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North East England (1 Viewer)

PaulCountyDurham

Well-known member
United Kingdom
Hi all,

I wonder if anyone could help me out with a few sightings this weekend gone.

To put the following in some context, I'm not an experienced bird watcher but I have around 6 months (regular) knowledge/experience so I can tell the more common birds apart with ease. The reason I say that is that I could be mistaken when trying to identify less common birds.

I was on the East coast of County Durham over the weekend and I saw three birds that I couldn't identify with reasonable certainty.

Firstly, a female shore lark. Everything was right, except I didn't see the black band at the top of the breast (but I could have missed that). 'Question is, could I be mistaken, is there any other bird with such a striking head that I may have seen? If it helps for habitat, this bird was just off the coast in an opening of pretty dense thickets and trees for this time of the year.

Secondly, a bird of prey came flying past. I had a good look at it as it flew past my head and into a decent amount of opening. Now, I'm not particularly interested in birds of prey so I'm hopeless at identifying them. This bird was flying low, very agile as it went in and out of trees, brown on top, broad, small head, broad tail. 'Looked too big to be a merlin, and there are plenty of merlins down that way. Kestrels are very common here and I've seen plenty of them, very distinctive, and the size and shape wasn't right. 'Same with buzzards, seen plenty and this bird wasn't big enough. I've seen pictures of a juvenile peregrine flying and that is the best fit from my research over the last couple of days. For anyone in this area, the place was Blackhall Rocks which hopefully will help in terms of habitat.

And, lastly, and the most interesting one to me, was a couple of little black and white birds dancing in and out of trees. I had a very good look at these two birds who must have spent a couple of minutes bobbing in and out of these trees. They had a distinctive white stripe on the crown. I've seen plenty of long tailed tits at bird feeders, in the garden and down at this very same place I was at over the weekend. They didn't look the right shape to me and the colours looked much sharper than what you see on a long tailed tit. They almost looked like wagtails but without the long tail and these birds had a distinctive white stripe on the crown. I had a look around the internet when I got home and saw some black and white warblers. The birds I saw were the right size and shape, but didn't look to have as much black and white on them. My questions are: is it possible these unusual birds could be on the North East coast of England, and if it's possible do photos exaggerate how much black and white they have on them (probably seems a daft question but I've seen plenty of birds in photos/pictures in books that don't quite look the same when you see them in the flesh).

Thanks in advance.
 

Deb Burhinus

Used to be well known! 😎
Europe
Hi Paul

1. Could well have been a Shorelark given your location and the time of year. Females are similar to males with a less extensive breast band. Without a description though, nobody else will be able to say for sure but they are pretty distinctive although the females less so.




2. The second bird sounds like a juvenile/1w/f Sparrowhawk- typically flying in and out of trees - often people’s views of Sparrowhawk are when they are soaring/circling overhead so it is easy to forget how ‘brown’ immature/f birds are on the upperparts - see link below

https://macaulaylibrary.org/asset/270036661

3. The final birds sound like Coal Tits, both in behaviour and by your very good description.

Gregarious active little things, also very distinctive with a large white patch on the back of the head


 
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PaulCountyDurham

Well-known member
United Kingdom
Hi Paul

1. Could well have been a Shorelark given your location and the time of year. Females are similar to males with a less extensive breast band. Without a description though, nobody else will be able to say for sure but they are pretty distinctive although the females less so.




2. The second bird sounds like a juvenile/1w/f Sparrowhawk- typically flying in and out of trees - often people’s views of Sparrowhawk are when they are soaring/circling overhead so it is easy to forget how ‘brown’ immature/f birds are on the upperparts - see link below

https://macaulaylibrary.org/asset/270036661

3. The final birds sound like Coal Tits, both in behaviour and by your very good description.

Gregarious active little things, also very distinctive with a large white patch on the back of the head



Hi Deb,

Thanks for the reply.

Shorelark: striking yellow stripes on the head, mottled on the breast, white underneath that, brown on the back. About the right size, I'd say around 18cm.

Bird of prey: I wouldn't dispute that. As I say, I'm not that interested in the bigger birds so my knowledge is a bit lacking there, but looked too broad and compact to me ('could quite easily be wrong on this one).

Black and white birds: undoubtedly not coal tits. Too big, wrong colour (no green etc), and I've never seen coal tits down there (not that it matters because you could have a million coal tits down there and I know what they weren't). These birds were more the size of a great tit, I'd say a little bit bigger, maybe around 15cm. As I say, I've seen plenty of long tailed tits and they're pretty distinctive birds. I've seen them down there at roughly the same distance and you can spot them a mile off. The colours were much sharper than a long tailed tit and the shape of these birds were very different. The colours I would say were very similar to a grey wagtail (minus the yellow on the under-carriage).
 
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Deb Burhinus

Used to be well known! 😎
Europe
Hi .again Paul

All any of us can do is offer you the benefit of our own experience and using that to interpret the descriptions you are providing- it’s not an exact science unfortunately because it completely relies on those descriptions, which are perfectly and understandingly incomplete and possibly tainted with subjective interpretation (otherwise it’s just guesswork) 😉

Just some points in response:

🦅 The size (and comparative shape) of lone birds are very difficult to judge in the field, even with lots of experience. ( I’m not sure what you are comparing it to when you say it was ‘too broad and compact ?’) Peregrine would not be described as more ‘broad and compact’ than a Sparrowhawk, nor would any falcon. They have long relatively narrow pointed wings and look slim in flight and generally don’t fly low to the ground (unless it was a Merlin which typically fly a few feet above the ground when hunting - your description rules that out - and even allowing for misjudgment in size - they are about the size of a large Thrush species)

🦅 The other thing that concerns me in ruling out Sparrowhawk, is that you mention no plumage markings at all, yet you describe the head - however, in the field, the striking head pattern of a Peregrine is one of it’s most distinctive features. The reason I suggested Sparrowhawk was because Peregrines don’t usually dart in and out of trees, that behaviour is very typical of Sparrowhawks., however, if you mean a few trees standing alone and the main habitat were cliffs/high rock formations, then of course Peregrine is entirely possible in that habitat but it doesn’t really fit your description tbh. The other possibility is that you saw a Goshawk, which might be a good compromise of what we know so far but again, I don’t know the habitat - they tend to prefer agricultural/ wooded areas this time of year.


🦅 - Coal Tits aren’t green btw - are you getting confused with Great Tits? I wouldn’t dismiss outright too quickly my suggestion of Coal Tit - they have a very black and white gizz with a striking black and white head pattern as you describe. Their mantles are grey. I can’t think of any other British Birds that are predominantly grey, black and white, look similar Long-tailed Tit without the long tail, with a ‘distinctive’ white ‘stripe’ on the crown, are Tit sized and bob about in trees in good view .... rarities are possible but don’t travel in pairs as a rule. One of the golden rules of birdwatching is when you hear hooves, think horses not zebras 🙂

A big welcome to Birdforum by the way - good you decided to join!
 
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Deb Burhinus

Used to be well known! 😎
Europe
Thanks M, I think BF went down while I was writing that and I started saving a load of links of HLs from google onto notepad then transferred several of them when BF came back them without checking them first. I’ve swapped it now.
 
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PaulCountyDurham

Well-known member
United Kingdom
Hi .again Paul

All any of us can do is offer you the benefit of our own experience and using that to interpret the descriptions you are providing- it’s not an exact science unfortunately because it completely relies on those descriptions, which are perfectly and understandingly incomplete and possibly tainted with subjective interpretation (otherwise it’s just guesswork) 😉

Just some points in response:

🦅 The size (and comparative shape) of lone birds are very difficult to judge in the field, even with lots of experience. ( I’m not sure what you are comparing it to when you say it was ‘too broad and compact ?’) Peregrine would not be described as more ‘broad and compact’ than a Sparrowhawk, nor would any falcon. They have long relatively narrow pointed wings and look slim in flight and generally don’t fly low to the ground (unless it was a Merlin which typically fly a few feet above the ground when hunting - your description rules that out - and even allowing for misjudgment in size - they are about the size of a large Thrush species)

🦅 The other thing that concerns me in ruling out Sparrowhawk, is that you mention no plumage markings at all, yet you describe the head - however, in the field, the striking head pattern of a Peregrine is one of it’s most distinctive features. The reason I suggested Sparrowhawk was because Peregrines don’t usually dart in and out of trees, that behaviour is very typical of Sparrowhawks., however, if you mean a few trees standing alone and the main habitat were cliffs/high rock formations, then of course Peregrine is entirely possible in that habitat but it doesn’t really fit your description tbh. The other possibility is that you saw a Goshawk, which might be a good compromise of what we know so far but again, I don’t know the habitat - they tend to prefer agricultural/ wooded areas this time of year.


🦅 - Coal Tits aren’t green btw - are you getting confused with Great Tits? I wouldn’t dismiss outright too quickly my suggestion of Coal Tit - they have a very black and white gizz with a striking black and white head pattern as you describe. Their mantles are grey. I can’t think of any other British Birds that are predominantly grey, black and white, look similar Long-tailed Tit without the long tail, with a ‘distinctive’ white ‘stripe’ on the crown, are Tit sized and bob about in trees in good view .... rarities are possible but don’t travel in pairs as a rule. One of the golden rules of birdwatching is when you hear hooves, think horses not zebras 🙂

A big welcome to Birdforum by the way - good you decided to join!

Thanks for the welcome, Deb.

Bird of prey: it was pretty close for about 10 seconds, a lot closer than I've ever been to a bird of prey. The habitat is pretty unusual for 'round here I think, with some beautiful colours on the trees and dense thickets. It's right by the coast/cliffs with a few trees that aren't particularly tall and mainly dense thickets of various colours such as light purple and golden, and it dips down into a small valley just off the cliff side (the trees and thickets are in this valley). I was actually stood in the dip of the valley when it came flying past in the dip of the valley not far from my head and this bird was in the main flying in the open but did weave in and out of a couple of trees that aren't particularly tall - I have much taller trees in my garden. To the other side of the valley there are fields so it's a bit of a mix of habitat in a small area. To be honest, I don't know enough about birds of prey to say with any degree of likelihood, and it sounds like it's difficult for anyone to offer more based on my description. 'Times like this when a camera comes in handy!

In terms of the coal tit, I appreciate the advice but I have to dismiss it out of hand. In terms of green, I've read the colour described as olive-grey but to me (in my limited colour scope) olive-grey is sort of greeny. I appreciate your point on size from a distance and there are some birds I have a real problem telling apart from a distance, some of the ducks for example, but because I'm more interested in the smaller birds I've taken more notice and because of that I'm able to spot what they aren't providing I've seen them before and I see coal tits pretty much every day in the garden, every now and again one will come into a tree a few feet from where I'm standing. I had a pretty good view of these two birds and close enough to be well defined through my binoculars. Definitely not a coal tit: too big, wrong colours. As I say, black and white pretty much uniformly with a white crown.

Some useful information in your post, though, such as it never crossed my mind that an unusual bird passing through would more than likely be on its own. Thanks for that. I'll bear that in mind in future.
 

Deb Burhinus

Used to be well known! 😎
Europe
I know this might sound a bit weird but if you could sketch out a simple diagramatic drawing of the b&w bird, it might help people to understand what is obviously a particular impression in your head of what you saw. (You haven’t given any alternative possibilities either but it sounds like you might have a particular rarity/ies in mind.). Also, apologies for thinking you might not be familiar with Coal Tits - 6 mnths is really not a long time to have been birding so I was a bit presumptuous I guess but it’s the only British bird that seems to match your description so I’m stuck I’m afraid.
 

Nutcracker

Stop Brexit!
Bird of prey: it was pretty close for about 10 seconds, a lot closer than I've ever been to a bird of prey. The habitat is pretty unusual for 'round here I think, with some beautiful colours on the trees and dense thickets. It's right by the coast/cliffs with a few trees that aren't particularly tall and mainly dense thickets of various colours such as light purple and golden, and it dips down into a small valley just off the cliff side (the trees and thickets are in this valley). I was actually stood in the dip of the valley when it came flying past in the dip of the valley not far from my head and this bird was in the main flying in the open but did weave in and out of a couple of trees that aren't particularly tall - I have much taller trees in my garden. To the other side of the valley there are fields so it's a bit of a mix of habitat in a small area. To be honest, I don't know enough about birds of prey to say with any degree of likelihood, and it sounds like it's difficult for anyone to offer more based on my description. 'Times like this when a camera comes in handy!
I'm very much thinking Sparrowhawk too, the behaviour you describe is classic for them. They're quite frequent along the coast up here too - I'd say the raptor I see most often on the coast.
 

PaulCountyDurham

Well-known member
United Kingdom
I know this might sound a bit weird but if you could sketch out a simple diagramatic drawing of the b&w bird, it might help people to understand what is obviously a particular impression in your head of what you saw. (You haven’t given any alternative possibilities either but it sounds like you might have a particular rarity/ies in mind.). Also, apologies for thinking you might not be familiar with Coal Tits - 6 mnths is really not a long time to have been birding so I was a bit presumptuous I guess but it’s the only British bird that seems to match your description so I’m stuck I’m afraid.

The other thing that just crossed my mind: when I say 'crown' it was a white stripe going all the way to the front of the head, not the sort of white patch on the back of the head of a coal tit. No apology necessary. I may try sketching something out tomorrow but it's a bit late now. I had a look in my bird book immediately after I'd been watching them, but there was nothing that matched; whereas I'd never seen a shore lark before but opened my bird book as soon it had flown off and spotted it pretty much straight away in the book.
 

Deb Burhinus

Used to be well known! 😎
Europe
I am actually wondering Paul if you saw a couple of Great Grey Shrike - it would be unusual to see two together but not extraordinarily so - the location and time of year is right (and it’s been an interesting autumn this year!) the grey is definitely more like grey wagtail, size would match as would the ‘uniform’ description you give. Because of the black eye masks they can look very whitish on the head and the foreheads are often whitish anyway.

check these out



They are usually seen perched on top of bushes rather than ‘etc but they could have been looking for suitable larders.

The colours were much sharper than a long tailed tit and the shape of these birds were very different. The colours I would say were very similar to a grey wagtail (minus the yellow on the under-carriage).
 

Nutcracker

Stop Brexit!
I am actually wondering Paul if you saw a couple of Great Grey Shrike - it would be unusual to see two together but not extraordinarily so - the location and time of year is right (and it’s been an interesting autumn this year!) the grey is definitely more like grey wagtail, size would match as would the ‘uniform’ description you give. Because of the black eye masks they can look very whitish on the head and the foreheads are often whitish anyway.

check these out

They are usually seen perched on top of bushes rather than ‘etc but they could have been looking for suitable larders.
I won't say GGS is totally impossible - but I've not heard of any reported around here recently, and when any do turn up, the news gets around (normally I'd have said the same about Shore Lark, except this autumn has been good for them!). Also too large (Blackbird size) for the description, and "couple of little black and white birds dancing in and out of trees ... must have spent a couple of minutes bobbing in and out of these trees" isn't GGS behaviour at all.

I'm wondering about a couple of late Lesser Whitethroat, perhaps? More grey-and-white than black-and-white, but the behaviour fits well, and again, one or two have been reported recently. @ Paul - does this fit with what you saw at all?:
 

Deb Burhinus

Used to be well known! 😎
Europe
Sharp black and white colours with a white stripe going all the way to the front of the head doesn’t fit Lesser Whitethroat either really (the OP is very insistent on white on the forehead) and not only is size difficult to judge in the field, (even more so, when knowledge of comparative examples is limited) but we also know that size estimate is the first casualty of accuracy when recalling observations from memory ! - I think we’re into the realms of stretchy guesswork now tbh

I addressed the behaviour of GGS in my previous post btw 😉
 

PaulCountyDurham

Well-known member
United Kingdom
I am actually wondering Paul if you saw a couple of Great Grey Shrike - it would be unusual to see two together but not extraordinarily so - the location and time of year is right (and it’s been an interesting autumn this year!) the grey is definitely more like grey wagtail, size would match as would the ‘uniform’ description you give. Because of the black eye masks they can look very whitish on the head and the foreheads are often whitish anyway.

check these out



They are usually seen perched on top of bushes rather than ‘etc but they could have been looking for suitable larders.

Undoubtedly not, Deb.

If it helps for a bit of background, I was stood to the left of a tree on the top of the valley trying to get a bit of cover and I saw them fly in and for a while they were lost in the thickets and then they came out into an opening in the trees (but still among the trees) and they were side on. When I first got my binoculars on them the bird that came to mind in that split second was a pied wagtail. I've seen plenty of pied wagtails at Seal Sands, other estuaries and even in Durham City where I go swimming in the morning, and then I realised within seconds not the right shape. At no point did I think long tailed tit, just not the right tail to body ratio. At this point I hadn't seen the distinctive white stripe on the head as the birds were side on, and I'd say they bobbed about for about 30 seconds side on while I was looking through my binoculars and I realised this was a bird I hadn't seen before. Then they moved a bit farther along so I had to move to the right of the tree and they were still in the opening bobbing about and then they turned front on which is when I saw the white stripe on the head. I'd say I had a good look at them for at least a minute through my binoculars and it was a good look in the sense that they were close enough for a sharp view.
 

PaulCountyDurham

Well-known member
United Kingdom
I won't say GGS is totally impossible - but I've not heard of any reported around here recently, and when any do turn up, the news gets around (normally I'd have said the same about Shore Lark, except this autumn has been good for them!). Also too large (Blackbird size) for the description, and "couple of little black and white birds dancing in and out of trees ... must have spent a couple of minutes bobbing in and out of these trees" isn't GGS behaviour at all.

I'm wondering about a couple of late Lesser Whitethroat, perhaps? More grey-and-white than black-and-white, but the behaviour fits well, and again, one or two have been reported recently. @ Paul - does this fit with what you saw at all?:

No, definitely not. As I say, these two birds turned front on after a while and had distinctive white stripes in the middle of their heads.
 

Mark Harper

World Birder
Habitat as described for Shorelark sounds wrong, an opening in dense thicket / trees. I am not aware of any recent reports in Durham, although there have been a few in Northumberland.
 

Deb Burhinus

Used to be well known! 😎
Europe
Yeah, I thought Yellowhammer was one possibility but didn’t mention it because the OP seemed very sure on them being Shorelark.

The trouble with identifying birds long after the event, which often for inexperienced birders is unavoidable, gaps in our observations at the time tend to not stay as gaps, it seems as nature abhors a vacuum, so our minds have a logical tendency, in the process of assimilating incomplete snippets of information, to want to ‘complete’ the picture even if it means filling the gaps with predictive imagery to make sense of the memory. The danger of that is we can end up with a form of ‘false’ memory of what we saw unless we are aware of the risks of doing so.
 

PaulCountyDurham

Well-known member
United Kingdom
Habitat as described for Shorelark sounds wrong, an opening in dense thicket / trees. I am not aware of any recent reports in Durham, although there have been a few in Northumberland.

Hi Mark,

I would be interested in any alternatives which was part of my original post. I wasn't fully sure because I didn't see the black band at the top of the breast, although part of the front was obscured by small branches. 'Definitely not a yellowhammer by the way.
 

Mark Harper

World Birder
Hi Mark,

I would be interested in any alternatives which was part of my original post. I wasn't fully sure because I didn't see the black band at the top of the breast, although part of the front was obscured by small branches. 'Definitely not a yellowhammer by the way.
No idea what you saw, there is nothing I would describe as a Shorelark without the black band, hence I would have to guess at what other features are missing from the description.

My first thought was also Yellowhammer, which you say it wasn’t, on the basis of a bird with yellow on the breast and a brownish back. Everything else I think of with yellow on the breast, and likely in the area, tends to have some other obvious feature that I would have expected you to have seen.
 

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