with a little care are separable from local hiaticula birds.

23 May 2014 I found and photographed a small flock of Ringed Plovers at Lynemouth Flash, Northumberland. A number of the flock were identifiable as tundrae. Tundra Ringed Plvers moult into breeding plumage in Feb/March so consequently have less wear/fresher plumage in late Spring than the local breeders who are only a month or so away from primary moult.

Tundra Ringed Plover male
Tundra Ringed Plover, female (note difference in browner crown feathers, less distinct head pattern)