Sunday, 21 April 2019

Little Drummer Boy


Apart from brief views of a female in Spain last year, I haven't seen a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker since the day my daughter was born, in April 2008. On that day, I chanced upon a pair displaying in a dead tree next to the car park of Hinchinbrook Hospital. New Dad duties called, however, and I had to walk away from these gorgeous birds. In my youth (dim, distant memories), I used to watch Lesser Spots frequently around York, in Askham Bog, Knavesmire Wood, the Palace Grounds in Bishopthorpe and at Wheldrake Ings. Sadly, this species is faring badly and there are few sightings in the York area these days. The decline is linked mainly to low productivity, but why that is the case is unclear, though could be linked to habitat change.


Yesterday, I was thrilled to be shown a drumming male Lesser Spot which flew in right on cue, to drum on a bark-less section of tree right in front of us. He continued for two minutes, before flying off to his next drumming spot. I heard him call just the once, a shrill falcon-esque 'kee-kee-kee...'.

After several minutes, he was back on his original spot, where he showed beautifully. His drumming was very distinctive, as you will see in the video, being longer and repeated very frequently, unlike Great Spotted. I hope this little drummer boy finds a mate and helps this great little bird remain part of Yorkshire's birdlife.

Also noted, one male Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming and one yaffling Green Woodpecker, completing the woodpecker hat-trick.






Friday, 5 April 2019

Fiery Imps!

Recently, Craig Thomas saw and photographed a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins off Flamborough and his pics enabled folks at Aberdeen Uni to identify them as being part of the Moray Firth group. This is the first time these dolphins have been confirmed this far away from their home range. Fantastic stuff! To help out a colleague, I popped over to Flamborough yesterday lunchtime to do a piece for BBC Look North about the sighting and to promote Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's cetacean survey this summer.

GurningDad

After doing the interview down by the super new Seawatching Hide, I took the opportunity to walk down to Old Fall to see if I could see the reported Firecrest. The skies had cleared and the sun was beautiful and once out of the wind behind Old Fall hedge, it felt lovely and springlike. A couple of Chiffchaffs and Goldcrests were feeding in the sunny lee of the hedge, but no Firecrest. A little further on, I thought I heard a Firecrest call, so I crept into the plantation and momentarily spotted a tiny bird in the dead weeds beneath the trees. The silvery white underparts contrasting with the vivid lime green upperparts immediately identified this fiery imp as it worked the stalks of last year's willowherb, seeking spiders and aphids.

In the sunlight, the Firecrest positively glowed; so different from the comparatively drab Goldcrests nearby. I watched this imp working the bare stems of Sycamore, carefully picking aphids from the green leaf buds. It zipped off and I refound it right up in the canopy of a Sycamore. The striking head pattern really shone out, giving the bird real character.



A little while later, the 'crest dropped down into a Bramble patch just inside the southern edge of the wood. It started calling repeatedly, alternating between a slightly nasal Goldcrest-like call to a more pure note and then a second bird popped up on the Brambles: another Firecrest! The two birds then worked through the tangle of briars, sometimes coming within a metre of me, giving lovely views. They were frequently hidden in the middle of the patch or on the ground beneath the Brambles, where only the occasional call betrayed their presence. Super birds!







Monday, 25 March 2019

30 year old Sanderling and an unmemorable Shag

A 30 year old Sanderling? Well, not quite! After a lovely morning in Wykeham Forest buzzing with displaying Goshawks, a Peregrine and a surprise female Marsh Harrier that flew west, I had a late afternoon twitch to North Duffield Carrs for a Sanderling.


Yes, I know, Sanderlings are a common (but always lovely) sight on the Yorkshire coast, but birding is all about the context, and they are scarce in the York area, so this was a much-desired York tick for me (or so I thought). The little wader was hanging out with a Dunlin (smaller and browner than the Sanderling) on some VERY distant muddy mounds, which enabled a good comparison through the scope. Plenty of ducks were still present, but no sign of the Grey Plover reported earlier.



After enjoying distant views of this tiny white sprite, I headed home very pleased with my success. Later, I messaged my old Bish birding mate, Dunc Poyser about my Sanderling sighting, and he replied to say that we had seen one together at Wheldrake Ings in April 1989, near enough 30 years ago! So, not my first in the York area after all. Given waders live a LONG time, this could conceivably the same bird, but I guess that is highly unlikely, but you just never know.

Poring over my old notebooks was quite a revelation. I discovered that what I thought was my first York Little Gull last spring, was in fact my eighth! Wow, my memory is really getting bad! Even more bizarre, I apparently saw the second-summer Shag that spent a couple of months at Wheldrake, also in 1989. And Shags are really rare in the York area with only about nine records. I have no recollection of seeing this bird, but Dunc corroborated this too, although only because it was in his notebook.

I guess sometimes a Shag is not that memorable!

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Red-necked Grebes - like buses!

Until the Castle Howard Red-necked Grebe earlier this year, I had not seen this attractive species in the York area. But as with buses, you wait ages for one to turn up and then two turn up in a short space of time!

Yesterday, Duncan Bye pulled a delightful adult RNG out of the bag at Wheldrake Ings. I was due to have a meeting with my line manager during the afternoon and I (perhaps a little audaciously) suggested we could do this in the car/at East Cottingwith, and to my surprise he agreed, as he had some documents that needed signing by YWT's chair, who lives near there. Great!

We headed over in the afternoon and after a bit of searching I spied the compact shape of the grebe, resting on the water with it's head tucked back on to it's mantle as it slept - a tired migrant, with a long journey ahead of it.


The grebe was well on the way to summer plumage, through the red neck was still mottled. Nevertheless a very smart bird which obliged every so often by waking up and giving us a good view, despite the distance.




The grebe departed overnight, clearly keen to get back to it's breeding grounds, which may be in southern Sweden or perhaps Denmark. Safe travels!




Monday, 11 March 2019

York Birding - Club Field Trip - the LDV


With dreadful weather forecast, our planned venue for Sunday's field trip, Wykeham Forest, was ditched and we decided to head down to the Lower Derwent Valley, where at least we could take shelter in the hides if things got too bad...

Five intrepid souls met me in Piccadilly at 8am. It was already raining! We met Duncan at Bank Island, noted a Little Egret, and then headed out to do a clockwise loop of the LDV.

Our first stop was East Cottingwith, where we were able to scan the refuge at Wheldrake Ings. Plenty of ducks and Coot about, along with several Black-tailed Godwits. Intriguingly, a bird called distantly; I barely heard it but someone suggested Whooper Swan. Ears tuned in, it called again, and it was clear it was a Crane! Excellent. We walked down the Pocklington Canal in the direction of the sound, hoping the bird, or birds, would be on the ings towards Storwood. There were certainly plenty of birds on the flooded fields, and several Goldeneye on the canal. but sadly no Cranes. Two pairs of Willow Tits were wheezing in the willows, always nice to see/hear, and an adult Peregrine showed briefly.

The rain was increasing, so we turned tail and headed to Ellerton Church. We were foiled here, both by the lack of flooding and also by a guy exercising his two labradors on the ings = no birds. A Barn Owl by the church was the only bird of note.

A similar story unravelled at Aughton, with little flooding meaning few birds, besides a few rather damp looking Lapwings huddling out of the wind.

Bubwith and North Duffield Carrs held more water and therefore more promise. The rain was really getting heavy and the wind strengthening, so we welcomed the shelter of Garganey Hide. The wind had blown down a tree, blocking our path. I limboed underneath it, but some quick thinking by Neil and Noel removed the blockage and allowed the rest of the gang to pass by unhindered. Another Peregrine, an immature was sitting gloomily on the grass whilst a Buzzard sat stoically atop the Osprey platform, facing the gale. Shelducks joined good numbers of Pintail, displaying Teal and a scatter of Wigeon and Shovelers. The arable field behind the hide held a decent flock of Golden Plovers, Lapwings and Dunlin. A cuppa and a sandwich were enjoyed. To our surprise, by the time we had walked back to the car park, the rain had stopped and we could even see some blue sky!

A brief stop at Thorganby revealed a small skein of 20 Pink-footed Geese grazing on the ings; they soon flew onto the river.

Completing the loop, we arrived back at Wheldrake and headed down to the Andy Booth/Tower Hide. The sun came out! The wind was now pretty gusty, but the newly-boarded hide was cosy, and we enjoyed a good stint checking through the ducks. A Goosander flew along the canal and a piping piebald party of seapies (Oystercatchers) pitched in, looking splendid in their spring finery in the March sun.

Our brave party began to split up early afternoon, as hail storms pelted us from a blackened sky, followed by dazzling sunny spells. Few birds were added hereafter to the list, but an enjoyable day was had all told. Big thanks to Peter, Duncan, Noel, Neil, Alan and Bob who braved the weather and provided great company.

Post-script
Today, two Cranes were discovered in a field at East Cottingwith. A coincidence? Maybe...







Sunday, 3 March 2019

Slow York

A drake Scaup at Castle Howard Great Lake was the highlight of a look round the York area this morning. Stacks of other birds around, but little else of note.

 
 

On Friday, took the kids to Wheldrake Ings for a walk. Plenty of signs of spring and the kids even seemed to enjoy themselves. They certainly liked the new interpretation that has been put up in the hides. 21 Whoopers on the main flood were presumably migrants heading north, as were the 22 Pinkfeet on the refuge. A singing Chiffchaff was by the Pool Hide. 12 Goldeneye also noted.

 

Nice to see this dinky male Sparrowhawk after watching the monster Goshawks in Berlin earlier in the week. A cracking little pocket rocket.



Friday, 1 March 2019

Goshawks of Berlin

There are lots of cool birds. And I have even seen some of them. But some birds are cooler than others. I am not sure why; it could be where they live, or their unpredictability, their behaviour, their enigmatic status, or that they are just hard as nails. Pomarine Skua is one of these birds, Great Grey Shrike another. But the prize in my view goes to Goshawk. 

 
Not many people see Goshawks in Britain, though many people think they do. Sparrowhawks are very common and displaying females can look surprisingly Gos-like even to experienced birders. Most 'out of range' Goshawks turn out to be Sparrowhawks. Goshawks do disperse and so can turn up anywhere, but their genuine rarity at migration watchpoints shows how rare they are away from their breeding areas. Sadly, as a top predator they are targeted - illegally- by gamekeepers and away from areas where they are protected they don't last long.

I have spent many an hour over the decades scanning the skies above remote pine plantations in the Brecks, the Peak District, Great Haldon Forest darn sarf somewhere and in recent years, in the Great Yorkshire Forest, in the hope of seeing this elusive predator. In recent years, my hit rate has been high, I'm pleased to say, as the population in the Yorkshire Forest seems to be doing ok, and going out in the right weather at the right time of year, to the right place has given me many sightings of these charismatic birds. Views, however, have usually been distant - reasonable through the scope - but mostly of flying birds. This has been great - I love seeing them display over the forest in early spring, but the only time I have seen them perched has been at great distance. Readers of this blog will have seen my laughable attempts at photos in recent years!

...

A few years ago, I heard that these spectacular hawks had colonised Berlin and had become accustomed to people, thus affording much closer views than in the UK. Over 100 pairs now nest within the city, with most parks, churchyards and other small wooded areas, hosting a pair. The birds feed on pigeons, rats etc and are doing very well. They are monitored by local scientists, who ring many of the birds (see here). Visits by mates - first Rich Baines this time last year (see here) and then by Mark Pearson in December (see here)- really whetted my appetite to make this trip. Berlin is also well renowned as a 'must visit' European city and it is clearly an attractive proposition for a family 'city break'. My good mate Philip Precey (see here) was keen to join us, so our plans were hatched and off we went. 

Our AirBnB was just east of Tiergarten, the large central park in Berlin which housed a number of pairs of Goshawk. I scanned mid-afternoon from our apartment window and briefly saw the distinctive cruciform of a Gos, as it circled over the monochrome woodland of the park in the bright afternoon sunshine. This was more the view of a Goshawk I was used to from Yorkshire, so hopefully things would improve when we entered the park at dawn the next morning. 

Central Berlin. The red 'Xs' show where we watched Goshawks in the Tiergarten.

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Monday, 25th February
It dawned bright and cold. A steady traffic of cycling commuters headed through the park on various cyclepaths, paying us no heed. Remarkably few dog walkers were in evidence which made the experience more relaxing- and I didn't have to constantly watch where I put my feet! Woodpeckers were drumming all around (all Great Spotted) and the air rang to the calls of Nuthatches, Blue and Great Tits. Shortly, I heard the familiar powerful 'kek-kek-kek...' of a female Goshawk - not too far away. We walked towards the sound and there she was, a pale shape sitting bolt upright, two thirds of the way up a bare tree. Wow!


She really was unbelievably beautiful, yet fiercely terrifying at the same time, exuding power wrapped in grace and style.  And look at those talons! If I was a Woodpigeon or Red Squirrel, I would leave the park. Right now. I had to change my underwear.


And at the top end, a fairly rapacious looking beak. If the feet don't kill you, the beak will.

But most of all, the eyes got me. A piercing, fierce stare, that burned through you with unblinking fire as if the hawk is working out whether you are prey or not...


Her mate arrived on the scene (colour ringed F16), followed by a third bird, an intruding immature female. No wonder there was lots of angry calling going on! The young female showed off her skills to the older male by chasing a Hooded Crow through the wood, twisting and turning among the trunks, like speederbikes on Endor, right on the screaming crow's tail. She let it go and beat a hasty retreat before the adult female could attack. Very sensible. Two German ladies walking dogs asked us what we were up to. They seemed amazed that we had come all the way from England to look at their Habichts! They told us there are Kingfishers around the lake sometimes.

We meandered west through the park, hoping for Middle Spotted Woodpecker, but to no avail. Hawfinches ticked repeatedly from the canopy; one or two gave good views.

 

One or two rather nervous-looking Red Squirrels foraged in the leaf litter, keeping eyes and ears alert for imminent death from above.

Photo by Philip.

Soon we came to a lake, complete with a few Mallards and a flotilla of Mandarins. Goshawks were calling again - perhaps another pair. We soon came upon the male in the top of a large ivy-clad tree, eye burning fire-red. Clearly smaller than the female, the male's head pattern was more clear-cut, with darker ear coverts and crown, contrasting with a white supercilium and plainer white throat.


Male Gos, photo by Philip.

Nearby the female was calling maniacally. We tracked her down, but this bird was shyer than the previous bird and moved on silently through the wood. It was interesting to note how the hawks spent most of their time under the canopy, usually perching between half and two thirds the way up the tree and flying through the woodland at the same height. Presumably the birds in the Yorkshire forest behave the same way which is why sightings are often brief, when the birds get above the canopy to display, or soar.

Female Gos, photo by Philip

Later, we explored the Tiergarten with the kids. Goshawks appeared and disappeared like phantoms, with lots of calling. Quite a surreal experience! Overhead, a huge V of White-fronted Geese headed north late morning, followed by two groups of Cranes, totalling about 40 birds, bugling loudly as they went.
....

Tuesday 26th February

I went back into the Tiergarten alone at dawn. Before I had even set foot into the woodland, the adult female came charging in, shouting her head off. She landed amid the branches, undertail fluffed out big style. She was clearly in the mood for love, or a fight. 

A large angry mob of Hooded Crows started a huge clamour nearby - it didn't seem to be the female that was upsetting them. And then I noticed that the F16 male had come in, unseen by me at least and had perched above my head. Crazy scenes! He nonchalantly relaxed on a branch, ambivalent to the Hoodies going bananas all around and keeping one cool eye on the big female, who was calling all the time. 

 

 The male suddenly noticed something behind where I was crouched on the forest floor.


He then flew fast and direct straight over my head. He called loudly as he went, I followed him. Soon, I discovered what he had been distracted by. The same big immature female we had seen yesterday. She was perched this time, glaring at the male, who was calling loudly nearby.

She was gorgeous. No wonder the male was getting distracted by her. Note the yellow, rather than orange eye, heavily barred upper tail (plain in adults), mottled nape, white bases to the mantle feathers and barring on the secondaries. After a bit, she powered off through the trees, the male in hot pursuit.

I decided to leave them to it. The adult female disappeared during the commotion. I was still hoping for Middle Spotted Woodpecker, but to no avail. A few Short-toed Treecreepers were a nice consolation.

A scream from a Hooded Crow and I turned to see a Goshawk whip in and miss a Woodpigeon by centimetres. The lucky pigeon shot off high; the Gos landed casually on the pigeon's perch and began preening. It was F16. He casually glanced over his shoulder at me. After a few minutes, he headed deeper into the park.

F16 preening.

And that, I thought was my last encounter with Berlin's Goshawks.

But no! Later on, after meeting some friends in Potzdamplatz, we wandered into the Tiergarten so the kids could have a play on the swings. I explained to our friends about the Goshawks and they were keen to see one. I said I couldn't really show them one that easily, but I knew where there was a nest nearby. To our surprise, a male was sitting sentry-like in the next door tree, so they got to see one! Round the back of the copse the female suddenly started calling. We walked round and the male flew round, landed on her back, mated and then flew into a nearby tree to preen. Amazing! The female then flew back over our heads carrying what looked like a pigeon carcass, calling her head off. My friends were left thinking this birding lark is easy! Spectacular stuff. I must return to watch these birds some more.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Hawk Season

Mild, sunny, mid-February, perfect for Goshawks. Headed out to Wykeham Forest and sure enough lots of Goshawk action between 9.30am and 11.45am when I left. Two adult pairs were showing, with lots of displaying and bouts of calling from in the forest. Two immature birds, a female and male were stirring things up and causing lots of territorial skirmishes - lots of fun to watch. Plenty of Crossbills flying about, plus a Red Kite, several Buzzards and a Sparrowhawk. The early spring air was filled with the songs of Mistle Thrushes, Coal Tits and Nuthatches.

 
 
 

Some of this morning's Goshawks. All grabs from phone-scoped videos.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Canadian Wanderer

Wheldrake Ings was flooding and water was pouring out of a swollen Derwent across the track down the riverside, as I made my way down to Tower Hide last Sunday afternoon.


The gull roost was out on Swantail, distant, and the good light was the only thing in its favour. As luck would have it, I soon picked out a white-winged gull, an Iceland type, and soon realised it showed grey webs to the primaries, clear even at great distance - a Kumlien's Gull.

Kumlien's Gull is a rare subspecies of Iceland Gull that occurs from time to time in the UK and there are a handful in Yorkshire this winter. They breed in the Canadian Arctic, much further west than our standard glaucoides Iceland Gulls, many of which breed in Greenland. Whilst Iceland shows pure white primaries as an adult, Kumlien's typically has grey colouration on the primary webs. However, the variation in Kumlien's is immense, with some birds having virtually white primaries and others dark grey, almost black with white mirrors. The range of plumages in immature Iceland/Kumlien's is baffling, but with good views, many birds can be identified confidently. Thayer's Gull throws in extra complications too! There is a useful scale approach for assessing immature Iceland/Kumlien's/Thayer's Gulls, which can be used. - see here: The Hampton Scale

...

Despite the sunshine, phonescoping was tricky at the distance, but the bird's identity comes out well in the video. A smart bird. After ten minutes or so, a hunting Peregrine put up the flock and most headed south. I followed the Kumlien's which looked stunning against a dark blue sky, lit by a descending winter sun, as it slowly drifted south over Swantail Hide and apparently on to the refuge. A smart bird. Not much else of note, though the Adult male Peregrine pitched on to the grass in front of the hide.

 
 Kumlien's Gull- below the red arrow in top photo, above the red dot in the bottom pic.

Gull hunter. Adult Peregrine, looking nonchalant in the winter meadow.


Sunday, 27 January 2019

My biggest twitch - the Kent Golden-winged Warbler, February 1989

In a fortnight, it will be thirty years since I saw the Golden-winged Warbler in Kent. Thirty years! Is it really that long? In all that time, there has not been another sighting of this stunning bird in the UK.

The event is the biggest twitch I have been on in terms of numbers of birders present, and possibly won't be surpassed. The bird was found by Paul Doherty, who is on the York Birding committee, so I have been fortunate to hear the story of this wondrous bird's discovery direct from Paul over a pint.  You can read it in BB here.
...

Back in those days, I got hold of bird news via the Birdline service which you could ring and hear a recorded message of the latest sightings from around the country. My Mum always used to go mad if she caught me ringing it, as it was a premium rate number and cost a fortune! One evening, I sneakily rang Birdline and was quite stunned to hear that a Golden-winged Warbler was present in Maidstone, Kent. I had no idea what a GWW was, but for that reason knew it must be dead rare, and I knew that Kent was the other end of the country. I didn't even know which part of the world it was from! I eventually found it in my old National Geographic Birds of North America book. This happened to me again a few years later, when the Mugimaki Flycatcher was reported from Stone Creek, near Hull, but that's another story...

As luck would have it, some birding friends from York offered me a lift down to see it the following Sunday, a kindness for which I am forever in their debt.

 What a bird!
The twitch. The sleepy suburb never knew what hit them! The story goes that some birders boarded the double-decker bus so they could see over the wall into the gardens where the bird was - class! We didn't need to bother - see below...


Reading back on my notes from that day all these years later and I can still recall the day really well. I think it is funny now after only a couple of hours we decided to go for a wander elsewhere - what were we thinking?! As it turned out, we saw the bird, my first American vagrant in the UK, so it worked out well, but it would have been a long ride home if we'd dipped!
 
Here is my write-up - aged 14:


“I was picked up by Barry Thomas, Joanne Thomas and Harry Hulse in Bishopthorpe at 4.40am. Barry had a big BMW - it felt very posh. It was certainly very comfy, I had a sleep! We arrived 238 miles later in Maidstone, Kent at 8.15. 

We waited at the top left corner of the Larkfield Tesco car park for two hours. Never saw it. Saw Siskin, Redpoll, Blue Tit, Bullfinch etc. c10am we walked off to a nearby nature reserve on the other side of the road to look for a reported Great Grey Shrike. On the way we saw a Waxwing. The reserve was quite big with overgrown gravel pits and surrounded by Hawthorn, Willow and Alder. Saw Gadwall, Tufted Duck, Mute Swan, Great Crested Grebe and Chiffchaff, along with Bullfinch, Fieldfare, Long-tailed Tit and others. Went back to the car park about 10.45. 

A large number of birders were standing in different parts of the car park (about 500 people) when suddenly somebody said they’d seen it in some part of the estate. We burned up the steps and ran about ¼ mile in to the housing estate. Nobody knew where to go, but just followed everybody else. After about an hour it hadn’t reappeared and the crowd more or less started dispersing. Suddenly somebody else had seen something which could have been it fly into some gardens. Again we ran but this time about 1/3 mile. After about half an hour we or no one else for that matter had seen it. We wandered back to the car for it was around midday and time for our packups (lunch). 

While sitting in the car some foreign twitchers (Dutch I think) came down the steps looking happy and punching the air. Joanne and I got out and asked them if they’d seen it. We ran and were followed by Barry and Harry and got to a bank where everyone was standing. On the other side of the road was a walled garden with a large clematis or ivy type plant where it had been seen. After a moment, it hopped up into a small bare Silver Birch and sat on a branch. It sat for about 30 seconds looking towards us. Everybody cheered! Then it turned around and faced the other way. Then it turned again and flew over our heads. When it was in the tree, it was out in the open - it was a beautiful bird. 

It was quickly located in another garden just below the level of the fence-top. It hopped on to a wall and then on to a fence and then flew into some ivy on the side wall of a house. Then it flew off. The whole viewing time was a couple of minutes. 

Then we went to Stodmarsh nature reserve. We spent from 2pm until 4.15pm there. After a bit, the Glossy Ibis was spotted high up. It was scoped easily. It rapidly spiraled down and into its roosting place, never to be seen again, at least until tomorrow. Two lifers in a day, can’t be bad. Chiffchaff, Hen Harrier and Waxwing can’t be bad either.”




Thanks to the photographers, for the pics in this post, which I have borrowed off the internet. The top one is by David Cottridge I think.

No Dogs

Wheldrake Ings is usually dog free, so the presence of three Yorkshire Terriers was unexpected! Sadly, Mr Woodhead was missing, presumed still showing in Scotland.

 

A few signs of spring, with Skylark singing, ducks busy displaying on the pool and an Oystercatcher on the flood. Two Peregrines causing chaos among the Lapwings and ducks, numbers of which were down greatly on last weekend, presumably due to the freeze last week.

 
 
Yesterday, I visited Castle Howard Lake early doors. No sign of the Red-necked Grebe that was still there on the 25th, but 25 Mandarin, 12 Goosanders and c35 Goldeneye.