Lars Svennson visits Holy Island
By Ian Kerr
Lars Svensson, whose name will be well known to every serious birder and ringer throughout Europe and beyond, recently made his first visit to one of our own local hotspots, Holy Island – and he was very impressed with the place.
He found the whole island very beautiful and was impressed both with its varied habitat and the island’s and Lindisfarne NNR’s range of species, now standing at 350. Unfortunately, he was just too late for the peak of autumn migration although watching our waders and wildfowl was adequate compensation.
During his weekend visit, his host, Max Whitby, and I had the pleasure of showing him parts of the island, including the Heugh and harbour, the North Shore and the Causeway area where we watched waders and wildfowl moving in response to the rising tide.
Lars came to the island while in Britain for a couple of weeks working on a project which involved examining hundreds of bird skins in the Natural History Museum’s collection.
We couldn’t have timed his visit the Heugh for a better time as it coincided with the unexpected appearance of a pair of Ravens, a species very familiar to him from Sweden. While he was there they turned up and for half an hour busily and very noisily prospected the ruins of the Priory below, apparently looking for a nesting site.
By co-incidence, that same morning I was giving a completely non-scientific presentation in St Mary’s parish church, on the “The Birds of the Lindisfarne Gospels.” This was part of island celebrations to mark the return to the region of the early masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon art and literature which was on show at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle.
Having such a prominent birder in the audience was a bit daunting but turned out to be very fortuitous. Lars was able to confirm my belief that one of the finest illustrations in the Gospels, the Eagle of St John, was based upon a White-tailed Eagles rather than Golden Eagle as experts have previously thought. After checking beak colour and fringing to the throat and breast markings, Lars was able to confirm it as a sub-adult, probably around three years old.
It’s long been believed that Bishop Eadfrith, credited with producing the Gospels, probably had a live eagle to work from and Lars’s comments about the accuracy of details seems to give added confirmation to that theory.
White-tailed Eagles are an everyday sight for Lars as he has a nest site he can watch from his home on one of the Swedish islands where he’s also adapted his house roof to accommodate nesting Oystercatchers.
I first became aware of Lars huge contribution to birding back in the 1970s when, as a trainee member of the Northumbria Ringing Group, I became the proud owner of a copy of the small orange-backed second edition of his Identification Guide to European Passerines, a highly scientific little volume invaluable to ringers because it contained so much information about plumage, weights, measurements and other details. It was constantly referred to at Hauxley ringing station and other localities where we used our mist nets.
Like the other copies of that edition, it came with a pasted-in page giving an index of the English bird names provided by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) for the benefit of ringers.
Lars was fascinated to hear that I still had this little book on my shelves – and was still using it from time to time for reference despite the availability of so many other more modern publications and reports and, of course, the wealth of information on the internet.
Apart from St John, the White-tailed Eagle was also used as a symbol of strength and power by the Romans who they came to Britain and they were later one of the favourite standards of the Vikings whose arrival on Lindisfarne in 793, their first raid on England, was to have such momentous implications for our history. Fortunately for us today, the Vikings either didn’t come across the Gospels or if they did, ignored them as being of no value.
793 is largely forgotten in Britain’s history, except of course on Holy Island, but in Scandinavia it is regarded as the start of the Viking Age with its impact on so much of Europe, Iceland, Greenland and perhaps even North America.
Much earlier, the same eagles were obviously important for perhaps religious or superstitious reasons to the Neolithic people of Orkney where the beaks and talons of 20 eagles were found in a tomb containing the remains of 300 people dating back to 2,000BC.
Later the Eagle of St John was also adopted by the first Christian rules of the newly united Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella. They’re, of course, best remembered for commissioning Christopher Columbus to set off and find a new sea passage to India. Well, we all know how that turned out even if the Vikings had probably beaten him to it many centuries earlier!
Lars is best known to today bird-watching community for providing the species write-ups and maps for the birders’ “bible,” Collins Bird Guide, which has sold over 1.2 million copies in 27 languages since it was first produced in Swedish in 1999, the result of 15 hard and dedicated years work by in partnership with Killian Mullarney, Dan Zetterstrom and the late Peter J Grant.
The latest updated and expanded edition was published in late 2022 just at the time Lars was guest on the island of Max, co-founder of BirdGuides and now head of NatureGuides, publishers of my own book, The Birds of Holy Island. A new updated edition is due out in 2023 containing details of all species so far recorded on the island and the Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve.
Max’s company has, among many other projects, digitised the Collins guide as well as the famous BWP – covering the birds of the Western Palearctic. Another of its publications, a guide to the impressive flora of Holy Island, is also due out in 2023.
Click on the thumbnails for a larger view
Friends of Red Kites
MEDIA RELEASE – Red Kites Roosting
The Friends of Red Kites (FoRK) are pleased to report that, in participating in the National Red Kite Roost Count on Sunday 9th January, 20 volunteers surveyed 8 locations in the Derwent Valley and beyond, achieving a best ever count of 94 red kites.
Many birds of prey are gregarious, particularly outside the breeding season, but the Red Kite, its close relative the Black Kite and several of the vultures, take this behaviour to the extreme where communal winter roosting is typical. The majority of red kites across a wide area come into the same roost site at dusk. It is likely that the red kites benefit from loose communal gatherings by being able to forage for food in loose groups the following morning. Roosts may also serve as a place for young red kites to interact with potential future mates.
Two main roosts were identified: one near to Hamsterley Mill, where 71 red kites were counted (also a record for one location) and the other lower down the Derwent Valley, just off the Derwent Walk. For those locations with zero or one or two red kites remaining on territory, this is still valuable information adding to our knowledge of kite behaviour. It was noted, with concern that 3 red kites had damaged feathers giving rise to suspicions that they may have been shot.
Ken Sanderson, FoRK Chair and Kite Officer, said “This is a fantastic result which supports the notion that our red kite population is still increasing. Let’s hope the numbers will continue into the breeding season.”
If you are aware of a red kite roost then please do let FoRK know: www.friendsofredkites.org.uk
The Committee is much appreciative of the efforts of club member Lindsay McDougall in filling this role in the past. Lindsay has stepped down from this post as of September 2020. Any contact regarding a conservation related issue should be made initially to the Honorary Secretary, email address on the Contacts page.
Northumberland Winter Bird Race 2020
An amazing nine teams, 34 individuals, braved the cold on Saturday 4th January 2020 for the annual Northumberland Winter Bird Race, this must be a record number of teams, which proved to be a ‘trying day’ made difficult by the nagging and persistent wind which forced the small birds to keep their heads down a little more than normal.
As per usual there was a great diversity of strategies. As well as the popular and traditional areas a number of teams had been out reconnoitring and coming up with a number of favourite sites for possibly tricky species. However, it is interesting that seven out of the nine teams went out of their way to see the Eastern Yellow Wagtail that had been performing so well at Prestwick Carr. It’s worth noting that all species only count as one but a ‘good’ bird is hard to resist, in fact it was a lifer for several Racers.
Several new species were added to the Winter Bird Race list this year; Ring-necked Parakeet and Raven are two in particular which possibly reflects the increase in populations. We always get a sprinkling of rare and scarce birds and of course the afore mentioned Eastern Yellow Wagtail falls into the category as does Black Redstart and Water Pipit. No white winged gulls this year, although one or two had been seen prior to the turn of the year. Some common species, such as Greenfinch, proved difficult to find which again probably indicates the decline in the population.
The winning Team, again, Jack Bucknall, James Common, Dan McGibbon and Michael Murphy with a magnificent 115. After winning for at least three years in a row, this team of bright-eyed birders got to keep the trophy. Six teams broke the 100 threshold, which must be a record, and the combined species list for all nine teams stands at a very impressive 135 species.
Thank you all for taking part and If you’d like to join in for 2021 Winter bird race then put the 9th January in your diary and watch out for the notices.
Friends of Red Kites
MEDIA RELEASE – Red Philip deceased
The Friends of Red Kites (FoRK) has announced that, sadly, one of their “founder” red kites, Red Philip, has had to be put to sleep following a serious injury.
Click here to read the press release
Friends of Red Kites
MEDIA RELEASE – Operation Owl launched
Operation Owl is a national campaign currently operating in 25 police forces in which the public are being asked to help tackle the unlawful persecution of birds of prey (beit by shooting, trapping or poisoning) and report incidents to their local Police force.
Operation Owl is now underway in the Northumbria Police Force area and two successful launch events were held recently at Kielder Waterside and Haggerston where representatives from Northumbria Police, the RSPB and Friends of Red Kites were present and engaged with members of the general public to show support for, and take action as part of, Operation Owl. Click here to read the press release
Vicarage Garden, Holy Island
By Ian Kerr
Coastal gardens with good cover are always wonderful places for migrants. As most members will know, few have a greater reputation for turning up mouth-watering rarities than the Vicarage garden on Holy Island.
While the island is justly famed as the cradle of Christianity in the north, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the first Viking raid on England, it’s also of course a hotspot during autumn and spring when it has the reputation of turning up many sought-after species.
Over the years this garden has hosted a superb list of rarities. Although the garden itself is private, the stone wall on the south side is at ideal elbow height for resting binoculars. It’s usually the first spot to be checked by birders visiting the village.
In autumn it can be wonderful if wind and weather are favourable. It’s not unusual for its mature Sycamores to hold up to half a dozen Yellow-browed Warblers at a time, hyper-actively searching through the crumbling leaf cover. Other goodies on the autumn garden list include Pallas’s, Radde’s, Dusky and Arctic warblers, Red-flanked Bluetail, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Firecrest, Rosefinch and Great Grey Shrike. In addition, it has all the common and regular warblers and northern thrushes and finches for which the island is such a magnet.
In spring the garden can be equally rewarding, having hosted Red-backed Shrike, Subalpine and Marsh warblers and Firecrest and a supporting cast of all the common migrants which pass northwards.
The Vicarage has even attracted species not normally associated with gardens, including Kingfisher and Nightjar. At the bottom of the garden is the beach and, 50 yards away, St Cuthbert’s Island which provides a high tide roost for hundreds of waders.
Stretched out behind is the rich Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve. Its avian celebrities, the Svalbard Pale-bellied Brent Geese, are always present between September and March along with thousands of other wildfowl and waders and huge gatherings of “singing” Grey Seals hauled out on the sandbars.
All are within sight and sound of birders at the garden wall. Now Canon Dr Sarah Hills, who took over as vicar of St Mary the Virgin, the island parish church, earlier this year is hoping birders can give something back to the community.
Birders checking the garden are being invited to drop a donation into a collection box which has been installed at the wall. Contributions will help the upkeep of the church which dates back to the Anglo-Saxon period and which, like all old building, is in need of almost constant repair.
“We are extremely lucky to have such a wonderful garden which attracts so many birds. We want birders to continue enjoying them and if they can help a bit, all the better,” she said.
Vicar Sarah is being supported by club member Ian Kerr whose hard-back guide, The Birds of Holy Island, is now in its second updated edition.
“For years I’ve thought it would be a good idea and I’m delighted that the idea has been taken up. It will certainly give everyone a chance to show their appreciation of this wonderful facility. After all, a good rarity is worth a bob or two of anyone’s money,” he added.
The box has been donated and installed by Dr.Max Whitby, co-founder of BirdGuides and now chairman of NatureGuides, who has a house on the island. His company are publishers of Ian’s book.
Ian’s book is available locally at the island Post Office and Heritage Centre or on-line from WWW.NATUREGUIDES.COM. It provides a comprehensive account of island’s history and its naturalists down the centuries from St Cuthbert to modern-day visitors. There are full seasonal accounts and details 337 species recorded up to publication. An update, bringing the species list to 341 with the recent additions of Pacific Golden Plover, Little Bittern, Glossy Ibis and Cetti’s Warbler, is now available as a free download from the publisher’s website.
The wealth of the area’s birdlife can be judged by the fact that of the 400-plus species recorded in Northumberland no fewer than 34 made their first (and often only) appearances on the island.
Vicarage Garden photos
Click on the thumbnails for a larger view
Anyone who has visited Killingworth Lake recently will have noticed significant earthworks in progress on the south bank necessitating temporary closure of the footpaths on this side of the lake. A series of water catchments zones are being constructed to alleviate flooding problems in the Benton/Forest Hall area.
Additionally the Environment Agency has created three new islands on the main lake which have been planted with vegetation which will help oxidisation of the lake. These are also intended as fish spawning sites. Attempts have been made to dislodge the existing island from the causeway but this has not been possible.
Submerged islands are also to be installed on the small lake on which the vegetation will grow upwards. In addition bird and bat boxes are to be erected in the woodland on the south shore. All work should be complete by June 2019.
Lindsay McDougall, Killingworth Lake User Group
Northumberland Winter Bird Race 2019
Saturday January 5th was a good day; it was Winter Bird Race Day. Seven teams set off, with various fine tuned strategies, to see as many species as they could in the hours that were available. Weather was relatively benign, and some would say even warm. However in exposed places such as Stag Rocks, Bamburgh, some individuals fastened their jackets and needed to put their gloves on!
One of the interesting things about winter bird racing is that the ‘birding deck’ is shuffled every year. The received wisdom, for example, is a ‘kind of you know’ where the Purple Sandpipers should be but there is no guarantee that they will be there when you go looking for them. More significantly there are always the birding wild cards of rarities, scarcities and flybys to add to the mix. That was again the case on the 5th January. Teams have their favourite sites, these are combined with traditionally good sites for certain species and some sites, which are temporary home for ‘exotic’ species, are all reccied before the big day.
So with reccies all done, some teams started and stayed in the south of the county, others started in the north and headed south, whilst one team started inland then headed east. Many miles were driven scouring the various habitats for birds with one team actually walking 10 miles, as well, during the birding quest.
Meeting back at the Keel Row, near Seaton Delaval, after dark for the official ‘Call Over’ much ‘craic’ and a couple of beers was had before the wining team (See results below) was declared and the Trophy presented. On the day, seven teams ‘raced’ with a total of 25 team members, and they are listed below. Well done to the winning team, Jack Bucknall, James Common, Sacha Elliott, and Dan McGibbon, who found 109 species; with the combined list of all teams reaching a total of 131 species recorded. However there were some obvious gaps in the combined list with, for example, Gannet, white-winged Gulls, Kittiwake and Skylark going unrecorded. Other species that were in the county but were missed included Ruff, Spotted Redshank and Hooded Crow to name but three. But it’s forever a case of ‘what might have been’.
Before dispersal everyone agreed it had been another very enjoyable day and a great way to start the year and all vowed to do it all again next year on Saturday January 4th 2020. Will you join them?
Winners; Jack Bucknall, James Common, Sacha Elliott, Dan McGibbon
Neil Anderson, Muriel and Tom Cadwallender, John Richardson
Gary Storey, Cain Scrimgeour, Phil Allott
Bob Biggs, Hector Galley, Roger Forster, Steve Scott
Graeme Bowman, Dee McKeown, Les Robson
Graham Sorrie, Roz Dunn,(one team members name removed temporarily)
Liam Gormley, John Harrison, Paul King, David Southern
Click here for the Birdrace species list
Turnstones ringing at Druridge Bay
‘As part of a project with Newcastle University studying the ‘home range’ of Turnstones we’ve been colour-ringing, with yellow flag (and Radio tagging) at Druridge Bay.
We’re now at a point where would encourage reporting of any sightings. If you do see any could you please note ring combination, grid reference and location and date and time and let me know.
You may see me wandering about with waving an aerial around tracking as well, if so please say hello.
St Mary’s Island
Changes to Access Arrangements for the hide on the Island
The NTBC committee has been informed by Mr Adam Kelsey, the Manager of St Mary’s Lighthouse and Visitor Centre, of forthcoming changes to the access arrangements to the hide on the Island. The relevant part of his email is quoted below.
“Previously keys to the hide have been sold by the Council to allow access to hide outside of normal lighthouse opening times, but although this practise was stopped some time ago, it has come to the attention of Council officers that some of the keys issued before this point have been copied and circulated to other users. To this extent the council therefore no longer has any control over access to the hide, resulting in instances where the hide is in use without council staff present to supervise, which could potentially result in instances of misuse and the inability to respond in the event of an urgent incident.
As such following a review of operations it has been decided that the locks to the hide will be changed to invalidate the keys in circulation and from that point access will be restricted to times when Council staff are on site to supervise operations. The hide will be opened throughout all normal openings of St. Mary’s Lighthouse and Visitor Centre and access outside of these times will still be permissible, either by prior arrangement or via direct communication with staff who are on site most days throughout the year, even outside of normal openings.”
The committee hopes that club members will cooperate with this protocol. Mr Kelsey can be contacted via email at Adam.Kelsey@northtyneside.gov.uk and by phone at 0191 200 8650.
Friends of Red Kites
Poisoning of Red Kites Condemned
Three red Kites have been found illegally poisoned in a blow to efforts to re-establish a thriving population across north east England.
Click here to read the press release
Seaton Sluice Watch Tower
The Seaton Sluice Watch Tower has had repairs and a lock change. Members may obtain keys for a £5-00 fee at any indoor meeting from the club Hon. Secretary Andrew Brunt, or another committee member. If this is not possible, contact him preferably by email and one can be posted, cheques payable to “NTBC”. Contact details are on the contacts webpage. All are reminded that the tower is for club members use only.