Tree sparrows take flight at Souter

Tree sparrows feeding on seeds

The red-listed tree sparrow is now thriving on The Leas and in Whitburn Coastal Park, the site of an abandoned colliery which has been turned into a haven for birds.

The birds - with their red-brown crowns and distinctive black and white cheeks – are successfully nesting and breeding on site. Numbers have grown from just one pair six years ago to 120 individual birds in winter 2017/18.  

The tree sparrow's black cheek spot helps distinguish it from a house sparrow
Close up of a tree sparrow with its distinctive brown cap and black cheek spot
The tree sparrow's black cheek spot helps distinguish it from a house sparrow

Numbers of the birds nose-dived by a massive 93 per cent between 1970 and 2008, largely due to intensive farming methods which left little grain post-harvest in fields to provide feed for over-wintering birds like the tree sparrow.   

Nationally there was genuine concern that bird numbers would never recover. However, two were spotted and successfully caught and ringed by the Whitburn Ringing Group in spring 2012, followed by two more pairs in 2013.

In 2017 ten pairs were recorded with most ‘couples’ producing at least two broods of five or six chicks.

Formerly the site of the Whitburn Colliery, the Trust took on a long-term lease of the coastal site from South Tyneside Council in 1990 and the creation of the 32 hectare Whitburn Coastal Park started in 1992.  Working closely with volunteers and the Whitburn Coastal Conservation Group (WCCG), we have managed to successfully re-wild the landscape over the past 25 years.   

The industrial waste ground and coal spoil that dominated the landscape in the 1960s and 1970s is now a wildlife rich haven planted with small woodland copses, wildflower meadows and scrub. The contrast is huge:

Whitburn Colliery, now the site of Whitburn Coastal Park
A black and white historic image of Whitburn Colliery from the air with Souter Lighthouse in the distance
Whitburn Colliery, now the site of Whitburn Coastal Park
The grassy meadows of Whitburn Coastal Park today
A wide view across the grassy meadows of Whitburn Coastal Park towards Souter Lighthouse
The grassy meadows of Whitburn Coastal Park today
" When we acquired the additional 32 hectares to the 116 hectares we already care for on The Leas, we put in place a long term plan to re-wild the landscape. After the first pair of tree sparrows were spotted we hatched a plan to install nest boxes working with three volunteer rangers and WCCG members. There are now 84 nest boxes around the site and we feed the birds on a specialised diet of red millet, white millet and canary seed. Their settlement in the area is remarkable considering how scarce these beautiful little birds have become in southern and western regions of Britain. Most people wouldn’t associate these birds with long distance travel but tree sparrows are regularly known to migrate. British ringed birds have been found in France, Belgium and The Netherlands, just as continental ringed birds have been found in the UK. Their presence on the site is a wonderful reminder of how things would have looked locally 50 or 60 years ago. "
- Dougie Holden, ranger, Souter Lighthouse and The Leas

Other birds on the British Trust for Ornithology’s red list also making a home in the park include 25 pairs of breeding linnets, a couple of breeding yellow hammers and grey partridge.  

A male linnet proudly displays his rosy head and chest
A male linnet perching on a twig displays its rosy head and chest
A male linnet proudly displays his rosy head and chest

Wildlife making a new home in the area also includes smooth and palmate newts, several species of damselflies and dragonflies, butterflies, moths and small mammals including hedgehogs.

One of the volunteers helping rangers on the project, John Brown, has volunteered at the site for over 35 years. 

" When we caught our first pair we couldn’t believe our luck. In all the time that I’ve been involved with bird ringing I’ve never seen tree sparrows first hand. We did a lot of work around experimenting with different bird feed types to see if we could come up with a mix that would attract only the tree sparrows so that their food wasn’t scavenged by other birds. Now we put out a mix of canary seed and millet at one dedicated feed station with the aim of attracting only the tree sparrows which has been really successful in helping increase their numbers. The birds have put their trust in us and we are doing our bit to try to ensure that the species survives for future generations to enjoy them as much as we all do."
- John Brown, volunteer and member of Whitburn Ringing and Coastal Conservation Groups