A quandry in Northumbria

My friend Nicole and I traveled north to Northumbria for a two-day birdwatching break centered in Alnmouth. Alnmouth is a lovely coastal village bounded by the North sea on one side and the River Aln on the other, an ideal spot for birdwatching. After checking in at the hotel we met our leader Mark and the group proceeded to walk down to the beach to see what we could see. As the high tide was approaching there was a good selection of waders on the headland including Oystercatcher, Grey Plover, Lapwing, Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew and Redshank plus Gulls, Eider, Pink-footed Geese, and Whooper Swans. A good start to the weekend.

On Saturday morning, we retraced our steps to the beach and saw a similar range of birds to the previous evening. We saw a large party of Whooper Swans fly in off the sea, perhaps newly arrived from their breeding grounds. Shortly before reaching land, they settled on the sea, not the place you normally expect to see a flock of Whooper Swans.

After a while, most of the group left to return to the village for a comfort break and only Adrian and I remained. Looking around we spotted a Greenshank on the mud. Adrian then also left and I was on my own. Suddenly looking up I realised there was a Swift flying above me. Now, this would be very late for a Common Swift sighting, it being a summer migrant to the UK, and I knew there had been a passage of Pallid Swift in the North Sea. These birds breed in the Mediterranean and winter in Africa but the persistent southerly winds seem to have blown them off course and there had been a number of sightings along the east coast of England and the European coast. So, here I was, all alone and a potential UK rarity flying above me and no one to corroborate the sighting! The bird circled briefly above me as I tried to go through what I knew about separating Common Swift from Pallid Swift, the differences are quite subtle. But the light was not good and it was drizzling and I really couldn’t be sure. It then continued on northwards and shortly afterward the group returned, generating much discussion about the bird they had missed. Even if it were a Common Swift, it would be a remarkable record, this late in the year. Thankfully, 10 minutes later, Nicole spotted the same, or another, Swift over the village, but still definitive identification eluded us and as it too flew north we were left wondering if this was Pallid or Common Swift and bugged by the fact we would never know. For most of the group, this would have been their first sighting of Pallid, although for me it would be the first sighting in UK, having seen them in the Balearic Islands and Africa, albeit over 30 years ago.

Pallid or Common? Photo by Nicole

After the excitement and disappointment, of the morning we retired to our hotel for lunch. After lunch we went for a walk on the coast, adding a few species to our list and still wondering if we had seen a Pallid swift.


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