A big year in Sunderland in 2021



Over the past 16 years of birding I've set myself a few personal challenges. While goal-orientated birding isn't for everyone, I find that it gives me both focus and motivation even during those perceived 'quiet months'.

Fueled by curiosity, at the end of 2020 I decided I would work out how many species of birds I had seen in the borough of Sunderland. It became apparent fairly quickly that there were a few extremely rare vagrants that I was never going to see in Sunderland, the famous Baillon's Crake at Mowbray Park in 1989 being one such example.

It didn't take long though, until I was soon encouraged by the fact that some of the most exciting vagrants had only occurred in the past 20 years or so, owing to a mixture of increased coverage of both coastal and inland sites in the borough.

Looking back, it is very difficult to escape the buzz created by the Ryhope Dene Eurasian Scops Owl in 2017, or the Siberian Accentor at Hendon the previous autumn.

Eurasian Scops Owl, Ryhope, Durham (Paul Thomas).

Going back even further, 2006 saw a Siberian Rubythroat in a private garden, just a few miles from Britain's first-ever Eastern Crowned Warbler in 2008 – although one that narrowly avoided the borough. 

That was all the motivation I needed – I decided I was going to undertake a Sunderland year list in 2021. The rules would be simple, I had to see the bird within the official boundary of the Borough of Sunderland.


The Borough

Sunderland isn't particularly large and is a bit of an odd shape, with the northern section largely dominated (as expected) by housing. The coastal area is fairly workable, although the north end is largely dominated by well-used beaches, and so not a lot of birds linger here. Slightly inland, the well-vegetated Roker Park is full of large, mature trees and is a classic migrant trap.

South of here, the mouth of the River Wear provides another spot with a number of mature trees. It has hosted several good birds in the recent past, most notably a twitchable Olive-backed Pipit. Between Hendon and Ryhope is dominated by shrubs, coastal grasslands, and a mixture of recreational and agricultural crop fields.


Notable visitors and residents

There are some special birds in the region that owe their success to the cultural heritage of the area. A legacy of the area's coal-mining and ship-building heritage, Sunderland had a thriving port and the surrounding countryside was crisscrossed by railway lines. These have largely been left and contain many hawthorns that create wildlife corridors between patches of dense grassland and hawthorn habitat. This has created excellent habitat for the declining Willow Tit and is excellent for Long-eared Owl.

The Wear Valley is also home to a wintering population of Eurasian Curlew, making for an impressive sight as they come into roost at Washington WWT on a winter's evening.

Willow Tit, Backworth Pond, Northumberland (Jack Bucknall).


January to March

The start of 2021 saw England engulfed in another lockdown. One key difference this time around meant that travelling a short distance for recreation was not a problem – perfect for a local year list. Focusing on your own borough means you don't often have to drive very far to reach the boundary of anywhere!

Some classic winter birds were most memorable – Jack Snipe is a particular favorite and isn't difficult to see in the borough. An Iceland Gull that had taken up residence around Morrisons car park was initially very difficult, until it found a nearby freshwater flash to bathe in.

Wintering Mealy Redpolls at Rainton Meadows DWT added additional interest. A drake Mandarin Duck that turned up at Mowbray Park late in 2020 did the decent thing and lingered into the first few days in January. Another local birder pulled a Black Redstart out the bag at Ryhope which I managed to successfully intercept.

Mandarin Duck, Sunderland, Durham (Andrew Kinghorn).

Nesting Barn Owl right on the edge of the bustling city was a new experience for me, being more used to seeing them in largely arable areas infrequently used by the public. An unseasonal Little Gull at Hendon in early February, meanwhile, provided a temporary distraction during a house move!

March 20th proved a rather notable day: what started as an attempt to intercept northbound Whooper Swans turned into a Hooded Crow and Northern Goshawk combo! The goshawk came in off the sea perused by European Herring Gulls, a surreal experience.

Exactly a week later you could be mistaken for thinking you were at Gibraltar, with a Red Kite over southbound and Western Osprey northbound.


April to June

Things went quiet for most of April but did produce our first expected returning migrants. It wasn't long until another local birder produced a Ring Ouzel at Warden Law, a regular spring stop-off site for the species.

Shortly after, it was all eyes to the coast to catch Whimbrel en route to their Scandinavian breeding grounds, followed by a smart spring Wood Sandpiper. A Common Redstart at Hendon Gas Tanks was the borough's only record for the year and was all too brief.

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Marsh Warbler, Ryhope, Durham (Andrew Kinghorn).

The end of May saw one of the year's highlights – a superb singing male Marsh Warbler at Hendon, which would show well at times. A singing Common Quail nestled in the hills of Penshaw Monument was seen as well as heard on 10 June.

At the month's end, a Eurasian Spoonbill was downed by torrential rain at Washington WWT and lingered long enough for most to connect – a really good record for Sunderland!

Eurasian Spoonbill, Washington WWT, Durham (Andrew Kinghorn).


July to September

Some classic summer birds turned up in July, including a Garganey at Rainton Meadows DWT on 4th. A week later, passage waders started with a Greenshank through at Chilton Moor. A female Greater Scaup was at nearby Rainton Meadows too.

Early August was all about looking out at the sea off Toll Bar. The undoubted highlight on 1st was a flock of adult Long-tailed Skuas, with a solid supporting cast of Pomarine and Arctic Skuas.

The summer is typically hard-going, but 15 August was particularly notable for the presence of a Spotted Redshank at Washington WWT, followed up with Grey Plover and Roseate Tern at Toll Bar after lunch. August closed out with Brent Geese past Toll Bar as they made their way up the east coast in favorable winds.

September, meanwhile, got off to a flying start when I managed to intercept a northbound Sabine's Gull at Hendon on my way to work. The 19th proved to be a pretty important day with a single Pied Flycatcher at Hendon Gas Tanks and a single Whinchat at Ryhope. I polished off those two with a Northern Pintail at Rainton Meadows DWT.


October to December

For most British birders, October is a keystone month and the same is true when it comes to a local year list. It took a while to get going, but once it did it was good despite a lack of any prolonged easterlies.

15 October saw a White-billed Diver head close inshore past Toll Bar before tracking northbound along the southern Northumberland coast – the wonders of WhatsApp in modern birding!

Although not new for the year, my first local Pink-footed Geese of the autumn featured – a returning species I always keep an eye out for. Barnacle Geese moved up the east coast on a broad front in the middle of October too. Thankfully, I managed to intercept a few flocks and even walked out along Roker Pier to get closer to the action.

Barnacle Goose, Sunderland, Durham (Andrew Kinghorn).

Southbound Whooper Swans followed towards the end of the month, while a bumper year for Brambling allowed me to connect easily with the species. The seawatching was super in October of this year, with Greater Scaup among scoter a highlight and followed soon after by a few Little Auks that were desperately trying to re-orientate themselves.

Other seawatching highlights in October included an impressive day that produced a Red-necked Grebe, Long-tailed Duck, another White-billed Diver, and an unexpected juvenile Glaucous Gull – a few hours to remember!

October drew to a close with an unseasonably late Spotted Flycatcher, while 30th saw me add Short-eared Owl and Red-legged Partridge. As far as new conditions were concerned, November and December would prove quiet.


Glaring omissions

Some all too brief Lapland Buntings proved to be frustrating, seen only by two local birders, while at least two Great Egrets also proved brief. Raptors are classic birds that you normally have to 'be there to see', and so I didn't manage to intercept either Eurasian Hobby or Western Marsh Harrier.

Working at a desk cost dearly, with Cory's Shearwater, Great Shearwater, Fea's-type petrel, and Curlew Sandpiper all missed past Toll Bar.

Two classic nocmig species went unrecorded by me – Tree Pipit and Crossbill – while a Glossy Ibis flew over Ryhope early one morning while I was inspecting the inside of my eyelids!

Last but not least, in November I missed what was undoubtedly the most memorable seawatch of the year – a remarkable few hours saw no fewer than two Brünnich's Guillemot and a Snow Bunting head past Toll Bar!



Out of a total of 198 confirmed species logged in Sunderland during the year, I managed to score a healthy 184 of them. I had a blast, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I've promised myself I won't do a borough year list in 2022, but I've made silly promises to myself before. We shall see!

Written by: Andrew Kinghorn