NATURE NOTES: Waifs and strays provide some rare sightings for birdwatchers

Stewart Sexton's notebook sketch of the white-billed diver at Stag Rocks, Bamburgh.
Stewart Sexton's notebook sketch of the white-billed diver at Stag Rocks, Bamburgh.
  • Unexpected arrivals set the pulse racing

For the keen birdwatcher, Northumberland is ideally positioned geographically to attract more than its fair share of rare and scarce birds.

Having over 60 miles of eastward facing coastline ensures that the county is directly on the migration route for many species heading to northern climes in spring and, more importantly, down to milder southern areas in autumn.

Bonaparte's gull, in the foreground, with a black-headed gull at Stag Rocks, Bamburgh. Picture by Stewart Sexton

Bonaparte's gull, in the foreground, with a black-headed gull at Stag Rocks, Bamburgh. Picture by Stewart Sexton

It is the first landfall for many more waifs and vagrants drifting off course or for a few who are totally lost.

In with the birds that we expect to see annually will be a scattering of rare birds that we might see only once every five years or less.

It is these that get those birdwatchers or birders into the field in all weathers and will set the pulse racing when news of a rare arrival is released.

Autumn 2018 was generally quiet for rare birds up here due the persistent westerly and southerly winds diverting south bound travellers to stay on the continent of Europe and follow that coast south rather than attempting to cross the North Sea to our shores.

A juvenile rose-coloured starling on a garden bird feeder in North Seaton, Ashington. Picture by Stewart Sexton

A juvenile rose-coloured starling on a garden bird feeder in North Seaton, Ashington. Picture by Stewart Sexton

Usually August to early November, when the wind swings to the north and east, is the peak time to see something special here at places such as Holy Island, Bamburgh, Low Newton or Boulmer.

By late November, the birders had just about given up and decided that the dark evenings had ended their hopes of success for another season, but we should never say never when it comes to all things natural.

There can sometimes be a late, unexpected extension to the autumn, and that is just what has happened over the last couple of weeks with several rare and scarce birds arriving from both East, West and Northerly directions.

In the north of the county at Cheswick beach, a male black scoter, an extremely a rare sea duck from North America returned for maybe its eighth annual visit.

With only 13 British records ever, this jet black, yellow-billed drake attracted visitors from all over the country.

Late November resulted in a small arrival of a scarce Scandinavian song bird, the shorelark.

Four birds were at Buston Links, just south of the Aln estuary, for a few weeks with three birds still present into December. Another two were found at the Long Nanny burn mouth, near Beadnell.

Along with these from a similar area were a few waxwings, dumpy, berry-eating starling-sized birds, cinnamon coloured with a tall tufted crest.

Up to 17 were at Ashington from November 28, outside the police station for several days.

In the same period, a rarer bird this time from the east and Russia was a very scruffy looking juvenile rose-coloured starling coming to garden feeders in North Seaton Village.

Unusually this was the second record in Ashington this year with an altogether more beautiful pink and black adult here in the spring.

Two rarities were at the same spot at Stag Rocks, Bamburgh, on December 2, with an adult Bonaparte’s gull, the North American counterpart to our own black-headed gull. It is a smaller, daintier version and only the eighth record for Northumberland.

It was while watching this bird, observers found a white-billed diver feeding just offshore.

This is a bird of the high Arctic tundra and is usually extremely rare in the UK coastal waters. Numbers seem to be increasing in recent years.

These last few weeks have made Northumberland one of the most productive counties in the country for rare and scarce birds.

Long may it continue!