In what we hope to make a regular feature, Stewart Sexton describes his local patch, Howick, in Northumberland. Cheers Stewart!
We moved to the village of Howick in the spring of 2009. Its rural, east coast location and chocolate box image were not least when it came to the decision of ‘should we move house’.
The village consists of 18 houses, 1 village hall, 4 street lights and a phone box, set about 300mtrs from the scenic Northumberland coast. This east coast location, with Lord Howick’s estate with arboretum, pond, meadows, ditches and rougher areas make it an excellent local patch for any birder. The ability to walk for five minutes to a seawatch carrying full kit and deckchair will always be a novelty that I hope I will never get used to.
When we moved, a little investigation did turn up some bird finding potential here.
For example, in May 1886 a summer plumaged male Little Bittern was found. It was suspected that he had a mate but breeding was never proven. In 1890 a Night Heron spent 3 weeks at Howick Hall and in May 1874 the county’s first Squacco Heron was shot in mistake for an owl. A nice trio of herons there, and I still need Little Bittern in the UK.
Since historical times, though, the area has had very little birding coverage. This spot is not really birder friendly ( just how we like it) and its avian inhabitants do not give themselves up easily. There are no reserves, hides, true headlands, large freshwater lakes, reservoirs or estuaries. There aren’t any real ‘birdy’ attractions at all, so most Northumberland birders drive from the south straight past and on to the hotspots of Low Newton, Budle Bay or Holy Island in the north. All sites with a good track record, that would easily put Howick in the shade.
So then, what is the birding really like?
The patch can be roughly split into three habitat types and locations, covering around 2.5 km squares on the OS map. They are - the Village and environs, the coast and sea and the woods, fields and pond just inland.
I can sample all, on foot from home, in an hour and return with a reasonably varied list of species. A fuller coverage might take 3 or 4 hours when there is some migrant grounding weather or in a hard winter.
My full list since 2009 is 190 species plus a Turtle Dove seen well by my neighbour and a few others seen prior to this ( a White billed Diver I found in 2008 at Boulmer was seen to fly close past here later the same day).
Personal highlights for me include a singing male Golden Oriole, successfully twitched by several others that spent only one morning in our village wood in June 2009, May 2010 brought me a, brown, singing male Common Rosefinch, not only on to the patch but into our garden where it shared a niger feeder with goldfinches. Again, a one day bird. The garden came up trumps again with Barred Warblers in 2010 and 2012, and living in the patch has paid real dividends with garden records of Hobby, Osprey, Quail in 3 years out of 4, Ring Ouzel and Black Redstart.
Yellow browed Warbler has been recorded twice, as you might expect on the east coast and Waxwing in 3 out of 4 years so far, peaking at 143 birds in November 2012.
Seawatching is not as good as at some other local headlands, but it is ok, with all four skuas, three divers, annual Roseate Terns, Little Auks and, last year, a great passage of Storm Petrels in the summer.
There are some downsides. We only have one small fish pond. It has a pair of Mute Swans, a few Moorhen and Mallard, Little Grebe, but little else. Wader habitat is none existent despite the coastal location. The whole patch shore is rocky. The farmland is mixed but quite intensive, but I suppose you can’t have it all. It’s not Minsmere!
As for other wildlife, that’s quite good too. Moth Trapping has turned up over 400 species, we have Red Squirrels, Brown Hares and Grey Seals. Occasionally Bottle nosed Dolphins and Harbour Porpoise make an appearance offshore.
Lets hope I can add some new species during 2013. Wryneck would be top of my ‘most wanted’…