County Durham

Kingfisher Alcedo atthis ©John Bridges
Birding 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 hit upon its hidden talents.

  • 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 | 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 | ISBN: 9780713668261 Buy this book from
  • Whitburn (Souter) Bird Observatory

    Observatory WebsiteSatellite View
    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 seawatching 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 seawatchers are usually present from first light on good days of passage. The Observatory has an enviable list of seabird records and all the latest seawatching news can be checked via the Trektellen website:
  • Durham Bird Club

    Durham Bird Club is an active organisation of about 320 members which aims to promote the enjoyment of birds by birdwatchers. The Club organises a series of indoor lectures, illustrated talks, and a varied programme of field trips and other events for its members. It also assists in many conservation projects around the county including the managing of Castle Lake reserve at Bishop Middleham. Also see the twitter site:
  • 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 Darlington Local Group

    This is the website of the Darlington Local Group. RSPB local groups are a great way to meet friendly, like-minded people in your area while learning more about birds and wildlife.
  • 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.
  • Summerhill (Hartlepool) Bird Club

    Feeding Station
    Summerhill is a unique Country Park on the western edge of Hartlepool that since 1997 has been transformed for conservation and outdoor sports. The 100-acre site owned and managed by Hartlepool Borough Council was developed from a network of 8 fields in low-grade agriculture to create a Primary Gateway site in the Tees Community Forest…
  • 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.
  • The Northumberland & Tyneside Bird Club

    The Northumberland & Tyneside Bird Club was founded in 1958 and membership is open to all with a beneficial interest in ornithology. The recording area for the club comprises Northumberland, North Tyneside and Newcastle upon Tyne.
  • The Teesmouth Bird Club

    The Teesmouth Bird Club was founded in 1960 and is the recognised authority on the birds of the former County of Cleveland, now consisting of the unitary authorities of Hartlepool, Stockton-on-Tees, Middlesbrough and Redcar & Cleveland. The Club publishes the annual Cleveland Bird Report summarising the sightings of the year.

Abbreviations Key

  • DBC Castle Lake Reserve

    InformationSatellite View
    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.
  • DWT Barlow Burn Nature Reserve

    WebpageSatellite View
    Several blocks of woodland with disused sand quarry habitats including ponds and grasslands
  • DWT 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.
  • DWT Rainton Meadows Nature Reserve

    WebpageSatellite View
    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.
  • 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.
  • LNR Summerhill Country Park and Visitor Centre

    Facebook PageSatellite View
    Summerhill is a unique Country Park that is both a Local Nature Reserve and Outdoor Activity Centre.
  • NNR Cassop Vale National Nature Reserve

    InformationSatellite View
    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…
  • Northumbrian Water: Waskerley, Smiddyshaw & Hisehope Reservoirs

    InformationSatellite View
    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…
Forums & Mailing Lists
  • NorthEastBirding

    Mailing List
    This group is for everyone interested in birds and birding in North East England (Northumberland, Tyne & Wear, County Durham, Cleveland, North Yorkshire). It is a discussion forum for all aspects of birding - sightings, trip reports, census work, personality profiles, bird race and Big Day records, lists - and jokes. Although its primary focus is birding in the North East, all other bird-related topics are welcome. However, this is NOT a forum for character assassination, slander or libel.
Trip Reports

Click on WAND to see Fatbirder’s Trip Report Repository…

  • 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

Click on WAND to see Fatbirder’s Trip Report Repository…

  • 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.
  • Andy Musgrove - A Waldridge Naturalist

    Moved adjacent to Waldridge Fell over 10 years ago but amazingly have done relatively little in exploring the natural history on my doorstep. This Blog will change that !
  • Colin Severs - Col's Digiscope Blog

    This blog shows my photos taken through digiscoping and are mainly of birds in the North East of England, which has been my main interest for the last 3 years.
  • Neil Fawcett - Bishop Middleham Birding

    An online record of birds seen in and around the village of Bishop Middleham, County Durham.
  • Steve Egglestone - South Tyneside Birder

    Steve Egglestone was born and bred in South Tyneside and returned nearly 9 years ago after living in Northumberland for over 17 years. His blog covers the South Shields beaches and migration hot-spots.

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