Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Winter on the Blyth Estuary, by James Common


To me, my local patch local is the centrepiece of the birding world, a microcosm of the wider countryside where I can enjoy the thrills, spills, trials and tribulations of birding without straying too far from my front door. Patching is an incredibly rewarding affair, both exhilarating and frustrating in equal measure but wholly enjoyable for this very reason. On patch I can watch the area's fauna change throughout the seasons, follow the breeding attempts of various species and much, much more. My patch in particular holds a special place in my heart as it is in fact the site on which I was raised, so to speak. This is the site on which I first discovered my love of birding and the site on which I cut my teeth as an amateur naturalist. Above all else however it is a site that, despite periods of prolonged absence, welcomes me back time and time again and continues to both surprise and delight year in, year out. On this subject, I am of course referring to the Blyth Estuary in Northumberland. A place I have been lucky enough to call home for many years and one that really comes into its own during the winter season.

True to the nature of the site, during winter most of my wanderings focus on the Blyth estuary itself. Here waders gather in force, putting on a fine show throughout the season with Dunlin and Redshank by far the most numerous. The former whirling and wheeling in a spectacle reminiscent of southern Knot gatherings though often in the absence of any Knot. Indeed, a count of five Knot is actually rather good by my standards here. Alongside these; smaller accumulations of Turnstone, Curlew, Lapwing and Golden Plover never fail to delight, as do some of the site's less abundant leggy offerings. Among these, Black and Bar-Tailed Godwit, Grey Plover and the odd Purple Sandpiper. The large gatherings of waders here clearly have the potential to turn up something altogether more interesting, though to date, the best I have managed comprises a lone Spotted Redshank. Tales of a wintering Terek Sandpiper before my time only fuel my hope of one day unearthing something remarkable here. We shall see.

Great Northern Diver by James Common
Great Northern Diver by James Common
The Blyth estuary and adjacent harbour also attract their fair share of wildfowl species. Of course Mallard, Teal, Shelduck and Gadwall are commonplace here and often joined by obliging flocks of Goldeneye, Red-Breasted Merganser and Eider. The characteristic "awoooh" of the latter the soundtrack to many a winter walk. These species are occasionally joined however by some altogether more appealing species, particularly after a good bout of stormy weather. Winter usually finds at least one Great Northern Diver residing on the Blyth, while Red-throated Diver have, to date, proven similarly annual. Another local chap did recently photograph a Black-throated Diver in the harbour too, though commitments elsewhere meant that I failed to catch up with the bird. Blast! I did however manage one on the sea a few weeks later. Velvet Scoter are likewise fairly regular visitors to Blyth. Indeed, the back-end of 2015 proved particularly good for this species with numerous birds on the sea and a particularly showy first-winter drake taking up residence on the estuary itself, much to my delight. These are definitely one of my favourite birds. Elsewhere here Guillemot and Shag regularly crop up in winter, as do Long-Tailed Duck while only the other day I was lucky enough to catch up with a Glaucous Gull cruising over the estuary in typical, Pteranodon-esque style. Truly, you never know what you will find during winter on the Blyth.

While discussing seabirds I owe it to the patch to briefly mention my favoured seawatching position just north of the estuary. Many a cold, winter day has been spent here, often for little or no reward – as is the nature of seawatching I guess. When things go right however winter seawatching here can be thoroughly rewarding. Little Auks are a regular winter feature with 28 recorded this season alone, often very close to shore and thankfully, rarely stranded on the beach as at many other locations. Additionally, seawatching here has allowed me to catch up with my only patch Little Gulls among other winter species such as migrating Whooper Swans and large flotillas of Common Scoter. There is also great potential for a number of species "in off" with notable records to date this winter including Woodcock, Brambling and various thrushes shooting in above the surf. I did say I would keep this bit brief however..

In winter, the hulking industrial estate mentioned previously is often bursting with berries courtesy of innumerable growths of Whitebeam and Spindle. These in turn provide a draw to many species, including good sized flocks of winter thrushes. There is however one winter visitor to the Blyth that warrants a specific mention. Waxwings! Three years on the trot now winter has provided sightings of these spectacular migrants with this year's birds showing particularly well, often down to a matter of feet. A real festive treat if ever there was one and surely one of the most sought after winter spectacles. I do believe my "peak count" for Waxwings at Blyth stands at a rather good 27 birds during the last eruption year. Lovely!

Bypassing talk of Peregrines, Grey Partridge and other patch based goodies (if only to keep the word count down) there is one other area of the patch that warrants a mention. Perhaps more so than others as this is indeed the first nature reserve I remember visiting in my youth. I am of course referring to Ha'Penny Woods Local Nature Reserve, a small piece of remnant woodland that fringes the River Blyth a little upstream of the sites previously mentioned. Here I find it possible to lose myself entirely, immersed in Red Squirrels, Otters and a host of avian treats. This site is great for a number of species from Kingfisher and Grey Wagtail to Tawny Owl though it is the wood's passerines that hold perhaps the most allure. Here Nuthatch, Treecreeper and Great Spotted Woodpecker are commonplace, as are Bullfinch and Goldcrest, alongside of course a smorgasbord of familiar woodland denizens. Ha'Penny truly comes into its own in winter, visibility increased due to fallen leaves and has the potential to surprise year on year, Willow Tit being the latest in the series of grin -inducing moments.

Shore Lark by James Common
Shore Lark by James Common
In short, winter on my patch is a glorious affair. Continuing on from Amy Robjohn's wonderful post on the subject a few weeks ago, it really is worth grabbing yourself a patch. To me, patch birding is one of the most rewarding and incredibly enjoyable hobbies around and this year, spurred on by the popular Patchwork Challenge I aim to indulge myself further. 


James Common, (@CommonByNature)

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