Thursday, December 31, 2020

Stewchat's Sketchbook Hootenanny 2020

We bloggers like an end of year round up don't we. Writing this in mid December my family is one of the lucky ones and I hope yours is too. 70,000 other households are not so fortunate, so while our interests seem frivolous at this time, please try to spare a thought for others who didn't have a good Christmas this year and join me in wishing them all the very best for 2021. Who knows what that will bring? 

In Northumberland, this has been a vintage birding year that may not be beaten for a long time so I think it deserves a recap.


Little did we know what the year had in store for us back then. Covid-19 was a new word that had something to do with China. 

What did I do this month? Very little as it happens so its best to move on.


The weather was generally poor with stormy, wet days for weeks on end. One trip started a good birding year when we found a lone Tundra Bean Goose in a stubble full of larks and linnets near Warkworth.


The biggest change of the year came when we were told to work from home from the 20th, and I still am. In April my work colleagues ran a sweep to see when we would be back in the office. I guessed 11th May. No one said March 2021.

Bird highlight was a White tailed Eagle, free from accoutrements, viewed for 30 seconds as it glided without a wing beat low over my house and away west on 31st. A great Northumberland and Garden addition.


Into Lockdown proper when we only left the house to shop for essentials. Well, we did, others carried on regardless.

This months wildlife highlight wasn't avian, no, a small 'hoverfly' seen very briefly in late March turned out to be a Hairy footed Flower Bee. A first for me and the beginning of daily April visits by these delightful little creatures. They are new to Northumberland recently so to find some in my garden was as good as a Sea Eagle.


On the 12th my second patch Golden Oriole was singing for 15 minutes in the arboretum. Despite trying to follow the song, it remained one tree away all the time until singing stopped without a sighting.

After a 2019 blank it was nice to find 2 Spotted Flycatchers on on 23rd and on 26th an incongruous Reed Warbler was singing from our garden hedge for a short while. Finally on 31st a Red tailed Cuckoo Bumblebee was a new one for me again in the garden.


Thankfully lockdown restrictions had been eased in time for a twitch all of 30 miles north to see Northumberland's first Asian Desert Warbler on Holy Island. My second after one at Flamborough 29 years previously.


There is only one top spot in July and that goes to Sooty Tern, my absolute bird of the year 2020. After missing its coastal trek in 2019, I hoped for a second chance and even in my dreams I couldn't have hoped for better than the views it gave on the 29th when it spent the afternoon only 300 mtrs from my house. Priceless.


Autumn kicks in properly now but we didn't dare to hope it would be as good as it was. Only 10 days after the tern, we found our own rarity along the road at Boulmer, a spanking summer plumaged Pacific Golden Plover. What a bird. This stunner knocked a good passage of Long tailed Skuas on patch into runner up place with 5 - 9 birds seen on the 17th alone. These and a Great Shearwater on 29th could have easily taken top slot in any other year locally. The Hooded Crow became a village resident. A couple of good moths arrived on 4th with Common Emerald and Southern Wainscot both new to VC68.



The excitement continued with some good seawatching - 16th an adult Sabine's Gull and 7 Pochards , 17th Buff breasted Sandpiper at Boulmer, 21st 2 Lapland Buntings at Boulmer along with Short eared Owl, Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint, 26th 700 Sooty Shearwaters N at Cullernose plus Storm Petrel on 27th when the first of the seasons Yellow browed Warblers appeared in my garden.

Inverts are being routinely ignored in this pandemonium but Clay-Triple Lines was new to my garden and VC68.


Can things get any better? Of course they can!

On the 3rd a Two barred Greenish Warbler gave fleeting but decent views at Budle Bay, 3 Yellow browed Warblers were in my garden and a male Bluethroat was at Boulmer. The Bluethroat was joined on the 5th by a Great Grey Shrike. On 8th a hand netted Convolvulous Hawk-moth at our garden nicotianas was new for the site. On 15th another UK and county tick came in the form of a Brown Shrike on Holy Island where it was accompanied by a Bluetail, Dusky and Pallas's Warblers that I didnt have time to check out. On 18th a female Desert Wheatear was a welcome self find at Boulmer. Phew.


Surely that's autumn done with? No, on 11th a Dusky Warbler was at Boulmer and on 19th a Buff-bellied Pipit was my last of 4 UK lifers and 6 Northumberland ticks this year.


A final flurry with a  nice Grey Phalarope on the sea off Cullernose on the 5th.

This ended an amazing year for birding locally, breaking my Howick / Craster local patch year list record of 163 set in 2019 with an excellent 166 species. 

I had 3 new species for the area, White tailed Eagle, Grey Phalarope and Sooty Tern with other patch rarities - Pochard ( the third year out of 11 and the first since 2014), Black tailed Godwit ( 2nd year, last 2012), Sabine's Gull ( 3rd year, last 2019), Storm Petrel (2nd year, last 2011), Great Shearwater (2nd year, last 2017), Balearic Shearwater ( 2nd year, last 2011), Golden Oriole ( 2nd, last 2009), Hooded Crow ( 2nd , last 2019), Reed Warbler ( 2nd, last 2016),

Apart from trips to Holy Island, Budle Bay and Amble for new Northumberland birds or lifers, all birds were local patch stars. My six county ticks are - White tailed Eagle, Asian Desert Warbler, Sooty Tern, Two-barred Greenish Warbler, Brown Shrike and Buff-bellied Pipit making my Northumberland list 353 species.

Happy New Year all, stay safe. Here's to an even better 2021. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

New Blog Link - Mark Newsome at Whitburn.

 Hi all, I have added the new blog by Mark Newsome to the side bar, right. Mark is a great seawatcher, based at Whitburn Obs on the Sunderland Coast. This site is a great help to Northumberland birders, as they call the seabirds as they pass, north, and we can try to stake them out miles up the coast. Sometimes it works, others it doesn't, but we are grateful all the same.

Cheers Mark... 

Monday, December 21, 2020

Winter Specials.

 As is usual in December, posts are getting thin on the ground. This is normally due to more time spent doing other, Christmas related, tasks. This year is a bit different in that there wont be any visiting or taking Jane to the train as she jaunts off with various friends groups for Christmas soirees or any such frivolities. This year my lack of midweek action is mainly due to the combination of a shortness of daylight along with a lack of much going on. So, before I start the main bit, here is a short round up of the midweek wildlife that has crossed my path.

Tuesday 15th. A lunch time walk with Peggy to the coast path was enlivened by a group of around 10 Bottle-nosed Dolphins in our cove. They were particularly acrobatic, and obviously feeling the Christmas spirit. There were one or two small calves with them that also jumped clear of the water with the adults a few times. Funny isn't it that Bottle-nosed Dolphin is a much more easily seen mammal on my patch than the Fox... While watching them, a Kingfisher flew in to fish on the rock edges. They do well here on the coast in winter when the streams are cloudy and in spate making fishing more difficult. They like the rockpools and gullies.

Wednesday 16th. The large female Sparrowhawk came and sat on her usual perch below the bird table. A Woodpigeon happened to wander along below her so she off after it and out of sight. At the same time, 2 Grey Partridges were in territorial dispute already in the field behind us.

Saturday 19th. Now on holiday for a full fortnight. I cant tell you how pleased I am. A walk down to the pond field was quiet but a female Kingfisher perched out in the tree at the back of the pond enjoying the brief, luke warm, sunny spell at the time. In the evening I was taking washing in off the line when I saw a Barn Owl pop out of my nest box in the wood beside us to a chorus of mobbing garden residents.

And that's about it really for mid week.

On Sunday, as usual this year, I met with John on my other local patch, at Boulmer.  At 07.50 the car park already had 13 cars in it while it was still dark. What is going on here I have no idea, we used to have it to ourselves in winter. A few of these cars were ladies indulging in some pre dawn wild swimming in the haven. Good luck with that.

On route here what I assume was the same Woodcock, was in exactly the same spot as last week, sitting on the road along the lane out of our village.

In order of appearance at Boulmer were, a Barn Owl hunting around the Herring Sheds cottage, 2 Stonechats just out of roost and a Little Egret hugged the shore as it flew north.

We headed south to Seaton Point for a change. A lot of Rock Pipits were on the shore including a high percentage of 'littoralis' types but there were no colour ringed birds. The tide was starting to drop so waders were gathering on the small patches of rock showing. There were 32 Grey Plover, 8 Knot, 100 Dunlin, 22 Sanderling, 25 Bar-tailed Godwit, 4 Purple Sandpipers along side good numbers of Redshank, Curlew and Turnstone.

John taking pictures.

Bar tailed Godwit at dawn.

From the point we had 4 Whooper Swans S, 3 Red throated Divers S and 2 N, 6+ Gannets N, 3 Common Scoter S, 300+ Pinkfeet S and in with them, 1 Barnacle and 1 Greylag Goose.

On the way back a scan of the sheltered waters of the haven is usually not very productive but today it was home to a fw Black throated Diver. It showed nicely in the sunshine but was a bit distant for photos.

Then it was time for home. Not a bad morning out with some nice wintry specialities. 

Black throated Diver, one of the most tricky to find here.

Above - Purple Sandpipers with Turnstones. They followed the Turnstones until they flipped a stone or weed then fed in the patch left exposed.


Sunday, December 13, 2020

Spoke too soon... Hoodwink 2020


Sunrise at Boulmer this morning.
Aren't contentious birds a pain. This week a gull at North Shields Fish Quay has split opinion even between world renowned experts. It is either a Yellow-legged Gull or a Northern Herring Gull of the form 'ommisus'. It's not that I don't have the interest but I do have the experience to say that some birds will defy explanation.  Plain and simple. The gull will always be a split decision.

Little did I know that I would get my own bone of contention this morning along at Boulmer.

Myself and John walked up to Longhoughton Steel for the usual stand and stare that can be so productive here. It was cold and grey with a biting SE wind. We soon totalled up 11 Red throated Divers, 2 Goldeneye and a nice drake Goosander all south.

Quite a few auks were dotting around. Flying north and south, some on the sea. They don't really get much of a look as the majority are just 'auk sp' Some close ones can be seen to be winter plumaged Guillemots and an odd Razorbill just over the breakers.

It was at this point in the lumpy sea a black and white dot caught my attention. An auk yes, but in summer plumage? I commented to John that there was a very black and white auk out there that appeared to be in breeding dress, but it was only giving peek-a-boo views over wave troughs and I soon lost it from view.

About half an hour later we were considering heading back to the car for tea when John called that he had the black headed auk in flight moving south. Before I tell the tale I must show this Tweet from me a week ago - 

This was in response to some photos posted last weekend. I stand by that. They were Common Guillemots.

Now that is out of the way, back to this morning. I immediately got on the bird as it came in and flew with a winter plumaged Guillemot south at breaker range. At Longhoughton Steel, the rock formation makes this still a few hundred metres out but it was a decent view in the scope.

For all the world, this bird looked like a Brunnich's Guillemot and that's saying something coming from a Brunnich's-sceptic like me!  

Giving a great comparison side by side with a Guillemot we followed their progress for a full NE to SE sweep of the view until gone. Compared to the Guillemot, it was shorter, more stocky. A completely oval melon with wings.

What on earth can we do with that. We didn't take cameras as it was dull and there wasn't thought to be anything to photograph so it was down to notes. I rattled off a scribbled field note and updated at home.

A genuine Brunnich's or a juv Razorbill? 

Later on, we had a look along to Seaton Point about a mile south of our first sighting. We counted 13 Purple Sandpipers, 8 Grey Plover and 15 Knot over flown by a Kingfisher on a rising tide, when John picked out our bird again. On the sea, like my first view, up and down behind beakers and waves only giving tantalising glimpses of a very black and white, black headed auk with a bright white wing bar. It showed nothing new to add to the notes. Then we lost it. It seemed to be swimming and diving southward but after about 10 mins of snippets that was it, lost in the ever more rough sea.

We wondered if this could be the bird seen by Daniel Langston a few weeks back? Who knows.

I just wonder, as I always do in these cases, just what would that bird look like if you could walk up and view it from 10 mtrs? Would the results remain the same?

Another hoodwink that got away....


Tuesday, December 08, 2020


Spent Sunday morning along at Boulmer where I met up with John for our usual recce.

It doesn't get light now until about half past eight now so we hung around by the car park watching the sea and the waders on the beach. Two flocks of Red throated Divers flew N quite high up, 9 and 8 birds. A few Gannets were still moving along with single figures of Common Scoter and Eider.

On the shore were 18 Bar tailed Godwits, 244 Dunlin 1 Purple Sandpiper and a couple of Grey Plover amongst many others. Here is was worrying to see how much disturbance these birds get from people and dogs. While still dark first thing a woman with four dogs was striding along wearing a headlamp, throwing a ball from a grab stick for the dogs. They covered every single inch of that beach making the birds fly out and along to a different area before flushing them again to fly back.

Its not just dog owners either its the blind stupid too. 

This pair above just marched straight up to the birds feeding until they flushed, for no reason what so ever. There was plenty of room higher up the shore to walk without causing a disturbance. Luckily the Save our Shorebirds County Council Wardens were on duty so they caught up with these and many others and tried to educate them about stopping birds feeding during the short days.

We walked along to Longhoughton Steel where we sat and watched the tide drop back. Here we had 83+ Curlew, 72 Golden Plover, 8 Knot, 2 Purple Sandpipers, 8 Red throated Divers S, 1 im drake Long tailed Duck N .

When we headed back to the cars the wardens were still working hard, swimming upstream with a lot of bemused folk who are out of their own habitat. The sooner they can get back to the shopping centres the better.

Before we left, 3 Red breasted Mergansers dropped into the haven.

A slow morning full of frustrations...



Saturday, December 05, 2020

Looking Good.

 Its a few weeks now since I last had a seawatch, so with yesterdays low pressure settled over southern England giving us blustery, SE winds and rain, I thought I would try an hour today while Jane visited the hairdresser. December isn't renowned for good movements of birds at sea, but there's always a chance of something interesting like Grebe or White winged Gull to bolster the now flagging Local Patch year list.

I sat out at the usual spot on Cullernose Point. It isn't so good here late in the season being so exposed, so if the weather had been really bad, I would have sought shelter along at Craster, but the wind had dropped off to an E2 making Cullernose bearable.

After half an hour, I had added 3 Red throated Divers N, 2 Great Northern Divers S, 2 Goldeneye and a Common Scoter N but that was about it. Distantly a few tardy Gannets lingered.

What could I do to improve my lot? Cullernose Point has a short fast tide race only about 50 mtrs out with foam and pulled up seaweed flotsam that I have always thought looked good for a Phalarope. I moved to the point with my binoculars only and scanned down the cliff and into the bubbly water offshore...Although there is rarely a phone signal here, I pulled my phone from my pocket and hopelessly checked it. Interesting, a WhatsApp message had made it through. It was Ben down at Low Steads near Boulmer where he had seen a Grey Phalarope offshore that had then flown north towards Howick and was lost from view.

Great minds thank alike as I was already scanning for these little pelagic waders. With renewed effort I began another scan, and Bingo! There it was, a small Grey Phalarope bobbing and spinning like a cork in exactly the spot I have thought for years should attract a phalarope! Its not often a plan like that comes together but here I was watching a new patch bird for me, taking me to a record breaking patch total of 166 for the year.

Although a little distant for a photo, it was giving great views in the scope as it spun around icking at plankton from the surface, oblivious of the gulls hanging around and the big waves rolling in.

Fortunately the little bird lingered for over an hour allowing county year listers Dave Dack and Graham Sorrie to catch up with it having come 25 miles from Morpeth...

During a heavy hail and sleet squall, the phalarope looked even more tiny and vulnerable at sea, but it lust lay flatter and pointed its bill upwards into the deluge until it passed.


Thursday, December 03, 2020

The Raider

 Since I have been working from home, I have been watching the garden birds much more closely than usual, making some form of notes almost every day. Usually at this time I only see the garden in daylight at weekends so it is interesting to get to grips with what exactly is going on out there.

Take the Sparrowhawk for instance. This is a bird I assumed would visit occasionally to attack the bird table visitors, and Id see one maybe once a month in winter. What actually happens is that these birds are as frequent to our feeders as the Blue Tits! 

My kitchen window observations ( and the back bedroom window when I am at the computer) show that there are currently at least 1 juvenile female and a juvenile male making several visits each and every day. I was wondering why the seed feeders are often barely touched. Yesterday I had three sightings, 2 of the female and 1 of the male. Today there are no sightings yet but they are around. The other garden residents are very quiet or making those high pitched alarm calls, so the hawks are probably sitting quietly in cover waiting their chance.

Whilst this is a wholly natural process, my artificial feeding increases bird densities in this area, but the passerines seem to have a strategy for it in that most small birds have dispersed, I hope? My Tree and House Sparrows, for instance, are down to single figures of each, but not far away there are some game feed crops that attract seed eaters so I am hoping they have just gone there for a change. 

As birds numbers decrease, so the Sparrowhawks must also move on to find enough prey, allowing more birds to return, such is the circle of predator / prey relationships... I might give my feeders a move around into the other side garden at the weekend just to reduce the hawks familiarity with its ambush...