Saturday was a rather good day in truth – marking only my second attempt at the Northumberland winter bird race following a kind invite from Jack Bucknall. The day went well: Jack, myself, Dan and Michael racing about from dawn to dusk, between popular birding sites and seldom-visited locations, as we attempted to lay eyes on enough species to win the race. Which we did; securing a narrow victory with a grand total of 120 species. An impressive haul by local (and personal) standards. Taking part in the race, once again, was a pleasure – thank you to the organiser – though the highlight of the day was undoubtedly the birds. With a touch of luck leading to some surprise encounters, all of which, together, made for a rather interesting day out. This post will serve as a brief write-up of the proceedings.
By the time I was picked up just after 5.00am, the rest of the team had already been busy – adding Tawny Owl, Water Rail and other species indicative of the early hours before reaching my home in Bedlington. The journey outwards from there, inland, adding Barn Owl – two of which had handily positioned themselves in a roadside Ash – and later, Red Grouse, Woodcock, Pheasant and another Tawny Owl, the latter calling incessantly from a nearby stand of woodland. Our journey from here, taking us to the coast prior to dawn – to Fenham Flats, where in the company of a few other bird race teams, we enjoyed a smorgasbord of ticks. Some of which – species such as Pintail, Little Egret, Brent Goose and Knot – where to be expected, while others, including Yellowhammer, Whooper Swan, Skylark, Grey Plover and Black-Tailed Godwit came down more to luck.
After a few more additions to the list at Fenham, Bar-Tailed Godwit, Tree Sparrow, Eider and the like, we set off for Budle Bay. Nabbing White-Fronted and Barnacle Goose upon arrival – having already had Pink-Footed and Greylag from the car – and later, Sparrowhawk (seen by all but me). The latter somewhat of a tricky species during such events, forever difficult to anticipate. The bay held the usual characters: with new birds including Shoveler, Goldeneye, Grey Heron, Lapwing and Kestrel, seen in the company of yet more Brents, godwits and Knot. The highlight here, almost certainly, coming in the form of the long-staying Spotted Redshank. Which gave good views near the road amid a flock of its more numerous cousins. The nearby fields and hedges here also yielding Mistle Thrush, Blue Tit and Bullfinch.
From Budle, we set out next for Stag Rock – for what was, in retrospect, possibly the most enjoyable half-hour of the day. The shoreline here adding Purple Sandpiper and Sanderling to the mix and the nearby fields and dunes Linnet, Stonechat and Grey Partridge. The sea too, as ever, coming up trumps with no end of sought after bird race species. The others picking out a group of Velvet Scoter soon after our arrival (which, again, I missed) and all enjoying a plethora of additional maritime goodies. Among them: Long-Tailed Duck, Red-Throated Diver, Guillemot, Razorbill, Fulmar, Slavonian Grebe and Common Scoter. With a Great Northern Diver coming as a pleasant surprise and Red-Breasted Merganser and Shag likewise new for the day. Our visit concluding with the addition of Reed Bunting.
From Stag, a speedy drive South ensued. One rife with brief pit stops that saw the addition of Fieldfare, Stock Dove, Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe, Buzzard and the common pipit species. One of these short ventures culminating in an overwintering Chiffchaff – not a particularly common sight up here. Though, on this occasion, the warbler found itself outshone entirely as a large, white-winged gull caught my attention from the backseat as it flew, briefly, parallel to the car. A tentative that was a bit pale from me resulting in what can only be described as an emergency stop before Michael confirmed the sight of a Glaucous Gull. Which proceeded to give good views for a few moments before we dashed off once again, finally adding Ringed Plover on route with a bonus of Snipe.
Things quieted down considerably for a while following this, the only new additions for a half-hour or so coming in the form of Siskin, Gadwall and Coal tit. Though things improved markedly upon our arrival at East Chevington, where despite missing the wintering Shorelarks and the ever-present Hen Harrier, the other members of the team caught sight of a Bittern and we all enjoyed views of Scaup. Our next stop, further afield, adding Canada Goose and a pleasant surprise in the form of two drake Pochard – a species easily seen across most of England yet altogether difficult in Northumberland, at times. Testament to the worrying decline of the species in general, I think. The red-headed ones followed, in turn, by Twite, Bean Goose andMediterraneann Gull at a number of other stops and, eventually, the addition of Great Spotted Woodpecker and Dipper.
The next notable species came closer to home; on my local patch at Blyth – where, earlier, news an Iceland Gull had broken. Sure enough, almost as soon as we arrived the gull dropped into sight, admired momentarily before we set off once again to the coast. A failed attempt at the Cullercoats Black Redstart resulting in the welcome sight of both Kingfisher and Grey Wagtail feeding a short-distance from the walk-way. The day concluding, as the light dwindled, with a failed attempt at another owl species, but the addition of Goosander and Redwing in its place. Equally as exciting in a race where numbers are everything and rarity and appeal of little consequence. Though I would have preferred the owl…
All in all, and victory aside, race day was an enjoyable affair. The above post going without mention of the other species seen or heard during the course of our travels – Golden Plover, Gannet, Lesser Black-Backed Gull etc. It could have gone better, had species such as Nuthatch, Brambling and Jay played ball but, ultimately, represented a day I will not forget in a hurry. Reminding me just why I love my home county, its wildlife, and the vibrant and knowledgeable birding community Northumberland holds.
The team (minus myself) – photo borrowed/pinched from Tom Cadwallender.