Focus On: where and when to see Roseate Terns in north-east England

Roseate Tern: Whitburn, Durham. (Photo: Mark Newsome) Roseate Tern: Whitburn, Durham. (Photo: Mark Newsome)

Roseate Terns have continued to do well in the north-east in recent years. The small number of breeding pairs on the Farne Islands has unfortunately all but vanished, but birds on Coquet Island, just a mile and a half offshore from Amble in Northumberland, have flourished. The summer of 2005 looks like being another good year, with over 80 pairs having been located, and hopefully the weather and local food stocks will allow good breeding success.

There are two main autumn gathering points for Roseate Terns to the south of Coquet: St Mary's Island NZ3575 to the north of Whitley Bay, and at Whitburn Steel NZ414617. Birds start arriving at the Steel in mid July, and can be found almost daily in late July and the first three weeks of August. They become much more irregular in September and most birds have normally left the area by mid-month. Last year was not a particularly good year for terns gathering at Whitburn, but there were still counts of 7 Roseates on 16th and 5 on 19th August. The signs are encouraging this year, as Roseate Terns have already been seen irregularly through May and June.

Anyone wanting to see Roseate Terns at Whitburn should consider the following:

  • Tide — the best time to visit is about 2 hours before high tide. Once the tide is fully in, the birds have a very limited choice of where to gather and are easily disturbed. The high tide times for July and August are shown below.
  • Time of day — the terns are often fishing off Whitburn through the morning and mid-day periods. Afternoons seem a better time to find them at the Steel.
  • Weather — it is exposed on the cliff top when it's windy or rainy — pick a nice sunny day!
  • Day of the week — the area does get quite a lot of disturbance from holidaymakers during July and August, weekends obviously being much busier. A midweek visit will probably be more productive.
Roseate Tern: Whitburn, Durham. (Photo: Mark Newsome) Roseate Tern: Whitburn, Durham. (Photo: Mark Newsome)

The best place to park for a visit to the Steel is the public pay-and-display car park, next to the garage on the coast road south of Whitburn village. From here, walk east along the cliff top for about ¼ mile to view the rocks and small stacks where the terns roost. Alternatively, if you wanted a longer walk, park in the free public car park in Whitburn Coastal Park and walk south along the clifftop path. You will reach the favoured area after about ¾ mile. The whole area of Whitburn Steel can be excellent for other shorebirds too. From late July onwards, returning waders start to gather in good numbers and are well worth checking for something more unusual like Greenshank, Curlew Sandpiper or Little Stint. Even real rarities like Buff-breasted Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Pacific Golden Plover and White-winged Black Tern have been seen on the rocks here. There's always a good selection of birds to look at. Check out the Whitburn website beforehand for details of the latest bird sightings in the area: www.whitburnbirding.co.uk

One more tip — avoid the Sunderland Airshow weekend (30–31 July). The terns don't seem to like the idea of a Tornado hurtling overhead at 600mph!

As Mark says in his article, to be kept up-to-date with the latest details of bird sightings in the area, see the Whitburn Birding website www.whitburnbirding.co.uk.
Written by: Mark Newsome