County Durham

Kingfisher Alcedo atthis ©John Bridges

The recording area of Durham (area 66 in the Watsonian system) is more or less co-terminus wuth the ceremonial county of County Durham, officially in North East England. The county borders Northumberland (including Tyne and Wear north of the Tyne) to the north, the North Sea to the east, North Yorkshire to the south, and Cumbria to the west. county has an area of c. 2,000 km2 (800 square miles) and a population over 500,000. The latter is concentrated in the east. the southeast extends into the Teesside built-up area. (Most of this is in the former ‘county’ of Cleveland which, for recording purposes, is separate from County Durham). After the largest settlement, Darlington, comes the county ‘town’, the city of Durham.

The west of the county contains part of the North Pennines uplands, a national landscape. The hills are the source of the rivers Tees and Wear, which flow east and form the valleys of Teesdale and Weardale respectively. The east of the county is flatter, where the two rivers meander; the Tees forms the boundary with North Yorkshire in its lower reaches, and the Wear exits the county near Chester-le-Street in the north-east. The county’s coast is a site of special scientific interest characterised by tall limestone and dolomite cliffs.

Birding County Durham

Ask birders nation-wide to draw up a league table of English coastal counties and almost certainly Durham would end up at the bottom. It’s either the place you pass through quickly on the way to more magnetic Northumberland – or fail to reach because Yorkshire’s attractions are so much greater. Nor is the county’s status helped by its most ornithologically productive corner – the west side of the Tees Estuary – being traditionally claimed as part of a separate bird recording area known as Teesmouth.

However, even without the Durham side of what until 1996 was the county of Cleveland, this is still a fascinating place for those who take the trouble to check out its qualities. In a relatively small area, with the greatest east-west width just 45 miles, while only 36 miles separate the north and south boundaries, there is a wide range of habitats. An hour’s drive from the heavily populated river-mouth areas lies the upland wilderness of the Pennines, rising to 2,591ft at Mickle Fell. These moors are a final stronghold for England’s Black Grouse population, hold nationally important breeding populations of Wigeon and Merlin, and also offer raptor prospects ranging from winter-visiting Hen Harrier and Rough-legged Buzzard, to very occasionally something extra-special like Golden Eagle or Gyr Falcon.

Dales, with stands of ancient oak and beech providing spring haunts for Common Redstart, Wood Warbler and Pied Flycatcher, sweep down to the starkly different coast. There may be no prominent headland poking out invitingly to migrants winging over the North Sea but somehow the whole strip between the estuaries of Tyne and Tees has pulling power. Over the years, delights have ranged from Ivory and Ross’s Gulls to Black Kite and Red-footed Falcon, from Baillon’s Crake and White-tailed Plover to Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler and Red-eyed Vireo – mostly in very urban locations. Truly incredible birds like Britain’s first Eastern Crowned Warbler, the first-ever east coast Common Nighthawk and a back-garden Siberian Rubythroat seem to have a habit of turning up in County Durham.

There are notable seabird colonies, most famously at Marsden, South Tyneside, where cliffs and stacks hold well-established colonies of Fulmars, Cormorants, Herring Gulls and Kittiwakes, with the most recent addition, Razorbills, gradually increasing each summer. The adjacent pristine sandy beach at Sandhaven, South Shields, is a regular late summer roosting point for Roseate Terns. Just to the south is Whitburn Observatory which, given a northerly wind between July and December, can provide grandstand views of seabird passage – its most memorable occasions have involved hundreds of Pomarine and Long-tailed Skuas, thousands of Little Auks and huge movements of wildfowl, divers, gulls and terns, as well as the true rarities such as Fea’s Petrel, Little Shearwater and White-billed Diver.

So next time you’re speeding through Durham, think about what it is that causes some locals to want to go nowhere else – and maybe you’ll find its hidden gems.

  • Mark Newsome

    69 Cedar Drive, Jarrow, NE32 4BF - 07834 978255 |

County Recorder
Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 382

    County Bird - Black Grouse Tetrao tetrix
Useful Reading

  • A Summer Atlas of the Breeding Birds of County Durham

    | Edited by Keith Westerberg & Stephen Bowey | Durham Bird Club | 2000 | Paperback | 187 pages, b/w illustrations, tables, maps | Out of Print | ISBN: 9781874701026 Buy this book from
  • The Birds of Durham

    | Edited by Keith Bowey &, Mark Newsome | Durham Bird Club | 2012 | Hardback | 1014 pages, 32 plates with 136 colour photos; b/w photos, b/w illustrations, b/w distribution maps, tables | ISBN: 9781874701033 Buy this book from
  • Where to Watch Birds: Northeast England

    | By Dave Britton & John Day | Christopher Helm | 2004 | Paperback | 416 pages, B/w line illustrations, maps | Out of Print | ISBN: 9780713668261 Buy this book from
  • Whitburn (Souter) Bird Observatory

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    An excellent place to look for migrants, with large areas of rough grass interspersed with large well vegetated mounds. The area which backs onto Shearwater housing estate is traditionally a migrant hotspot, but respect the privacy of the houses here. The Observatory is a stone-built sea-watching hide between the coastal park and the firing range. Keys are available for purchase from the National Trust shop at nearby Souter Lighthouse, but local sea-watchers are usually present from first light on good days of passage. The Observatory has an enviable list of seabird records. (It is not an bird observatory in the sense of the wardened constant effort BTO member sites.)
  • Durham Bird Club

    Membership is open to all who have an active and beneficial interest in birds, irrespective of age, ability or experience.
  • Durham Wildlife Trust

    Durham Wildlife Trust's purpose is to protect wildlife and promote nature conservation in County Durham, the City of Sunderland and the Boroughs of Gateshead, South Tyneside and Darlington…
  • Friends of Red Kites in the North East of England

    The Friends Group was established in 2009 to encourages an active interest and community involvement in the protection and welfare of the red kite
  • RSPB Durham Local Group

    This small, but very active, RSPB local group has a full programme of indoor meetings from October to April, and many outdoor meetings throughout the year. The group welcomes new members, both RSPB members and the general public. Friendly help is on hand at field meetings to assist newcomers who would like to improve their bird identification skills.
  • Tees Valley Wildlife Trust

    Tees Valley Wildlife Trust is part of the influential UK-wide partnership of 47 Wildlife Trusts. The Trust has worked for more than 30 years to protect wildlife and wild places, and educate, influence and empower people. We manage 15 Nature Reserves and help others to manage their countryside sites. Our work is helping to secure the future of many important habitats and species, which might otherwise be lost.

Abbreviations Key

  • * Durham Wildlife *Trust Reserves

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    DWT currently owns and manages 31 nature reserves. All of our nature reserves are visited regularly by DWT staff and volunteers, we work hard to maintain their safety for visitors. However, please exercise caution in poor weather, especially at some of out more exposed reserves. Please let us know if you experience any problems or see any damage to fencing, gates or signage or if you see anyone deliberately disturbing the wildlife or damaging the reserve.
  • CP Derwent Walk Country Park & Derwenthaugh Park

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    The Derwent Walk Country Park is an area of countryside which runs between Swalwell and Rowlands Gill. It is about 175 hectares in size and includes meadows, woodlands, wetlands and riverside all linked by a series of waymarked paths.
  • CP Summerhill Country Park and Visitor Centre

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    Summerhill is a unique Country Park that is both a Local Nature Reserve and Outdoor Activity Centre.
  • LNR Barlow Burn Nature Reserve

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    Several blocks of woodland with disused sand quarry habitats including ponds and grasslands
  • LNR Castle Lake Reserve

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    Castle Lake Vale is the county’s premier inland wetland site. Created relatively recently by a combination of mining activity and control of water levels on adjacent rivers, the whole area now holds a wide range of farmland and wetland birds. Important populations of Corn Buntings, Yellow Wagtails, Tree Sparrows and Grey Partridges grace the fields and hedges, whilst the lake itself attracts many resident and migratory wildfowl and waders. Almost 170 species have been seen in the first ten years, including a growing list of quality rarities, and a new hide provides grandstand views over the lake and surrounding farmland. The site is managed by the Durham Bird Club in co-operation with the land owners and Northumbrian Water. Access is by public footpath from Bishop Middleham village.
  • LNR Low Barns Nature Reserve

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    One of our region’s most important wildlife sites, this wetland reserve, bordered by the River Wear, also contains mixed woodlands and species rich grasslands.
  • LNR Northumbrian Water: Waskerley, Smiddyshaw & Hisehope Reservoirs

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    Waskerley, Smiddyshaw and Hisehope are upland reservoirs situated amongst wild moorland at the top of the Derwent Valley. Waskerley and Smiddyshaw are situated at an altitude of 350 metres and Hisehope at 340 metres, offering stunning views over Muggleswick Common and distant moorland…
  • LNR Rainton Meadows Nature Reserve

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    Created by the restoration of the Rye Hill Opencast coal mine in 1996 by UK Coal in partnership with Durham Wildlife Trust and the City of Sunderland.
  • LNR The Howls Nature Reserve

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    This is an ancient woodland in the steep sided valley of Char Beck. The woodland comes alive each spring with birdsong and a beautiful show of woodland wildflowers.
  • NNR Cassop Vale National Nature Reserve

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    Cassop Vale is without doubt the most varied wildlife site on County Durham's Magnesian Limestone. It is home to a rich and distinctive group of plants and insects…
  • NNR Castle Eden Dene

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    Castle Eden Dene is home to an extraordinary variety of birds, more than 450 species of plants, and mammals including roe deer and fox. Although the Dene itself it is not suitable for wheelchairs, Natural England has opened a new, short, easy access path that starts at the lodge car park. All paths can be muddy and slippery after bad weather.
  • NNR Derwent Gorge and Muggleswick Woods

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    Red kites and buzzards may be seen gliding above the canopy with spotted and pied flycatcher, redpoll, siskins and wood warblers within the woods. Dippers, kingfishers and goosanders frequent the river and its tributaries, whilst historically the site has had populations of red squirrel and there are roe deer in the woods.
  • NNR Durham Coast

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    The reserve is made up of 5 parcels of land on the Durham Coast. The area is noted for its striking geological features and grassland that is home to numerous wild flowers and butterflies. The area is also home to many birds and supports an important breeding population of little terns.
  • NNR Moor House - Upper Teesdale

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    The rare black grouse also breeds here, as does the golden plover and ring ouzel.
Sightings, News & Forums
  • Durham Bird Club Member Sightings

    Please don’t report either: Schedule 1 species below when breeding is suspected; or Harrier or Owl roosts away from well wardened sites.
Trip Reports
  • 2008 [09 September] - Nick Mason - Durham and the Tees Estuary

    murky morning cleared as we headed east again to Hartlepool Headland, a small promontory at the north end of the town. One of the best migrant and seawatching hotspots in the region, the Headland is always worth a visit during spring and autumn migration. Arriving on the Headland, we quickly spotted a few members of Teesmouth Bird Club, who helpfully filled us in with the few morning sightings. Over the rest of the morning we walked the seaward promenade as the tide rose. Turnstone and Grey Plover picking through the seaweed-covered rocks were slowly replaced by Eiders, a preening Common Scoter, Red-throated Diver and Cormorant…
  • 2009 [04 April] - Nick Mason - North Pennines (Durham)

    6 am saw us watching 15 male Black Grouse lekking close to the car as the sun rose up into a cloudless sky. The still air helped the bubbling and spitting calls of the grouse fill their bowl-like display arena and appeared to hold the attention of the gaggle of seven female Black Grouse standing close to the edge of the lek.
  • 2009 [05 May] - Nick Mason - North East England (Northumberland, Durham & Cleveland)

    Bright sunshine and a gentle easterly greeted our arrival at Seahouses on the Northumberland coast. A quick look at the harbour rocks gave us Oystercatcher and Turnstone. The dual island boat trip headed out to Staple Island first, with hundreds of auks giving great views from the boat as we approached their nesting rock stacks.
Places to Stay
  • Boot and Shoe Cottage

    The historic Boot & Shoe Cottage lies on the southern bank of the River Tees at an ancient river crossing from Yorkshire into Durham. The cottage, once a cobblers and pub, has now been restored to a high standard with original wall cupboards, beams and fireplaces retained. Birders welcomed!
Other Links
  • Durham Biodiversity

    Conservation of biodiversity is vital in our response to climate change and in the delivery of key ecosystem services such as food, flood management, pollination and provision of clean air and water.
  • Durham Ornithology

    Durham Ornithology is a website for those who wish to develop their interest in birds and birdwatching.
  • Durham Bird Club News Blog

    Welcome to the DBC News Blog, featuring the latest articles from the DBC and its members about avian conservation and surveys throughout County Durham.

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