December 2020

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.

Fieldfare, 1st-winter

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.

Merlin, juvenile

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.

Todd’s Canada Goose, Hadston

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.

Wintering Littoralis Rock Pipit

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.

November 2020

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.

Rock Pipit, Beacon Point
Meadow Pipit, Beacon Point

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.

Shore Lark, Newbiggin

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.

Hawfinch, Abbey Meadows

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.

Great Northern Diver (adult winter)

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).

Snow Bunting, female
Snow Bunting, female
Twite, North Blyth
Twite, North Blyth

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.

American Buff-bellied Pipit 18 November

After finishing work late morning, I headed to Newbiggin with Bubo and wandered up the North Beach checking the pipits and wagtails for anything interesting, 8 Rock Pipits, 5 Pied Wagtails and the Grey Wagtail were the sum total. With ominous dark clouds coming from the west I picked my way back to the car and headed home. Part way a call came from Sam V “There’s an American Buff-bellied Pipit at Amble” – somewhat stunned as Sam poured out the details and directed me to the images posted by finder Clive Saunders.

Within 35 minutes I’d parked the dog, abandoned the car and was beginning the search on a decidedly empty beach. A quick glance at Whatsapp for earlier directions to see IF post that he was “watching it” currently, a scan of the beach revealed someone in a red jacket 500m up the beach, the only living soul in sight. I jogged/walked up the beach and sure enough Ian had it pinned down on the sizeable washed up seaweed banks.

American Buff-bellied Pipit, 18 November, Amble Northumberland

Periodically chased by the Rock Pipits that were also feeding nearby it remained largely faithful to this area over the next hour showing well down to 15m albeit, with the low sun having disappeared behind the adjacent cliff,in poor light. Subtle at first it became quite easy to pick out at some distance in flight with the obvious white outer tail and the strident distinctive calls.

A combination of low light and not really paying too much attention to camera settings or results left me a little disappointed when I returned home later with little usable by way of images. As a result I jumped online last night and ordered a Nikon P1000 so look forward to hopefully improving on image quality going forward.

This, when accepted, becomes my 325th bird in Northumberland and one of three new species I’ve managed to see this year despite 2020 being such a difficult year in many ways.

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)