And so we arrive at 2016 and what better way to kick off the New Year than with the thrills and spills of a bird race. Setting out on New Year’s Day, myself, Sacha and Ian had one goal, to see as many species of bird as possible in Northumberland over the course of a single day. Truthfully, we probably didn’t catch up with as many species as we should have, our grand total of 88 is in fact actually pretty poor by county bird race standards. Still, with great company, steady weather and more importantly great birds you will not catch me complaining. New Year’s Day 2016 was all in all a thoroughly enjoyable affair as you will soon see.
Starting off at Fenham-le-Moor and we found ourselves hard-pushed to find many species. The tide was in, the light was poor and the birds it seems had chosen to holiday elsewhere. Still, 200 Brent Geese loafed around on the water alongside a good count of 100 Shelduck and both Curlew and Redshank gave a breif fly-by. Aside from these however only a few common gull species and a Pied Wagtail were noted from the hide. Heading back to the car, 4 Tree Sparrows in the hedge were a welcome surprise, comprising a species that proved unusually scarce during the rest of the trip.
Next we decided to take a trip inland with the aim of unearthing some Red Grouse and just possibly, some longed for raptors at Wooler. We soon gave up on this idea however unwilling to sacrifice precious time in order to gain one, maybe two species at most. This said, our route inland did provide a number of new species. Both Buzzard and Kestrel were noted by the roadside, as was a Pheasant and more interestingly, 4 Red-Legged Partridge, a species I routinely struggle to see in the county each year. Also here, a decent sized flock of Fieldfare fed in a nearby field in the company of a single Mistle Thrush and c300 Common Gulls passed overhead on route to their feeding grounds. Definitely a productive little jaunt.
Back to the coast now and a half our stop at Budle Bay where a pair of Little Egret could be seen stalking the flats. Waders too performed admirably with 200+ Golden Plover in evidence alongside smaller numbers of Lapwing & Dunlin. Both Goldeneye and Red-Breasted Merganser were likewise new for the day here though aside from these, only Collared Dove, Greylag Goose and a distant skein of Pink-Footed Geese were noted and attentions inevitably drifted to the prospect of bigger and better things.
We next decided to swing by the famed Stag Rock in order to partake in a brief spot of seawatching. This proved to be one of our better ideas as a host of cracking maritime species were promptly added to our list, the most exciting of which was certainly a lone Little Auk bobbing around relatively close to shore. Also here a pair of Shag fed behind the breakers in the company of a few Cormorant and at least 10 Fulmar passed by heading south. Following the auk, the next thrill came in the form of 12 Long-Tailed Duck mixed in with a flock of Common Scoter, among them some superb drakes. Eider too were noted in good numbers while the shoreline held Turnstone and Purple Sandpiper though the only other species of note was a distant Great Crested Grebe on the sea. Departing the site a Stonechat was sighted briefly by the roadside. No Slavonian Grebes or Velvet Scoter for the day list but with a Little Auk on show this was of little consequence.
Another coastal stop next and a brief stint on the picturesque cliffs of Howick, this provided a trio of ticks with Guillemot, Red-Throated Diver and a scattering of Kittiwake on feeding on the sea alongside a scattering of Common and Black-Headed Gull. Another Little Auk was picked up here, this time by Sacha but this only received a passing glance as we dashed back towards the car and set off for our next stop. Further down the coast the river at Lesbury failed to produce the hoped for Dippers (or Kingfishers for that matter) but did yield a pair of Moorhen while 2 Stock Dove were picked out amid a large flock of Woodpigeon flying overhead. Another hit or miss species based on my rather limited bird race experience. Passing through Warkworth on route to our next major stop, 40+ Whooper Swans and a lone Mute Swan fed in the roadside fields.
Arriving at Druridge Pools just after miday we were pleased to hear that at least one of the long-staying Water Pipits had been showing well only a little earlier. Truth be told, we probably spent longer that we should waiting for the bird to emerge from rushes on the budge fields but as a lifer for all three of us this was a species we really could not afford to miss. Sure enough, after a little patience the Pipit did emerge and for a good ten minutes showed immaculately mere meters from the screen. Hurrah! Also on the Budge Fields a pair of drake Pintail were new for the day, as were a number of Shoveler picked out from amid the the mass of dabbling Teal, Wigeon and Mallard. Briefly dropping in for a scan of the “big pool” we were delighted to catch up with the drake Scaup while Pochard and Tufted Duck concluded the sites wildfowl offerings.
Departing Druridge things began to go rapidly downhill. First we failed to nab Little Owl and then dipped the Iceland Gull that had been sighted at QEII park moments before our arrival. The addition of Reed Bunting here was most welcome but failed to balm the wound inflicted with the departure of the gull. Again ill luck prevailed at Cresswell with the long-staying Long-Billed Dowitcher disappearing earlier in the day and the lagoon devoid of everything except a few well disguised Snipe. We did however manage three ticks at nearby Hemscott Hill with Twite, Skylark and Grey Partridge notched within a few minutes of each other. Following this, a quick stop at Newbiggin provided a few Mediterranean Gull among the local flock of Black’eds while the Great Northern Diver remained in evidence on my former local patch at Widdrington. A most welcome addition to the days tally, our luck had changed once again it seems..
Just when things appeared back on track, our next stop at Stobswood failed to produce any of the hoped for woodland species. Indeed both Willow and Marsh Tit remained absent as did many much more conspicuous species such as Nuthatch, Jay and Treecreeper. Coal Tit was the only new addition here and as the light faded and the bad weather set in we soon set off for our final stop, East Chevington. Alas our run of bad luck continued here however as we promptly dipped Slavonian Grebe, Marsh Harrier and Short-Eared Owl, rewarded only with the additions of Linnet and Little Grebe. You cannot have it all I suppose!
Despite our reasonably low species count, the species that we did see during our rapid trip through Northumberland were more than enough to keep us entertaining during the course of the day. With species such as Little Auk, Great Northern Diver, Water Pipit and Long-Tailed Duck on offer our time in the field was far from dull and when combined with the pleasant company made New Year’s Day 2016 a rather memorable one. Hear’s to another bird-filled year, and perhaps another bird race in 2017!