Wednesday, 9 April 2014

PatchChat: James Common on Stobswood, Northumbs

Continuing the series, North East birder James Common talks us through the delights to be had year round on his patch, Stobswood:

My passion for birds has been a lifelong affair and unlike many other young birders and I’m sure they won’t mind me saying this my passion doesn't lie with chasing wayward, bedraggled vagrants around far flung locations in the hope of an often brief view. Indeed by furthest ‘twitches’ have been for Pectoral Sandpiper and Temminick’s Stint not five miles down the road if they can really be counted! Each to their own however and I admire anyone with the dedication, time (and funds) to prevail as a twitcher but for me the real thrills are derived from routinely watching local sites in the hope of turning up something a little out of the ordinary, or in the case of my patch at Stobswood, Northumberland enjoying the various comings and goings of the common species throughout the year.

My patch is somewhat unique in the sense that it was only really ‘created’ in the last few years with the majority of the site reclaimed from opencast operations that dominated the landscape for decades. Sure the patches of deciduous woodland (located right outside my window) and the small conifer plantation to the west of the site have been around a while but it wasn't until recently that the site gained its truly appealing range of habitats. I am of course speaking of the series of shallow pools that now dominate the old opencast site and the surrounding grassland which, though now heavily planted with alder and birch, still manages to attract a host of species previously absent from the area. I’m also lucky enough to have the addition of an fully fledged Alder Carr and a series of agricultural areas all of which combined make my little patch quite the bird magnet.

It’s only fitting that I begin with a brief(ish) description of the wooded areas of the site as at this time of year this is perhaps to most action packed area of the whole patch! The common bits ‘n’ bobs are of course well represented with Great tit, Blue tit, Robin, Dunnock, Chaffinch and Coal Tit all routinely making use of my makeshift woodland feeding station which really is little more than a upturned log adorned with whatever food scraps are going spare in the house. Treecreeper, Nuthatch, Goldcrest, Bullfinch and Marsh Tit can often be located with a little bit of effort whilst spring is perhaps the best time to see, or should I say hear, Great Spotted Woodpeckers as they set about the business of diving the woods up into a series of neatly defined territories. Further exploration of these area often turns up the full set of resident thrushes whilst summer brings masses of Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Willow Warbler and on the rare occasion Redstart making ‘my woods’ a spectacular if somewhat noisy place to be!

Moving away from the mature woodland and into the scrubby areas of the patch centred on the now abandoned brickworks and Alder Carr, the avian community changes considerably with thrushes and tits giving way to stacks of finches, with Goldfinch and Greenfinch the most numerous local residents. Linnet often occur here in small numbers too whilst both Siskin and Lesser Redpoll occur frequently though to a lesser extent than their commoner cousins. Again the summer periods breathes life into this small but productive piece of land with Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat and on those extra special occasional Cuckoo seen adorning the tops of the sites rather scraggy Hawthorns. Hirundines are common place here with all three species present throughout the season often joined by hordes of screaming Swifts which I suspect nest nearby. Winter on the Carr is equally as productive with good numbers of Woodcock routinely residing in the many thickets and both Tawny and Short-Eared Owls making use of the less vegetated areas for hunting. The latter of which is somewhat of a site speciality with at least four or five present for the last three winters! Aside from these glorious birds only Kestrel and Sparrowhawk routinely entertain here and thus attention inevitably turns to the patchwork of farmland that ruins parallel to the area.

As far as I know the farmland here is one of the best sites in the immediate area to view the common seed-lovers species lost from much of Britain. Okay, Druridge Bay is just down the road but we’ll forget that for the time being. Yellowhammer, Reed Bunting and Tree Sparrow are abundant here and often flock together making them incredibly hard to miss! Alongside these are good numbers of Grey Partridge and Pheasant and on rare occasions small flocks of House Sparrow and Starling that commute from my home town to make use of the site's plentiful seeds and insects. This is, however, the most the agricultural areas of the patch have ever offered me and alas I can finally turn my attention to my favourite and by far the most productive of the patches environs, the opencast itself.
The grassland fringing the pools holds good numbers of breeding waders with Curlew, Lapwing, Ringed Plover and Oystercatcher present in force throughout the summer period. I have on occasion sighted Golden Plover here too well out of the usual season which suggests to me a small breeding population. Interesting! Couple these waders with a monstrous abundance of Meadow Pipit, Skylark, Pied Wagtail and to a smaller extent Yellow Wagtail and Wheatear and you have the makings of a raptor smorgasbord. Birds of prey again are somewhat of a speciality here with a good day turning up no less than five species. Sparrowhawk and Kestrel I have already mentioned but larger than these and somewhat more impressive are the resident Buzzards and Marsh Harriers which more often than not can be seen cruising low over the area in search of a meal. Marsh Harriers are somewhat of a local success story with virtually no pairs a decade ago increasing to such an extent that they are largely common place. No less impressive, but a tad scarcer , are Peregrine and Merlin, both of which like to put in the odd appearance forever scattering my beloved waders in the process. Owls too are prevalent here with Shorties yet again using the site throughout the colder months and both Barn and Little Owl cropping up at times, all be it infrequently of late.

A final note on the ‘grassy areas’ of the patch is the sheer number of geese attracted here during the winter with Pink-feet numbering well into their thousands whilst Greylag and Canada Geese are by no means in short supply. Add to these the one-off occurrences of both Barnacle and Bar-headed Goose and you have a ‘goose fest’ on a scale to rival the more publicized local sites. Okay so Bar-heads aren’t tickable but who cares, they’re stunning and in the case of the four individuals present during December 2013 often a great deal more timid than their truly wild counterparts!

Finally we come to the pools, or ponds, or whatever on earth you want to call them. In that sense none of them are very deep except on the rare occasions when the weather permits flooding. With this in mind we’ll go with ponds for the time being. Winter is again the best time to visit here with all the usual wetland species well represented with Wigeon and Teal by far the most numerous closely followed by the dozen or so resident Tufties and Mallard. These commoner species are more often than not joined by at least one ‘oddity’ and sure enough during my hours spent crouched in the long grass I've tallied up an impressive total of wildfowl including Gadwall, Shoveler, Goldeneye, Shelduck, Pochard, Pintail and most recently a pair of cracking female Scaup which lingered on the patch for a good two weeks before university commitments cruelly drew me away.

Ducks are perhaps the most obvious water loving residents of the patch though they are certainly not the only goodies on offer with Cormorant, Mute Swan, Grey Heron and the five common species of gull usually on show, though admittedly these do little to hold my attention when compared to the waders that, from time to time, grace me with their presence. In the two years I've been ‘intensively birding’ the site I've built up quite the list with Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper my most prized finds. Avocet occur quite frequently (more so in recent times) which when combined with the sporadic presence of Greenshank, Redshank, Sanderling, Dunlin, Black-Tailed Godwit, Little Ringed Plover and Common Sandpiper create spectacle unusual among such inland, water devoid sites. On average I add about two new wader species per year but with all the common species out the way and some of the more widespread scarcities noted only time will tell what turns up next! An inland Grey Plover perhaps or maybe 2014 will provide a Wood Sand or Whimbrel. Who knows! Such is the joy with my patch.

I couldn’t possibly list all the birds seen and noted around my little patch of Northumbrian Eden or this post would be off the charts in terms patch based avian waffling. I have tried my very hardest to be brief but I do feel I owe it to the patch to list a few honorary species that I didn’t have time to include above, amongst these Snow Bunting, Stock Dove, Jay, Snipe, Red-Breasted Merganser, Redwing, Fieldfare and Garden Warbler have brought me perhaps the most pleasure. I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess as to what 2014 will bring for me though there are few noteworthy omissions that are slowly beginning to eat away at both my pride and patience (I’m sure you know the feeling). The worst of these is perhaps the elusive Moorhen, two words I never thought I’d use in the same sentence, though Coot, Spotted Flycatcher, Long-Eared Owl, White Wagtail and Sedge Warbler are equally frustrating. 

Anyways, I hope I did my best at singing the praises of what to me is one of the best places on earth. My gut tells I have no hope in this year’s Patchwork Challenge but with some of you coastal guys racking up the species counts I may just admit defeat and set about mammal watching as with Fox, Badger, Red Squirrel, Weasel, Stoat and Roe Deer all present in abundance I have plenty to choose from!

-James Common
James is a 20 year old birder/conservation nut and wannabe naturalist based along the North-East coast near the reserves of NWT East Chevington and Druridge Bay.  The last few years he has spent studying BHs Animal Conservation Science at the university of Cumbria from which he has now all but graduated!


  1. That looks to be a superb little patch you have there, and only about a mile and a bit across.

    Liked the 'elusive moorhen' - brilliant



  2. Thanks! Yeah it isn't the biggest of places and for such and small inland site it's turned up a few goodies.

    Moorhen are becoming a bit of a joke now! Located a new pond on the patch not the other day so I live in hope.