Birding round Durham & Sunderland 2012

Birdwatching in & around Houghton-le-Spring, Sunderland, County Durham.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Ton Up -Sum Up - Delightful Dozen

I found my first Jack Snipe as a schoolboy & have always had a particular fascination for any of our cryptically camouflaged birds.

An incredibly poor winter for Long-eared Owls saw me switch my main focus from these, turning my attention to concentrate on the Jack Snipe during December 2016 (which coincided with an early pair of MuckMaster Wellies from Santa Claus)

I set out with the notion that we could perhaps find 50 Jack Snipe on our local patch this winter.

Two key sites can hold double figures when the grazing regime produces the right conditions, so I was optimistic for a decent start, but these 2 locations were sadly overgrown this winter......five birds from 2 sites that could hold 20 between them did not bode too well.

Indeed Mr Colin Jack Snipe Wilson reported that it was looking like "a poor year" and they were "bad to get".

So a deliberate process of going over all known haunts began & numbers started to tot up.
Starting on 7th Dec, and taking a week away in Feurteventura at Christmas (1 Common Snipe in a Barranco had me sweating) the running total at Years end was 46 found.
I thought all bases were covered locally & must admit I was drawn like a moth to a flame to other "known" locations, pastures old, on former patches near Durham.
Four birds feeding at a bright orange iron oxide Spring at Sacriston were a memorable one & a spot I had forgotten about for 20 years.

But driving about in the motor doesn't do it for me & surely there were more to find foot-stomping close to home...?
Ordnance Survey maps & Google Earth were scrutinised for any dip or undulation which might have a damp hollow - this paid off at Murton.
A rough looking location if ever I saw one - First ever visit & 4 birds bagged, in fact I managed a MacRab ! 
Now theres not many Birdwatchers I tip my cap to, but I think its only fair to name the treble - Jack Snipe, Snipe & Woodcock all at the same site, after one of the growing band of Wheatley Hillbillies !

Valentines day saw me with 1 on the tip of my boot & a couple of days later on 19th, a 35,000 pace, 12 hour, 13 miler saw Houghtonbirder & I notch up 6 - an Epic day of Jack Snipe Alopecia !

February Half term approached & I took my son Jack out - a photograph of him getting an iPhone full of Jack Snipe 3 feet away, was an easy short cut to the 2 Jacks in 1 picture !
This is one challenge that has yet to fall locally - and I mean local as in local rules, they must be walked up to - no sitting in hides thank you very much.

It was becoming clear that the 100 was a possibility - Colin chipped in with duplicates id already noted & Robbie was getting his eye in both to the South East of me, so I headed north west.

My top site of the year came on 26th Feb with 16 birds noted - a green, gold & tan backed beauty watched me with its locust-like eyes ! All was going well, 75 birds at 21 locations, I took advise & celebrated with a Mars Bar. (a real one not an Aldi copy).

Following day I had to do a Taxi run out of County - but by now I was waking up & seeing 2 Gold Stripes ! 
Cargo dropped off - I was on an adrenaline rush to find more - it was Swallow Pond at Wallsend that gave up 5 birds.
These of course are NOT included in the total, as they fall outside the recording area of Durham Bird Club.... a week later & I quickly found 3 at Haswell before the return trip to Tyneside to collect Jack Snipe Juniors mam.
Now up to 95 birds found - soon it would be over.

Working on Sat 4th, I pondered all day were to go to crack the Hundred.
I  knew a few spots nr Birtley, so there I went.
A glorious Sunny Sunday with singing Chiffchaff no less - THIS would be the day.
But no, very hit & miss, just short....! 8 bird found, but to add insult to injury the figures didn't add up - i'd duplicated 2 & missed 1 off, so back down one to 97.....

The 6th, I had to be home for 3 so postponed work & KNEW where I could get a hatfull.
I hadn't covered much south of Durham & certainly nothing to the South West - so pointed the van to Bishop Auckland. What a feck on driving through that way, so bloody busy. After 20 mins driving I was clamming to stretch my legs (HOW do people manage to drive about so much - its torture !)
A huge acreage of rushy pasture lay infront - it was mind boggling which way to go.
Pot luck yielded number #98 - 1 right underfoot, as masses of Snipe rose. Unbelievably, It was another 3 hours 20 mins of walking perfect habo before I saw any more...

The following pics were taken as soon as #99 rose.
I stopped dead.
I NEEDED Number 100 to be on the ground
I looked around & clocked him with the naked eye - this is the view from the finding position !

Number 100 Head On !  Get in, You little Beauty !

 Talk about needle in a Haystack - this is where #99, 100 & 101 were hiding -  Bulrush (Typha) Swamp
Where #100 was hiding

 Looking down at him, bird is right of Centre - the double gold back stripes are visible here.

 Side on, with bird facing Right.
The golden stripes turn into blades of dry grass

The Orange water (Iron Oxide) from old Coal Pit workings underground is aesthetically unpleasant to the human eye, but doesn't put them off 1 bit & birds regularly feed in areas like this.

Head on view
Just moving half an inch results in the bird being lost from view.
Even at close quarters its best to get a reference point - bulrush head, particular bent stem etc - your eyes can play tricks & lose the bird.
This is good policy when trying for 'digi-binned' images & the bird is difficult to see on the phone screen.

View with bird facing Left.
It looked like he was feeding in a bit of a walkway - way too wide for Water Rail / Moorhen, but there were several Pheasants in here too - perhaps it was there path ? Or perhaps Mr Charlie Fox ?
I'll come back to this in a future post.

very well used Pheasant roost deep in Typha bed

Same position at x8 mag, bird left facing

A step to the right allowed a clearer view

Got back to the van with 12 Jacks & a minimum of 161 Commons.
Now this was classic large scale habo, the Best pool held 6Jacks & 41Common - these sorts of numbers were common place years ago on relatively modest pools & marshes....

The water moved ever so slightly as he breathed - his bill submerged

So at 7th March, exactly 3 months to the day, my tally stands at 110 Jack Snipe found in VC66 Co.Durham.
I never though this would be possible, but even more pleased to have discovered 67 on our local patch birdwatching areas.

I'm Pleased that's over.
My Wellies have been breached on 3 occasions & panic from sink holes & negotiating very bad ground has taken years off me.
From now on i'll be the guy in clean clothes with binoculars casually slung over my shoulder.....
or maybe not....

In all seriousness, i hope my experiences can encourage the Durham Bird Club to get the projects & surveys going again.
I'm obviously at the extreme of the spectrum - but I feel Club Birdwatchers aren't being catered for as well as they might. Imho, People have been suckered in to the "popular culture" of "Birding" with very little affinity to needs of the bird, its habits & habitats - and many are certainly missing out.

It would be great to roll this out next Winter as a County wide Survey - not just to find out how many Jacks we have, but to get Birdwatchers out into the field looking for birds, document their habitats, engage with them & give them the same sort of memorable experiences that so many had while undertaking the successful Long-eared Owl Survey.

Thank you for reading
& many thanks for all the comments, reactions on the Twitter Steve on Twitter 



  1. Brilliant. Very informative Steve. Thanks for taking the time to share the experience.

    1. thanks jarraman - I'm glad u enjoyed reading - to be honest I couldn't have done much more as I was getting a bad head through concentrating.

  2. First class Steve, After following your twitter acc I did a walkabout on Newcastle Town Moor. No Jacks but Common are there. Will keep trying

    1. cheers Citybirding - I'm sure its only a matter of time - don't forget we can continue to get them with regularity up into May. Regards

  3. Top notch field craft Steve and a good read to boot. Two again at Rainton today, I'm now only about 96+ behind you :-)

    1. Cheers Mystery Chester Birder - one day our paths will cross !

  4. Steve. Superb dedication. Do you just slowly plod round good habitat with your head down and eyes peeled?

    1. Pretty much Mark - find wet veg - as soon as Commons lift, slow it down & in general look for an area of shorter vegetation. Once there, you're right its snail pace - to such an extent that I have to use a wading stick or id fall over. There are a few pointers that help - small blobs of floating splash are good indicator that a bird is close. More often than not birds can be relocated in exactly same spots - often little "hammocks" in vegetation bit like Redhank nest ;-)