Tyne & Wear

Birders compile 500-page labour of love

Top left, red-legged partridge; top right Slavonian Grebe; bottom left Grasshopper warbler; bottom right yellow hammer Image copyright Northumberland & Tyneside Bird Club
Image caption It is hoped the atlas will inspire the next generation of David Attenborough nature documentary-makers

For four years, a band of 600 birders roamed the wilds of northern England carrying out the biggest bird survey of its kind for a quarter of a century. The result - the Northumbria Bird Atlas - is a 512-page doorstopper. But what motivated the twitchers to take on the mammoth task?

Armed with cameras, and out in all weathers, they checked every rustle in a bush or chirp in a tree.

They recorded almost 200 bird species from the River Tyne to the River Tweed, clocking up 10,000 hours and covering almost 2,900 sq miles (7,510 sq km).

During the long years of counting, bird club member Tim Dean achieved the birders' equivalent of the Holy Grail when he snapped a squacco heron in Morpeth in 2010.

It has only ever been spotted three times in the county - once in 1874 when it it was mistaken for an owl and shot dead.

Image copyright Tim Dean
Image caption Captured on camera in Morpeth in 2010, the squacco heron has only be spotted in the region three times - once in 1874

Mr Dean, a member of the Northumberland and Tyneside Bird Club, said the practices of old to document birds were not ideal, to say the least.

"Before cameras really came into being there was no other way to record species than to shoot them for proof, which isn't ideal when you are a bird lover," he said.

Birders have to be patient, spending hours just watching, so when news of the squacco heron sighting broke via an RSPB round-robin message, within 30 minutes 50 excited birders had descended - albeit very quietly - on the riverside at Morpeth.

Mr Dean was thrilled to photograph the rare bird.

"After many years in hiding, the squacco was really good - it stayed quite still while it was being photographed," the 63-year-old said.

Image copyright Tim Dean
Image caption Birders from the region spent more than 10,000 hours counting birds for the definitive guide

Mr Dean, of Rothbury, caught the bird bug as a child when his father used to take him out roaming the countryside. His wife Janet is equally obsessed.

He said: "It can be a slog trudging all that way - but you can really lose yourself in nature.

"Birding relieves stress and we have lots of members although we haven't managed to attract the younger element.

"'Atlasing' makes you a better birder as every little squeak can mean another dot on the map and you tend to follow up any unknown utterances."

Image copyright Northumberland & Tyneside Bird Club
Image caption Birds are doing better in the North than the South because of the wetter climate and abundance of insects

Retired mechanical engineer Stephen Barrett, 69, who helped with the count, said the book has real value, as well as being a beautiful "coffee table" item.

He said: "The atlas also has a practical purpose, for example when plans for houses, opencast mines or wind farms are proposed, wildlife has to be taken into account - the atlas provides this information."

Image copyright Northumbria Bird Atlas

What the birders discovered

  • The top six species are chaffinch, wren, woodpigeon, swallow, carrion crow and robin
  • Many migrant species are also now faring better in northern England than in the South as it is believed insects are more abundant because the climate is getting wetter
  • In recent years goldfinches have become more frequent visitors to gardens
  • The kittiwake seabird also features because in recent years it has expanded its breeding grounds inland including around the Tyne Bridge
  • Pigeons are dismissed as "feral" and gulls are derided as "common", but these abundant birds get a page-long mention in the book, although they are not deemed to need help to keep up their numbers
Image copyright Bird atlas

The atlas's foreword is penned by crime writer Ann Cleeves, whose novels about Det Insp Vera Stanhope were inspired by the Northumberland countryside and were turned into the television drama Vera.

Her husband Tim, a member of the RSPB, was one of the volunteers.

Ms Cleeves said: "We first moved to Northumberland in 1987 and were both immediately impressed by the beauty of the county.

"Tim came to understand the problems of the region and the weekends were spent birding with friends."

The bird club, which was given a Heritage Lottery grant to publish the atlas, is distributing it free to schools and libraries.

It is hoped it might inspire the next generation of David Attenboroughs.

Image copyright Northumberland & Tyneside Bird Club
Image caption Birders say the book can be used to keep wind farm and housing developers in check

Related Topics

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites