Sunday, 13 January 2019

Double Americano

This weekend was mostly about the 'Dad' and less about the 'Birding', as Vicky was in London, so I was in charge of the nippers.

On Vicky's return, my reward was to scoot down to Wheldrake Ings mid-afternoon (Sunday) to see what was going on in the valley. I popped into Bank Island, but not a lot was doing and I then got news that the drake American Wigeon had been relocated on the refuge at Wheldrake by Gary and Wendy Flakes.

Bank Island

I headed down there with Duncan, pausing to admire an incredible double rainbow right over the ings, which turned the floods inky black, a slick among golden grass.

The main meadow at Wheldrake Ings. Remarkably dry for the time of year.


Fairly soon, I picked up the familiar pale pepper grey head and shining green eye stripe of our target, the American Wigeon; a very smart Nearctic duck. He performed well, providing the best views of this individual I have had during the last few winters. He mainly stayed with a gang of unpaired drake Eurasian Wigeons that were displaying excitedly to an unpaired female. He did a cute little stand and wiggle to show off, but she didn't seem overly impressed.

 
 
Rainbows over the refuge, with Duncan Bye


Hordes of birds were flying around and several hundred Teal materialised. I mentioned that I had seen plenty of American Wigeons and Green-winged Teals here over the years, but never managed to see both in the same day. A few moments later and I realised one of the Teal facing me had two striking vertical white stripes on the edge of his breast and virtually no pale border to his green eye patch - Green-winged Teal! Unbelievable scenes! I was keen to get Duncan on the bird which was going to be very difficult given the large number of Teal milling about in a dense swarm. I opted to give him my scope, but that was a mistake as it moved out of view and he didn't get on it. We tried hard for the next hour to relocate the bird, but many of the Teal had swum or flown out of sight behind the long grass. This took the shine off my first Wheldrake Yank Duck Double somewhat, but the corking views of the AmWig made up for it.

 
We headed back up to Tower Hide to have a go at the gulls before dusk stole the light from us. Sadly, this was to no avail, although we got great views of the semi-resident male Peregrine which was not happy with the presence of a Buzzard, in fact he was livid for some reason. He repeatedly dive-bombed his adversary at incredible speed whilst loudly shouting his head off. I suspect if he had made contact with the Buzzard, that would have been game over for the larger bird.






Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Mega York Birding!


Following my op just before Christmas, I was under strict instructions to take it easy, so sadly had to duck out of this year's Mike Clegg Memorial Yorkshire Bird Race on Sunday (6th January). Fortunately, our team, Nevermind the Woodcocks were not to be deterred and recruited Paul Wheatley in to my place. This proved to be a good choice and the team did really well, hitting a marvellous 90 on the day. I was fortunate to be present at dusk on Wheldrake Ings bridge, which has become a tradition, as they secured their 90th species for the day. A Woodcock - perfect!

As for me, undeterred by the Doc's instructions, I had a full and very enjoyable day out birding. York has been going through a purple patch (bad timing seems as I've been laid up!) mainly thanks to Tim Jones who whilst reccying for the bird race has managed to find both Red-necked Grebe (York's 22nd but first since 2010) and Coue's Arctic Redpoll (York's third)! Superb stuff. Add to this the Dipper found at Newburgh by James Robson (first for years), the American Wigeon in the LDV and a range of decent winter birds, York is really the place to go birding currently.

 
I started a bit too early, arriving at Castle Howard in the pitch black at 7.30am. I was rather excited, having been somewhat caught up in Bird Race Fever, but also because there was a possibility of a York tick or too. Nature is meant to be good for your health and wellbeing, but this nervous excitement had stopped me sleeping the previous night!

Anyway, shortly after dawn, I was relieved to find the Red-necked Grebe still present and showing well on the flat calm lake. At what point it swam in amazingly close to the bank a few metres in front of me - I am not really sure why - and at that moment my mobile phone rang and it skittered off over the water showing off it's white wing patches nicely. Fortunately, it wasn't too disturbed and landed a little way out and loafed around unconcerned. A fab York tick and thanks Mr Jones for a great find.

...

On to Newburgh Priory and Coxwold, where I tried hard to find the Dipper but to no avail. Yes, I dipped the Dipper! I did manage to spy the odd mid-stream pebble with convincing Dipper poo on it, but I couldn't be sure it wasn't just Wagtail plop... The beck downstream of Coxwold looks great and I followed the footpath here a bit as it tracked the edge of the shallow beck. James Robson generously supplied me with some local gen but apart from a bonus Chiffchaff, I didn't manage to find any of his birds, including a Great Egret that was seen by Tim's Bird Race team earlier today. Thanks anyway James.

Poo on a rock. The nearest I got to a Dipper.
OK, well, one out of two is not a bad start and I wasn't really that optimistic about this bird.
...

Next up, Allerthorpe Common. I had arrived later than I had anticipated and there was no news on the Arctic Roll and the car park was full, so I squeezed on to a neaby verge. The wood was crawling with dog walkers and families and I wasn't feeling overly positive about my chances. Nevertheless, the sun had come out, birds were singing - Treecreeper, Robin, Wren - and I was birding! Bonus. I followed the southern edge of the wood down to the YWT reserve. The odd one or two Redpolls flew over calling, but the smoke pouring from a bonfire on the reserve didn't bode well at all: there was a volunteer workparty doing some conservation work. Not completely conducive for finding flighty finches! I scanned the large field to the south - an ex carrot field by the looks of it - and was amazed that it was crawling with birds. Fieldfares, Redwings and Song Thrushes hopped around searching for invertebrates, Yellowhammers and a few Corn and Reed Buntings were grubbing about and to my excitement, in the middle of the field were Redpolls! Switching quickly to my scope I started to scan the flock which was almost a moving carpet of birds. Soon, I picked out one, then two, three, up to ten Mealies, frosty brutes with plenty of white on the mantle, standing out from the small brown and buff Lesser Redpolls. And then I latched on to the Arctic! It stood out a mile, with a big plain white rump, plain lightly streaked grey head and lovely white underparts streaked on the sides of the breast. The undertail was white, but I could only see the sides from the angle of view, but the whole package fitted with my previous experience of this species. I couldn't quite believe my luck, York tick #2! I watched this little bird creeping around searching for seeds, and I attempted to get some phonescoped pics but was thwarted on each attempt, as no sooner had I lined things up, the bird moved out of view. And then quick as a flash, the flock erupted in a fizzing panic as a Sparrowhawk shot along the back of the field. The area cleared of birds, the Redpoll flock exploded skyards and then regrouped and headed over my head into the woods and disappeared, leaving a few lost looking Yellowhammers flying around nervously, with thrushes scattered to the nearby treetops. I waited in vain for the next 45 minutes but no Redpolls had returned, although I did see a single Brambling plus a few Siskins and a Jay (all good birds had I been doing the Bird Race!). I explained to arriving birders what had happened and a little while after I left the flock returned and they managed to see the Coue's. A second Double Decker on its way to you Tim!

I never expected to see a Coue's Arctic Redpoll in a carrot field, although my first way back in 1994 was feeding on Sea Lavender seeds on a saltmarsh!

...

Into the valley I went, head full of smiles, offsetting my post-op pain. I went straight down to North Duffield to look for the American Wigeon which was there yesterday. No luck, though great views of the regular immature Peregrine, a couple of Stonechats and a Marsh Harrier. Great to meet up with Steve Farley from Ark, plus a couple of the Bird Race teams: Young Upstarts and the Ex-chairman's choice. They were both having a great day.

Marsh Harrier. Almost unbelievably, an expected sight in the LDV these days.


I headed up to Bank Island and was delighted to find the wintering family (two adults and six juveniles) of White-fronted Geese on the water along with four Pink-footed Geese and a horde of Greylags.


Family White-front.

News came through of an Iceland Gull back at North Duff, so Steve kindly drove me back there for a look. Sadly, it had flown, but I did manage to pull an adult Lesser Black-back out just in time for the Young Upstarts who added it to their escalating Bird Race total. We went back to Wheldrake Ings and spent the remaining hour or so of daylight sorting through the hordes of small gulls, trying to find a Med or something rarer for the Bird Racers, to no avail. The semi-resident adult male Peregrine took out a Golden Plover with ease and descended to eat it on the far side of the flood. Three Goosander came into roost late on the flood and a Barn Owl was seen hunting, a fine end to special day birding the York area.

...

So the Young Upstarts beat 100 again, finishing on 101 - brilliant effort - well done Tim Jones, Jack Ashton-Booth and Adam Hutt. Nevermind the Woodcocks (Emanuela Buizzi, Rich Baines, Paul Brook, Paul Wheatley) finished on 90, as I mentioned, and the Ex-chairman's Pick (Peter Watson, Dunc Bye, Rob and Jane Chapman, Neil) finished on 89, a commendable effort. As for me, I totted up my list and made 86, which wasn't at all bad, considering I wasn't really trying and only went to five sites. One of my best day's birding in York ever? Definitely!



The Double Decker* Duo was presented to Tim Jones later for finding me two York ticks.

*This chocolatey tradition started with the Glossy Ibis found by Dunc Bye back in December 2017. I bought him a DD as a thank you for finding a York tick and the rest is history!








Sunday, 6 January 2019

Stripy-faced Fence Jumper

Whilst the York birding scene was going through a purple patch, I was sweating at my in-laws, waiting to return north. On the way back, popped into Roxton just off the Black Cat Roundabout to see a female White-headed Duck. Well, it turned out it was ringed, so had probably jumped out of a nearby collection, but it was quite smart to see, steaming around with the local Coots and Gadwall, like a stripy faced tug boat. Sol seemed quite impressed too.


Whilst this bird was not ever going to get accepted as a wild bird once it's bling had been spotted, it is interesting that the species has not yet made it on to the British list. I saw a more likely candidate for a wild bird back in June 2002 on Hardley Flood in Suffolk, but as yet, this is in the Category D bin along with all the others. Maybe one day...

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Happy New Year Nature Geeks!

As is tradition, we headed to the sea first thing on New Year's Day. The skies were blue and the mild conditions were welcome. A stunning dog Fox showed well near Claxton and remained long enough for us to spin the car round, pull up and watch him as he strolled around in a grassy field, closely shadowed by there curious and possibly suicidal Pheasants. He paid them, nor us, no heed and the kids enjoyed their first good view of one of these lovely creatures. He sat down to doze in the morning sunshine and I managed a slightly sketchy phone-binned photo.


On to Scarborough where we enjoyed the roar of a rough sea and spotted the arced back of Harbour Porpoises in the swell - cetacean yearlist off the mark. Not much else noted, apart from Shags in the harbour and Red-throated Diver and Razorbill on the sea off Marine Drive (apparently it was all going on in South Bay; various grebes and divers!).

 Scarbados. Gorgeous.
The Leadleys, Marine Drive.

...

I dropped the family back in York and then dashed down the LDV to see if I could add yesterday's American Wigeon to my 2019 yearlist. Sadly, most of the Wigeon flock had departed and the c500 ducks present did not host the Yank vagrant. An adult Lesser Black-backed Gull among loafing Herrings and Great Black-backs was unexpected and a good bird for January. Yesterday's Marsh Harrier was still at large, although without her hardworking falcon friend, she didn't really cause much upset among the wildfowl.

Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull. You could normally find an odd one on Rufforth tip in winter, but this species is at best a scarce winter visitor to the York area, being much commoner on spring passage and then again from July through to September.

I had a quick look at North Duffield Carrs to see if the AmWig was there, but it wasn't, and neither was anything else really; it was surprisingly and strangely bird-less. I suspected wildfowling for this anomaly. Then to Aughton Chuch as the sun set beautifully behind the historic church. With low floods, most of the ducks were to the north and largely out of sight behind bushes. I scanned through masses of Wigeon until it was too dark to see. That Yank is in the valley somewhere. Hopefully I will get another chance to get it on my yearlist.

Happy New Year everybody!

Aughton Church at sunset

Monday, 31 December 2018

2018, out with a bang!

A post-op checkup was a success and they gave me the green light to drive, so once again I am mobile! I headed from the doctors to the Castle in York to see if I could spy the Waxwing that was present this morning.

Within minutes of arrival (and Waxwing seemingly AWOL), the phone beeped to let me know that a drake American Wigeon had been discovered on Bubwith Ings! Change of plan, and off I went like a twitching rocket, south down the A19. I had no coat or scope, but hey, I could drive and I was birding- fab!

A little later I arrived on site. The Wigeon flock were distant and tightly packed and anxious, having been buzzed by a Peregrine. Another birder was present and had already seen it, but then lost it in the frenzy as the birds evaded the hunting falcon. I couldn't add much to the search as the ducks were too far off for my bins. Instead I scanned the fields, looking for raptors. Soon, a Peregrine appeared, a big immature female, along with a Marsh Harrier. Chaos ensued as the Peg made repeated sorties after the duck flock which swirled around over the floods in terror. The Marsh Harrier hung overhead, presumably hoping the falcon would do the dirty work and she could drop in and steal the prey. Both were to be disappointed and they went off empty-taloned.

The attack proved to be useful for us, however, as the flock then pitched back on to the floods much closer, giving us a better chance of finding our quarry. Another birder had arrived and the pair now went to work searching the throng, although struggling a bit in the buffeting wind. After a bit, one of the birders generously offered me his scope to see if I could fare better, and this paid off, as shortly I picked up the dapper male American Wigeon. The bird looked pristine, with no hint of yellow in its cream crown stripe, a nice peppery head with dark green eye mask, and pure pink-gin body and big bold black and white rear end. The duck had a neat black ring around the bill base too. What a fab bird, and perhaps last winter's drake. I took a few speculative shots with my DSLR and almost unbelievably, you can actually pick the bird out. No sign of the Smew, but a handsome duck to end the year with. Happy New Year folks!



Distant ducks on Bubwith Ings. Teal, Wigeon and Pintail, with one corking drake American Wigeon.

Long live Askham Bog


Me and my team objecting to the proposed development, December 2018

...

A dead crow floating face down in a ditch. That is my first memory of visiting Askham Bog Nature Reserve on the outskirts of York, made hazy by the passing of time. It would have been the mid 1980s, and I attended a guided walk with my Mum and Dad, led presumably by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, down a muddy, woody track along a ditch. We didn't see much, apart from the rather sad crow.

Born and brought-up in Bishopthorpe, Askham Bog was a place we occasionally visited, but not often: there wasn't much in the way of access and it wasn't clear whether we were actually allowed in! Roll forward to 1989, and we upped sticks to Woodthorpe, where my folks still live. As a young teenager, reliant on lifts for indulging my birding passion, I would often be 'grounded' through lack of transport, so I would don my boots and snake across the fields, along flailed hedgerows, spooking 'chikking' Yellowhammers as I went, trying to avoid the gaze of the angry farmer (who I never did see) into the northern side of Askham Bog. Here I found tranquility, peace and BIRDS! I rarely saw a soul in there - there was no car park, no boardwalk, no information, so very few people visited. I had it to myself, mostly. And if I ever did see somebody, I would sneak away, wraith-like, along paths I felt only I knew.

Water Violets grow in profusion along the ditches


The plants and insects for which the Bog is nationally renowned were a mystery to me in those days - my focus was on birds. Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, which have virtually disappeared from the Vale of York, could be found, and I had some of my best experiences of this tiny, charismatic bird here in the Bog. One April dawn, I discovered a male, using a broken Willow to drum, advertising his territory to would-be rivals and to woo amorous females. His crimson crown shone in the early morning sunshine. Stunning. Nearby, I found a female, creeping up a Silver Birch stem, probing the bark for bugs. Cool. Come winter-time, I would check out the damper patches of ground under thick bushes to see how many Woodcocks I could discover. At dusk these birds flew out of the wood, mainly to probe the soft ground in the fields to the north, for worms.

Another memorable sighting came in 1996. I had, by then, departed York for university, but would still visit the Bog when I returned during the holidays. On 1st November, I was back in York and had a few hours spare so retraced familiar steps into the Bog. Shortly, I bumped into a trilling, purring flock of Long-tailed Tits, a frequent sight in the Bog. As I looked through them, I suddenly heard the distinctive call of a Yellow-browed Warbler. Surely not! Back in the mid-90s, Yellow-brows were not as common an autumn migrant as they are today and there were not that many inland records in Yorkshire at all. A few tense seconds later and the stripy little bird appeared on the edge of a large Hawthorn, where I drank in its features. This was the first YBW for the York area - wow!

Life then took me away from the Bog as following a stint in Norfolk, I settled firstly into Bedfordshire and then Cambridgeshire. When I next came to visit the Bog, I could not believe the change that had taken place. A circular boardwalk had been built around Middle Wood; Near Wood had been 'opened up' with a large amount of felling and scrub clearance, and the pond where I had watched dragonflies had been dug out and extended. The Bog had had a facelift  - superb! The plants, some of which I now knew the names of, had responded by flourishing. The Bog looked amazing. Well done Yorkshire Wildlife Trust!

Middle Wood

Fast-forward a few years and I managed to land a dream job, with said same Trust, heading up their fundraising and communications team. To be working for the organisation responsible for this wonderful place and other much-loved sites like Wheldrake Ings, Flamborough Cliffs and Spurn, was a huge honour and privilege, not to mention very exciting. However, this is when I became aware of the darker side of conservation, that of the developers and others, continually trying to chip away at sites like Askham Bog, trying to destroy these incredibly diverse havens for wildlife, in the name of progress. We had to remain vigilant.

In my spare time, I took my tiny kids for a walk around that lovely boardwalk, where they could get close to wildlife and enjoy the calmness of the Bog. That calmness was beginning to dwindle as the Bog had been yet again challenged by the construction of the huge Park and Ride scheme on the rough field on the other side of the railway line. This was a place Kestrels hunted voles during the day, and Barn Owls quartered at night. All under tarmac now. When the City of York Council launched its draft local plan in 2015, we were all shocked to see the remaining open side of the Bog (land to the north) included as a vast housing allocation. This would be disastrous for the Bog. This had to be stopped! For the next few months, the Trust embarked on an intensive campaign to raise awareness of the potential impacts on the Bog if this allocation was included in the plan. We pounded the streets of Bishopthorpe, Copmanthorpe, Dringhouses and Woodthorpe, to let people know about what they could lose and what this could mean for them. The response was incredible, with thousands of people standing up with us in support of the Bog and in objection to the allocation. The Council, to their immense credit, realised their mistake, and removed the allocation from the draft plan and designated the land as Green Belt. Superb!

Towards the end of the campaign was the Trust's 70th birthday and our celebrations were made all the more memorable by Sir David Attenborough, who joined us for what turned out to be a magical experience. To our surprise he offered to come along for the full day, so we put together an agenda which would include a visit to Askham Bog, the birthplace of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, ahead of the evening event at York University. I had the honour of accompanying Sir David for the day, and when the BBC were called away to cover the dreadful assassination of MP Jo Cox in West Yorkshire, I had to be stand-in interviewer. It was incredible to be in this unassuming little reserve with Sir David, one of the most famous people in the world. I could not have possibly imagined as a spotty teenager wondering around on my own that one day this would happen! Anyway, Sir David was very impressed with the site, one he was well aware of, and explained how the people of York had a clear duty to care for it and no development should ever be allowed, that could risk damaging it....

Prof Alastair Fitter, Sir David and me, Askham Bog, June 2016


The next chapter in the story was that the Local Plan was thrown out and we were back to the drawing board. We feared that without an approved plan, the developers may well 'have another go' and sure enough, in a rather cynical move, began lobbying the people of Woodthorpe to try and buy their support. This did not involve residents of Moor Lane who were strongly opposed to the scheme. Being selective of the recipients of your survey is a little underhand, to be honest, but that's developers. Barwoods then held fire until a few days before Christmas to try and sneak their application in under the radar. This showed that they are well aware of how unpopular their plans are and wanted to try and get things through without anybody noticing. In a recent statement by their head honcho (presumably in response to the huge backlash), they had the audacity to say that their development will actually enhance the Bog, which is unbelievably arrogant and misguided. Their plan is to build a big lake along the edge of the Bog and then install a 3.5m high wall as a barrier to prevent animals or people from the new estate accessing the land. How they think this will have no impact on the wildlife of the Bog is simply baffling.

Fortunately, my colleagues at the Trust were prepared for this and we hit the ground running as soon as we got wind of the application going in to the Council. The response from the public was incredible and within 24 hours we had logged over 1,000 objections. The Council, realising how underhand Barwoods had behaved, extended the consultation deadline to February, to give people and organisations plenty of time to respond. Good work. Ironically, it seemed that this was unnecessary as by Christmas, over 4,000 people had objected! This is over 2% of the entire population of York, although some of the objections will have come from people outside the area. This is unprecedented and surely there is no way the Council can approve this application in the face of such fierce public opposition. If you are reading this and haven't signed, please do. Visit the Trust's website and follow the link on the homepage, it only takes a minute.

Despite the huge opposition and the Council having already allocated this land as Green Belt, we can not relax until the planning decision is made. Until then, we will fight on. Even if we win this battle, this will not be the last time we will have to fight for this unique place, but then, the Trust has been fighting for this place for over 70 years and rest assured we will continue to do so for as long as it is under threat.The support of local people and visitors from across the UK has been breathtaking and humbling and shows what high regard Askham Bog is held. At the time of writing 4,330 people have objected through the Trust's website. Time to walk away Barwoods!

Let's all hope that the Council make the right decision and continue to repel these insensitive and greedy planning applications, giving Askham Bog the best chance of flourishing far into the future. It is a cathedral of nature conservation (to quote Rob Stoneman), home to a stunning range of wildlife including some rare species and some very rare assemblages of wildlife, as well as a haven for commoner species that are increasingly under threat too, as we lose more and more natural corners of York to development and agricultural improvement. If we can not protect places like Askham Bog, the very best of wildlife sites, then we have lost all hope.


One last visit

Following my op before Christmas, the pain relief finally seemed to be getting the upper hand yesterday, so I asked Vicky to drop me at Wheldrake Ings for a few hours (I am still unable to drive). It was such a relief to be outside after being cooped up for the past ten days or so. The conditions were comfortably clement as I slowly made my way down the riverside path. Squadrons of Lapwings headed over towards the teeming throng on the water's edge in the distance, while noisy gaggles of Greylags lifted off clumsily to head on to the Low Grounds. The flood, which has extended a little since my last visit, was peppered with ducks, thousands of them and the air was full of the whistles of drake Wigeon and the musical piping of Teal.


I spent the next couple of hours enjoying the sights and sounds from Tower Hide, carefully checking through the ducks for a rarity, switching to the growing gull roost as dusk began to creep along the ditches, spreading out across the meadows. Nothing unusual reared its head, despite my perseverance, although three Black-tailed Godwits were nice among a mixed flock of Ruff, Dunlin, Golden Plovers and Lapwings. A Peregrine surveyed the scene from a lofty perch atop a Willow along the Canal and caused panic when she decided to have a fly around.



As I walked back, a tight flock of yapping, dark geese headed over the main meadow and descended on to the Low Grounds, presumably to roost. White-fronts; a group that has been hanging around for a week or so now. The sunset was gorgeous, glowing gently in the silky surface of the Derwent as it meandered through the Willows on the edge of the reserve.


With moderate flooding in the Lower Derwent Valley, the area really is now at its best,  with thousands of wildfowl thronging the shallow waters on the ings, countless waders and always the chance of a rarity of two. Stunning stuff. Hopefully I will be fully mobile soon so I can get out and about more widely.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Saturday afternoon gloom

A gloomy end to the afternoon as rain arrived from the west, brightened by the presence of large flocks of birds on the rapidly flooding Wheldrake Ings. Swantail Ings has a large amount of standing water now, and nearby, Bank Island has submerged and is inaccessible.

An hour in Tower Hide with Duncan and Craig produced a fine adult male Peregrine, drake Goldeneye, six Whooper Swans flying south along the canal, plus c1000 Lapwings, several Ruff, a smidgeon of Dunlins and a decent number of the standard ducks. With more rain overnight, I am keeping my fingers crossed for more flooding by first light. We'll see!
...
Sad news came from Craig who said he has found several dead or dying Whooper Swans who have succumbed to lead poisoning. X-rays have shown dozens of lead pellets in their gut which has proved fatal to these majestic travellers. Lead shot isn't used in wildfowling, which does go on in the LDV, but may be a legacy of the past or the shot landing on the ings from the countless Pheasant and Partridge shoots around the valley. Pretty awful and this needs to be stopped.

 My favourite tree at Wheldrake. A large fan or scallop-shaped Willow near Tower Hide.

 A distant Peg watching the comings and goings of the various birds, presumably thinking what he fancies for his tea.


 The restored Swantail Hide, viewed from Tower Hide, showing flooding on Swantail Ings.



Sunday, 2 December 2018

Avian Cascade

I don't get down to YWT Potteric Carr as much with work these days, due to my focus being on North Yorkshire. It was, therefore, a treat to visit this afternoon and to show the kids the breathtaking Starling murmuration down at Huxterwell Marsh. It was certainly worth the walk. Gangs of Starlings piled in from all points of the compass, assembling into a sinuous, living airborne leviathan, which snaked across the treetops, balling up into twisted shapes, before reaching out across the reeds like smoke from a winter bonfire. The BBC's Strictly has nothing on nature!




If you want to see this spectacle, head for the East Scrape Screen, about half an hour's walk from the visitor centre, at the end of the blue trail. Today, the Starlings began their dance about 3.30pm and performed well until c3.55pm when they poured into the reedbed like an avian cascade. It was still light and we got back to the centre by dusk.

Little Egret, fishing for Hawthorn berries. Apparently.


Plenty of other stuff about including a Peregrine, two or three Cetti's Warblers, three Little Egrets, several Lesser Redpolls and Siskins and a fine male Marsh Harrier hunting on Piper Marsh (below).




The water is coming

After the summer drought, it is taking a while for things to get wet in the Lower Derwent Valley. With some rain, Bank Island and the Low Grounds have now partially flooded, and birds have poured in. Hopefully with more rain, Wheldrake Ings will flood too, and winter birding will kick off proper. Great scenes at Bank Island this morning, with 1,000 Lapwings, 17 Ruff, c60 Pintails, c500 Wigeon etc. Great to hear the evocative calls of these birds on a still morning, the soundtrack for the next four months of local patch birding. Awesome.




Guano


What have Donald Trump, Medway Council, The Maltese Government and Yorkshire Wildlife Trust got in common?

Trump, leader of the world's biggest superpower, as if you didn't know, is a climate-change denier, sex pest, racist, mocker of the disabled, hatred inciter, and is systematically ripping up environmental and wildlife protection legislation in the States; the second is a local authority supporting the destruction of Britain's largest Nightingale breeding site; the third is a government failing to stop the slaughter of thousands of migrant birds, and the last, my employer, is a nature conservation charity, dedicated to protecting and promoting Yorkshire's wildlife. You could argue that one of these four is slightly out of place among those others mentioned. But, according to Birdwatch magazine, they are all worthy of nominating for an award for the environmental harm they cause.

Let me explain...

Birdwatch magazine/Birdguides runs its own X Factor style Birders Choice Awards to celebrate the achievements of unsung heroes, memorable birding events, best rarity etc. They also have the amusingly titled 'Guano Award for Environmental Harm'. To include Yorkshire Wildlife Trust on this list is disgraceful.

YWT have been included by the editors of the mag for the following reason:

"For going ahead with the controversial siting of the new visitor centre at Spurn, despite local objections." 

So, ok, Birdwatch, where is the evidence of environmental harm here?


I have never written about my feelings about the Spurn Discovery Centre, as it is now known. I was involved for most of the life of the project through my previous role at YWT, but have little to do with it now, having taken a new role midway through last year, which means my focus is elsewhere.
But when I look back on the four years or so I was involved, it is with sadness. I have been passionate about birding and nature conservation all my life. I have worked hard to get a job in a wildlife charity and every day feel privileged to work in the sector, being able to do a tiny bit to help that which I care so much about.

  • I never thought I would be directly threatened on email because of who I worked for.
  • I never thought my mugshot would appear on a stranger's blog, threatening me with violence.
  • I never thought I would witness colleagues around me almost having nervous breakdowns because of the intimidation they were facing daily.
  • I never thought I wouldn't be able to go birding somewhere because I wouldn't feel safe to do so.
This hasn't been a happy time and especially because elsewhere in Yorkshire I could see the real threat to Yorkshire's wildlife. Intensive agriculture; the continued illegal slaughter of our birds of prey; developments such as Hedon Airfield which would destroy a very important Curlew roost site, the Hellifield Flash destruction in the Dales, the proposal to build thousands of houses next to Askham Bog, or next to the Tilmire SSSI at York, and so on. These are the real threats to our wildlife. This is the time where we need to stand strong and together. And YWT has stepped up and fought for these places, sometimes in the absence of much support from elsewhere.

And meanwhile, YWT were having to put huge resources into defending what it genuinely thought -whether you believe that or not - would be the right thing to do for the future of Spurn NNR. The suggestion of anything else from profiteering to vanity, was simply bizarre and massively frustrating, and pretty devastating to all those involved. 

And now, with the Spurn Discovery Centre in place, has it changed Spurn? Was all that horrific nastiness worth it? Well, the Centre has changed the look of The Triangle undoubtedly (it is a bit stark, but I think it will bed-in with time), some of the views are altered and undoubtedly there may be a few well-loved paths that are now 'left to nature' but I don't sense it has had any negative impact on the birds or wildlife whatsoever - exactly what the Trust, RSPB, Natural England, Footprint Ecology and the Obs' own data predicted. Day to day, visitors are using the facilities. Families are visiting Spurn more easily. A range of people are being inspired about wildlife. The importance of the wider Humber area and North Sea for wildlife gains more prominence. Great. So, it has changed, yes, and for the better, and I don't think the level and intensity of vitriol was appropriate.

Given these things, Birdwatch editors, please tell me: where is the environmental harm here to warrant YWT's inclusion in this list? 

The terrible situation over the last few years has resulted in a very strained relationship between the Obs and YWT. This is massively sad. I look up the coast and see what Flamborough and Filey Bird Observatories are achieving through working together with YWT and it is great for all parties - but particularly for birds and other wildlife. The recent MigWeek up at Flamborough and Filey was a fantastic success, with YWT hosting many of the lectures, ringing demos and various other things at its Living Seas Centre. This is how it should be!

When I arrived back in Yorkshire after 15 years in the wilderness (well, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire), I was shocked about the situation at Spurn. YWT and the Obs didn't get on very well, the site needed some investement and we were even charging our own members to get in - bonkers!

I pushed to secure free entry for YWT members, the Obs committee and staff and to try and start to build bridges between the two organisations. After all, we all wanted Spurn's wildlife to thrive, even if our objectives were slightly different.

The efforts by Adam Stoyle, myself and others really started to make headway - people at the Obs seemed very keen on this too. I was delighted to be invited to join the Obs committee - a real honour for me! We got involved in the organisation and running of the very first MigFest. I persuaded Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan and the BBC Autumnwatch team to spend a week at Spurn featuring both YWT and the Obs. Spurn on primetime national TV - it was great.

This felt like a new beginning. Yes, some of the old issues were still there - and many of the old characters - but it really felt that the future was bright and many of the problems could be overcome for the benefit of everyone, and especially the wildlife of Spurn, just by working better together.
And then, one afternoon, I was sitting in the YWT office in York and E.ON telephoned my colleague and offered funding for a new visitor centre. A major project began…

As the project rumbled on, the objectors to the centre did an amazing job of generating support from across the birding community. Petitioning birders from across the UK arriving to twitch the Easington Siberian Accentor was a master stroke. Nevertheless, planning permission was granted and the Discovery Centre has been built. 

But I think now is the time to bury the hatchet. The centre is built and doing its job. YWT staff are working hard to inspire visitors to Spurn about wildlife, trying to educate them to have a safe visit with minimal disturbance to wildlife. Exactly what they said they would do. The birds are still there; I see there was a Jack Snipe on Canal Scrape too. No change there then. Things seem to be definitely moving in the right direction, to be fair, but I still see unfair comments being posted on social media frequently. YWT gets the blame for everything, even the westerly winds this autumn!


A Jack Snipe on Canal Scrape, way back in 2013.

So, will anybody vote for YWT to receive the guano award? Of course - lots of birders will. I think there is a fair chance YWT will win this dire accolade, which compared with the catastrophic impact of the other nominees on wildlife, is quite perplexing to me. Think wisely when you vote.

Personally, I would nominate Birdwatch mag for posting out their lovely magazine in plastic wrapping. YWT doesn't do that....

Meanwhile, staff and volunteers at YWT will continue to fight for Yorkshire's wildlife where it is under threat. We will continue to raise money to fund projects to improve our rivers for wildlife. We will continue to restore thousands of hectares of upland peat, trapping carbon, slowing the flow of water into the lowlands and providing a home for upland wildlife. We will continue to increase the area of land we manage to provide homes for Yorkshire's wildlife. We may not have the resources to manage all of these sites to the highest standard, but we will do our best with what we have. We will continue to invest the money generously given to us in new facilities for birders and other visitors at our reserves - like the new hides at Wheldrake Ings, North Cave Wetlands and Filey Dams (coming soon). We will continue to try to be good partners to a wide range of organisations, big and small. We will desperately try to raise the money to maintain our charitable work. We will continue to work for a Yorkshire richer in wildlife for everyone, including Spurn.