Alan Tilmouth: birding far from the shore


My birding routines have been turned upside down during 2023. The sea, typically a key element in my day-to-day birding, has become a distant memory of white-crested waves and the smell of salt. I've still had waves of a sort, but they've been of wind washing across the grassy Northumbrian uplands, and the smell of salt has been replaced by the aroma of sheep.

I should perhaps explain that some of my work has found me surveying the Sitka Spruce and grassy sheep walks of inland Northumberland this spring and summer. It's been an interesting change that's provided the opportunity to spend greater time with many species that I wouldn't see at my coastal patch or would only come across briefly as they transited during spring and autumn from wintering grounds to breeding areas and back again.

Scattered among the many periods of low activity, other than the constant song of the Eurasian Skylarks that accompanied every visit, there have been days that have shown me how it feels to be part of and connected to this landscape. On multiple occasions I've been reminded that, despite many years birding, there is always something new, something to learn.

Misty mornings would often begin with coffee in hand met by the local male Merlin perched atop its favoured cairn. Woe betide any Common Buzzard that strayed into range as the feisty falcon would hurl itself repeatedly towards the lumbering Buteo until it crossed the line drawn in the sky that denoted the start and end of the Merlin's territory.

Alan has spent many hours in the uplands this year, enjoying more time than usual with breeding species such as Eurasian Curlew (Mike Lane).


Cuckoos and curlews

The songs of Common Cuckoos and Eurasian Curlews were frequent, but each species had contrasting fortunes this year. Cuckoos were far more numerous than in recent times and I was repeatedly serenaded with their repetitive song. A calling curlew stirs my soul every time but, of the several well-spaced pairs observed this year, not a single breeding attempt appears to have been successful.

The local Peregrine Falcons also appeared to lose their young suddenly – whether foul play or the wet weather during summer was to blame will remain an unresolved mystery. The male of the pair appeared fond of watching me whenever I was at a vantage point in the territory, sitting on rocks a few hundred metres away keeping me constant company.

Often it has been the little things that have made the days enjoyable – the deep calls of a distant pair of Ravens tumbling in the air as they rose on thermals over a crag, or the incessant curiosity of the female Northern Wheatear searching every nook of a dilapidated concrete bunker for a suitable location to build a nest, while her partner hung about trying to look interested in the same way some blokes do at IKEA.

Perhaps my favourite three minutes came several weeks ago. After picking up a distant raptor gaining height and identifying it as a Northern Goshawk, I was astonished when it dropped into a dive and burst through a melee of (and you can imagine my language at this time) four more goshawks. Adjusting the 'scope, two further individuals appeared just a few metres higher – seven in the air together! Presumably a family party, this was for me the first time (and possibly the only time) I'll ever witness seven of these magnificent raptors in such a tight airspace together.

The moors have fallen silent now, after the first Pink-feet of the autumn began to trickle over in mid-September. I'm looking forward to seeing what winter has in store, although I may need to dig out the thermal underwear!


  • This column first appeared in the November 2023 edition of Birdwatch. To be the first to read the magazine each month, take out a subscription to Birdwatch, or get the magazine alongside your bird news by subscribing to either Bird News Ultimate (paper magazine) or Bird News Ultimate Plus (digital access).
Written by: Alan Tilmouth