Sunday 3 December 2023

The Colour Purple

Two Waxwings in Heworth on the way into York to go Christmas shopping yesterday was a bonus. They were still there on the way home mid-afternoon, but had moved on to Heworth Road.


I started out despite the foggy, snowy conditions by having a look for yesterday's Waxwings. They weren't there. I then went into the LDV, but only got as far as Bank Island. The fog was too thick, so I decided to head home, possibly coming back out this afternoon when the fog had cleared. As it turned out, Duncan Bye rang me as I was peeling carrots to tell me he had a dark wader on Wheldrake that looked like a Purple Sandpiper! Unexpected to say the least, but there have been a few inland in the last couple of weeks, presumably as birds move south for the winter. The recent foggy days could well have interupted this one's journey, and it had dropped in on the main flood. After a quick dash down to Wheldrake, I met up with Adam Firth and we soon located the Purple Sandpiper feeding distantly with the Dunlins, looking slightly larger and much darker than the other waders. Fantastic, a first for York and therefore a York tick for all of us, taking my York list to 227.


Duncan very happy with his find, and Adam enjoying the moment.

We walked round to where Duncan was watching it from to congratulate him on a great find. A few other locals joined us over the next half an hour to watch the bird in the murky conditions. Purple Sandpipers are the most coastal of waders, closely associated with rocky shores, where they seek invertebrates among seaweed covered rocks and mussel beds. They are common, but local on the Yorkshire coast, but inland they are always rare, so this is a great bird for the York area. 

The main flood was heaving with birds, with over 100 Dunlin, a dozen Ruff, plus lots of gulls and ducks. Unfortunately, in my haste I was under-dressed and after an hour I was frozen, so decided to head back.


York's first Purple Sandpiper. Honest!

Here is one in more usual habitat, on the end of South Gare in September, together with a Turnstone.



Later, I walked Luna with Vicky down to Acaster and back along the river. Last weekend's flock of 120 Golden Plovers had dwindled to 25. Near Naburn, there was an Otter in the middle of the river. Shortly, it caught a decent-sized fish and swam into the side to eat it. We walked down onto a pontoon and watched the Otter at close range, eating its catch under the shelter of the adjacent pontoon. Once it had finished its meal, it slid down into the water and swam straight underneath where we were sitting! They really are fearless, beautiful animals.

Sunday 26 November 2023


Sunday morning, and Castle Howard yielded little: 49 Tufted Ducks, 48 Teal and 10 Goldeneye. The two Scaup from earlier in the week had gone.

Heading for the LDV, news came through from Neil Cooper of the seven Waxwings he'd found yesterday still being present in Melbourne, which was handy as I would be passing through there on the way to Ellerton. Sure enough, the lads were present behind the Melbourne Arms pub in a tree. I showed the landlord and landlady the birds through my scope and shortly a guy came past, who also had a look. He said his name was Tom and that the birds were sitting in a tree in his garden, and if I wanted to go down his drive and have a closer look, that would be fine. Thanking Tom, I headed round there, past the Rowan tree where they were clearly feeding, and into his garden. The Waxwings were very close and unconcerned, happily trilling away and preening. I enjoyed good views for 15 minutes, before carrying on. Thanks Tom!



Waxwings preening: it takes effort to look this good!

On to Ellerton and a long walk down to the landing and then Hagg Lane, revealed c100 Tufted Ducks and 50 Pochards, plus 30 Pinkfeet, 50 Whooper Swans and not a lot else. c600 Golden Plovers and 30 Dunlins were in the field at Derwent Cottage Farm, Bubwith, with 8 Ruff on South Bubwith Ings. Later on, I walked down to Acaster and was pleased to find 120 Golden Plovers in the field north of Acaster.

Lingering Cold Northerly

Three weeks on since my last post and I am still feeling under the weather with a persistent cold. Talking of cold, a biting northerly roared down the North Sea yesterday and I had visions of it pushing a torrent of Little Auks, Ross's Gulls and Gyr Falcons in front of it, so after a restless night, I was off east to do some seawatching at Flamborough. I was a little perplexed and also dismayed to see virtually nothing in my first hour, save a monstrous grey sea, foaming and snarling offshore. Mid-morning I decided on a change of scenery and headed round the Old Fall Loop. In off the sea, three Siskins bounced, freshly arrived from Scandinavia. A missile rocketed up from below the cliffline to intercept the little finches; a hunting Merlin! It separated one unlucky Siskin off from the group and began a relentless aerial pursuit, with spectacular stoops, twists and dashing speed. The plucky Siskin was not going to give up easily, jinking aside at the last moment to avoid the Merlin's attacks. But after a while the Siskin's energy began to fail and high in the sky, the Merlin came from beneath and with a quick twist, turned on it's back and grasped the Siskin from underneath. 


There was nothing much on the sea off the south cliffs, with a single Eider and a pair of Common Scoters the only birds of note. I reached Old Fall, which despite being at the end of the rainbow held little either. 

Shortly, a message came through that the seawatchers had seen three Little Auks pass by. Well, there was nothing doing in the bushes, so I decided to head back. 


This proved a good move, and after a few minutes, picked up a Little Gull, shortly followed by a close-in Grey Phalarope! Conveniently, it landed on the sea just offshore and began feeding, allowing all present to pick it up. Five minutes after this and my first Little Auk pelted past, a tiny Arctic-bound pied streak. It seemed that the seabird passage had begun. A little later, Johnny Mac spotted another Grey Phalarope, this one much further out and moving steadily north. Cool. Over the next few hours, we notched up a further 19 Little Auks, including parties of three and two - see video. A Great Northern Diver went past north, among the many Red-throated Divers, with several Eiders, a Long-tailed Duck, two Sanderlings, Dunlin, Turnstone and Grey Plover. 

 Not easy to phonescope!


Sunday 5 November 2023

Feeling Rough

I was beginning to feel a bit rough towards the end of the week, but rather than sit under a blanket feeling sorry for myself this weekend, I headed out to Stone Creek, just east of Hull, to do some birding and get some fresh air. A series of large set-aside fields lies next to the north bank of the Humber and this is attracting large numbers of finches and small mammals, to feed on the thistle and other ruderal plant seeds. This abundance of food has attracted a range of raptors including a juvenile Rough-legged Buzzard, which has lingered here for a couple of weeks now. 

The Rough-leg was present on arrival, sitting atop a large Hawthorn. A typical frosted-cream bird with large dark belly patch, and small beak. 

After 20 minutes or so, it took off, and flew steadily up river towards Paull. I lost it in to the distance, so switched my attention to two fantastic ringtail Hen Harriers quartering the fields, often coming really close. Further up the fields towards the Humber, three Short-eared Owls were cavorting around, seemingly enjoying the breeze and oblivious to the toggers snapping away with their mammoth lenses. A huge flock of Golden Plovers swirled over the Humber, with smaller flocks of Knot, Bar-tailed Godwits and Curlews mixed in. No doubt a hunting Peregrine was disturbing them, but I didn't see it. After a while, I picked up the Rough-leg flying back towards the fields and obligingly, it landed on a Hawthorn for a while, though at the back of the fields. 

Shortly, the buzzard took off and began hunting, hovering into the wind, sometimes hanging into the strengthening breeze motionless, whilst at other times putting quite a lot of effort in, to maintain position. From the rear, the large white primary patches on the upperside of the wings, and the white-tail base were very eye-catching. 

Every so often, it would drop vertically, hover again, before dropping like an over-sized Kestrel on to a hapless vole or mouse. It was great to watch and gradually came really close. Unfortunately I didn't have my DSLR with me nor the phonescoping adaptor, so the footage is a bit ropey! The rain arrived on cue late morning and having grilled this cracking bird for a good hour or so, I decided to head back west.

At North Duffield Carrs, two Great Egrets were hunting voles on the rapidly submerging river bank, a ringtail Hen Harrier was flying about with several Marsh Harriers. A decent Aythya flock on Bubwith Ings held 30+ Pochards and over 50 Tufted Ducks. Hopefully this flock will increase and pull in something interesting.

Sunday 29 October 2023

Spritacular Flamborough!

Hit the Cape with old mate Dunc and our timing was spot-on. The day before, an arrival of rare birds had occurred at the Outer Head at Flamborough, in the Lighthouse Grasslands, including Flamborough's first Two-barred Warbler. We headed east early, hoping that some of these birds had stayed overnight. Emerging from the fog of the Yorkshire Wolds, sunny skies lit up the headland and I was slightly anxious that some of the migrants had moved on. To our delight, the main focus of our quest, Britain's eleventh Two-barred Warbler was apparently still bouncing around in the brambles. 

We headed straight down there. Fieldfares chacked overhead, whilst Goldcrests crept through the tussocky grass. Arriving in the right spot, I could see about a dozen birders watching a bramble patch. I asked a nearby birder if the bird was here. He grabbed my shoulder and pointed about five metres away. There hopping about on the near edge of the patch, was the stripy sprite. 

Flamborough's first Two-barred Warbler.

Tiny, but chunkier than a Yellow-brow, the bird moved through the brambles and grass straight towards us, showing off its double-wingbars, orange lower mandible and importantly, plain olive-green tertials. The greater covert bar was white, long and broad and contrasted with a rather yellow supercilium which was long and flared behind the eye. The half dozen birders present remained silent and stock-still, and the bird came within about two metres, giving us sensational views. I couldn't believe it, and as it zipped off into another bramble patch, I looked round, to see Dunc and the others all beaming massive smiles! A cracking start to the day. 

With so many birds around, we felt we'd head off round the Old Fall loop to see what we could find. Several Woodcocks exploded from their unseen hiding places, while a couple of showing off its double-wingbars, orange lower mandible to the beak and importantly, plain olive-green tertials Mealy Redpolls fed low down along the hedgeside. Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Redwings and Fieldfares constantly dropped into the hedge, or scooted out as we approached, or evaded the attentions of three hunting Sparrowhawks.


Intriguingly, two Coal Tits flew out of the plantation and headed off high west across the fields; quite possibly continental immigrants, but with only flight views, I couldn't be sure. A few Siskins and Bramblings added to the scene, but we soon arrived back at the lighthouse, where news that a Pallas's Warbler, the most striped of sprites, had joined the Two-barred Warbler. Back to the lighthouse grassland we went. First, a Dusky Warbler showed briefly, but soon dived back into cover, true to their skulking form, Then, in a nearby bramble patch, the tiny sprite was located. 

The Pallas's Warbler remained hidden in the depths of the tangle, but every now and again, appeared on top of a briar, giving stunning views. Pallas's Warblers are one of the classic east coast October sibes and it is always makes my autumn if I get to see one. This bird gave sublime views, occasionally shooting vertically to snap an insect, almost appearing hummingbird-like. The pale lemon rump flashed as it darted across the tops of the dark brambles.

 Pallas's Warbler, Lighthouse Grasslands

With three fantastic warblers seen, it was time for a celebratory coffee from the cafe and a brief pause to decide on plans. Dunc hadn't yet seen the Red-headed Bunting, so off we trudged along the clifftop. A tense fifteen minutes after arriving at North Marsh, a birder spotted the rather drab bird sitting in a bramble. It had been feeding in the stubble field and had hopped up for a rest. Fortunately, it remained in position for several minutes, so everybody present managed to get great views. 

Red-headed Bunting at North Marsh.

Time was getting on, and with birds still arriving from the sea, we decided on one last tramp round the Lighthouse Grasslands. A few Bramblings were fresh in on the Motorway Hedge, and the Fog Station compound held several Robins and a very dark Song Thrush. Redwings fed desperately on the clifftop path and yet more Fieldfares came in off.

Song Thrush, Goldcrest, Redwing: Three common, but fantastic east coast migants.

Our day had rushed by in a flurry of exciting birds and hordes of common migrants. It had been fantastic and it was hard to drag ourselves away, yet Manchester was calling, where later we would finish the day watching two of our favourite bands. 


Sunday 22 October 2023

Flamborough Bunting

Together with Vicky and Luna, I headed over to Flamborough for a clifftop walk this morning, and to check out the bunting found at North Marsh by Simon Gillings yesterday. The latest gen was that it was probably a Red-headed Bunting, a super-rare species that is not yet on the British list. It has occurred before, but records currently reside on Category D, which relates to presumed escapes. This is understandable as many records related to adult males at odd times of the year, and during a period when the cagebird trade in Europe was very active. The fact that this bird had turned up on the same hedge as a Siberian Stonechat and a Little Bunting surely give it reasonable credentials? If not a Red-headed, it will be a Black-headed, which is still pretty rare but not in the same league as a Red-headed.

I didn't feel very optimistic about seeing the bird, and the thought of chaotic twitching scenes filled me with dread, but nevertheless, we headed along the clifftop in the bright morning sunshine to give it a go. Four Whooper Swans whooped past south over the golf course, pursued by a late Swallow. Several Rock Pipits were flitting about the cliffs too. News from departing birders wasn't great; the bunting had been flushed and had been lost, as it flew off across a large stubble field. 

Shortly after arriving at North Marsh, I saw two birders running across the stubble field. They were far too old and had far too much clobber to be doing this for fun; the bunting must have been refound. A few tense minutes later, and I had joined perhaps 30 birders in the corner of the field. The Bird Observatory had got permission from the farmer and were managing access - great stuff. After about 15 minutes of seeing Yellowhammers, Reed Buntings and Chaffinches hopping up into a hedge out of a grassy field, I began to wonder is it genuinely had been seen. Just as I had that thought, a pale bird hopped up on to the brambles, and there it was! Views were great of this rather large and non-descript bunting, lit perfectly by the autumn sunshine. It shortly caught the attention of a local Yellowhammer which chased it out of sight. A few minutes later and it reappeared again right on the top of the hedge, allowing me to get a bit of shaky footage. 


My experience of this species in first calendar year plumage is precisely zilch, so I won't be adding much to the identification discussion! The bird did look large-billed to me, with quite a streaked crown joining the streaking on the greyish mantle. The rump had a greenish-yellow tone and there was a pale yellow wash on the vent. The bird was weirdly tatty missing all bar one of its greater coverts and quite a lot of inner primaries too. Not sure what is going on with it! Anyway, it was good to see and hopefully those with more experience will confirm the identification.  

I had a quick look for the Siberian Stonechat but it had unfortunately disappeared for a bit. Whilst waiting a stunning female Hen Harrier flew past at very close range flushing a single Stonechat, but the Sibe didn't appear. It was time to go and hook up with Vicky, so I left the scene, very surprised and more than a little bit stoked to have seen the bunting, whatever it turns out to be.

Friday 20 October 2023


Storm Babet is pounding the east coast, and there is strong easterly winds and rain in York, so I thought it would be worthwhile checking a couple of local patches of water to see if anything had blown in. Two first-winter Arctic Terns on Dringhouses Pond got my pulse racing, but despite the good start I failed to find anything else. Jack had a Kittiwake down at Hemingbrough, and there are apparently a lot of seabirds in the Humber, so it will be worth checking round again early tomorrow.

Viewing at Dringhouses Pond is very difficult, with these pics taken through the bars of the entrance gate. The terns were spending most of the time at the south end of the pond out of the wind, only occasionally venturing up to the viewable end. 

There are only two previous autumn records of Arctic Tern in the York area, with the previous latest record being 17th October, which this surpasses.

A Long Slog

The weather boded reasonably well on Wednesday, with the start of a spell of easterly winds. If anything, it was perhaps a little too nice, with sunny spells and no rain to drop the migrants. I put in a lot of legwork round Flamborough Head, with little to show for my efforts. There were a few flocks of Redwings, Fieldfares and Bramblings arriving, plus a few Goldcrests and Chiffchaffs in the bushes, but the strong wind made birding tricky. 

By early afternoon, I had walked 20km, fallen in a nettle-filled ditch at Whelkie Wynds for little more than a Yellowhammer, got crapped on by a Herring Gull and managed to dip the Hartendale Gutter Radde's Warbler. Twice. A 90 minute seawatch was also a bit of a let down with two Arctic Skuas, two Arctic Terns, 14 Little Gulls and several Red-throated Divers all that was on offer. A few migrants came 'in off' including a Fieldfare that landed right in front of us on the clifftop.

 I decided to have another go round Old Fall and was pleased to see a first-winter Caspian Gull loafing in the field by the road. Before reaching the plantation, a message arrived from Simon Gillings, who had found a White-billed Diver off South Landing! Panic!

I sprinted back up the Old Fall hedge, past some bemused dogwalkers, and jumped in the car. At South Landing I ran down the road to the beach, where I spotted a little huddle of birders near the tideline. Scrambling over the chalk rocks at the top of the beach, I was soon across the sand to the huddle. To my dismay, they weren't watching the diver. The sea was massive and the angle was too low. I looked up at the viewpoint at the top of the steps; this must be a better place. Off I went, back up the beach across the car park and up the steps. 

With sweat pouring and optics swinging dangerously around I approached a couple of birders with a scope. They were unaware of the WBD, but my complete coincidence, had got it in their scope and asked me what it was! I was elated and clapped these complete strangers on the back. They clearly were delighted too, and within moments I had this majestic beast in my scope. It was an adult and an absolute stunner, just moulting out of summer plumage, with some white on the chin and lower cheeks, but otherwise immaculate. It was close in, just behind the breakers and slowly paddling east, occasionally ducking through a particularly large wave. I put an update out and within a few minutes other birders joined my on the clifftop. We followed the bird east towards Booted Gulley, drinking in this fabulous moment. Well done Simon! After a while, I decided to have one last go at the Radde's - unsuccessfully - and then headed home. 

White-billed Diver. Only my second in Yorkshire, after my first back in 1991. I did catch the tail-end of one at Flamborough a couple of years ago, but not really tickable. 

Tuesday 17 October 2023

York Yank

Chris Gomersall found this cracking juvenile American Golden Plover near Raker Lakes, Wheldrake this afternoon (17th October). Only the second record for York, I popped out for a late lunchbreak to check it out. The bird was feeding with c400 Euro Goldies in the stubble and was often the nearest bird. It's long-winged, slighter frame along with its silvery colouration and striking head pattern made it stand out from its chunkier cousins. The long legs were apparent, which made the bird almost as tall as the Goldies. It was quite aggressive towards the Goldies, which meant we got good views of the pale grey underwing from time to time as the bird flapped about. The bird was in pristine plumage with upperparts notched in white, except for gold on the inner tertials and scapulars. The head pattern was bold, very white-faced, with a neat dark cap, with white forehead, lores and chin, and exhibiting an odd dark cross-shape, made up of the dark cap, large eye and ear coverts and bill. After a while, the flock was flushed and circled off to the east. Absolutely cracking!

 And some video:

Friday 6 October 2023

Birthday Odonate

I always take the day off work to go birding, if this falls on a week day. This year was no exception and despite the unfavourable conditions for east coast birding, I thought I'd head that way to see what I could find. The lure of the Bempton Red-eyed Vireo was strong, so I started there, and failed miserably! Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable morning, seeking migrants in the lee of the brisk westerly wind and keeping a keen eye and ear out for the vireo. Several Chiffchaffs, a few Redpolls and Siskins were the main results, along with a handful of Goldcrests. Best of all, once the sun came out, three or four Willow Emerald damselflies appeared, around the small pond by the overflow car park. This, a recent colonist of Yorkshire, is the only damselfly still on the wing currently, joining hordes of Common Darters basking in the sunshine and the occasional Migrant Hawker darting along the sheltered hedgerows.

I headed over to the Outer Head at Flamborough after lunch, to walk the Old Fall Loop. It was quiet, with a dozen southbound Swallows moving through, plus small numbers of Chiffchaffs and Goldcrests in the bushes and a single Wheatear in the ploughed field at Cattlemere.

So, a quiet day bird-wise, but nice to get a new Odonate at least.

Sunday 1 October 2023

Patch dedication

 I was just back from checking on the local Golden Plover flock, to see if an American Goldie had dropped in (without success) when a message came through to say that Jack Ashton-Booth had found a Grey Phalarope on his patch at Hemingbrough Gravel Pits. There hasn't been a twitchable Grey Phal in the York area before, so I went straight back out. Duncan picked me up at Fulford and we headed the short distance down to Hemingbrough. We met up with Jack and a few other local birders to watch the Grey Phal, looking a little forlorn on the water. After a bit, it perked up and started swimming about and picking invertebrates off the water surface. Always a great bird to see, it was a treat to see one at close quarters and close to home. As is normal with this species, this juvenile had started its moult into first winter plumage, with lots of pale grey feathers coming through on the mantle and scapulars. 

Top work by Jack and a good reward for dedicated patch watching.