Sunday, 20 December 2015

Durham Again

It was time to fetch Daughter 1 back down from Durham from the end of her University term already. Looking back, this time last year I had been lucky with an en route Blythe's Pipit followed by a trip out west to the snow-covered moors for some Black Grouse. That had been a good trip - what was I going to see this time? As usual, I'd been keeping a keen eye on the birdage up in the North East for the preceding week or so but sadly there wasn't much going on there at present. There was an over-wintering Long-billed Dowitcher up in Northumberland which had caught my eye and there were one or two other bits and pieces in the neighbourhood so in the absence of anything better I decided to try for this on the way up. I say "on the way up" though of course I would have to overshoot Durham by about an hour in order to get to Northumberland. What's more with it being just about the shortest day of the year, daylight was going to be an issue and I wouldn't have more than two or three hours at most. Still I couldn't come up with anything better so this is what I decided to do. As for the next morning there were a couple of Waxwing sites in Jarrow and Gateshead which I thought I'd try for. That was the plan anyway.

The week leading up to my departure had been a very busy one at work and this excessive workload had meant that I'd not been sleeping that well so I found myself in a rather sleep-deprived state as I set off at my usual time of 8 a.m. on Friday morning, feeling that really I could do with several more hours in bed. Still, if I wanted to have any daylight left once I got to Northumberland I couldn't really hang around at all. Things progressed smoothly enough until around about junction 28 on the M1 when ominous signs warned of a 30 minute delay up ahead. I pulled into some services to plan an alternative route and in the end went off piste, detouring around Mansfield and joining up with the A1(M) further up. This plan did mean that I managed to avoid the jams though it added about 30 minutes on to my journey time anyway so I didn't actually save any time in the end. I sped onwards along the familiar route northwards which seemed to be taking for ever in my tired state. Finally at around 1:30 p.m. I arrived in the sleepy Northumbrian backwater of Cresswell and drove along the coastal road, admiring the sandy dunes and the sea on my right until I came to the turn-off for the hide that overlooks the Cresswell Pond nature reserve, the temporary home of the Dowitcher,

There was one other car parked there as I got out, stretched my legs and marvelled at just how mild it was even up here in the "frozen" north. This December weather we're having is just insane! I got my gear together and ambled the short distance up to the farm and then down the side track that lead to the hide. The locals had put up all sorts of ersatz feeders along the path, made out of old plastic bottles and there were loads of finches taking advantage of the food. Within the hide I found a couple of locals staking out the pond forlornly. It turned out that they'd not seen the Dowitcher at all themselves though someone had reported it earlier on. Humph! I thought. At least this wasn't something that I desperately wanted to see though it was still the headline bird on this northern tour that I'd cobbled together and for it to do the first no show in several weeks just on the day that I came up was a bit rude of it. 

The view from the Cresswell Pond hide

I settled down to look out of the hide window. It was a very nice looking pond, not too big so that you could see the birds on the far shore comfortably. There was a good-looking sand spit on the right on which there was a sizeable flock of Lapwing interspersed with the occasional Redshank. Over on the far side were Wigeon, Teal, Mallard and a single Goldeneye with more Lapwings and Redshank though no sign of the Dowitcher. I did a detailed scan all the way around the pond twice before satisfying myself that it wasn't on show at present. Given that I only had limited daylight left there was no point in hanging around so I hurried back up the path to the car disturbing a smart Tree Sparrow from the feeders as I went. I then drove the short distance to the other end of the Pond where there was a car park. I had a quick check from this end though there was still no sign of the Dowitcher, so it was on to part two of my tour of this area. This was a short coastal walk along the dunes to the neighbouring farm where the cattle were fed - I'd been told that this could be a good spot for Twite. It was a very pleasant ten minute stroll along the top of the dunes and I admired the sandy beach and the relatively calm seascape.

Northumbrian coastline
I found the cattle feed area though the only finches I could find were five Chaffinches. No luck there and I retraced my steps back to the car. In the car park I met a couple out birding who'd reported that they too weren't having much luck today having missed the Water Pipit at East Chevington, some nearby Iceland Gull and now the Dowitcher here at Cresswell. Sitting as I was at nought out of two so far on my birding targets I sympathised with them. I couldn't linger however as the daylight was slipping away so it was on to site number three.

This was no more than a few minutes up the road at Druridge where there was supposed to be a large flock of Pink-footed Geese. I had no trouble locating these and pulled up by the roadside to admire the vast numbers as they grazed away on the lush grass in the field. I'd been told that there'd been three Bean Geese reported in amongst them yesterday though I had neither the time nor the energy to search through several thousand Pinkies for what would be remarkably similar looking Beanies. I took a quick snap with my camera and then it was back in the car and onwards to my final birding destination of the day.

Pink-footed Geese
My final destination was East Chevington where there was a Water Pipit in residence (the one the other two birders had failed to see) and yesterday there'd also been a Lapland Bunting though there'd been no report of it today at all. This site was just ten minutes up the road which was just as well as by now the light was starting to fade. I got out of the car and hurried down the track towards the pools where I guessed the Pipit might be hanging out. There I met a couple of birders coming the other way who reported that the Pipit hadn't been seen in about an hour though there was a nice flock of thirty or so Twite at the mouth of the burn. I soon found this flock though regretted leaving my scope in the car and decided to hurry back to get it so that I could do it justice. That was another ten minutes wasted and by now it was rather dark. Still I did get some great views of these lovely understated Finches in the end and even managed to shoot some video though the wind and the darkness meant that it didn't come out as well as I'd hoped.

Twite in the darkness

By now the darkness had defeated me. I wandered back towards the car, munching on a sandwich and watching the flocks of Starlings throwing some shapes as they prepared to roost. Then it was back in the car and I decided to retrace my steps back to Cresswell on the off chance that the Dowitcher was now on show. Once more I stopped off to say hello to the Pink-foots and then it was back to the hide where the incoming tide had pushed out all the birds onto the shoreline. I scanned as best I could though it was basically dark by now and I had to admit to defeat. So I'd managed to see just two out of the four of my target species with the Water Pipit and the Dowitcher having given me the slip but I'd really enjoyed the close views of the Twite so I was content enough. I drove a short distance along the road to a café that I'd noticed along the road which thankfully was still open so I treated myself to a nice cup of tea and some Carrot Cake. It had been my first time birding up in Northumberland and I must say that I rather enjoyed the scenery and wildness of it all. It was definitely somewhere to come back to some day.

After that it was back down to Durham to rendezvous with my daughter. By now it was dark and there was some rush hour traffic, particularly around the Tyne Tunnel so in my tired state I took it nice and slow and arrived safely at her house an hour later. She and her housemates were all rather tired from a hectic week of end of term partying so they were all having a quiet night in. We ordered a takeaway curry and watched stuff on telly or on-line. By 10 p.m. I was in bed and soon fast asleep.

The next day I still woke up far too early (I was building up quite a sleep deficit by now) and contemplated what to do. As I mentioned at the start, I'd originally been intending to go and search for some Waxwings but the truth was that they'd not been reported for several days now with no mention of them at all yesterday so in the end I decided to head over towards Hartlepool to look for the first winter drake Surf Scoter that was hanging out off-shore at Seaton Carew. This was only half an hour away from Durham and should be a fairly straight-forward sortie. I set off at around 8 a.m. (after all there was no point in getting there too early) and some half an hour later I arrived outside the Staincliffe Hotel where the bird was supposed to be. There I found a birder scoping the sea from his car though he'd just started and hadn't seen it so far. I set up my scope and in the reasonably windy conditions I tried to locate the bird. A flock of Common Scoter flew in and landed close by and I soon picked out the Surfie from in amongst them though it was difficult to get a decent view as the scope was bounced around by the wind. I told the other birder where it was and decided that he had the right idea and went to get my car. From this sheltered vantage point it was much easier to make things out and I was soon enjoying some good views of the bird along with a couple of Velvet Scoter and thirty or so Common's. It was nice to see all three species there in one go.

By far the best photo of this bird that I've seen, taken by Martyn Sidwell (c)
As it was rather dark and the birds were still reasonably distant I didn't bother trying to photograph the Surfie and after about three quarters of an hour I decided to head back to Durham, stopping off to pick up some fuel on the way. My daughter, together with another house mate who it turned out also wanted a lift, were both more or less ready so it was that at around 10:30 a.m. we set off back down south. The motorway wasn't too bad and with just one stop off for sandwiches we arrived back mid afternoon safe and sound. We stopped off briefly in Summertown to drop off the friend and to pick up a bit of shopping before heading back to Casa Gnome for a very welcome cup of tea. With the family now once more at its full compliment we decided to sort out the Christmas tree which we'd been holding off on until Daughter 1 had returned, so we passed the rest of the day chatting, decorating the tree and just chilling. It had been a quiet albeit enjoyable trip up to the North East where I'd seen some nice birds and got to know more of this part of the country.

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