The Northumbrian 142: a quick account of my first 24-hour bird race

This weekend past, I had the pleasure of taking part in my first 24-hour bird race. Wherein myself and the rest of the team – consisting of three topnotch local birders – attempted to observe as many birds species as possible within the county limits over the course of a full day. Starting at 11pm on Friday, and getting home at around the same time on Saturday, the day was a roaring success, with no less than 142 species recorded on our venture – the highlights of which you will find mention of below. Of course, with such a wealth of avian odds and ends enjoyed, I couldn’t possibly mention them all in a single post…

Failing to pick-up Nightjar during the hours of darkness at our first port of call was a little disheartening; though things quickly picked up upon hearing the booming call of a male Long-eared Owl at a local site, followed by a superb reedbed chorus of singing Cetti’s, Reed and Sedge Warbler at a favoured wetland location. Our early meanderings also allowing us to catch up with a number of quite easy species early on – Teal, Mallard, Oystercatcher and the like – as well as a cracking Barn Owl, observed by Neil, gracing a fence post near Widdrington. The second owl species of the trip but far from the last.

First light found us enjoying the dawn chorus at Beacon Hill where a Tawny Owl sounded immediately after we departed the car and a Redstart sang high in the branches of a particularly impressive Beech. Our stop-off here also adding Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Treecreeper and other familiar woodland species. All of which lessened the blow of missing the Kingfisher – noted by the rest of the team – during a prior stop on the outskirts of Morpeth.  At least I clapped eyes on the fine Grey Wagtail observed at the same site.

Next came a trip Northwards where myriad common species fell during the short drive, and a few pitstops added a pair of Little Ringed Plover – always a treat – as well as singing Garden Warbler, a handful of Goldeneye, two Little Grebes and a riving mass of Swallow, House Martin, Sand Martin and Swift feeding above a particularly busy pond. Our tally increasing further as we gained altitude: adding a few kronking Raven, Dipper and literally hundreds of Red-legged Partridge – they do like to release them in ludicrous, unsustainable numbers up here.

Arriving at the Harthrope Valley – having never visited the site previously – I was delighted to see my first Ring Ouzel and Whinchat of the year; while throughout our stay we found ourselves serenaded by singing Cuckoos and the shrill twittering of Lesser Redpoll. Our prolonged stay here, among the rolling hills and riparian birch woodland, also providing great views of Spotted Flycatcher, Wheatear, Red Grouse, Stonechat and – rather oddly – the days only singing Goldcrest. Embarrassingly, I also managed to confuse a perched Mistle Thrush with a Buzzard at one point here though, of course, I blame the lack of sleep and copious amounts of Red Bull.

From the uplands, a dash to the coast soon ensued. Our first port of call being Lindisfarne where, prior to our arrival, birders had been enjoying a suite of Springtime rarities. We managed to miss most of these, although the sight of a female Red-breasted Flycatcher (only my second ever) softened the blow somewhat. Here too, the mudflats yielded an impressive variety of waders – the best of which including Summer plumaged Grey Plover, a good count of Bar-tailed Godwit and some handsome Knot. Standing in stark contrast, Budle Bay was less than accommodating, although we did eventually get a Buzzard on our drive Southwards – no mistaking it for a thrush on this occasion – and Stag Rocks came up trumps with a smorgasbord of seabirds. Among them: Puffin, Guillemot, Common Scoter, Gannet, Fulmar and Sandwich Tern.

After successful pitstops for Little, Arctic and Roseate Tern, and failed trips for Red-backed Shrike, Pink-footed Goose and Glaucous Gull, the next highlight came at Druridge Pools where a Little Owl provided amazing views on approach and the various floods and fields much resembled that of more sprawling reserves down South. Here, within minutes, we were treated to views of Glossy Ibis, Little Stint, Pectoral Sandpiper, Spoonbill, Ruff, Greenshank and Yellow Wagtail. While two lingering Whooper Swans, a handsome Sanderling and our first Shoveler of the day helped build numbers. It was a shame to miss the long-staying Garganey and the Curlew Sandpiper present the day before but, ultimately, you cannot win them all. And what we did see was more than sufficient to set the heart to racing.

From Druridge, a series of targeted stops yielded a mixed bag. We were successful in picking up Avocet, Ruddy Duck and Sparrowhawk, but less so when it came to Willow Tit and other secretive species. The real highlight of the day, for me at least, coming as we departed for the South of the county where we enjoyed a fantastic show on behalf of a singing Wood Warbler, alongside Pied Flycatcher, a wandering Red Kite, Snipe, Black Grouse and, after their surprising absence over the course of the day, Long-tailed Tit. That really would have been a bad one to miss.

After caching in on the drake American Wigeon at Grindon Lough, we set our sights on Kielder Forest as our final stop and, sure enough, concluded the day with the fantastic sight of an Osprey drifting high above the reservoir. The experience here only amplified by an encounter with a particularly confiding Red Fox and perhaps my best views to date of a Tawny Owl perched out in the open on the outstretched limb of a spruce.

There wasn’t time to bring my camera so, for the purposes of this post, some dodgy iPhone shots of American Wigeon, Fox and Black Grouse will have to suffice…

Of course, we missed a lot of birds over the course of the day – not that it matters, really. Sure, the complete absence of Jay, Nuthatch, Grey Partridge, Red-breasted Merganser and Mandarin was a tad frustrating, though ultimately, what we did see was an incredible variety of life across a number of beautiful sites – who would not be happy with that? Thanks go to Mark, Michael and Neil for having me along on their annual trip – I really enjoyed it, and look forward to taking part again in the future.


A fine sunset at Kielder Forest

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