Sunday 20 November 2011

The Eastern Black Redstart in Northumberland

Lindisfarne Castle - Holy Island, Northumberland.

With two trips up to Northumberland within a week and a marathon twitch to an offshore Scottish Isle sandwiched in between I was beginning to physically resemble Phil Mitchell during his heroin addiction phase.  My planned score today however consisted of a delightful little fix, freshly smuggled in from the mountains of Central Asia - a Black Redstart of the subspecies phoenicuroides or Eastern Black Redstart as it is sometimes known.

We were unable to gain access to Holy Island until around midday due to the high tide so we headed across to Embleton in the first instance.  Whilst driving slowly down one of the weaving lanes we finally located a large flock of Pink-footed Geese resting up in a stubble field.  Due to the distances involved we failed to pick out any Tundra Bean Geese but there were a scattering of Eurasian White-fronted Geese and Barnacle Geese amongst them.  Unfortunately there was also no sign of the two adult Ross's Geese either but most of the geese remained out of view in a valley.  Just before we left the area a further 60 Eurasian White-fronted Geese flew in off the sea to join the flock, no doubt attracted to the constant calling of those that were already present.

The Eastern Black Redstart twitch.

After an enjoyable drive across the exposed causeway we quickly located the school in the village and made our way down to the nearby beach.  After a quick rope climb down the small cliff we were all soon admiring one of the rarest birds to reach Britain this autumn.  The first winter male Eastern Black Redstart showed exceptionally well for the next few hours as it fed on a glut of insects that had emerged in the glorious early afternoon sunshine.  This subspecies is a long distance migrant that breeds predominantly in the Altai and Tien Shan mountain ranges in Central Asia.  Its wintering grounds can be anywhere from the central plains of India across to Iran, Arabia, Somalia and Ethiopia in the west of its wintering range.  Even though it is not a 'tickable species' this bird along with another in Kent earlier in the month are the only thoroughly examined examples that have ever appeared in Britain.  Four historical claims of this subspecies were rejected by the BOU on the basis that Redstart x Black Redstart hybrids could not be ruled out.  

I did my own little bit for scientific research by scraping a nice 'stool sample' from one of its favoured rocks.  Hopefully DNA analysis may lead to this particular bird being confirmed to subspecies level but who knows?  For a fantastic in depth discussion of this particular race on Surfbirds please click HERE.

Eastern Black Redstart (first winter male) - Northumberland
Photo by Adam Archer
Eastern Black Redstart (first winter male) with its eye on the fly.
Photo by Ashley Howe
Eastern Black Redstart (first winter male) amongst the barbed wire.
Photo by Adam Archer
Eastern Black Redstart (first winter male) amongst the seaweed.
Photo by Adam Archer

Other species of note in the area were the wintering groups of both Dark-bellied and Pale-bellied Brent Geese as well as 4 Long-tailed Ducks and the occasional Red-breasted Merganser.  Further towards the sea a Red-necked Grebe was found along with the odd Red-throated Diver amongst the large groups of Eider.  A magnificent Short-eared Owl quartered the rough grassland between the village and the pool where small flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plover were spooked by a male Peregrine that eventually showed well perched up on the impressive Lindisfarne Castle.  With the light quickly fading we headed back to the car to commence the long journey back south.

A view from Holy Island at dusk.
Special thanks to Mike Feely (driver), Snapper Richards (entertainer) and Jules Allen (last minute substitute for Stevie Dunn who preferred to stay at home due to an alleged north east curse involving missed ticks for Nottinghamshire) for contributing to yet another epic ASBO outing.

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