Monday, October 26, 2020

Boulmer Black Redstart.


With the clocks changing last night I met John at Boulmer as the sun rose shortly before 7am. It was cold and annoyingly breezy, still it was bright and fair.

We covered most of the headland before lunch doing the Seaton Point south end first via the road and then up to Longhoughton Steel after breakfast at the car park.

With the wind in the south, it was as quiet as autumn can be. Birders forget in the aftermath of a rush of good birds that our birding is solely based upon the vagaries of the weather. Had this autumn been southerly since August the story would have been very different indeed. We are in for a long 'hangover' from what has been a great season locally.

The female type Black Redstart was seen twice but was very elusive, giving only a short glimpse then off over the roof tops. The village front sea defences are a reliable spot for them in both migration seasons with one wintering last year. I wonder if this is that bird returning?

Black Redstart, then it was gone.

As we walked the road south a few Crossbills were on the move with 4, 3 and 7 all south, along with 5 Redpolls, 5 Siskins and about 20 Skylarks. A Willow Tit called from roadside scrub.

Along at Seaton Point we scanned the ploughed field hoping that the Desert Wheatear might have just been overlooked but there was no sign. We had 63+ Curlew, 41+ Lapwing, 200+ Golden Plover 3 Grey Heron and 2 Mistle Thrush.

Down on the shore were 50+ Dunlin, 44+ Sanderling, 12+ Ringed Plover, 7 Bar tailed Godwits, 3 Grey Plover and 2 Purple Sandpipers while along at Longhoughton Steel there was no sign of the Snow Bunting seen earlier by Ben, probably due to the dog walking masses being out. A very tame juvenile Dark bellied Brent Goose was nice on the rock edge grazing on seaweed.

A couple of Grey Partridge and a ridiculous Speckled Wood a mile from any trees were the only thing of note on the way back.

The sea had a few Gannets and Auks moving north but little else. Hopefully there will be a change in the weather early in November for a final flurry of migration action. We are always greedy for more!

Juvenile Dark bellied Brent Goose, Boulmer.


Tuesday, October 20, 2020

2020 Vintage.

 Since lockdown over the weekend from the 20th March this year, little did we know how the birding would pan out locally. As birders we all hope for big things at the start of the year, some on their local patches, some all over the UK for their British List. 2016 was a classic that we thought may not be beaten for some time, but maybe 2020 has pipped it to the post? It depends on where you go birding I suppose.

Northumberland has had a real cracker of a year, I think, rivalling those top hot spots like Spurn, Gibraltar Point, Flamborough etc for quality.

In my own area, Howick to Boulmer a distance that could easily be walked there and back, it has been the best year I can remember since calling them local patches back in 2005 and in all probability the best year they have ever had. Boulmer and Howick are now places that many birders have visited, some on multiple occasions, when previously it has been somewhere to drive past on the way up the coast. I don't think it will ever be an area that many birders will come to routinely, it is too out of the way and like many patches, 90% of the time has no birds worth the gamble, but they are sites worth remembering now.

Here are the noteworthy species seen since March...

White-billed Diver, Storm and Leach's Petrel, Great Shearwater, White-tailed Eagle, Hen Harrier, Quail, Spoonbills, American and Pacific Golden Plovers, Buff breasted Sandpiper, multiple Long-tailed and Pomarine Skuas, Sabine's Gull, Med Gull, Caspian and Yellow legged Gull, 8 species of Tern inc Sooty Tern and White Winged Black Tern, Black Guillemot, Little Auk, Water Pipit, Bluethroat, Black Redstart, Desert Wheatear, Blyth's Reed Warbler, Wood Warbler, Yellow-browed Warblers, Siberian Chiffchaff, Willow Tit, Golden Oriole, Great Grey Shrike, Hooded Crow, Raven, Mealy Redpoll, Lapland and Snow Buntings.

I can't believe that lot is all within a 3 miles radius of my back door! I may not have seen them all, but I am very pleased with my lot so far.

If you could be bothered to drive another 20 miles you can add Two-barred Greenish, Desert, Barred, Arctic, Pallas's and Dusky Warblers, multiple Red flanked Bluetails, Brown and Lesser Grey Shrikes, Little Buntings, Red breasted Flycatchers, Hoopoe, Short toed Lark etc.   

 As the nights close in and the trees and shrubs take on a skeletal winter appearance, are we done? November can be a decent month if the conditions are right, but if we get nothing else, 2020 will have been a birding year that others in future are measured by. 

Reading this back, I might have to re-post an updated version as a year ending piece... 

Sunday, October 18, 2020

The Autumn that keeps giving...

 I ended last Monday's post wondering if this week with its associated weather forecast would bring anything of interest. Well it did, and here is a longer than usual post covering my three days leave and this weekend. Please bear with me...

Wednesday 14th October...

All over social media birders hopes were high that this week would bring an avalanche of good birds to the East coast. To me, the surface pressure charts didn't seem quite the classic being mooted but it still held promise. The wind has been largely in the North and East, but there was no long corridor of isobars across to the orient.

Today was breezy with a NE3-4 and quite mild. This changed at around mid afternoon when it became cold and grey with some heavy rain squalls moving through. To keep an eye on the prospects, I spent the day seawatching. Two sessions from 08.45 - 11.00 and 2pm - 4pm. It was slow but steady.

Red throated Diver 25 N 2 S

Wigeon 223 N

Teal 59 N

Pale bellied Brent Geese 3 N

Dark bellied Brent Geese 14 N

Common Scoter 32 N

Red breasted Merganser 14 N

Goldeneye 5 N

Mallard 4 N 3 S

Eider 11 N

Shelduck 1 N

Manx Shearwater 3 N

Fulmar 1 S

Pomarine Skua 1 juv N

Bonxie 2 N

Little Auk 1 N First of the autumn, typically very close in just over the breakers.

Later in the afternoon, news came out from Holy Island of lots of migrants, including several rare and scarce birds. Red flanked Bluetail, Dusky Warbler, Barred Warbler and Little Bunting highlighted the finds until a distantly observed small 'red-backed' type Shrike was found near the Chare Ends. It had my alarm bells ringing straight away with its dark chestnut upper parts and disproportionately long, stuck-on, tail.

Thursday 15th October...

After yesterdays poor weather today was fine and clear with a light N3 Breeze.

A promising sign when I had Peggy out for her early walk, when we flushed 2 Woodcock of the coast path.

I met John up on Holy Island at 0830 to check out the shrike. It was now being put out as a first winter Brown Shrike, a first for Northumberland and a UK lifer for me and John. Before we got across the causeway, the bird had flown off high west and was missing, being looked for.

We joined in the hunt wandering over the the Excavations but birds were thin on the ground. There were no or very few common visitors such as thrushes etc. A Snow Bunting called as it circled around over head and a nicely marked Merlin watched us from the top of a hawthorn in the dunes. We were about to give up, when the message came through, Brown Shrike, back on hawthorns near its original spot. Within 10 minutes were were on the bird. We kept our distance, from it and each other but viewing through the scope was excellent in good early light. I have seen many Brown Shrikes in China and this bird gave no cause for concern to me, a classic mahogany coloured, bull headed Brown Shrike with a tail like a Long-tailed Tit!

Unfortunately I needed off the island before the tide for dog duties, leaving no time to catch up with a Bluetail or Dusky Warbler.


Above -  Brown Shrike, first winter, Chare Ends, Holy Island.

Friday 16th October ...

Met up with John and Boulmer to see if we could get in on the rarity action closer to home. We spent the morning covering the north part of the headland on a calm cool morning not seeing very much.

1 Chiffchaff, 9+ Crossbills N, 6+ Twite with 100+ Linnets, 10 Whooper Swans S, 2000 Pinkfeet S, 1000+ Golden Plover, 1 Peregrine, 2 Grey Partridge and the usual common species. All to be enjoyed but with this weather hype, a bit disappointing. Still, we worked for the birds we had and after all, time in the field equals good birds found. Eventually...

Sunday 18th October...

Last night I messaged John saying we should really go back to Holy Island as we must be the only Northumberland birders who haven't seen a Red flanked Bluetail this week. Somewhere between 2 and 5 individuals have been on the island along with the shrike and many lesser rarities, it would make for a good morning out. After an hour thinking, I sent him another message saying I think we should just go to Boulmer to find our own never know. Its always a gamble to risk missing some excellent birding for little reward.

We were on site for first light and it was very quickly apparent that today was quiet. Still, there had to be a good bird somewhere around, it was finding it that was the problem. Along the shore were 2 Red throated Divers, 1 Red breasted Merganser, 12+ Sanderling, 8+ Bar tailed Godwit and 1 Purple Sandpiper with hundreds of mixed gulls and smaller waders such as Dunlin and Turnstone.

Up at the caravan site we had Blackbirds dropping in with 30+ birds and a scattering of Song Thrush and Redwing. Skylarks were moving south, we had over a hundred in the morning, plus 7+ Siskin and several very high Redpolls.

It was time for our breakfast back at the car along at the south end layby, near the top of the golfcourse. 

We had scoffed a box of veggie sausage rolls, a scone each and a chocolate brownie and were contemplating what to do next over a second cup of tea when John commented, whats that? 

He was looking up at the sycamore beside the car. I raised the bins and could see it was a Wheatear. It seemed quite small and it was very late now but being back lit against the sky wasn't going to solve it. 

I walked back along the road to get a better light on the bird. Luckily it stayed put. On looking at it, on the top of the tall tree, I could see it looked pale and asked John to bring his camera along. He took some record shots. The bird still didn't move so I went back along the verge to get my own camera. 

By the time I got it out and turned on, I pointed up at the branches and locked on to a ... male Stonechat? Looking back at John, he was now facing away from me bent,  stalking along the fence with his camera. The bird had flown along and on to the fence line where it looked much better at eye level. We were over the moon to realise it was a female Desert Wheatear!  The increasing traffic along the road flushed the wheatear and we lost it. For the next hour we hunted along the shore and across field but it seemed to have moved on. Luckily reinforcements arrived and Mark Eaton picked the bird up half way over the ploughed filed on the opposite side of the road.

While we discussed it, a nice Siberian Chiffchaff called its light piping noe in the bushes, eventually showing quite well.

Desert Wheatear. What a bird to find on a quiet morning on the patch. A first for Boulmer too. I am pleased we didn't follow the masses to Holy Island after all because finding your own rare bird can't be beaten. I've just remembered too, there is a super hyperzonky mega rarity 300 miles away in Norfolk. What's it called again?

Monday, October 12, 2020

One of those days.

 Despite some northerly promise, the day turned out to be pretty average overall with too much rain for the forecast.

The morning was spent at Boulmer to Longhoughton Steel, looking for Dan's American Golden Plover on a rising tide. Unfortunately we only saw 180 Golden Plovers out of about 2,000 so it may have moved on.

At first light, 10 Whooper Swans flew S over head and a couple of Bramblings came into the village. Waders on the shore included 71 Dunlin, 9 Sanderling, 1 Knot, 9 Bar tailed Godwit and 30+ Turnstone. A pair of Stonechats and 6+ Rock Pipits were on the seaweed.

A casual seawatch had 1 Sooty Shearwater, 2 Common Scoter, 2 Velvet Scoter all N with 9 Red throated Divers N and 1 S. We missed a high over the top White billed though that was a bit irksome, but you can't get them all.

An adult Mediterranean Gull was with Black headeds, a Peregrine hunted the Golden Plovers and a male Merlin came in with prey, maybe a Starling and headed off inland.

In the afternoon, chivvied on by thoughts of divers, I had an hour at Cullernose but it was all Gannets and Auks apart from another 2 Velvet Scoter, 2 Sandwich Terns, 2 Red throated Divers N and 37 Pink footed Geese S.

6 Rock Pipits were entertaining as they checked me out while I was seawatching...   

Hopefully a change in the weather this week will provide more interest...

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Migration, and not just birds...

 There has been a lot of exciting birds on the move recently so its easy to get fixated on finding more, but autumn comes to other groups too, none less so that the moths.

Last night shortly before 7pm, it was getting dusk so I was out putting the moth trap on. Adjusting the auto timer anyway. As I stepped out of the door, a large moth buzzed past me below waist height . It flew the length of my car and I lost it as it left the beam of the head lamp. 

I knew it could only be one thing at this time of year -  a Convolvulous Hawk-moth.

Jane came out to help me look for it. We have one or two 'last-legs' nicotiana flowers hanging on in the garden so we checked these first. My initial sighting was at a planter near our door that has a couple left in. We wandered around but there was no sign. There was clearly an arrival of Silver Y moths on other plants, but no biggie.

Jane went in to finish tea. I was about to give up then thought how there were very few flowers suitable for a hawk-moth in our village right now, so it might be worth another lap, it might just come back?

In the front garden I slowly checked along the house windows with the torch. Nothing. Then I heard a buzzing behind me. I turned and there it was! A lovely Convolvulous Hawk-moth at the nicotianas! We have planted these for 10 years for this very reason but have had no luck until now. If you saw the One Show the other night, they did a piece on these moths and how they come to flowers along the south coast of England. Northumberland is a long way north, so to get a Convolvulous is a red-letter day indeed.

Over the years I have seen several. My first was at our old house where it was attracted to an outside light so I got a sweeping brush, reached up high, and persuaded it into the bedroom window. We also found one randomly on the hub cap of a Vauxhall Astra in a pub car park at Blakeney, Norfolk one year while we were on a holiday, and we saw a few at Portland Bird Obs moth trap too, but to get a nice one in our garden is still amazing...

After a few flash lit photos we placed him, it was a male, back into the nicotiana thicket and left him to continue what time he has left...

That moth is every bit as good as the Great Grey Shrike!

Monday, October 05, 2020


 A day annual leave due to the weather forecast from last week, just in case there were more migrants to be had. I didn't go up to Holy Island after all. The Bluetail was a little bit more reticent than yesterday and I wasn't desperate for Lesser Grey Shrike either, so, on a lovely fine mild autumn day, I stayed local.

Mid morning as the sun warmed the large sycamore on our gable end I pulled up a chair and watched for  half an hour. A single Yellow browed Warbler showed beautifully in dappled sunshine between the branches,  male and female Blackcaps gleaned the leaves while a few Goldcrests and Chiffchaffs flitted around. Another two Yellow-browed Warblers were seen and heard nearby with one on the coast path and another in our village wood.

I walked Peggy up the back field where the Lesser Whitethroat was still present but elusive. It called an unusual 'chuk chuk churrrrrrrrrrr' the last dry rattle was like a wren or red breasted flycatcher. a call I've not heard before. A Brambling made a right old racket calling near our feeders with another along the village lane.

A few Skylarks, 2 Grey Wagtails and 6 Redpolls flew south over head.

At 3 oclock I checked my phone and had missed a call from John. He had found a 'grey shrike' at Boulmer but it was distant and he had gone for his scope. In full frantic mode I jumped i the car and was there in 10 minutes but the shrike was nowhere to be seen.

We grilled every hedgerow across the farmland where there are no public paths at all despite some decent tracks that could be walked. Nothing. We decided to walk the main road and view east so the light would be better for spotting shrikes on hedges. Only 5 Blackcaps, 3 Chiffchaffs and few Goldcrests and a Willow Tit were seen, so we were doing the trudge back thinking the shrike had continued its migration.

As we passed Seaton Park caravan site, a bird flushed from the roadside hedge and flew high. Our shrike! It soon landed atop a tall sycamore to view the field for prey. Here it could be seen to be a lovely Great Grey Shrike, probably the finest and most stately of the tribe. After a while it dashed into a linnet flock , hovering like a kestrel but failing to secure a meal. It then flew across the field back to its original hedge.

What a spell Boulmer is having this autumn! Long may it continue...  

Great Grey Shrike, Boulmer, a first for the site. 


Sunday, October 04, 2020

They fell for it...

 It seems that the weekend's Easterly weather pattern certainly lived up to its expectations, on the islands anyway. 

Holy Island was sinking under the weight of a fall of migrant birds and and an even bigger deluge of migrant birders with fans drifting in from far and wide to catch a glimpse of the rare and scarce. 

What a day they had too, with Red flanked Bluetail, Lesser Grey Shrike, 2 Red breasted Flycatchers, Little Bunting, Barred Warbler, multiple Yellow browed Warblers, Hawfinch and hoards of padders  ( for those with a notebook, probably rarer than the bluetail) to make for a once in a decade spectacle. For once, this part-time island was more like one of the more popular Northern Isles than an offshoot of North East England.

Meanwhile, those mainland patch loyals still did quite well if you were lucky. No doubt you will read the exploits in the east coast birding blogs, so here are our findings.

As usual, Boulmer was the morning destination. It was unsettlingly quiet with few migrants really. The background consisted of grey continental Robins in every bush and clump of weeds, plenty of Goldcrests, a few Blackbirds and Song Thrushes but no Redwings? Highlights were few with only 1 Yellow browed Warbler, 4 Blackcaps, 1 Wheatear and a late Swift S. Fortunately the Bluethroat looked much better in the sunshine late morning in its small temporary marram grass home.

I have a day holiday tomorrow so if the Bluetail remains for another day, I might take the half hour drive North...

Saturday, October 03, 2020

Playing it not so cool.


A tiny green warbler in here...

It took a bit of patience to see...

At the beginning of this week Ross Ahmed and Chris Knox found a wing barred phyllosc at Budle Point caravan site. The bird had originally been identified as a Yellow browed Warbler on Monday but by Tuesday it was calling and was clearly not that species. Although still very elusive in heavily foliaged sycamores, many hours of observation by the two finders pieced together the correct identification as a Two-barred Greenish Warbler, despite some nay sayers at first. It is now actually called a 'Two-barred Warbler' but being old school I cant bring myself to use that confusing term as some parties would ( and did) construe it as a brace of Barred Warblers at some stage. 

I wasn't quick enough to go on the Tuesday evening and on Wednesday I had work commitments. Luckily the weather was poor on Wednesday with several observers visiting and drawing a blank.

Thursday was much better. The sun was shining and the wind was in the west in single figure speeds.  I was on site by 08.30 and gave myself 3 hours to connect then I would have to leave for work. After some run around and tail chasing for an hour, the bird finally began to show through gaps in the leaves. I had around 8 sightings totalling no more than 1 minute, but in good light the bird could be seen quite well. I didn't even try for a photo until I had seen enough but when I finally thought I might get a record shot, the bird went to ground and remained hidden til I had to go. Hence the illustration above.

This is a first for Northumberland and only the 8th for the UK putting me on 420 and 352 respectively. Bubo has me on 351 but it doesn't include Fea's type Petrel.  

Back home a short stroll up the back hedge had my first Brambling of the autumn, a Lesser Whitethroat and 2 Grey Partridges. 

On Friday a cool N breeze dropped 2 or possibly even 3 Yellow-browed Warblers into my garden. They showed well in good fine weather at lunchtime.

One of three Yellow-browed Warblers in our garden.

Back in the little bedroom office, working in the afternoon, a vague message came through about a Bluethroat on the shore at Boulmer. Interesting but it would have to wait until someone confirmed it. Half an hour later sure enough the sighting was verified as a fw male Bluethroat, in autumn, at Boulmer! I clocked off early and popped along. Like the Budle Warbler this was another skulker behaving more like a vole than  a bird as it ran along under marram grass beside the beach. Eventually it came out onto the strand line to feed, What a great bird for Boulmer, a site first.

First winter male Bluethroat, Boulmer.

Today the weather was filthy. Heavy rain and a NW swinging E wind made birding all but impossible but a few short walks out had the following - 2 Yellow-browed Warblers, 2 Redwings, 4 Goldcrests and 2 Chiffchaffs in the garden, On the coast path singles of Redstart, Blackcap and Wheatear, 4 Swallows S, 5 House Martins over our village and 2 ad winter Mediterranean Gulls with Black headed's in the coast field. With the wind swinging full East overnight, hopefully Sunday will give us more to look at, and just in case I have taken Monday off too...

October has certainly started with a bang.

Bluethroat twitch...