A North Tyneside 'Big Day'



In 2021, I undertook a North Tyneside year list, chasing everything in my home borough in South-East Northumberland, with a target in mind of 200 species. It was a good year for rarities, but lacked any decent spring and autumn 'falls', and I fell quite a way short. Inspired by the BirdGuides initiative #LocalBigYear (to get more people out birding their local area in 2022), I decided at the start of the year that I was going to do a repeat performance.

2022 started with a fairly hectic schedule, with the majority of my time being spent sitting at my desk at work, so I decided that to really kick-start my local year list, I should attempt a 'big day' or 'bird race' in North Tyneside. Having never done one before, I made an in-depth plan with possible species, and timings to try and maximise the species count. I came up with an ambitious target of 100 species for the big day, and on 23 January, I gave it a go.

I began the day with a 5 am alarm, giving me around two and a half hours before first light to try and make a positive start. Leaving the house shortly after, I was met with a calm, overcast morning as forecasted – lovely conditions for the big day. Before I made it to the car, I was greeted with both European Robin and Blackbird singing, and a Woodpigeon was visible roosting in a tree under the streetlights.

Common Kingfisher, Wallsend, Northumberland (Jack Bucknall).

Wasting no time, I headed off into the night with the intention of adding three owl species to the day list before first light. However, despite checking no less than six separate sites, I failed to record any owls in the first two hours. With an ambitious target of 100 species in mind for the day, this was not a good start! A final check of some local fields failed to turn up the hoped-for Barn Owl, although I did add Grey Partridge calling here.

First light was due, so I headed to St Mary's Island and set my scope up for a brief seawatch while waiting for the tide to recede. Here I started to add some of the commoner coastal species, such as Eurasian Curlew, Eurasian Oystercatcher, and Common Redshank, as they flew around the bays, and a few seabirds were visible on the water close inshore. Great Cormorant, Guillemot, Common Eider and Red-throated Diver were immediately visible, and after a few minutes watching, I picked up a couple of 'bonus' species – European Shag and Common Scoter, neither of which can be relied on here when doing a big day.

There had been a wintering Water Pipit regularly in the North Bay over the previous few weeks, and I had seen it the day before, but there was typically no sign of it when I needed it. I did add Rock Pipit, and a cracking Grey Wagtail to the day list though. By this time, the tide had left the causeway, and I headed over to the island to check out the wader roost.

I was met with thousands of European Golden Plover roosting on the rocks, among other regular species for the site including a single Purple Sandpiper, which can be tough at times here. Another scan of the sea from here failed to add anything new, but a few pairs of Fulmars were around the cliffs to the north, not always easy in January, especially if the weather is poor. 

With the tide a bit further out, I headed back over the causeway to check the pond before moving on. As I reached the end of the causeway, a pipit called overhead and landed in the North Bay – bingo, Water Pipit! I quickly fired off some photos, before heading back to the car park.

Water Pipit, St Mary's Island, Northumberland (Jack Bucknall).

A quick scan of the gull roost on the rocks added European Herring, Great Black-backed and Black-headed Gulls, but failed to produce the regular wintering adult Mediterranean Gull, a species I knew was key to connect with here. Time was pressing on, so I headed for the car and moved on. I added Eurasian Teal, Common Moorhen, Eurasian Coot, Mallard, and Common Snipe as I passed St Mary's Wetland on my way out, leaving me on 44 species by 9 am.

Following a short drive, I parked up and walked into Holywell Dene with a few key targets in mind. Encountering my first woodland of the day, I quickly added several common species, the most notable of which were Song Thrush, Eurasian Bullfinch, and Greenfinch. Walking along the river, I added Eurasian Nuthatch, Eurasian Treecreeper, Stock Dove, Great Spotted Woodpecker, and the major target of this site, North Tyneside's only pair of Dipper.

Walking back to the car, I heard a Willow Tit calling, which was a huge bonus bird, as I had another site lined up for this species, but connecting here meant I could save time elsewhere. A quick check of the fields behind the car park here for Red-legged Partridge drew a blank, but did reveal a European Stonechat, which was the only one I saw all day.

An unplanned visit to my parents' house followed, as they regularly fill their feeders up and have resident Tree Sparrows. A brief ten-minute stop here added the target species, alongside House Sparrow, Dunnock, and Collared Dove, all of which were new for the day. The next stop on my planned list was Howdon Wetland, a largely private site that takes a chunk of time and effort to actually access.

I decided to give it a go though, as I knew it held some key species that I wouldn't get elsewhere. Although it is a pain to access, it came up with the goods, and here I added Common Shelduck, Black-tailed Godwit, and a very unexpected Jack Snipe that flushed as I walked along the main path. I had drawn a blank at a couple of regular sites for this species the day before, so hadn't expected to get it on the big day. Eurasian Siskin was also picked up here.

My fiancé Laura isn't a birder, but she was keen to join me for the afternoon session, as I have often spoken to her about bird races in the past, so she was keen to see what all the fuss was about! On my way to pick her up for the afternoon's birding, I drove past a small park in North Shields that has previously hosted Ring-necked Parakeet, a species that is still pretty rare in North Tyneside.

I hadn't seen the birds for a few months here, but I thought as I was passing, I may as well call in and see if I could hear any. Immediately after opening my car door, to my surprise, the unmistakable screech of several parakeets was evident right above my head, another bonus species for the day list. It was a very well-timed stop too, as a flock of Redwing dropped onto the grass as I was watching the parakeets, along with a single Mistle Thrush – ideal!

Dipper, Holywell Dene, Northumberland (Jack Bucknall).

After picking Laura up, we headed west to do some inland birding for the afternoon, the first stop being a roost site for a Little Owl. Despite much scoping of its favoured building, the bird was not sitting in view, so we headed off to Killingworth Lake. On the way, I got Laura to add up how many species I was on for the day, including the flock of Pink-footed Geese and a hovering Common Kestrel I picked up driving past Killingworth Moor. I thought it would be around the mid-60s, so I felt quietly confident when she replied saying I was on 75 species, with a full afternoon of birding still ahead of us.

I hadn't looked at any big water bodies yet, so arriving at Killingworth Lake, I immediately added Canada Goose, Common Goldeneye, Tufted Duck and Common Pochard to the day list. Under normal circumstances (and the day before) two species should have been nailed on here, so I was amazed to scan the lake and not see a single Goosander or Little Grebe. I didn't have any backup plans in place for these two birds, as I couldn't believe I wouldn't get them here! I still had Swallow Pond to visit, which isn't far from Killingworth, so I thought maybe they both might have been present there, so we quickly moved on. 

Before heading to Swallow Pond, we made a stop in a local park in Wallsend, where there had been a reliable wintering Common Kingfisher. Within minutes of turning up, we had the kingfisher showing brilliantly, much to Laura's delight! I scanned the river here for Little Egret without success, and we headed for Swallow Pond.

On the way, I asked Laura to go through the list and read out to me which species I had given a '10' rating to in terms of 'likeliness of seeing', that I had not yet connected with. To my horror, she listed 7 species, a couple of which would have been absolute howlers to miss (Coal Tit and Common Gull)! I knew that if I managed to connect with all the '10s', plus a couple of bonus species, the target of 100 was well within the realms of possibility.

Goosander, West Allotment, Northumberland (Jack Bucknall).

We arrived at Swallow Pond at 1 pm, and quickly added Coal Tit on the car park feeders, and Common Gull in the adjacent field, much to my relief! A check of the pond was worryingly quiet, although a few pairs of Northern Shoveler were a welcome addition to the day list. However, no sign of Goosander or Little Grebe which, in my mind, was the last chance of picking up either. A further walk around the surrounding fields added Goldcrest to the list, but nothing else of note. 

At this point, I was ahead of the timings that I had planned, so I put a call into a few local birders and asked for any advice on where to pick up a few 'easies' that I was still missing. I was told to check a small water body called West Allotment Pond for Goosander, but Little Grebe was seemingly done-for. A five-minute drive to the aforementioned pond, and I very quickly picked up on two redhead Goosanders – boom! A further scan of the pond didn't reveal anything new, until I heard the distinctive squeal of a Water Rail calling from the reedbed, a good addition and a species I didn't expect to get on the day. 

With a few glaring omissions still to clear up, we headed off to Rake Lane, the 'go-to' location in North Tyneside for many of the typical farmland species, and also a good location to pick up a raptor or two. Walking through the wild field here, I immediately put up a huge mixed flock of finches and buntings, a magnificent sight. I quickly located two targets here – Yellowhammer and Common Linnet. A further walk disturbed a couple of Eurasian Skylark, one of which started displaying in full song, a sign of how mild winters have become in the North-East.

These three were all new for the day list but were all expected here. I had hoped to pick up any of Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard, Peregrine Falcon, Red-legged Partridge or Merlin – I felt these were the category of species I would need to stand any chance of making the 100 species target, so it was disappointing not to connect with any of them in the half an hour I gave it.

Iceland Gull, North Shields, Northumberland (Jack Bucknall).

The light was beginning to fade by this time, and we had about an hour of light left to tidy up a few 'last minute' birds. A further count at this point had us on 89 species for the day, at which point I thought it was highly likely that we were going to fall just short of the target. However, we carried on and headed to North Shields Fish Quay, where the wintering third-winter Iceland Gull was in attendance – and visible immediately. At this point, my planned route had been completed early, so I turned my attention to trying to revisit a few sites to try and get as close to the target as possible.

We didn't hang around long and headed along the coast back towards St Mary's. There was a fair-sized gull roost on the rocks here, as there is most evenings, but alas, the Mediterranean Gull had beaten me again. The light was really cutting in by this time, so I gave it one last scan of the fields here and to my delight, a Red-legged Partridge was feeding along the margin. In the half-light, I gave it one last go for Little Egret and Common Buzzard along Holywell Dene, but dipped again.

Conscious that I still hadn't seen an owl all day, I headed back inland slightly and re-checked the building from the morning, and had a good result – the Little Owl was sitting in its favoured location! This site is also good for Barn Owl, so I used the last of the available light to scan its usual hunting field, but, unfortunately, it wasn't to be. Before calling it a day, we gave it another half hour listening for Tawny Owl at several sites and again heard none. A final count-up of the list revealed that I had recorded 92 species in North Tyneside throughout the day – despite not quite hitting 100, I felt this wasn't a bad effort.  

Looking back on the day, 100 could have been done with a bit more luck, and I believe in a harder winter when more birds are around, it could be done with relative ease. My provisional plan is to do another big day in the spring, where hopefully the elusive target of 100 species in a day in North Tyneside is achieved!

Written by: Jack Bucknall