The dawn chorus reaches its peak with the final summer arrivals

Seven baby housemartins.
Seven baby housemartins.

The local countryside scene in May is reviewed by John Almond with the help of the members and friends of Alnwick and District Natural History Society.

As the last of our summer visitors arrived in the area the dawn chorus reached a peak and there was a rush among our birds to begin rearing a family.

A cold spring made life difficult for parents looking for food and they also had to run the gauntlet of predators like magpies, carrion crows and grey herons, as well as birds of prey. The first swift was spotted in the south of the county on May 4, but eight were above St Paul’s Church in Alnwick on May 12.

On May 19, 10 swifts were above Hope House Lane, Alnwick. These birds spend all their lives on the wing, catching insects, only landing to breed. There were three swallows at Warkworth Bridge on May 1, and 12 were around Dunstanburgh Castle on May 7. On May 1, a pair of wheatears were in Warkworth sand dunes and a female was at Craster on May 7. A pair of blackcaps were in Warkworth sand dunes on May 1.

On May 6, chiffchaffs, blackcaps, willow warbles and a wood warbler were singing in How Burn woods, Morpeth. On May 7, chiffchaffs were singing in Longhoughton woods, Howick woods and at Howick shore, while a grasshopper warbler, sedge warblers, reed warblers and a white throat were heard by the Old Water at Warkworth. Whitethroats were subsequently heard in a Craster garden on May 19, and on the Rugley Road, Alnwick, on May 22. A whinchat was in Amble dunes on May 13, and a cuckoo was heard in Hulne Park, Alnwick, on May 29.

As the month drew to a close, common sandpipers were making their way up the hill streams to breed. On May 4, the three osprey nests at Kielder had 10 eggs. The first fledgeling from a previous year also returned. May 4 also saw a blackbird nest-building along the Thomas Percy School footpath in Alnwick, while starlings were nest-building in Arkle Court.

On May 7, 20 sand martins were flying around their nesting holes in the cliff at Boulmer and a pair of lapwings were displaying in a field. There were two active rook nests in Craster Quarry and two pairs of house martins were repairing nests on Craster houses. There were five house martins collecting mud from the puddles on Dunstanburgh Castle path. On May 16 lapwings were nesting in a wheat field near the Aln Valley Railway station and a pair of starlings were nesting in a shower ventilation outlet in Chapel Lands, Alnwick.

On May 20, house martins were nest-building in Greensfield, Alnwick, and the following day jackdaws were nest-building at the Cordwainers. On May 25, blue tits were nesting in a stone wall cavity alongside St John’s School, Alnwick. On May 6, the first baby robin was noticed in a Craster garden and a blackbird was feeding young at the old bus depot site in Hipsburn Terrace, Alnwick.

On May 12, starling nestlings were calling for food in Fairfields, Alnwick, while a house sparrow fledgeling was begging for food in Arkle Court. There were seven lapwings, including two chicks, in a cornfield near Haldwin’s Close on May 22, and on May 25 two magpies were feeding young in the Bullfield Community Orchard, Alnwick.

On May 26, there were two female eiders and six ducklings on the River Coquet at Amble and two starling fledgelings were in St James Estate in Alnwick.

There were approximately 200 pairs of kittiwakes on Dunstanburgh Castle cliff on May 7. One pair of fulmars were observed and two pairs of shags were nesting. A total of 16 razorbills were occupying the ledges and 12 birds were on the sea with two guillemots. There were two rock pipits among the whinstone boulders. A sandwich tern was off Alnmouth on May 7 and on May 13, five greylag geese were in the flooded field behind Amble dunes.

Garden observations included two linnets in Craster on May 3, while nine rooks and several jackdaws were in Chapel Lands on May 6. On May 16 in Chapel Lands, young house sparrows and blackbirds were being fed by parents. On May 28, pairs of greenfinches, bullfinches and goldfinches, as well as a great spotted woodpecker were in a Morpeth garden. The resident birds in How Burn woods, Morpeth, on May 6 included two great spotted woodpeckers, two nuthatch, wren, great tit, blue tit and jay, while dipper and grey wagtail were along the river.

In Ponteland Park and surroundings on May 28, 14 blackbirds, three chaffinches, three chiffchaffs, a garden warbler and a robin were present. On the same day, nine blackbirds, six chaffinches, five chiffchaffs and four blackcaps were at Bolam Lake.

The only owl reported was a barn owl with prey in a Craster garden on May 20. Kestrels were seen at four localities, including four on the Felton bypass on May 4. Buzzards were seen at Deanmoor, Harecrag, Stannington and Whittle. A male peregrine flew along the coast at Craster on May 7, before alighting on the grass near Dunstanburgh Castle.

A stoat was in an oilseed rape field at Low Buston on May 1. A grey squirrel was in How Burn wood, near Morpeth, and two rabbits were in the Tenantry Column field in Alnwick on May 6.

A grey seal was off Craster an a hare was at Dunstanburgh Castle on May 7.

There were two roe deer near the River Coquet weir between Amble and Warkworth on May 15, and one was swimming in the river.

On May 24, three pipistrelle bats were over a Craster garden, while on May 28, a roe deer and fawn were on the north bank of the River Coquet at Amble.

Orange tip butterflies were in Craster on May 4 and 7. Small white butterflies were in How Burn woods on May 6, and at Dunstanburgh Castle on May 7.

A visit to a woodland in spring, especially before the trees produce a canopy of shade, always produces a variety of plants. One such visit was made to How Burn woods, near Morpeth, on May 6.

Two white flowers are immediately obvious, these being wood anemone and wood sorrel. In folk medicine, the clover-like leaves of the latter were used to treat skin conditions.

It was possible to identify three species of St John’s Wort, these being square-stalked, hairy and slender. The oil from these plants has been used to treat burns, bruises and sores.

There were also two species of bittercress, namely wavy and hairy. These both have white flowers as has the wild garlic on ramsons which has the distinctive odour when its leaves are crushed. The other white flowers included woodruff, cow parsley, greater stitchwort, sweet cicely, guelder-rose and barren strawberry.

Large areas of the wood were covered in dog’s mercury, whose male and female flowers appear on separate plants. It is a member of the spurge family and has been used as a laxative.

Lords-and-Ladies, yellow archangel, enchanter’s nightshade, opposite leaved golden saxifrage, wood speedwell and wood forget-me-not were also found.

Fruit-bearing plants, red currant and black currant, were observed and the first flowers were appearing on the bilberry.

Grasses included tall fescue and wood millet. Great wood-rush was seen, as were hard shield fern and broad buckler fern.

At Howick shore on May 7, primroses, dog violets, garlic mustard and thrift were flowering. Craster Heughs were dominated by English bluebells and lesser celandine.

Old railway lines such as those at Ponteland and Darras Hall can be havens for flowers. On May 28, water avens, crosswort, bush vetch, red campion, garlic mustard, herb robert, cowslips and white dead nettle were observed there.

The next field meeting of the society will be held on Thursday, July 2, commencing from the Newton Links car park at 2pm. The group will walk along the Links to see the dune flowers and coastal birds, including the Long Nanny tern colony. Visitors to the area will be most welcome.