Another year and another early start for yet another fine Northumberland Bird Race. Our team total of 106 species observed during the event, despite being very much down from the dizzy heights of 120 achieved last year, proving enough to secure victory for the second year running. Despite some stiff competition from some of the greats in county birding. As always, the Winter bird race found us visiting some of the most iconic and enjoyable spots to be found within Northumberland and, regardless of the less than ideal weather, ensured that a good day was had by all involved; the annual pub trip afterwards to providing a fantastic opportunity to catch up with familiar faces and mull over the days proceedings. Below you will find a very much condensed summary of the day’s events.
After opening the day with Red Grouse while darkness still loitered in the sky, daybreak found us at Fenham Flats where a high-tide at first appeared to scupper our chances of nabbing any of the target waders usually present at the site. Whooper Swan and Brent Goose were observed early; while after quite a bit of work, the site’s Pintail finally gave themselves up. Strolling onto our fledgeling list alongside more familiar odds and ends – Wigeon, four species of Gull, Shelduck, Turnstone – and a surprise Peregrine which delighted as it passed briefly outside the hide. The creme de la creme here coming in the form of a single Little Stint who, rather conveniently, dropped in just as we looked set to depart. The first time I have seen this species in Winter, no less. Departing Fenham, a covey of Grey Partridge provided a sought-after addition to the days tally and a Buzzard was promptly knabbed from the car on route elsewhere.
After a brief pitstop at Budle Bay which saw us add a healthy array of species including Barnacle Goose, Sparrowhawk, Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit, Song Thrush and Siskin, our attention – much like many of the other teams – soon turned to Stag Rocks at Bamburgh. Here, despite the persistent (and frightfully cold) wind, the vantage point came up trumps with a number of crucial bird race scarcities. Among these, a superb drake Velvet Scoter nestled amid a flock of its more common cousins, singles of both Slavonian Grebe and Great Northern Diver, and two Purple Sandpipers on the rocky shore. A number of Long-tailed Ducks were, as ever, nice to see here; while additional odds and ends included Guillemot, Shag, Red-throated Diver and Fulmar. Driving back, Stonechat, Fieldfare, Bullfinch and Tree Sparrow were among the species noted from the relative comfort of the car.
A failed attempt to catch up with the reported White-billed Diver heading North up the coast resulted in a prolonged stint at Boulmer; and while we may not have seen the bird in question, our time here was far from wasted. The exposed shoreline here yielding Grey Plover, Dunlin and Ringed Plover, among other waders, and the sea a number of new seabirds. The best (and most unexpected) of which being a flyby Puffin picked up by all members of the team but me. I was too busy mourning the loss of my iPhone, dropped as we ran towards the shore in an effort to catch up with the non-existent diver.
Following our eventual departure from Boulmer, our stops became more frequent and shorter as we attempted to make up for lost time. A number of outings around Druridge Bay producing Black-tailed Godwit, Shoveler, Twite, Little Egret and yet more Grey Partridge; alongside a healthy selection of more run of the mill species. The best of which, by far, being a pair of Greenfinch – we were seriously doubting whether or not we could catch up with this species given their current, negative status in the county. Alas, we did; while a stop on a former personal stomping ground produced a number of ticks including Gadwall, Snipe and Great Crested Grebe – alongside a surprise Jack Snipe. Easily a contender for bird of the day, in my opinion.
As the day went on, ticks became fewer and further between. Mediterranean Gull was picked up, as ever, at Newbiggin while a foray into the counties wooded interior turned up Marsh Tit, Treecreeper and, eventually, Long-tailed Tit. By dusk, a visit to Prestwick Carr yielded nice views of the wintering Great Grey Shrike, and a final flourish at one particular inland waterbody found us concluding the day nicely with a showy drake Pochard. Not an easy to come by species in the region of late.
Truth be told, I don’t think anyone on our team really expected to win this year. The conditions outside made for rather hard going and, as a team, we failed to pick up many relatively easy species. As did others it would seem; though among our greatest ommissions were Redwing, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Jay, Nuthatch and all five resident owl species.
Credit for the header photograph goes to Tom Cadwallender.