20th Aug. I’m sure that I don’t need to repeat that the area between St Mary’s Island and Holywell Pond provides my favourite walk in the area. Mid morning Sam and I left Killingworth expecting no more than an average day and in fact I’d wondered if we ought not to try something less predictable. We’d put off a trip to Druridge Bay until a later date. I certainly didn’t expect an initially overcast day which was threatening showers to turn out so colourful. Early on it was grey in more ways than one, with a Grey Seal stretched out at St Mary’s Island. Some children were getting excited by the rock pools after they had netted a rather long worm like beast. I wish I could have told them what it was. Sam guessed at some type of Sea Leach but he's looked it up now and it was a Hag Fish. We were soon watching lots of terns fishing close to the island, Common, Arctic and Sandwich Terns, but the colour here was added by an adult Roseate Tern which appeared to be accompanied by a juvenile flying south past the island. At some point I got my eye on what I thought might be a Curlew Sandpiper which landed alone on the rocks. Such was its shape and stance, long in the neck and heavy in the bill, I reached for the telescope, but it was gone in a second or two. That was going to be a year tick that I wasn’t ever going to confirm unless it returned, which it never did!
Tall Ship out of Blyth
A few Common Scoter were seen and lots of waders, Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Golden Plover, Lapwing, Sanderling, Turnstone, Dunlin, Redshank, Curlew, but best of all four Whimbrel found checking the area out before continuing to fly south after giving a very good sighting once we had reached Seaton Sluice. There were good numbers of Fulmar along the coastline which seemed to be dispersing. Kittiwakes were around in small numbers, a Guillemot swam fairly close to shore and there were numbers of Common Scoter in the flocks of Eider. A small number of Teal were seen flying over the sea. A few Knot were in amongst other waders below the headland.
As we began our walk up through the dene the most noticeable colour was that of the pale blue-purple of the Sea Asters. A salt loving plant that grows abundantly in this particular area. I have to say I’ve never seen such extensive carpets of them here before, perhaps all the rain of late has helped them flourish. A number of other salt loving plants grow in this area and its well worth exploration. White Butterfly species were very evident and we also came across a Small Skipper and Meadow Brown Butterfly.
There definitely seemed to be a movement of Willow Warblers/Chiffchaff in the area, as we heard much calling. Sam caught sight of Sparrowhawk and we found a single Wigeon on the burn. I suggested that perhaps it had dropped in to rest up. Otherwise apart from the Rooks and Jackdaws we didn’t see or hear much in the way of birds as we walked through a very verdant dene.
Holly Blue record courtesy of Samuel Hood
I’d like to think it was my intuition which suggested that we pick a particular area to rest for five minutes, although if I’m honest it was simply the fact that I was feeling knackered with the growing warmth and humidity. As it turned out it was a very wise decision to take a breather. We almost immediately found two mating Green-veined White Butterflies and watched the male as it fluttered above and to the side of the female before mating took place. I then got my eye on a Comma Butterfly and then two of them. Both fairly settled, but in habitat including bramble and other ground plants which was impossible to penetrate if you valued your own welfare and that of the habitat. The scalloped deep orange form of the butterfly indicated individuals of the standard second brood form. We weren’t finished yet, as I got my eye on a blue butterfly initially flying in from some height, quite clearly a Holly Blue Butterfly. Now the fact that I’ve had this species in my garden over the past few years suggest a growing coverage by this butterfly, but I reckon it is/has been at least very uncommon in the dene. I certainly haven’t seen this species here before. Oddly enough I had seen Holly Blue in my garden again the day before, 19th June, and earlier in the year I had recorded the species in the garden on 20th and 23rd of May. In May I felt that they may have just emerged and I wonder if one returned to lay eggs on the 19th August. Well anyway, we weren’t finished yet because as we watched the Holly Blue, a dark butterfly appeared in the same area and a little careful watching showed this to be the best sighting of all, a White-letter Hairstreak! If this has been recorded in the dene before we know nothing about it and I contacted Holywell Birder (CS) to check if he had ever heard any reports and he had not. We couldn’t get close to the White-letter Hairstreak either, but have record images of it. It remained settled for long periods so we were able to study it at length. Once again it was difficult to leave an area, but eventually leave it we did. The presence of both Holly Blue and White-letter Hairstreak will be reported and we will await feedback with interest. It is significant that bramble, thistle and ragwort were all present in the habitat. The latter butterfly was a lifer for me and both species were new to Sam.
White-letter Hairsteak record courtesy of Samuel Hood
So off we went, feeling rather pleased with our finds.
Holly Blue record
It wasn’t long before we reached Holywell Pond and as we approached the public hide we could here the calling of numbers of Lapwing. It wasn’t long before we had picked up a single Dunlin later joined by another, a single Ruff and best of all a single Curlew Sandpiper. Now I wondered, could this be the unconfirmed bird I had seen at St Mary’s Island? Well possibly, or possibly not, but certainly a big coincidence. We had an excellent sighting of the Curlew Sandpiper, especially as it stood next to the Dunlin and allowed text book comparison. Two female Pintail added nicely to the scene. Other birds seen included Greylag Geese, Canada Geese, Mute Swan, Grey Heron, Little Grebe, Mallard, Gadwall, Teal, Pochard and Tufted Duck. We decided to move along to the members hide where it was very quiet, although we picked up the calls of Water Rail on two or three occasions. We entered our records and noticed that Wood Sandpiper had been recorded the day before. Perhaps that played some part in our return to the public hide before leaving. Initially we thought little had changed then a new wader flew in. Sam identified it almost immediately, which was quite an achievement as it was a juvenile of a species he had never recorded before. It was a juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper showing really well. Our bird of the day I guess. Also newly arrived was a Common Sandpiper. We quickly forgot about Wood Sandpipers and will hopefully catch up with that species another time!
Pectoral Sandpiper record courtesy of Samuel Hood
Too soon it was time to say farewell to Holywell Pond and make tracks for home. You won’t hear me ever say that Holywell and the pond doesn’t deliver (well not very often). It’s all too easy to take local areas for granted and I don’t take a lot of interest when I’m told things aren’t what they used to be. I’ve grown up with that saying, as we all do. I think we should all make the most of what is there now and enjoy it, whilst of course taking interest in historical records. There’s still great birding to be had locally and in Northumberland in general.