More five star birdwatching; Northumberland coast 24/02/14

by on Feb.25, 2014, under Birdwatching, Northumberland, Northumberland Coast

Yesterday continued to lay to rest the myth that February is a quiet month…

Starting in the north of the county, overlooking the iconic landscape of Holy Island, brought the expected waders and wildfowl, and three lifers for Paul and Katie, who were back for another day out with us, following a trip in 2009; Common Scoter, Long-tailed Duck and Twite. A Peregrine muscled its way menacingly through the air above a flock of Dunlin, Grey Seals were ‘bottling’ at high tide and Bar-tailed Godwits, Redshank and Curlew were probing the soft exposed mud as the tide began to drop.  Eider, Shelduck, Red-throated Divers, Wigeon and Teal were all at or near the water’s edge and the songs of Skylark and Yellowhammer reverberated in the warm sunshine.  Perhaps the highlight of the morning was a bird that is always breathtaking; sailing elegantly into the stiff breeze, a male Hen Harrier was tracking along a hedgerow heading inland 🙂

The afternoon brought Paul and Katie’s fourth lifer of the day, a Red-necked Grebe, with Little, Great Crested and Slavonian Grebes all close by for comparison.  Two Avocets were rather unseasonal, a pair of Pintail exuded elegance, drake Goldeneye looked very smart in their contrasty breeding plumage, Red-breasted Mergansers looked quite, well, comical as they always do and two Brown Hares were sitting motionless in a nearby field.  With 30 minutes until sunset a small flock of Starlings flying in from the north led to me suggesting that we go and see where they’d gone, and to check if there was going to a significant murmuration…

What followed was, quite simply, one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever witnessed.  Initially the Starlings were about a mile south of where I expected them to roost, and there were a lot of them.  Soon two other large flocks merged with them and they moved slowly north, eventually passing directly overhead with the sound of wingbeats like a gentle breeze rustling through a forest.  The murmuration drifted away to the south again, then back north.  Almost an hour had passed when the activity levels within the flock were ramped up.  Twisting and turning with more urgency, the density of birds in different parts of our view coalesced to form writhing shapes from the previously uniform oval.  With light levels fading, the birds vanished from sight, only to betray their presence in a series of shapes that resembled a slug, then a snail, then a car.  We soon lost them in the gloom again, only for the finale to the evenings proceedings to take us all by surprise as the flock compacted over the reedbed where they were going to roost, forming a dense arrowhead as they funneled into the reeds.  With the first birds down in the reedbed, the rest of the flock wheeled slightly higher, then repeated the maneuver, a second arrowhead driving into the reeds.  A third, then a fourth, cohort entered the roost and all was quiet.  Fade to black…

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2 Comments for this entry

  • Paul Waldron

    Katie and I really enjoyed our trip with you Martin.

    How wonderful the yellowhammer looked singing in full sunlight, it would have been easy to imagine we were watching some tropical beauty rather than being in Northumberland in February! The Hen Harrier was a real treat, we’ve had some good sightings of female birds in the last twelve months but to get such good views of a male, again in the golden sunshine of winter, was special.

    And then of course there was that starling murmuration. We’ve been lucky enough to travel to many parts of the world watching wildlife but I have never seen anything more spectacular than that, when they flew over us the scale of the flock was awesome.

    Thanks for a splendid ‘northern experience’!

  • martin

    Hi Paul and Katie

    It was lovely to have you out with us again, and great to hear how you enjoyed the trip.

    The murmuration really was something special. I still can’t get over how they were still up when it was almost too dark to see, yet the density of the flock made them stand out against such a dark sky. Then of course, there was the Hen Harrier – certainly my favourite raptor, and possibly my favourite bird 🙂

    Hope to see you again in the future. I’ll have to tell James Lowen that his book inspired a winter visit to Northumberland! The best time of year to visit up here we think.

    best wishes
    martin

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