Around this time last year we were reporting an adult Bonaparte's Gull that was delighting and frustrating would-be observers in equal measure as it ranged along a wide stretch of coastline between Whitburn and Sunderland. Partway through the bird's stay we received a telephone call from Brian Unwin, offering some more precise local directions to help other birders locate the bird off one of the many stretches of promenade-topped beach that it was frequenting. It wasn't the first time Brian made such a call to the BirdGuides News Team, but sadly it would be the last. That three years into his fight with cancer and just four months before he lost that struggle Brian was still putting effort into helping other birders and making sure that BirdGuides had the right information is a mark of the kind of man he was. It is unsurprising then to read in Ian Kerr's introduction to this guide, published after he succumbed to cancer at just 66, that he was still 'making notes on things that needed to be sorted out and points to be checked' in his final days.
Brian was a journalist who worked for the big two regional newspapers The Journal and The Northern Echo, before going on to work for the Press Association as their regional reporter. As a birder he was well known throughout the North East as a founder of the Durham Bird Club and for his regular Birdwatch column in The Northern Echo. In latter years a series of 'Where to Watch' articles covering sites in the region for Birdwatching magazine introduced readers to many of the best sites to go birding in the North East. His grounding in good journalism ensured he had an eye for detail; add to that his passion for the area in which he lived and birded and you might get a sense of what has been poured into this guide.
Following the introductions and the 'How to Use' section there is a seven-page month-by-month summary of the highlights a visit to the North East can produce. Unsurprisingly, as Brian was known for spending the odd hour staring out to sea at Whitburn, the guide dedicates four pages to a mini-guide to the best seawatching spots in the region, as well as providing an insight into the coded calls local seawatchers use involving the lobster pot flags that litter the coast. The bulk of the 300+ pages is made up of the individual site entries split across the three recording areas Cleveland, Durham and Northumberland. Each entry has a brief introduction followed by a list of target species and the percentage chance of connecting with them as well as a further list of other possible species: information painstakingly researched from years of local annual reports and personal observation. Simple but accurate maps along with 'How to get there' notes offer a good level of detail of both directions and invaluable little pointers about such things as hidden speed cameras. Key points about access, toilets and opening times, along with snippets of local knowledge and direction (such as not parking on road verges at the Tin Church at Low Newton), are in highlighted column sections throughout the entries.
This guide is no rehash of publicly available or previously published information. Far from it. It is bang up to date, and entries for some much smaller sites such as Beehive Flash or West Hartford that you might drive past without a glance are included. Some of these have only recently begun to deliver some quality birds. In addition there are some good pointers for any birders looking to adopt new patches that might offer the potential for turning up quality. With a succinct style and detailed local knowledge Brian guides the reader through some of the larger and more difficult-to-bird sites such as Sleddale with ease, and just as importantly captures the atmosphere of birding some of these sites perfectly. Not averse to pointing out some of the shortcomings of some sites, his richly personalized text manages to tease out the best birds from each site along with some of the best opportunities. With a combined 'North East List' published at the back of the guide (created by Ian Kerr who put the finishing touches to Brian's work) as well as summaries of the best sites for disabled access, the best accessible by public transport and a comprehensive list of local contacts, this is a useful guide for visiting and local birders alike.
Brian's legacy to birders is a fine piece of work that will not only introduce many visitors to the best sites in the region for years to come, but hopefully will inspire those that follow in his footsteps to realise some of the potential he saw in a landscape still emerging from its past, and offering new birding possibilities to those willing to take the time to look.
The information in this article was believed correct at the time of writing. BirdGuides accepts no responsibility for errors, or for any consequences of acting on information in the article. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily shared by BirdGuides Ltd.