Put the cricket bat down for a quick twitch to Wheldrake Ings to see my first York-area Cattle Egret that had been found by Craig and Duncan on the Low Grounds early evening. Sol came with me and was chuffed to get a ride in Craig's truck! After watching the bird, seemingly a juvenile, for a bit, something flushed the bird and the accompanying Greylags and it flew out of sight. It was last seen heading towards Bank Island and was not seen again by dusk, though I was home playing cricket in the street by then.
Wednesday, 9 September 2020
Monday, 31 August 2020
Yesterday, I got a message from John Jackson to say there was a juvenile Kittiwake on the lake at York University. This seemed quite unlikely but was accompanied by a cracking photo. I shot down there as this would be a York tick for me. I had armed myself with a can or sardines just in case it fancied a snack. Sadly, I couldn't find it. Presumably, it had just dropped in for a rest before heading off. I checked Hes East but again, no sign. Me and my sardines headed home.
I was surprised to get a message this afternoon to say it was still present. My eyes are clearly painted on.
Again, I shot down there and this time, luck was on my side and the gull was sitting in the middle of the lake, paddling around snapping up insects. Fab! Juvenile Kittiwakes are really stonking so it was great to see one of this age in the York area. It seems they have had a good breeding season along the Yorkshire coast this year given the number of juveniles I have seen on recent seawatches. I chucked in the sardines close to the bird but it was disinterested, carrying on snapping up nearby flies. Later on, it showed interest in bread, diving in among the local Black-headeds and Mallards as a family tossed a few crusts in for the ducks. Shortly, it completely vanished and Duncan refound it down the far end of the lake. Presumably that is where it had hidden yesterday when I failed to find it.
The stormy weather over the last couple of days presumably blew this youngster inland. Let's hope it survives to make it's way back to the coast.
Sunday, 30 August 2020
I spent the day at Flamborough Head, firstly guiding a Yorkshire Coast Nature group and then another five hours seawatching. In the morning, a couple of hours seawatching with the group yielded a flock of five Long-tailed Skuas, c20 Arctic Skuas, 10 Bonxies, a couple each of Sooty and Manx Shearwaters and a flock of smart pale-bellied Brent Geese. The sea really was mountainous and I was relieved we hadn't gone out in the boat!
Sooty Shearwater. Superb birds that breed in the South Atlantic, on islands such as the Falklands. They undertake a massive clockwise loop of the South and North Atlantic, during which we get a chance to see them. Corking!
After the clients had departed, I continued to seawatch. Lots of Arctic Skuas were still moving, many of which were juveniles, indicative of a productive breeding season. A few Bonxies, Sooty and Manx Shearwaters passed north too, plus a steady stream of Fulmars and Gannets. Surely, something more special was out there! A few Sandwich Terns headed south, a couple of Whimbrel too and a trickle of Racing Pigeons northbound (?!).
Out of nowhere, JohnnyMac announced 'Great Shearwater heading north, close-in' - the statement cut through the chatter of the hide and the several birders present frantically scanned. Craig Thomas sitting next to me got on it and reassured me that I would see this easily - I had been explaining to him earlier that I was desperate to see a Great Shearwater here in Yorkshire- but I could not get on it...panic rose; I could hear the excited chatter around me. How could I not see it? I couldn't take this any longer, so I asked Craig for a look through his scope - boom! There it was, far closer in than I was looking - what a stunningly handsome bird. Switching back to my own scope I got on it quickly and followed it's slow progression north. Unlike Great Shears I have seen before that moved fast downwind, this bird was moving slowly, occasionally pattering the surface as if feeding. I managed a bit of shaky phonescoped video. After a couple of minutes of amazing views, it disappeared round the corner. Our voyager from the South Atlantic had gone, leaving us beaming and exhilarated. The andrenaline rush was incredible and I was left shaking. I owed Double Deckers to Johnny and Craig and apparently a few quid to the Flamborough Bird Obs swearbox!
Great Shearwater: an iconic seabird that travels north from breeding colonies on Tristan de Cunha and Gough Island in the South Atlantic. Notice the Harbour Porpoises that pop up in the second clip.
Sunday, 23 August 2020
Cracking morning at Ripon City Wetlands. Nice, calm conditions, with some sunny spells. Two Ospreys almost continually present, actively hunting over Riverside Lagoon, along the river and once or twice over Canal Reedbed, affording amazing views. Also seen: Garganey, Shoveler 3, Teal c40, Marsh Harrier, Knot 1 juv, Wood Sandpipers 2 juvs, Greenshanks 2, Common Sandpipers 3, Ringed Plovers 11, Dunlin 3, Green Sandpipers 5, Oystercatcher 2, Snipe 8, Curlew, Ruff 6, Yellow Wagtail, Treecreeper, Marsh Tit.
Nice to meet some of the local birders too!
Two Wood Sandpipers
Friday, 21 August 2020
We have been pumping the water out of Canal Reedbed at Ripon City Wetlands YWT recently, to allow work to take place to reinstall the water control structure and replant the reeds eaten by the geese. This has created excellent wader habitat right on time for southbound passage! In a number of mid-August visits both on business and for pleasure, I have seen two Wood Sandpipers, several Green Sandpipers, three Common Sandpipers, three Ruffs, two Greenshanks, several Snipe, a Dunlin, 130+ Lapwings, several Curlews and a Redshank. Five Turnstones were a good record for the site, but I missed them. There's been a couple of juvenile Peregrines knocking about and a Hobby. The water will be kept low with a pump until the reeds are planted in October and then we will allow the water to come back up with winter rains. So, for now, the wader fest should continue!
Storm Ellen arrived and my whalewatching trip was cancelled. With the day off, I jumped out of bed at 6am and headed up to Ripon City Wetlands, to see what Ellen had brought. In the comfort of Canal Reedbed hide, I enjoyed a couple of hours chatting to Martin Bland, watching the waders (3 Greenshanks, 6 Ruffs, 6 Ringed Plovers, Dunlin, 3 Green Sandpipers, 254 Lapwings) and hoping for something exciting to drop in from the threatening sky. Nothing did, but I was pleased to pick out a female Garganey from the flock of 50 Teal, my first for the site.
Elegant Ruff and Mute Swan feet. A bit of a size difference!
Wednesday, 19 August 2020
We visited Pegsdon Hills (BCN Wildlife Trust) on the way to Norfolk a couple of weeks back. I used to spend a lot of time here when we lived nearby, checking the Hebridean sheep, birding and botanising. It is a cracking place and the chalk grasslands looked stunning, with drifts of delicate Pignut and magenta Knapweed, whilst in the valley bottoms, carpets of Marjoram were teeming with butterflies and other insects. It was a bit late for orchids, but I did find a couple of Chalk Fragrants. It was great to find Chalkhill Blues still flourishing at Pegsdon, along with Brown Argus, Common Blue, Small Copper and others. A wonderful place, full of great memories for me. I wrote my wedding speech sitting on top of the hills looking north, one August afternoon, back in 2003.
(All photos with Samsung Galaxy A5)
Sunday, 16 August 2020
With a North-easter blowing and the threat of rain, I mistakenly headed for the Old Fall Oasis first, rather than the cliffs. A super-rare-looking Garden Warbler flitted down the hedgerow, but eventually perched briefly allowing me to abandon my wild optimism. Otherwise, three Lesser Whitethroats in the Golf Course Willows, a few Willow Warblers and several Whitethroats was all I could muster. Not even a sniff of a Pied Flycatcher, let alone an Icterine or Barred Warbler.
On to the cliffs I went, where I discovered all the real birders were seawatching, not wasting their time bush-bashing! Fortunately, despite a good skua passage so far, more were to come and within the next couple of hours I saw at least five Long-tailed Skuas sprinting north, c15 Arctic Skuas, a trio of ponderous Great Skuas and possibly the highlight (because I love 'em!) a superb dark morph adult Pomarine Skua, cruising south menacingly, complete with full cutlery set. 'Also-rans' included a smart second summer Little Gull, juv Mediterrean Gull, hordes of terns including some gorgeous juvenile Arctics, c15 Manx Shearwaters, a few Common Scoters and some waders heading south. Also, at least five Harbour Porpoises.
I had some fun with trying to phone-scope flying skuas. Not easy as they were moving fast, it was windy and they were usually distant. A lot of the birds were at a distance where only jizz (size, shape, flight action, behaviour) gave a clue to identity and most birds were identified by the more experienced birders present, and some of those were done by consensus; a couple were so confusing that they were 'let go'. Have a look at the videos below and see if you agree with my identification - let me know on Twitter what you think!
Video 1: Great Skua, heading north.
Video 2: Pomarine Skua, dark morph adult -to see a fully-spooned dark morph adult is pretty special. Only c10% of birds are dark like this.
Video 3: Arctic Skua, pale morph adult.
Video 4: Arctic Skua, dark morph juvenile.
Video 5: Arctic Skua, dark morph juvenile
Video 6: Long-tailed Skua, pale morph juvenile.
Video 7: Arctic Skua, 2 dark morph juveniles.
Video 8: Long-tailed Skua, juvenile. Not 100% on this one!
Video 9: Long-tailed Skua, juvenile.
Video 10: Long-tailed Skua - 2 juveniles.
Friday, 7 August 2020
Found a couple of Broad-leaved Helleborines on a farm near Darley in Nidderdale. Despite being widespread and relatively common, I have not seen many of these lovely orchids in recent years, so it was nice to have a closer look. They were growing in a shady woodland near a small river.
Monday, 3 August 2020
Thursday, 30 July 2020
Saturday, 11 July 2020
After a 3am start, I am too tired to write much now, but I just wanted to share the sheer elation of seeing a Lammergeier (Bearded Vulture) in the Peak District this morning!
For once I got lucky - really lucky - when the majestic beast left its cliff-face roost earlier than expected and came gliding in front of me at 05.45. Not only that, it then landed on the ridge a couple of hundred metres away! Absolute scenes!
This bird has been tracked from the continent and was wild born, possibly in the French Alps; it was previously seen in Alderney and Belgium. To see a Lammergeier in South Yorkshire is absolutely incredible and to see this huge sky dragon close enough to see it's white eyes and hipster beard, is unreal. I will write something more coherent later when I have scraped myself off the ceiling and had some sleep.
Thursday, 9 July 2020
Brockadale, near Pontefract, has become really popular during lockdown - I mean, really popular! It is a super YWT nature reserve; spectacular scenery, lovely grasslands filled with flowers and butterflies, and hanging woodlands along the Went Valley, where birdsong drifts through the canopy.
It is a special place and it seems lots of others have discovered it too. Fair play. Most people were enjoying the site responsibly - no litter and only two dogs off leads- great. Let's hope many of these people find a new connection with nature. Our kids had a great time, bouncing on a big bough by the river and checking out this and that. A close encounter with a curious Southern Hawker dragonfly was a treat.
Fantastic butterflies as ever on this site, with at least 13 species seen without really trying. Marbled Whites clustered on the purple bursts of Knapweed, whilst Dark Green Fritillaries skipped through the grasslands. There were plenty of Clustered Bellflowers in evidence; Brockadale is one of the best sites for this impressive flower. The woods were quiet, with Chiffchaffs and Wrens the only songsters noted. A downpour drenched us just before reaching the end of our walk, but didn't dampen our spirits.
Sunday, 5 July 2020
Some of the birds I have missed are as memorable as the ones I have seen: the Red-breasted Nuthatch in Wells Woods in the 90s; the Lesser Crested Tern on the Farnes (twice) and at Spurn (once). The depth of disappointment of missing a bird you have made an effort to see can be as severe as the elation of seeing a bird.
In this case, I dipped* a Black-browed Albatross, a spectacular seabird from the South Atlantic, a stunning, handsome ocean traveller from another hemisphere.
*I realise that 'dipping' may mean different things to different people, but in the birding world, it is the act of missing, not seeing, failing to find a target species, and usually a rare one at that. It leaves one feeling pretty down, frustrated and upset all at the same time.
I have form with dipping Black-browed Albatrosses, so this short period in my birding life should not have come as a surprise to me, but that makes it no easier a pill to swallow. A couple of years ago, the towering cliffs of Bempton on the east Yorkshire coast attracted a Black-brow that had been touring the North Sea. I dropped everything, and drove as fast as I safely could to the headland, but the bird had gone. I stared forlornly at the endless blue of the North Sea, but nothing...Yorkshire's second Eastern Crowned Warbler in the bushes nearby only slightly lifted my mood.
Several months later in the spring of 2017, possibly the same bird appeared again. This time it even landed on the cliffs among the Gannets. Surely, it would stay long enough for me to get there and see it? No, it would not and I dipped again!
Fast forward to 2nd July 2020...
Towards the end of the working day on Thursday, I nonchalantly checked my phone and discovered a report of a Black-browed Albatross at Bempton! Whoa! A few tense minutes passed and another message came through to say there was indeed an albatross and it had been photographed. Panic! I finished off a few emails, packed my gear and shot off. I headed east and my phone beeped with updates from birders watching the bird. By the time I reached Bridlington I was nearly out of fuel so I filled up and checked my phone. The bird had flown west and hadn't been seen for a while. Then a message came that it had been seen off Hunmanby and then gone north at Filey - seen by Terrier Captain Mark Pearson! Great for Mark, bad news potentially for me!
I pressed on. Sadly, two and a half hours of scanning along the clifftops failed to reveal the albatross. Another dip. Nevertheless, it was worth a go, and nice to catch up with many birders who I hadn't seen since lockdown. And then the photos of the albatross started to appear on Twitter. Absolute scenes! Probably some of the best rarity photos ever taken in Britain. What a bird! See here on the Flamborough Bird Obs website. Cracking.
I had a nice view of a hunting Long-eared Owl, a couple of Peregrines cruising the clifftops and all the usual seabirds, which are corking after all. But no albatross. But would it be seen again? It seemed it had gone north, so maybe not. However, it hadn't been seen further up the coast, so just maybe it had stayed in the area. We would see.
Friday 3rd July
I had decided the night before not to try Bempton again unless there was positive news. This turned out to be a massive mistake. at 6.18am the message came through that the albatross was back and was drifting along from Selwick's Bay near the lighthouse, back towards Bempton. Yikes! Back to Bempton I drove. I had a lieu day arranged with my boss, though I wanted to make a couple of meetings in the afternoon. Again, my phone pinged constantly as I drove east- I finally checked them at the traffic lights on the edge of Bridlington. The bird had flown west at 7.15am. Two minutes ago. 20 minutes later and I was on the clifftop. It was much busier today with the amazing photos having drawn in a real crowd. The bird hadn't yet reappeared having glided slowly along towards Speeton to the west.
There were lots of elated birders around showing me their stunning photos of the bird. They all said it would be back. It didn't come back. 8am became 9am and still no sign. Minutes ticked away. I had to leave at 9.30am as my wife needed the car back to drive my son to cricket training and I had a meeting at midday. I enjoyed the Razorbills, my fave auk, but felt absolutely crushed that I had been so close. Why hadn't I been there for dawn? Idiot! 9.30 arrived and I left. A big fat dip, made worse by my bad decision.
And then the really crushing news arrived. It has turned up again. My mate Tony Martin recounted to me that after getting drenched by a shower mid-morning, they were just about to give up, when at 11am birding legend Brett Richards shouted "It's coming, it's coming!" and back along the cliff, at head height, the huge seabird came. Apparently it flew past so close Dob, who was standing next to Tony, couldn't focus his camera on the bird. It then u-turned and came back and Dob got some stunning images. It drifted around for 15 minutes then glided back west along the cliffs. Incredible scenes!
I had been so close this morning and then to get this news...birding can be cruel sometimes.
Meetings done, I had to try again. Maybe, just maybe the albatross had spent the afternoon on the cliffs and would do a teatime fly-by, so I headed east for the third time. This felt like an obsession. What the hell was I doing?
I arrived at Bempton to crazy scenes. Something like 300 birders, maybe more, were strewn along the clifftop, trying their best to social distance, but failing in many cases. I met old mates from as far away as London, Norwich, Liverpool, Birmingham. They had all seen the epic photos and made the pilgrimage. Like me, they were desperate to see this special bird. The hours drifted by. It was cold, and in my stressed state I had forgotten my coat. I met up with fellow York birders Chris and Ollie and chatted all things birding, recounting tales of this spring's rarities and speculating on the whereabouts of the albatross. We constantly scanned the waves, grilled the cliffs, just hoping to see the wanderer winging his way back towards us. A Bonxie (Great Skua) loafed on the sea. It rained; hard. I was soaked and cold, tired, hungry and emotionally drained. I could feel it in my bones that he wouldn't come back again today, and wearily walked back to the car, spirits in a ditch. A ditch filled with filthy, dark water. This albatross really was becoming the albatross round my neck.
I went to bed undecided as to whether I would try a fourth time or not. I was too shattered to make a decision like that. I woke at 5.25am and the decision came easily - I must try one more time. To not go was to risk colossal regret. I was heartened by a message from my old Cambs birding mate, Mark Hawkes who had set off at 3.30am from Cambridge, to drive to Bempton. It would be great to see him, so this confirmed my decision was the right one. Another easy drive over the Wolds and I arrived on the now familiar cliffs just after Mark at 6.35am.
It was great to see Mark. His boundless enthusiasm and positivity really lifted my spirits, despite neither of us really expecting us to see the albatross. It hadn't been seen since 11.15 yesterday, so hope was remote, but neither of us could face not giving it a try.
I took part in the vigil for three hours. Sol had cricket practise again and I wanted to take him, so had to leave mid morning. Mark stayed until midday, enjoying the seabirds and the stunning scenery - and the Long-eared Owl, which made an appearance again, before heading back to Cambridgeshire.
The Black-browed Albatross has still not reappeared. He is a mysterious, majestic ocean wanderer. He could be anywhere now, Iceland, Norway, back in the North Atlantic. He has beaten me again and I am devastated. I know many other birders who missed his visit feel the same and pray for another chance. Maybe he will come back soon, or maybe never. Dipping is one of the worse feelings, but I am glad I tried as hard as I could.
I like the fact that nature has the power to make us feel this way and that it can beat us. Nature is still wild. This albatross is wild and free and has disappeared across the blue sea and I love the fact that he is out there somewhere, doing his thing. I assume it has no concept of the sheer joy and exhilaration it brought to all those fortunate birders who got themselves in the right place at the right time, or the utter pain it brought to me and others by melting away so easily. Maybe one day I will get lucky- seventh time lucky -is that a thing?
Albatrosses are in trouble globally, because of us and our activities. They choke on our plastic pollution, they drown on fishing hooks set in the long-line tuna fishery. They are losing food due to the over-exploitation of fisheries. If you enjoyed reading this, or (lucky thing) enjoyed seeing this Black-browed Albatross, it is worth checking this webpage out and maybe consider a donation to help the work of the partnership trying to save these fantastic birds.