It seemed like only yesterday that I was fetching Daughter 1 down from Durham and yet it was time to take her back up again - the time just seems to be flying by. Still at least this trip would give me an opportunity to explore the North East some more. As usual, in the week leading up to our departure I kept a keen eye on what was about up in the region. The Long-billed Dowitcher that I'd somehow managed to dip last time was still about up at Cresswell and over in Hartlepool there was a Glaucous Gull and three over-wintering Shorelarks. With a smattering of other notable birds there was going to be something of interest to see but sadly there were no stonkers to get me really salivating. Still, that was only to be expected at this time of year.
On the Sunday morning of our departure we managed to leave surprisingly early at around 8:20 a.m. We had to stop off in Islip to pick up a a friend of a friend who was heading back up to Durham as well and who wanted a lift but after that we were on our way. With it being a Sunday morning there was little traffic on the roads and we made good time as we sped northward, admiring the snow-dusted countryside which gave what was normally rather dull scenery a more magical look to it. We made good time and in the usual four hours or so we were turning off the motorway along the now-familiar road into Durham itself. My daughter lives on the east side of the city so it's easy to get to but our guest traveller lived right on the other side so we had to endure the traffic jams all the way across the city in order to drop him off first. That done, we nipped back to unload my daughter's bags and to admire her new kitchen that the landlord had installed over the Christmas period. Given that it had taken longer than expected to drop off our guest and with daylight still an issue at this time of year I eschewed the proffered cup of tea and was soon back on the motorway heading north again.
For this afternoon's birding I'd decided to have another crack at the Dowitcher up at Cresswell. It had already been reported as still present this morning on RBA on the way up so I was more confident of actually seeing it this time. What's more, despite dipping last time, I'd really enjoyed the location and scenery so if the worst should happen again I knew that it would still be pleasant enough up there. I sped along the familiar route and about three quarters of an hour after leaving Durham I was pulling up in the layby near the pond. Unlike last time, there were quite a few cars parked up and some birders were walking back just as I was getting kitted out in all my many layers of clothing to combat the freezing temperatures. They reported that the Dowitcher had been showing well until about ten minutes ago when it had flown off. Gah - not again! Somewhat dejected, I finished tooling up and hurried along the track leading to the hide, mainly just to generate some warmth in my body. As I went along the track up to the hide I stopped to admire the birds on the feeders: several Tree Sparrows and various assorted finches including a nice Siskin.
Sadly, inside the hide the occupants confirmed the lack of Dowitcher. I settled down to see what else was about and was just getting my scope set up when someone called out a Barn Owl on the far side of the pond and indeed there it was looking nicely lit-up in the watery winter sunlight. I watched it for a while as it hunted along the far bank before it dropped out of sight. I then finished assembling my scope and gave all the assembled birds a thorough grilling but sadly I soon confirmed the distinct lack of any Dowitchers. I munched philosophically on my packed lunch and admired the scenery. Shortly afterwards all the Wigeon that were grazing next to the pond went up and crashed back down on the small unfrozen area of water in a panic. The reason soon became apparent when a Marsh Harrier came over, being hassled by a couple of Crows. Along the right-hand side of the pond at the base of the reeds in amongst the copious numbers of Snipe I picked out a Water Rail working its way along the edge of the pond. All in all I was seeing quite a few nice birds even if the main attraction wasn't present. I busied myself with digiscoping a nearby Redshank and a Curlew.
|Passing the time digiscoping the local waders|
After a little while I decided to have another scan through the birds (mostly Wigeon, Teal and some Shoveler) on the far shore. Almost immediately I picked out what was clearly the Dowitcher in amongst the Teal. Elated, I called it out to the other people in the hide and then spent a good five minutes trying to get everyone else onto it as there were no obvious land marks and in the end I resorted to using sheep as markers. Eventually everyone got on it and I was finally able to have a go at digiscoping it though the distance, and the fact that it was moving about rapidly and it was in the shade meant that it was never going to be more than a record shot.
After a while it moved right into the left-hand corner where it was obscured by the reeds in front of us. Pleased at having seen my target bird after all, I contemplated what to do next as there was still a bit of daylight left now that the days are growing longer again. In the end I decided to head just up the road to take a look at the geese flock where in the last few days some White-fronts and some Bean Geese had been reported in amongst the Pink-foots. I soon found the flock which was conveniently positioned fairly close to the road and carefully parked up, using the car as a hide to view them. I got out my recent Christmas present, the Canon SX60 super-zoom, an upgrade to my old SX30 - this one had twice the optical zoom of my old one at an amazing 60 times! I put it through its paces in the fading light and I must say I was very pleased with it. It has an incredible reach though at 60 times it's hard to keep it steady even with the image stabilisation.
Hunting through the flock I eventually managed to find the three White-fronted Geese though they were a bit further away and the photos weren't that great. There was no sign of the Bean Geese though some of the birds were in the next field and too far away to be scrutinised.
With the light now fading fast I decided to head back down the road to the Drift café which I'd visited last time. After parking up, on whim I decided on a quick walk along the sea shore to stretch my legs a little after what had been a long days driving. It was very cold and I yomped along at a pace in order to generate some warmth. There was a nice flock of mixed gulls along the shore line and I headed over towards them: Black-headed, Commons and a few Herring Gulls. There were also some Sanderling along shore and I took a few more snaps with the new superzoom though the light by now was fading fast.
|Common Gull and a rather strangely-shaped Sanderling|
Eventually the cold got the better of me and I hurried off to the café which, unlike last time, was full of visitors. I ordered a cup of tea and a slice of carrot cake and sat down to enjoy my reward for a long day's driving and some good birding. The locals were very friendly and I was soon engaged in conversation with several of them about why I was up there and what I had seen. I met a couple who were originally from Stanton Harcourt though they'd relocated up here a long time ago. They'd not picked up the accent at all - a shame as I really like the north eastern accent.
Whilst I had the benefit of the café Wifi I decided that I'd better sort out some accommodation for the evening. My daughter had said that she was very tired (she'd just come back from her Uni skiing trip the previous day - which seemed to have involved a lot of "aprés" from what I could tell) and wanted an early night. This meant that I had to find a convenient hotel somewhere local instead but fortunately, having already checked the day before, I knew that there were plenty available so I'd not been in too much of a hurry to book anything. Whipping out my trusty Trivago app on my phone I soon found one in South Shields that I'd been keeping an eye on and my holding off booking it had resulted in a 10% late booking discount though to be honest it was already ridiculously cheap anyway. I reserved my room and then wandered back to the car, listening to the calling Pink-foots in the half light of dusk. I could seen why people liked Northumberland - it was really lovely along the coast here.
I fired up the Gnome mobile, set the Sat Nav co-ordinates for the hotel and I sped off back south. Thanks to a one-way system the hotel took a bit of getting to and then it turned out that the parking was around the back and so I had to battle with the system again before eventually getting settled in. The room was small but reasonably comfortable and I whiled away the time watching telly before grabbing something to eat downstairs in the hotel itself which wasn't that great to be honest but I washed it down with a pint of John Smiths and in any event I was too tired to care. I tried watching more telly but by now after my long day I was too tired and by 9:30 I was fast asleep.
The reason why I'd chosen South Shields for my hotel was because for the Monday morning birding session I'd decided to start off with some sea watching. Why go sea-watching in January you might ask? Well the reason was Little Auk - one of my bogey birds that I've yet to see. Whilst the prime November season was now behind us, one or two birds were still being reported along the north east coast occasionally including at the Whitburn Bird Observatory. I'd been following the blog there, penned by local birder Paul Hindess, and a couple of days ago I had got in touch via Twitter to ask about access to the hide. He'd told me that whilst it is locked and a key is required, he would be there from first light so I arranged to join him for a watch. I knew that my chances of actually seeing a Little Auk were pretty slim and Paul confirmed this but I wasn't going to see one by loafing around at home in Oxford. Nothing ventured, nothing gained and at the very least I'd be able to rack up some sea bird year ticks.
I set my alarm for 7 a.m. but in the end I woke up far too early (as I usually seem to do when I'm away on my trips). I dozed fitfully and then got up, dressed and went downstairs for my hotel breakfast. Then it was time to check out and hit the road. It wasn't yet light as I followed the Sat Nav's instructions along the back roads of South Shields and down to the coast where some ten minutes later I pulled up in Whitburn in a housing estate- Paul had told me this was the best place to park since the coastal park was currently closed for the winter. It was still dark and decidedly cold as I fumbled into multiple layers and got my birding gear together. I could just see the observatory across the fields from where I parked and some five minutes later I met up with Paul in what was one of the nicest and well-equipped sea-watching sites I've ever seen.
|Paul Hindess in the Whitburn sea-watching hide|
The hide was of a solid stone construction with the slats made of sturdy industrial-strength metal to keep out the elements. There was a nice bench, sited well back from the window so one could comfortably get ones scope set up. There were plentiful cushions and blankets stored behind the seating, both most welcome. Soon I was settled in and chatting away to Paul. Normally at the weekend there are half a dozen or so very keen local birders who do the watch but as it was a weekday there was just Paul to start with though another birder came along later. They are pretty serious about their sea-watching here and every bird is noted down as it passes. I was very appreciative of being in the comparative warmth of the hide and of being able to hear what's being said as things are called out: when on the cliffs at Pendeen I find that I often struggle to hear what's being called which can lead to a very frustrating time. With the shelter of the hide and the good view out the window I was usually (though not always) able to get on any birds that were called.
|The Whitburn hide from the outside|
It seemed to be a slow start initially though we soon had a Great Northern Diver going past which seems to be a good bird here with Red-throats the more common species. We had plenty of the latter go by including one flock of 10 plus a single Black-throated so we managed the complete set this morning. Common Scoter and Eider went past regularly and I managed to pick up a very distant Bonxie flopping its way south. Apart from that it was the usual Fulmars and Gulls and the occasional Auk. After a while Paul called out "Little Auk heading south reasonably close in" - panic stations! I tried to get on it as he gave a running commentary but you know what it can be like trying to pick out such a small bird as it whizzes by. It was coming south and had just about got to the "straight-out" position when it went down on the sea - usually the kiss of death when trying to pick out a sea bird. Fortunately Paul still had it in his scope and kindly leant out of the way whilst I precariously leaned over and peered through his lens. At first I couldn't see anything and then bingo! - there it was bobbing up and down in the waves, my first ever Little Auk. I tried to find it in my own scope in the waves but Paul lost it in his scope and none of us could re-find it. A good twenty minutes later Paul spotted it flying off again though it had gone out of sight before either he or I could get on it again. Still I'd managed against all odds to plan for and then actually see a Little Auk (what turned out to be the only one seen in the North East that day). It just goes to show that it's always worth trying.
After that it went a bit quiet for a while but then picked up again and what with the very pleasant company and the birds it was a very nice way to pass the time. Around mid morning I started to flag, with the cold now starting to get to me and also aware of my long journey home still ahead. So I said my goodbye's to Paul, thanking him for getting me my Little Auk, and then headed back to the warmth of the car where I cranked the heating up to 11 in order to thaw out a little.
I'd mentally pencilled in a trip down to Hartlepool to try for the Shorelarks and Glaucous Gull before heading home so I set the Sat Nav for the first location and headed southwards, stopping off for fuel and to buy lunch en route. Some half an hour later I arrived on Old Cemetery road on the Hartlepool Headland, and area that I was familiar when I'd seen an overwintering Shorelark here a year or so ago. The trouble was that these three were being reported "on the rough ground south of the cemetery" which seemed confusing to me. The access road was to the south and there was rough ground to the west (where it was last time) and to the east but just a bit of scrubby bushes to the south. Perhaps they meant the west? No, they were now building houses there. I tried the east area and had a quick scan but they could have been anywhere and there was no one else about. In the end I decided not to waste any time on these birds and elected instead to head over for the Glaucous Gull, via the a quick scan of the sea by the Headland on Marine Drive. The reason for this was that a Little Auk or two had been reported over the last few days on the sea late morning so it was just worth a go on the off chance of a second helping. A few minutes later I parked up on Marine Drive and had a scan over the relatively flat and sheltered sea here. There were quite a few roosting waders on the shore beneath me with perhaps 50 Knot, a Redshank, a few Turnstone and a Ringed Plover all on the shore. They were close enough for me to run back to the car for the new Superzoom where I took a few snaps.
On the sea itself there were a couple of (normal-sized) Auks and several Red-throated Divers but nothing else of note. I got back into the car and headed over to the marina area where the Glauc was supposed to be hanging out, noting the famous bowling green as I went past - the scene of many a historic rarity that I recognised from photos.
I soon arrived at Jacksons Landing where I found the various landmarks that had been mentioned in the various RBA reports that I'd seen over the previous week. The bird was often reported on the roof of the Premier Inn or the local museum but despite scanning all the gulls on all the roof tops I couldn't find it at all. I did spot a flock of Red-breasted Mergansers on the far side of the harbour and once again the Superzoom was able to take a record shot.
|Distant Red-breasted Mergansers|
I munched on my lunch as I watched the gulls coming and going. Then it was time for a final scan (still no joy) and then time to hit the road. Fortunately my journey back was uneventful and with some interesting programmes on Radio 4 to keep me company the four hours passed quickly enough. Late afternoon I was back in the bosom of my family for my usual celebratory cup of tea. It had been a most productive trip to the North East with some great birds seen and my first Tick of 2016 already under my belt. I'm already looking forward to my next trip up to the area.